Reflections on Seeing Black Diggers

Colin Keith

I am three, standing in the clothing section of Myers. Mum is behind me, but I look around and she isn’t there. I see coats and scarves. I see pullovers and cardigans. I see hats and umbrellas. No Mum. My tummy feels empty. I don’t know this shop. I don’t know where I am. I don’t know which way to go. Where would Mummy go?

I think this is as close as I can come to understanding some of the feeling of separation endured by so many affected by conflict—victims, participants, families, friends and communities. The play Black Diggers was written to bring to the stage an understanding of the contribution of Indigenous Australians to World War I, but brought to me a deeper understanding of the nature of humanity and society, through a number of themes. It also gave me new perspectives on Australian society and our history.

Starting from the first scene in which a group of settlers is hunting Aborigines, Black Diggers shows us the diversity of people’s views and behaviours. It invites us to look at the impacts of conflict from new perspectives and provokes thinking about the impacts of all our conflicts. Conflict creates isolation of its victims, both civilian and military, in many forms. Although the focus in Black Diggers is a story about Indigenous Australians who participated in WWI, the story is part of a continuum of isolation created through conflict that affects our society still.

We are all individuals

A key theme of Black Diggers is that the Indigenous experience has been very varied. In the first scene settlers have hunted and killed an Aboriginal family, but are debating what to do with a picaninny. Other settlers recognise Aborigines as people and take the picaninny into their home.

In the act of the play that describes the recruitment of Indigenous people into the army, many recruiting officers take the official position that Aborigines are not citizens and therefore cannot be recruited. Others take the position that the army needs all the people they can get and bend the rules about being “substantially European” to enlist Indigenous people who are willing.

During transit to the theatre of war, some European diggers are offended by the presence of Aboriginals, while others step in to defend their place.

On return home, many people mistreat Indigenous veterans as they do the rest of the Aboriginal population. Some people, particularly the other Anzac veterans, treat the Indigenous veterans as peers.

When we are reflecting on our history and seeking to redress the inequities of the past we must recognise that there is not one story, but many. We should refrain from using labels for people, but recognise their behaviour. Australia is not racist, but there are Australians who express racist views.

People need to be connected

As humans we naturally form connections. Connections give us an understanding of self and place. Connections give us support and confidence. We connect to our family, our friends, our social groups, our culture, our locality, our nation, our race and our humanity.

Black Diggers is a story of connections broken and new connections made. The picaninny is separated from its family through murder, but connected to a new family through adoption. Indigenous people are separated from their land and their culture. Indigenous youth can see that their parents are disconnected and seek new connections.

Both Indigenous and migrant Australian soldiers are soon disconnected from land, family and society. Through the experiences of war they are also disconnected from culture, humanity and sanity. Both Indigenous and migrant Australian soldiers become connected through their shared experiences and through a common sense of being disconnected.

When the veterans return home they no longer have their old place in family and society. They are unable to communicate. This lead me to reflect on another production, The Long Way Home, where I can see many possible reasons for disconnection:

You can’t inflict the anguish of your memories on those you loved,
You can’t describe the indescribable,
You aren’t permitted to divulge secrets,
You can’t betray the confidence of shared dark memories.

They can’t understand.
You are blind with pain.
They can’t understand.
You can’t sleep.
They can’t understand.
You are alone, in the midst of those you loved.

When they returned home, many veterans are treated with disdain. Veterans are given allotments in Soldier Settlements. Bank clerks find themselves gifted with barren ground that leads ultimately to failure and despair. Veterans become separated from society, country, family and love.

Through their experience of disconnection, maybe our veterans can understand the plight of Indigenous people better than most of us?

One hundred years past

Black Diggers reminds us that Australia’s history of conflict takes us back beyond the hundred years of Anzac and takes us through the post war years. Since World War I Australia has had involvement in many conflicts, from World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq to Afghanistan. Although many things have changed, many things are still the same.

Indigenous people are now citizens, but still experience a diverse range of attitudes. Government recognises Indigenous culture through welcome to country and acknowledgement of country protocols, but there is still disconnection of people from land and culture.

Veterans still experience isolation and a lack of understanding. From settlement days through world wars, Korea, Vietnam to Afghanistan, soldiers take the long way home.

One hundred years hence

Will there be another “Black Diggers” in 2115 to commemorate 200 years of Anzac? Will the audience in 100 years’ time be wondering how we can resolve the conflict of cultures? Will plays still be telling the stories of people separated, isolated and in need?

What decisions will each of us make to create a history in 100 years’ time different from the history of today?