Elena Govor, My Dark Brother, Sydney, 2000
The Russian cultural hero in the Australian landscape
‘Leandro and Kitty lived at Butchers Creek and at that time, in 1918, Kitty had her third child, all being half-castes, as classed by the whiteman.
‘There was a Mr Blakely who was an Aboriginal Protector who wanted to send all half-castes to Palm Island. This Leandro and Kitty did not like.
‘Then one day, they both started to walk from Butchers Creek all the way down Russell River and would not enter the road in fear they would be caught. They stopped at War [Waugh] Pocket and camped for the night leaving early next morning. They went on to Innisfail and when they arrived, they went straight to the Courthouse and got married.
‘Seeing they were married, Blakely could not touch or do anything to their children to send to Palm Island.’
This was how Leanne Illin recorded the story of Leandro and Kitty’s marriage from her father Harry in the early 1990s. Harry’s son, Alec, told me a similar version of the story, the focal point being their ‘coming out to Russell River and getting married in Innisfail’. When I spoke with Harry himself, in July 1996, he repeated the story nearly word for word.
‘They were after my mother because my mother had a child to dad. They wanted to catch her before she married my father and send her to a mission. My father said “She’s got my child”. They walked from up there from Butchers Creek all way down the Russell River. They came to Waugh Pocket. They camped there for the night, got up early in the morning, then got to Innisfail and got married in the courthouse. They could not touch her after that.37
This short text takes us into the different system of story-telling, reminiscent of an archaic myth about two cultural heroes — a man and a woman — who created new life and a new world through their journeying and overpowering of evil. Moreover, as is usual for Aboriginal mythology, the journeying of the cultural heroes is connected here with the particular features of the landscape, which acquired sacred qualities in the beliefs of their descendants. Details that are irrelevant from the modern European point of view — ‘They stopped at War [Waugh] Pocket and camped for the night leaving early next morning’ — acquire mythological significance in the story. Listening to it is like being present at the conception of a myth. In traditional society such a story preserved by the family would have resulted, within a few generations, in sacralisation of the landscape mentioned in Leandro and Kitty’s travels.
Flora’s version of the story was abundant in details and gave it another dimension.
‘My mother had a son belonging to my father and the police were trying to get my mother and my brother and send them to a mission on Palm Island. As soon as a black woman had a half-caste baby they sent her to a mission to hide the fact that white man was carrying on with black women, the law was like that. And when my father found out that they wanted to do that, he said “No, I’ll marry the mother and save my son and save her too. Why should she go over there, she never committed a crime. It’s not fair. Why send her when I am willing to keep her, and look after them both.” But they said that he couldn’t. At that time the law was, white couldn’t marry a black person.
‘When my father knew that he said, “They’re not going to take my son, they’re not going to take her or my son”. He took a gun and they went into the thick scrub, my mother and my father, he lived like a bushranger with the other Aboriginals. The policemen were looking for them, but the other tribe — there was plenty of black people there, big tribes — they would tell my father and my mother which way the police was going, and they would tell police “They went this way”, but they went that way. The tribe was looking after my father and my mother and watching out for the police and tell the police the wrong direction. They were in the bush nine or twelve months.
‘While they were hiding in the bush my father put his son Dick with his father and mother. And my father said, “Don’t you let them take him”. And my grandfather said, “They have to kill me first, before they take him”. My grandfather must have been a fair man all the time, that’s why he got chased away from Russia, because he could see unfair things that were done to people. And this is now his grandchild, so he is not going to let them take him away and send him to Palm Island. He wasn’t worried about that he was dark, the fairness was everything that he worried about. So they looked after Dick.
‘Father had to fight hard to get the permission from the Chief Protector of Aboriginals to marry my mother. Somewhere in July–August 1915 the Queensland Premier Gillies came up to Atherton to open a new railway line. Plenty of people gathered there on the station. And suddenly my father approached the premier, told him the story and asked him to help them to marry. My father never was afraid to speak to anybody. And then, when Gillies went back, he sent him the permission to marry my mother. By this time it was September and they got married in Innisfail. I was born in October 1915, a month after they got married. If father didn’t worry about my mother and brother the three of us would have ended up in Palm Island mission and I would not know who my father was and where I came from, like a lot of half-caste kids.’38
In distinction from Harry’s version, Flora’s had two main focal points: the moral choice of the hero and the interference of the powerful master, who restored justice. This latter element (interference of the powerful master) was the main feature of the story which survived among Lullie’s descendants as well. Nola tells what she heard from her mother, Lullie:
‘She told us that they [Leandro and Kitty] got married up in Innisfail, that they had to get permission from the premier. They saw him up at the railway station, he was going through on a train, he gave all the kids two bob each.’
This ‘irrelevant’ detail — ‘he gave all the kids two bob each’ — contributes to the image of a powerful, rich master. This image was a characteristic feature of Russian fairy-tales. For Ernie, Flora’s son, who had a lot of contact with Leandro as a boy, the most remarkable feature in the story was the superman quality of Leandro: ‘When he and Kitty escaped to the bush he told the Aboriginal trackers that if police had known about their hiding place the trackers would have been the first to receive a bullet from him’.39