Life

As the US celebrates Black History Month, a reflection on African diaspora Australians and the indelible mark its forebears left on this country. By Maxine Beneba Clarke.

Black History Month

Ayo (Florence Kasumba) and Okoye (Danai Gurira) in Marvel Studios’ ‘Black Panther’.
Credit: Marvel Studios

In the United States, the African diaspora’s Black History Month has just swaggered in: king-fine, and online-flanked by piercing quotes from James Baldwin and knockout GIFs of Muhammad Ali. This month, Black Panther has opened on the big screen and, on social media, the Marvel Black Queens reign supreme: fierce fashionista warriors, Wakanda-smiling in proud Afro print.

Each year, from Australia, I catch the ripples of celebration from across the cyber-seas. Each year, new knowledge floors me: new jubilations jitterbug out of the darkness; forgotten bodies crawl from unmarked graves urging: I was here. Remember me. Stories grafted blood-tight to mine, like keloids on skin.

Black History Month for African diaspora people was started by American historian Carter G. Woodson in 1926. Originally Negro History Week, it is now a celebration that takes place in many countries, including the United States and Canada (in February), and in Norway and Britain (October). In Australia, there is no official dedicated month to celebrate African diaspora history. There is a Blak History Month for First Peoples, held in July.

For all the bloodshed, oppression and colonial disharmony that African diaspora migrants may or may not have fled, we too are settlers – albeit black bodied – on black land of which sovereignty had never been ceded. Despite what the anti-immigration rhetoric of successive Australian governments would have us believe, African diaspora Australians are not a recent phenomenon. Coins belonging to the mediaeval Kilwa Sultanate in East Africa have been found on the Wessel Islands, indicating trade with Africa as far back as the 12th century. The first recorded African diaspora settlers were black convicts, transported by the British, in the First Fleet of 1788.

We the colonised are sometimes also we the colonisers.

 

As a six-year-old, I bought into bushranger Ned Kelly. I plucked his defiant face from the pompous line-up of colonial bores and decided he was my kind of renegade: hellfire-defiant, with no regard for authority. Come Book Week, there were always a handful of Mama-didn’t-remember-about-the-parade-till-last-night kids wearing acid-wash jeans and a plastic bucket on their head. “Stick em up, Mister. Stick em up, Sir!” Being Ned. They would fearlessly range their way around the school hall. I’d look on longingly: witches cape swirling around me, Snow White’s red apple clutched tightly in my hand.

I have been unlearning ever since I learnt to learn. I was 20 years old, in the university library, when I unlearnt Ned. My page-turn brought me face to face in shock with Australia’s first bushranger, John Caesar, known as Black Caesar. History still cannot pin down his place of birth. Madagascar or the West Indies, so people had heard. He became a servant in the parish of St Paul, in Deptford, England. Heaven knows what his early life was like, but in any case, according to the transcript, he stole 240 shillings and thus arrived in the penal colony of New South Wales, on the Alexander, in the First Fleet of 1788. Black Caesar was a giant of a man. To eat beyond meagre rations, he stole. His life was a litany of thefts, captures, escapes and reoffences. Eventually, he formed a gang of men who became Australia’s first known bushrangers.

My trembling fingers turned the pages of that history book, awed by my new black anti-hero, until I landed on the story of Black Caesar’s skirmish with Aboriginal warrior Pemulwuy. My new-found reverence was tinged with disappointment and shame.

We the colonisers. We the colonised.

The summer of the year Black Caesar revealed himself to me, I took a walk with a friend on Sydney’s north shore. He pointed towards the area known since colonial times as Blues Point and said, “That place was named after Billy Blue, ya know? He was one of yours.” The sun had been beating down on us for the several hours we’d been strolling, and I thought perhaps he had heat stroke.

