Elena Govor, My Dark Brother, Sydney, 2000




About the author


Contents and excerpts


National Biography Award nomination

TV documentary


The Ngadjon people

Мой темнокожий брат


‘My God is my children ...’



... In 1940 their family even enlarged when Leandro brought their granny Emily from the Tablelands to Utopia. Lullie, who must have missed a mother’s love more than the elder children, always wanted her grandma to come down to live with them. Leandro himself always used to invite Emily to stay with them but she preferred to remain in her country. By now, however, Emily was nearly seventy and Leandro went to the Tablelands to bring her.


Emily with David Johnston, early 1950s, courtesy of Johnston family

Leandro came to Butchers Creek on a cool, rainy day in June 1940. He felt a pang of sadness as he stopped near his father’s farm. Dear memories of the past surrounded him — his family standing here in front of the thick scrub, full of hope ...

            By now most of the land was cleared. But, together with the scrub, Little Siberia was gone too. Homenko’s and Gadaloff’s families were the last to remain. His own former selection looked deserted; it had changed hands several times since he sold it to John Walker in 1919 and now his clearing was overgrown, prickly lantana spread everywhere. It seemed that in a couple of years the selection would revert to scrub.51 What were the years of his hard toil spent for!

            Leandro found Emily on the Johnston farm, on Clarke’s track. They had not seen each other for nearly twenty years. She seemed to have become shorter, her white hair made her face even darker, but as before she was beaming and full of energy. Years and losses, it seemed, had no power over this bright woman. After the death of her husband Tom Denyer in 1920, she stayed for a while in Boonjie, on the Russell goldfield, gardening and mining. Then, in 1922 she lost her daughter Julia, which was followed by the death of Kitty three years later. All she had by then was Kitty’s elder daughter, Emma, who came to live at Yungaburra on the Tablelands. At that time Emily worked for Lancelot Johnston’s family, looking after his children. She, one of the last who remembered the coming of the whites to her country, now was to witness how her people were declining in numbers because of diseases and alcohol, as well as the opium introduced by the Chinese, while those who survived were constantly hunted by police and removed to Monamona or Palm Island missions. She herself, together with Paddy Robinson, her tribal husband — as recorded in police documents — and the family of her relative, Molly Raymont, were imprisoned in January 1934, intended for deportation. They broke out and several of them, including Emily and Paddy, managed to escape and had to hide for several months in Mulgrave Gorge. Paddy was finally deported to Palm Island in 1939. ‘As for Emily’, reported the local Protector, ‘... she definitely states that she does not want to leave here, and says she will die if taken to a Settlement.’ By that time Emily’s granddaughter Emma had died and Emma’s daughter, thirteen-year-old Jenny, had come to stay with Emily (Paddy wanted to take her as a wife and this was one of the causes of his removal). The Johnstons employed Jenny, and Emily agreed to go with Leandro to see Kitty’s children.

            The six of them, from Ginger to Lullie, had outgrown Emily by then and seemed to be modern Australians rather than Aborigines. Having grown up away from the Ngadjon land, they did not realise then how important this reunion with their Aboriginal grandma would be for them in the years to come. She would tell them Ngadjon myths, travelling easily between mythological and mundane realities, and, as if instinctively, they remembered them word for word, as it was usual for the generations of their ancestors; more than half-a-century later they would tell them to me in the same manner ...

            Emily told them about her first encounter with the whites at Lake Eacham as well: ‘The white men came and shot all the tribe out and took all the young people ...’. But the encounter with grandma was not just with a gloomy past. One incident was retained by Ernie, then a seven-year-old boy.

            Auntie Lullie had a horse, and it was really funny horse, it was a real mongrel horse, she had us chase it up the corner. We all made a line, granny Emily made the line trying to push it into the corner so she put the bridle and saddle on him. But when he looked like being bailed up he charged, of course we jumped aside. Granny picks up these sticks, we had long sticks for picking oranges, they had a hook on it. Anyway, granny said, “This has got a hook on it”. Lullie says “Hook him in the back side”. The horse was wild because the stick had a hook on it. And it kept running away. Then auntie Lullie said, “Hook him in the arse”. Granny just lay there and she laughed and laughed.’

            Emily stayed with them for about a year but, in spite of her love for her grandchildren, she felt homesick all the time and wanted to return to the Tablelands. ‘So’, Ernie tells, ‘Johnston came down and got her, he was pretty good, the old fellow. She lived with them and they were all friends. But when the old fellow died, the police took her and sent her to Palm Island without even notifying us.’ This tragic story still affects the Johnston family.

            Her last night in her own country Emily spent in a cell at the Malanda police station. On 1 October 1954 she was taken to Palm Island. She knew she would soon die away from her native land but, in order not to be a burden to anybody, she did not resist. Before long her grandchildren learnt where their grandma was. Flora relates:

            ‘Lullie wrote to me and asked me to send her some money so that she could go over to get her and bring her back to Ingham. And when she wrote to the superintendent, he wrote back to her, he said, yes, she could come over and get her. But it was wet weather time and Lullie could not go and she was waiting for the wet weather to finish and before she could go our granny died there on Palm Island.’

            It was 23 February 1955. She was around eighty-five years old at that time, and probably the eldest Ngadjon. A correspondent of the Townsville Bulletin wrote in the obituary: ‘She told many graphic stories of early days on the Russell River Goldfield. She retained a retentive memory right to the end.’52 Alas, nobody seems to have recorded them ...



           ... I would like to be able to finish the story happily — a contented father lives out his last peaceful years surrounded by his children and grandchildren, who lead lives in accordance with his ideals. But, sadly, his last years brought its share of troubles to Leandro, as well. At times despair seemed to overflow in him: ‘I got the pass to Brisbane’, he wrote to Dick and Tom in 1943, ‘but don’t think I will ever go with all the sorrows and troubles of Lullie, Harry, Tom and his coming marriage and your worries, Dick. It is not worth to use science to prolong a useless and unhappy life and give troubles to doctors to cure me.’ When Flora reached the point of telling about those last years, she just broke off the story: ‘We lived down there at Stone River for about twelve years until the war got serious, then we left it and everybody went this way and that way ...’

            Yes, it was the war, but it was something else, too — the time had come for his children to become adults, and from now on to carry the load of real life with all its troubles by themselves. And, as years before when their father would leave them in the middle of the Burdekin River to teach them how to swim, now life took them all to the deep spots and they had to swim out. All Leandro could do was to watch from the shore: ‘I am that worried and powerless to do anything’.54 They were to swim alone and yet their parents’ love, their father’s honesty and fearlessness in the face of injustice, their mother’s Aboriginality and deep spiritual attachment to her Ngadjon land were all protecting them with invisible armour. The winged seeds sown by their parents would one day sprout in them and then, in turn, burst forth again in their own children and in their grandchildren. But in the meantime ...



           ... Not long before his death he left the Kormishens’ house in Ingham and moved to Townsville. He stayed in a boarding-house in Walker Street — to die. And on 15 August 1946 he passed away at the age of sixty-four. All his family scattered through Queensland came to his funeral in Townsville, where he died. They read his will. He left his papers and belongings to Dick, the eldest, and asked them to bury him without the church service, just wrapped up in a blanket, and without a tombstone on his grave, as if saying to them — do not look for me among the dead, do not look for me in Heaven; look for me among the living, in yourselves.