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


‘Black princess’


By the time twenty-year-old Kitty appeared at the Illins’ farm she already had three children. Her eldest daughter, Emma, was born in around 1905 (Leandro wrote that Kitty, as was usual for Aboriginal women, had her first child when she was thirteen years old); the next one, Molly, was born in 1910 and her son George, called Ginger, in 1911. Nobody knows what happened to her first husband, an Aboriginal man called Jimmy Williamson. The Illins were among the first settlers in the area occupied by Kitty’s group. She came to them in 1911, starving, and occasionally helped Alexandra with housework. By that time she must have lost her first husband. In August 1913, when Leandro returned from his travels and began to clear his selection on Cairns track, she became his de facto wife and he took care of her three young children. In July 1914 their first son, Dick, was born and, following a dramatic struggle with the authorities, Leandro and Kitty were officially married in September 1915.

            Who was she, Kitty Clarke, who managed to charm this lonely Russian man, who managed to give meaning to his life? I try to see her through Leandro’s eyes. A young, slim woman with a shock of thick, dark curly hair and a stern, frowning face, she seemed too reserved to attract the attention of a man at first glance. But as soon as she overcame her shyness a bright, open, white-teeth smile lit up her face. Her granddaughter Glenda seems to have inherited not only Kitty’s appearance but also, miraculously, this contrast between apparent severity and overwhelming openness and joyfulness of nature. Kitty’s face exhibited strong will and intelligence. Even the local policeman had to admit in his reports ‘Kitty Clarke is a sensible stamp of aboriginal’; ‘she is an intelligent woman as far as blacks go’. As far as blacks go ... All Leandro’s upbringing must have resisted this haughty, derogatory attitude. For him the main thing was that ‘she is a kind sort of a woman’; later, after Kitty’s death, he wrote about her son George ‘I had reared him a good honest able boy, like his poor mother was’. Although she had been in contact with the whites since her childhood, she preserved her Aboriginality, as many members of her community still lived in the scrub; for instance, she spoke only broken English, her main language remained Ngadjon. True in love, kind and honest, able to accept an alien culture but still proud of her native culture and able to make her white husband respect and appreciate it — that was Kitty Clarke, a ‘little black princess’, daughter of Ngadjon country.

            I, brought up on European literature, was at first inclined to see the story of Kitty and Leandro’s marriage as a purely romantic love-story. I tried to speak with Harry and Flora about that love, and they agreed — ‘oh, yes, he loved her’ — but seemed not to share my romanticism. At last Flora explained.

            ‘Well, I suppose he was like all the other men that’d come to Australia. There was not plenty of women around, not their own colour. Maybe their affair may not meant for marriage but when there was a baby came to life he was not going to run away as other white men did. He would not run away from his flesh and blood. He would not let them take my mother and brother to Palm Island. He wasn’t a coward like a lot of other white men. He always thought for other people and pitied them.’32

            Indeed, Leandro had seemed at first to treat white men’s cohabitation with Aboriginal women as an inevitable drawback of life in the bush. He wrote in his report to the federal government in 1912: ‘Something must be done to induce white women to come to the Northern Territory and save the poor pioneers from living with lubras’.33 Was it having children or was it Kitty’s personality that changed his attitude? Certainly, to have a son, to have children, was Leandro’s cherished dream and he tenderly loved his first-born son, Dick, and he loved the second child that Kitty was expecting — this happened to be Flora, who was to preserve the story of her parents — but even at that time Kitty seems to be for him more than the mother of his son, more than a woman to live with. Was his behaviour the fulfilment of the vow made by his parents twenty-five years before, when they were shocked by Tolstoy’s Kreutzer Sonata and its exposure of all the falsity of modern love and family life? Nicholas wrote then: ‘we have to ... scrape off the dirty layers of modern civilisation’s habits and customs; we have to reveal in ourselves a human being which indeed was created in God’s likeness. ... [It] will be a hard struggle for ourselves but we will manage to guide our children along this pure and straight way.’34

            Now, when the theory came to be put into practice the attitude of justice and honesty, which always dominated Leandro’s world outlook, was enriched by love. How otherwise could he so deeply penetrate into Kitty’s inner world closed to Europeans, into her values of life, when he wrote so simply and so powerfully: ‘My selection is right in her country ... It would be a very sorrowful thing if some evil happened to her in form of being taken away from her native country.’ Only love could give him this dual vision — his own and his loved one’s, only love could help him to understand that free food and clothes in the mission would never replace for Kitty the spiritual ties with her native land.

            How far this was from the attitude of other Europeans to Aboriginal women! In 1915, for instance, only six Europeans in the whole of Queensland married women of Aboriginal descent. Many Aboriginal women were not just abandoned with children by white men. Worse than that, according to Bob Dixon — ‘only two half-castes grew up in the Tully region in the first quarter of this century; many were born but all others were killed soon after birth, by their white fathers’.35

            Leandro was one of the first Europeans to prove that it was possible to feel love for an Aboriginal woman. Nobody around him apart from his parents could understand it. Twenty years later, when he had already buried Kitty near Christmas Creek and was raising their motherless children, he read Coonardoo, a novel by Katharine Susannah Prichard, and was struck by the resemblances between the main character and Kitty. He recognised his lost Kitty in Coonardoo. Unlike the hero of the novel, Hugh Watt, Leandro never betrayed his love; but, like Hugh, Leandro could never overcome this love, and he never married again. According to Ric Throssell, Prichard’s son, soon after Coonardoo was published in 1929 the literary critic Cecil Mann wrote ‘that in refusing to keep off the subject of “black velvet”, Katharine Prichard had tried the almost impossible task of making “the Australian aboriginal a romantic figure”. So ingrained were the old racial attitudes that [Mann] could say: “With any other native, from fragrant Zulu girl to fly-kissed Arab maid, she could have done it. But the aboriginal, in Australia, anyway cannot excite any higher feeling than nauseated pity or comical contempt.”’

            I knew that Leandro highly valued Coonardoo as a true Australian book. And it was when I was thinking about the parallels between Kitty’s and Coonardoo’s tragic stories that a letter came from Flora. She recollected that:

            ‘Father wrote to a Lady that wrote a book about an Aboriginal girl, the book called Coonardoo, but at the time [1933] she was going to Russia. While she was over there something happened to her husband. She did write to father when she came back from Russia. I don’t know what she told him about Russia. ... You might find a letter from him to her about wanting her to come to Queensland to write a book on an Aboriginal woman up here back in 1936 or 1937.’

            Might it be Kitty’s story that he wanted Prichard to tell, might his letters have the key to his relations with Kitty, I thought, hopefully. Alas, I soon discovered that their correspondence did not survive, neither in Prichard’s archives in the National Library of Australia, nor in Vera Ketchell’s bag with Leandro’s letters. Nevertheless, Ric Throssell, Prichard’s son, who was only twelve when his mother returned from Russia devastated by the death of her husband, on hearing the story from me said, ‘I remember the name Illin. It rings a bell. Mother told me about him, but I was too young to remember everything.’ Later, in one of Leandro’s letters of August 1933, I found this remark: ‘I have been corresponding with the authoress of Coonardoo and she wrote to me she is likely to come up North for material on Abos and write a book’.36

            One more dead end. Still, Leandro and Kitty’s story is not lost. It lives on among their descendants and even gives rise to the creation of a unique modern-day mythology.