William Blue – Billy Blue – may have hailed from the Caribbean island of Jamaica. Or from Jamaica in the New York borough of Queens. He worked in England as a sometime labourer and chocolatier, and was transported to Botany Bay in 1796 at age 29, aboard the Minorca, for stealing sugar. All accounts paint Blue as a spirited, canny character. He occupied a curiously respected position in society, settling in The Rocks area with his English-born ex-convict wife and their six children. Governor Macquarie appointed him a harbour watchman and constable. He started a ferry service, which the governor used; he amassed land. Paintings portray Billy Blue standing proud-eccentric, in the royal blue top hat or the naval jacket he was fond of. Billy Blue. One of Ours.

 

I grew up in the white-picket-fence, rural-fringe, three-kids-and-a-cat suburb of Kellyville, in Sydney’s Hills District. I was the Australian-born child of a black British couple, themselves born in the Caribbean, who migrated shortly after the abolition of the White Australia policy. Other African diaspora Australians were rare around our way. We’d double-take when we street-spied them; they’d be over for dinner the next day.

In 2014, when I started research for a memoir of this childhood, I learnt that about 12 African-descended convicts, including Black Caesar, were transported to Australia in the First Fleet. On their release, many bought land, and brought up families, in the area of Pennant Hills, not far from where I was born and raised. Over time, because of its inhabitants of colour, the area became known to white settlers as “Dixieland”, named after the area of America’s Lower South that incorporated Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana and four other states of the slave belt – which were soon joined by four states of the Upper South – that made up the Confederate States of America, from 1861 to 1865. Black settlers. Black settlers.

In the summer school holidays of 2016, my children dragged me along to Pirates: The Exhibition at Sydney’s maritime museum. Along one long corridor was a billpostered catalogue of the most dreaded and infamous pirates of all time. I hung back, checking work emails on my phone, as my son read his way down the walls. Suddenly, he was at my side again, face shocked. “There’s a black pirate, Mum! The placard says he’s African Australian.” That can’t be right. You must be mistaken.

Black Jack Anderson is Australia’s only known pirate. Wide accounts concur the African American was as charismatic as he was ruthless. He arrived on the west coast of Australia in 1826, on the whaling vessel Vigilant. A brawl saw him accused of murder and he took up residence with some of his crew in the dangerous waters of the Archipelago of the Recherche, on what is known as Middle Island. Under Anderson’s command, the outlaws raided ships travelling between Adelaide and Albany. Anderson’s body is rumoured to be buried on Middle Island. There are tales – shameful – of his brutalisation of local Kaurna people.

There are others, too many here to count. William Cuffay: a tailor by trade, and the son of a freed St Kitts slave, transported from England in 1848 for his political action in the working class. Orator and newspaper vendor Daniel Henderson, born in Kingston, Jamaica, is thought to have voluntarily migrated in 1865. African diaspora settlers, with all the flair, faults and foibles of their Anglo–Australian counterparts.

I grew up desperately searching this country for traces of myself: watching black British presenter Trisha Goddard on Play School; teenage-loitering among the packets of hair-extension and dreadlock wax of Afrique Ali, one of the first African hair salons in Sydney. As well as mirror-miming to Christine Anu’s “Party”, I rocked a hairbrush to Deni Hines, from ’90s pop band Rockmelons. I cringed in embarrassment at the talon-nailed Delilah, on the Campbells Cash & Carry junk-barn ads. I was gutted when Home and Away’s first African character, Stephanie Mboto, was written into a mess of war-orphan clichés before randomly she fell to her death off a cliff. I wanted to be Cleonie Morgan-Wootton, the cool Jamaican–Australian girl who played Babe on Ship to Shore. But I never knew then; I never knew about those who had come so long before.

This month, as the African diaspora’s Black History Month slays across the cyber-seas, I read piercing quotes from Desmond Tutu, recaps of the Morant Bay rebellion, and poems by Maya Angelou. I watch black queens Wakanda-smiling in proud African print, and I think about what it means to be African diaspora Australian, on black colonised land. The hardships and triumphs. The responsibilities and contradictions. And I hear my forebears whispering: I was here. Remember me. African–Australian stories, grafted blood-tight to mine, like keloids on skin.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 24, 2018 as "Black conviction". Subscribe here.

Maxine Beneba Clarke
is the author of The Hate Race and Foreign Soil.