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


Book tribute to 'bush lawyer', The Herbert River Express, 18 January 2001.

The inspiring life story of a man who helped European migrants battle injustice in Ingham in the 1930s and 1940s will be released in book form today.

Leandro Illin, known as the 'bush lawyer', distinguished himself in the service of Italian and Spanish migrants who were marginalised from an Ingham community which called for their deportation on the basis of their ethnicity.

Locals at the time associated Italians with criminals, while other baseless complaints were aimed at their perceived antisocial habits.

The book, My Dark Brother, traces the history of the Illins, a Russian-Aboriginal family.

It will be officially launched at the Ingham Library today at 10 am by Leandro's only living child, 85-year-old Flora Hoolihan.

Leandro lived with his wile at Stone River for 12 years from 1930.

His grandson, Gugu Badhun Elder Ernie Hoolihan, said Leandro, who had learnt Italian and Spanish in Latin America, almost immediately went to the aid of the migrants upon settling in the district.

"People (of Ingham) never knew his history. He used to dress roughly, like a farmer, but he was a worldly man," Mr Hoolihan said.

"During the 30s and early 40s he did a lot of interpreting in the Ingham area for migrants. The Spanish migrants used to say he (Leandro) spoke their language better than they did.

"He was active in defending their rights and the authorities again tagged him with the label of 'bush lawyer'.

"Grandfather Illin wrote to the Herbert River Express of his friendship with the Italians and defended their lifestyle, their rich heritage and the culture in the face of community hostility and ignorance.

"The Italian community in the Herbert River district was so grateful it awarded him a medal for his services in the Ingham area."

Leandro inherited his sense of social justice from his father, Nicholas Illin, a Russian nobleman.

Nicholas was notable for his activism against corruption and abuse of the agrarian and working classes in his native country.

He left Russia after having a well publicised falling out with the great Russian writer, Tolstoy.

The family, including wife Alexandra and sons Romelio and Leandro and daughter Ariadna, joined him in Argentina in 1897.

The year 1910 saw them bound for Australia, lured by its egalitarian reputation.

Not long after, Leandro tried to marry a local Indigenous girl, Kitty Clarke, who worked for the family on one of three selections on the Atherton Tablelands.

Kitty was employed to help Leandro's mother on the property, which they pioneered in 1910 after the family's arrival in Brisbane.

The couple fell in love and 28-year-old Leandro, wanting to do the right thing, wrote to the Chief Protector of Aborigines, seeking clarification on the legal standing of his intentions.

That prompted the authorities to come after Kitty with the intention of deporting her to a mission because she had had three full blood Aboriginal children from a previous marriage.

Kitty and Leandro fled into the sanctuary of the bush on the banks of the Russell River and so began Leandro's decades long struggle in support of the rights of Aborigines and migrants.

Leandro continued his ultimately successful fight to marry Kitty, which culminated in an officially sanctioned wedding ceremony 1915.

Flora was born not long after. The couple already had a son, Richard.

Mr Hoolihan, Flora's son, affectionately remembers his grandfather as a driven man.

"He got me to read books," Mr Hoolihan said.

"He was very strong and made us behave and tow the line. He would always go into bat for his children against the authorities if something were happening to them.

"He did a lot for Aboriginal people and used to go along with them and make sure, where ever possible, that they knew what they were signing for. In those days their wages were paid to a 'Protector' who was a local policeman or member of the clergy.

"They called Leandro a 'bush lawyer' and a lot of other things as well. They tried to make out that he was there for his own benefit, trying to get money out of the Aborigines and all that sort of business but that wasn't the case."

Leandro's advocacy for the rights of Aborigines was focused at the bureaucracy.

Elena Govor, the biographer of the Illin family in North Queensland, said the relationship between Indigenous people and pastoralists in North Queensland were mostly cordial.

The misplaced good intention of policy makers had led to corruption and abuse. It was this that Leandro railed against, Ms Govor said.

His views were articulated in local newspapers and his letters to officials in defence and support of the Indigenous people with whom he worked. The culture of abuse at the time was detailed in a letter to the editor of the North Queensland Register in 1925.

Leandro's advocacy also reached far from North Queensland. In 1912 he was commissioned by the Federal Government to study the viability of setting up a Russian community in the sparsely populated Northern Territory.

The report was meant for the eyes of federal bureaucrats. This was an influential readership and

Leandro expanded his report to include harrowing accounts of abuse of Indigenous people that he had witnessed.

In 1930 the family moved to a property near Stone River about 30 kilometres west of Ingham where they stayed for 12 years.

The Illin blood runs through many prominent Aboriginal families in North Queensland including the Gertz, Smallwood, Hoolihan, Morgansen and Illin clans.

Many members of this family are involved in Aboriginal advocacy and continue the fight for social justice started by this Russian visionary.

Leandro died in 1946.