‘The Indomitable Miss Pink’ by Julie Marcus

2002 first edition NSW Press; 2005, 2nd edition Paul Fitzsimons , 305 p.

When Miss Olive Pink was commemorated among 200 Remarkable Territorians in a bicentennial mosaic in Darwin, her tile read ‘Olive Pink – Eccentric’. Her niece, Dame Phyllis Frost, was shocked to see her aunt memorialized in this way and arranged to have it replaced with a new tile reading ‘Olive Pink- Anthropologist’. But as Julie Marcus shows us through this biography, Olive Pink was indeed both an anthropologist and an eccentric, although the latter has tended to overshadow the former in popular memory.

For remembered she is, both in the Olive Pink Botanic Gardens and by people who knew her, both indigenous and European. She is spoken of as a tall, erect woman, dressed in white, with a long skirt and parasol. Neighbours and little children remembered her derelict hut with its idiosyncratic ‘museum’ and a straggly garden where she grew flowers for sale. Pastoralists saw her, and her activities, as a threat to their leases. Arrernte and Warlpiri had their own stories of Olive Pink from the time that she lived amongst them in the 1930s and 1940s, learning their language and customs. Bureaucrats and public officers had their own Olive Pink stories when they were on the receiving end of her remonstrations, delivered in person face-to-face or through long, underlined, parenthesized letters.

Olive Muriel Pink was born in Tasmania in 1884. She never married (although there was a story that ‘her very dear friend’ died at Gallipoli). After training in art both in Hobart and in Sydney, she was employed as a tracer in the drafting department of the New South Wales Government Railways and Tramways. In 1926, at the age of 42 she took advantage of her staff discount on the railways to travel to Ooldea, South Australia where she visited Daisy Bates. It changed her life. Like Daisy Bates, she was drawn back to outback Australia (in Olive’s case, in the Northern Territory) and studied and lived with indigenous tribes until 1946. In appearance and clothing the two women were not unalike, and both lived in harsh, austere conditions.

Olive Pink’s attitudes towards her indigenous friends – and I certainly think that she would have perceived them as friends – sit uneasily with us today. Her concern was solely for the “full-bloods”, a typology that we find uncomfortable, and she had little time for “half-bloods”. She used her considerable presence, which both intimidated and wore down her advocates as well as her enemies, to agitate for land rights for “full bloods”. She wanted land set aside, with no missionary involvement, with full ownership of minerals, water and the economic resources that attached to the land. She was critical of both missionaries and anthropologists who, in her view, manipulated and betrayed the tribes that they came into contact with, especially in relation to secret business. She opposed civil rights for ‘full-bloods’, because that would render them accountable under white-man’s law.

She fought with nearly everyone. She would gain the support of a person, only to harangue them with long, discursive, underlined letters until they either gave in or gave up. She battled against the competitive possessiveness of male anthropologists (although she was not beyond competitive possessiveness herself, either) and Theodor Strehlow was her particular adversary. She befriended A.P. Elkin, who despite provocation, remained her advocate with the anthropological community generally. She cajoled and alienated members of both the Anthropological Society of New South Wales, and the Australian and New Zealand Association for the Advancement of Science. Her formal training in anthropology was not extensive, and she needed to publish and speak at conferences to maintain her professional credibility. She was not always politic in what she chose to speak about, amongst ‘colleagues’ who barely accepted her.

She was not a rich woman, and for the early years of her career, when she was already a middle-aged woman, she had to move back and forth to Sydney to earn enough money to return to the outback. She needed all of Elkin’s support to obtain Australian National Research Council grants, which she eked out with her own finances and small donations from the Quakers and the Sheetmetal Workers Union, to buy food and supplies to support her research. Meanwhile other male anthropologists, with more secure reputations, research resources and qualifications, were circling. She was granted access to descriptions of secret rituals, which other anthropologists craved, but she refused to divulge her information because she had given her word that she would not. Not all other anthropologists were so honorable.

By 1946 she finally achieved a lease to develop a ‘secular sanctuary’, but it did not last for long. Drought, lack of money, and a bashing by a young Warlpiri man when she refused his demands for food forced her back into Alice Springs. By now destitute and 62 years old, she lived in a corrugated iron hut on Gregory Terrace, selling flowers and fruit from her garden and working as a cleaner in the local courthouse, where she monitored cases when Aboriginal defendants appeared before the court – an assistance that was often unwelcomed by the police and court officials. After losing her job at the court, she set up a museum in one end of her hut, until a quarrel with the fire station next door, a courtcase for assault, and the firing of her hut led her to shift again, this time to a tent. She lived under canvas until she moved to a small plot of land where she established, with the assistance of the Minister for Territories, Sir Paul Hasluck, the garden which bears her name. Hasluck, who was often on the receiving end of her denunciations as well, encouraged her to accept a stipend for curating the garden which just happened to be of the same value as the old age pension that she spurned. She died in 1975.

The book progresses chronologically, and draws heavily on Pink’s voluminous and lengthy correspondence. In both the introduction and the conclusion, Marcus discusses the mythologizing of Olive Pink, but the majority of the book is very grounded in Pink’s sheer hard work and determination.

Marcus has to tread a narrow line with this book, and she does it well. She clearly admires the moral clarity of Olive Pink, even if she distances herself from the racialised language in which it is expressed. She is well aware of Pink’s prickliness, stubborness and emotional stupidity, but there is a swell of respect for her grit and resilience – a much over-used word today, but completely appropriate for Olive Pink.

And that tile in the Darwin park? Well, after reading this book, I think that the tile should have read ‘anthropologist and eccentric.’

My rating: 9/10

Sourced from: a friend of a friend. This is the second edition of the book, published by Paul Fitzsimons in Alice Springs,even though the original edition was published by UNSW Press.

I have included this review on the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2020.

5 responses to “‘The Indomitable Miss Pink’ by Julie Marcus

  1. That’s a great story. I’ll add your review into my list of remarkable women alongside Daisy Bates and Ernestine Hill. The Olive Pink botanic gardens are just outside Alice Springs aren’t they? I’ll Duckduckgo. Yes. I holidayed nearby in 2005.

  2. My mother read and loved this book as I recollect, and took a great liking to Olive Pink as a result – because of her independence and strength. I’ve been to the Olive Pink Botanic Gardens a couple of times, but have yet to read a book about her. There’s been a more recent one I think??

  3. Pingback: Australian Women Writers Challenge 2020 – wrap up | The Resident Judge of Port Phillip

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