The Shearers’ Strike – Part 1

 

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Photo:  Along the road between Jericho and Clermont.  Taken by Kim Chambers

The beauty of the bush and grassy plains that sprawl from Emerald to Longreach is in the sounds of silence.  It spreads its wings over the expanse of land, like a soft giant coat of tranquillity.  Families of giant squat bottle trees stand guarding the sunburnt land; their leafy arms outstretched, happily waving to travellers as they come and go.  You might see an old man Kangaroo standing by the road’s edge, nonchalantly standing on hind legs chewing grass, waiting for intruders to pass.  And, the passing flocks of galahs or cockatoos squawk greetings of cheer from high above in the bright blue sky.  This is the Australian Outback today.  It is a place of peace, a retreat from the hustle and bustle of our city streets.  However, in 1891, the sheep grazing areas of outback Queensland became a battlefield.  The war drums were beating so loud that the Government became increasingly concerned that the country was in the grips of civil war.

William leaned his head against the window of the troop train, basking in the sharp rays of sunlight that stabbed his face through the glass. Although town folk from the coast complain about the heat, dust and flies, he found those traits of the bush to be comforting, despite the discomfort they brought.  They were reminders of the land where he was born.  He never dreamed of leaving his home, albeit an unforgiving landscape that could, at a snap, break those of a weaker constitution.  The secret of falling in love with the bush was to allow it to seep into one’s soul; the solitude and quiet has a way of speaking to you like no city or town can.

His eyes became mesmerized by the brushstrokes of yellows and browns that painted the landscape as the train rolled out west of Rockhampton.  He wished he could evesdrop on the groups of grey parched ironbarks or overfed bottle trees that gathered along the tracks. Seeing the land that was once his home, was like conversing with a long lost friend.  Since moving to the coast, he has missed these conversations with a home that understands how he thinks, the topics stretch to the horizon and back.  And the quiet solitude allows one to converse with one’s inner self whose thoughts can be easily heard.

Not that he hasn’t enjoyed the move, to a certain degree.  Life is easier.  The climate is more agreeable, cooler by far.  The golden yellows and browns have been replaced by lush tropical greens that represent a life of abundance.  But he finds town life intrusive, where the infinite boundaries of the wide open spaces have been replaced with the confines of small fenced yards where you can see your neighbours across the fence.

An hour or more chugs by and William closed his eyes, listening to the beat of the train rumbling along the lonely track towards the epicentre of unrest. He knew it would be another couple of hours before they reached Barcaldine.  He was content to let his thoughts revert to the dramatic changes that had occurred in his life of late.

Only a few months ago, he was helping Padda tend to horses and cattle on their station near Banana.  It was a hard life, especially for Ma who spent days and nights on her own with just his brothers and sisters for company.  He fondly remembered the times he had accompanied his father on his cattle drives.  He loved the freedom of the outdoors, riding his horse, chasing wayward cows in the bush.

Then he also recalled times of darkness when their safety was under threat of hostile groups of Aborigines who accused white folk of invading their land.  He shuddered when he recalled those nights when his Ma, with a hushing finger to her lips, ushered he and his five younger siblings, into the darkness of her bedroom.  Behind the closed door, they would huddle together with Ma, who held a loaded revolver in her hand.

Then, one evening last May, his father surprised him when he asked, ‘Kids, what do ya think about moving?”

“Where would we move to?” He asked his father. He could not imagine living anywhere else.

“Mackay,” His father replied.  “Yer Ma and I have been discussing dis for a while now.  Word is, there is money to be made in pubs.”

He had been disappointed at the prospect of losing the only way of life he had known during his seventeen years.

But, his Father had reassured him, “Son, it will be a new beginning! You’ll see.”

His father had been right.  It was a new beginning, for Ma and his siblings that is.  What Padda didn’t know was that he’d be leaving them in Mackay to follow life’s path without his helping hand.  His illness was sudden, unexpected.  How could he have foreseen….

“OH MY GOD!!  WHAT IN HEAVENS NAME!!”

William awoke from his dozing state to a tsunami of expletives rolling out of the open mouths of those who crowded the carriage.  He found himself joining the shocked chorus as he looked out at the blazing spinifex plains that circled Alpha and Jericho.  It was a battlefield, black and scarred,  dotted with the charred remains of poor dead sheep.

“Is this the work of Shearers?” he asked incredulously, his eyes fixed on the window.

 

Fifty firsts number 19 JOL_2024

Military Parade in front of Barcaldine Camp during Shearers’ Strike 1891.  Photo:  State Library of Qld, Neg. 2024

 

 

 

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