Elena Govor, My Dark Brother, Sydney, 2000
Leandro on the track of Bill Bowyang
At the beginning of 1926 an unusual voice sounded from Bill Bowyang’s column in the North Queensland Register, ‘On the Track’. A contributor to the column, called ‘Meekolo’, began his story:
‘On a farm in one of our Northern scrubs a member of a certain family brought home a little half-caste boy to his mother. He had found the dusky lad in a lonely spot and it seemed he had been deserted by his Aboriginal mother. ... Now, the white mother had other grandchildren to attend to, but still the colour of the dusky boy made no difference to her, and she treated him similar to the white children.’40
What followed was the Illins’ favourite story of how Nellie tried to wash Dickie white; he was the half-caste boy Meekolo referred to. There could hardly ever have been another reader of this column so happy to come across this short piece as I was.
It was six months since I had discovered Leandro’s note: ‘I have written to Bowyang columns for years under the pen name “Meexolo” but after a bereavement in my family I knocked off’.41 The famous Bowyang column ‘On the Track’ had been appearing in the North Queensland Register each week since 1922. It was the favourite reading of many Queenslanders, the page that they looked for first on opening a fresh issue of the paper. The column had a distinctively outback flavour, consisting of yarns and poetry contributed by the newspaper’s readers, artfully intertwined with comments from the editor Bill Bowyang (a pen-name of the experienced journalist and writer, Alexander Vennard, known also under the name of ‘Frank Reid’). Finding out that Leandro was not only a ‘bush lawyer’ but a forgotten ‘bush writer’ as well made me eager to search the whole paper for his contributions, but, alas, the newspaper was available only in Brisbane, not in Canberra, where I live. The Brisbane historian Nikolai Dmitrovsky generously spent his time searching for me through several years — 1922, 1923, 1924 — but, to our frustration, no sign of ‘Meexolo’ emerged. In spite of this, I decided to keep on trying. Months later I obtained the microfilms of the newspaper for 1925 and 1926 on interlibrary loan and discovered a contributor there with a pen-name that was similar to ‘Meexolo’ — ‘Meekolo’.
And now, reading this story, which had to be about about Nellie and Dick, and was signed by ‘Meekolo’, I was sure that I was finally on Leandro’s tracks as a bush writer. But something else in that story struck me — these words: ‘The colour of the dusky boy made no difference to [the white mother], and she treated him similar to the white children’. This was flagrantly out of tune with the usual style of humorous yarns about Aborigines from ‘Track’ contributors. There, ‘the Abo’ — an ignorant, primitive creature with hardly intelligible speech — was a subject of constant banter and mocking. The idea that colour could make no difference was, indeed, new at that time! I reread the first contribution by ‘Meekolo’.
‘Two young aboriginal boys were playing outside the manager’s office on a Western station. ... They peered through the open door every now and then to see what the boss was doing. The manager happened to spoil a cheque before he signed it, so, tearing it out of the book, he handed it to one of the dusky youngsters. “What this fella?” asked the boy, turning the piece of paper around in his hands. “That is a cheque — it is your wages”, said the manager with a smile. The lad walked outside where he met his dusky companion. “What you got there?” asked the other boy. “My wages”, was the reply. “The boss been give me cheque”. There was a lengthy examination of the piece of paper, then suddenly the first lad’s face lit up with a smile and he looked at his mate: “You want half?” he asked. “All right” was the reply. The cheque was immediately torn in halves and the two boys were happy.’42
On the face of it this was a common enough yarn about an Aborigine’s ignorance in financial matters. Nevertheless, the Aboriginal boy sharing the cheque with his mate — even if done in an ignorant way — won a moral victory over his educated boss...