“What’s with all the Mary Montgomerie Bennett?” you might be asking yourself, as my other recent post dealt with Alison Holland’s book Just Relations: The Story of Mary Bennett’s Crusade for Aboriginal Rights. Well, March being Women’s History Month, I often volunteer to give the talk during March at my small Melbourne Unitarian Universalist Fellowship group as an opportunity for myself to research a woman whose ideals and values propelled her into activism. In this year of the Voice to Parliament referendum, and perturbed by the splintering of opinion amongst ‘progressives’ and the hardening of attitudes on the right, and stung by criticisms by some among the Blak Sovereignty movement of non-indigenous people acting as ‘white saviours’ I wanted to look at a woman who had been involved with aboriginal activism as a non-indigenous person (as I am). Hence my reading of two books in close succession about Mary Montgomerie Bennett. You can read my talk here.
In many ways I wish that I had read this book first. Although it was published later than Holland’s book, its approach is much more readable and more focussed on biography rather than political ideas. Fundamental to Bennett’s work, she argues, is the conflict and dissonance between her hagiography of her pastoralist father and romanticization of the relationship between blacks and whites on the family station ‘Lammermoor’, and the reality of the impact of government policy on aboriginal lives which she fought all her adult life to challenge.
Perhaps it’s my own leaning towards biography, but I felt as if I had a much fuller picture of Bennett (or Mimi Christison as her maiden name was) through Taffe’s emphasis on her childhood influences and adult experiences, rather than ideas. There are many paradoxes in her life: her emphasis on family in Aboriginal culture and yet her own fairly sterile family life once her much-adored father had died; her entirely correct assertion of the centrality of land to Aboriginal identity and yet her own rootlessness (the amount of travelling that this pre-air-travel family undertook is amazing) and her deep devotion to the Wongatha people of the goldfields of Western Australia and yet lack of action for the Dalleburra of northern Queensland on whose land Lammermoor stood (perhaps out of a feeling of guilt?) Taffe has relied heavily on family correspondence to give a fuller picture of Bennett/Christison’s childhood and London life, and on correspondence with fellow activists both overseas and interstate as she became increasingly critical of government policy. It was much of this correspondence that was seized after Bennett’s death, but Taffe has a more benign explanation than that suggested by Holland.
After an introduction, Taffe’s book is arranged around four main sections, ending with an epilogue:
PARENTS AND CHILDREN
- Ch. 1 Parents: A pioneer Scots pastoralist and a London artist
- Ch. 2 Mimi’s Childhood
FROM AUTHOR TO ACTIVIST
- Ch. 3 Mimi Christison: Art student and young English lady
- Ch. 4 Christison of Lammermoor: Romance burdened by reality
- Ch. 5 M.M. Bennett: Emerging activist
THE EASTERN GOLDFIELDS OF WESTERN AUSTRALIA
- Ch. 6 Learning about Western Australia: ‘My eyes open and my mouth shut’
- Ch. 7 Mrs Bennett, Teacher: Mount Margaret Mission
- Ch. 8 Commissioner Moseley and Chief Protector Neville
- Ch. 9 Disillusionment
BELONGING, IDENTITY, COMMITMENT
- Ch. 10 Dora and Gladys: Wartime London and a return to Australia
- Ch. 11 Families: Peter Pontara and Human Rights for Aborigines
- Ch. 12 The Wongatha people of Kalgoorlie
- Ch. 13 Final days
Perhaps it was the ease of reading, or perhaps Taffe’s emphasis on people, but I came away with a much clearer view of the sheer bastardry of Chief Protector Neville’s ‘absorption’ policy than I had gleaned from Holland’s book- and hence her call for justice as much as ‘rights’. The two books cover the same material (naturally) but I was attracted more to the biographical than political/philosophical approach. They complement each other, but I’d certainly read Taffe’s book first.
My rating: 8.5
Sourced from: e-book borrowed from State Library of Victoria.