B: 21st Dec 1893 D: 26th Aug 1994
Born: 21st December 1893, Hergott Springs (later Marree), South Australia
Died: 26th August 1994, Wami Kata, aged 101
Father: Bejah DERVISH, Afghan cameleer (B: ?? D: ??)
Mother: Annie MURRAY (B: ?? D: ??)
Ernest William MURRAY (B: ??. D: ?? )
The Ben Murray biography is composed of extracts from an article written by Peter Austin, Luise Hercus and Philip Jones in 1988.
According to the records he himself meticulously kept, Ben Murray was born near Maree, northern South Australia, in 1891 to an Aboriginal mother and a Baluchistani (Afghan) father. Today Ben is the oldest resident of Amewarra Old People’s Home in Port Augusta, in retirement after a long and eventful working life.
In days when the emphasis is often placed on communities and spokespersons, Ben Murray is something totally different; a rugged individualist who stood in a unique and solitary position to Aboriginal society, to Afghan society, and to the white missionaries, station owners and manager for whom he worked. Ben is a strong person, both physically and mentally; he did not like compromises and hated injustice. This is evident not only from the events of his life that he recounted to us, but also from the comments of his friends and acquaintances. When Luice Hercus first met him in 1965 an event occurred which illustrates his attitudes perfectly. A station in the area had appointed a manager who was an alcoholic. The manager’s young wife was just recovering from the birth of her second baby. There was a mid-January heatwave and a major drought was on; sheep were getting bogged in muddy dams and dying pitifully in their hundreds. The people on the other stations in the area were busy saving their own sheep, so the young wife sought help from Ben. He came at once. He walked into the homestead and found the manager lying drunk in bed. Without the slightest hesitation Ben told him what he thought of him and finished up saying: ‘Get up, get dressed, and help me pull the sheep out! Otherwise I shall do it on my own, not for your sake, but for your wife and to save the sheep.’ He went out alone and carried out the back-breaking task of rescuing the sheep.
Luise Hercus originally met Ben Murray in 1965, having been referred to him as a person who might be able to help her with her study of the Arabana and Wangkangurru languages, two closely related Aboriginal languages traditionally spoken to the west and north of Lake Eyre. Luise soon discovered the depth and range of Ben’s knowledge of language and tradition, and of history, both Aboriginal and European. She worked with Ben from 1968, mainly on Wangkangaurru but also collecting vocabulary and stories in Diyari, which is a completely different language originally spoken to the east of Lake Eyre that Ben had learned as a child. They also recorded material on the Thirrari language, which is closely related to Diyari and was spoken along the eastern and southern shores of the Lake. Ben learned Thirrari from his maternal grandmother and he is the last person to speak it fluently.
Peter Austin first hear Ben’s voice in 1972 when writing a student essay based upon Luise Hercus’s tapes, and was introduced by her to Ben in January 1974 at the beginning of his field research for fourth-year honours in Linguistics. Between 1975 and 1977 Ben worked with Peter, teaching him Diyari and Thirrari for his doctoral research, including tape recording of many hours of text in both languages.
Philip Jones was introduced to Ben Murray at Port Augusta in 1981 by Luise Hercus. He first interviewed Ben on the subject of red ochre expeditions in the Lake Eyre region and on the history of the Lutheran mission at Killalpaninna. An interest in Ben’s own life history emerged from these discussions and Phillips has recorded several interviews with Ben on this topic during the past seven years.
When discussing the writing of this biography recently, someone asked Luise Hercus: “Did you interview Ben Murray?” The question seemed absurd. Neither Luise Hercus nor Peter Austin ‘interviewed’ Ben Murray about his life. He was our helper, adviser and companion over a number of field trips in the far north-east of South Australia; a friend we always look forward to seeing again. Scattered throughout our field tapes and notes are stories, describing events from a rich and varied life spent throughout eastern South Australia, from the sheep and cattle stations along the Birdsville track in the north to Waikerie, the Riverland and Pinnaroo in the south-east, and Kadina and Moonta on the Yorke Peninsula. What Ben Murray himself recounted of his life was told in episodic fashion, often in the context of ‘having a yarn’, and never arranged chronologically. It is as a result of Philip Jones’s research that we are able to place the details of Ben’s life in historical order and to write a more traditional biography.
Early Life: Living at Muloorina
Ben Murray was born near the Frome Creek, just east of Maree in northern South Australia, in 1891. He was named Parlku-nguyu-thangkayiwarna, which in Arabana-Wangkangurru means ‘A Bank of Clouds Settling Down’ and comes from the rain history. His mother, Karla-warru (later known as Anne Murray, then Merrick), was a part-Arabana, part-Thirrari woman whose own country was Kudnangampa on Stuart’s Creek, south of Lake Eyre. Her father was an important Arabana man known as ‘King Walter’. Her mother, Ben’s grandmother (kadnhini mother’s mother), was Kuriputhanha, a Thirrari woman known to the local white people as ‘Queen Annie’. Ben’s father was Bejah Dervish, later to achieve fame as the cameleer on the Calvert Exploring Expedition of 1896. He had arrived in Australia as a young man of twenty-four in 1891, twenty-five years after Sir Thomas Elder organised the first Australian shipment of camels together with their Baluchistan handlers. The government recognised the value of this new labour source for the outback but stipulated that no Afghan women were to come to Australia. The authorities had a strong fear of duplicating, even in miniature, the racial and social problems of the Victorian and Northern Territory goldfields by allowing a new ethnic group to gain a foothold in South Australia. Afghan men soon formed liaisons with Aboriginal women, often short in duration and against their will. Ben’s parents may well have met under such conditions.
The town camp by the Frome Creek outside Maree was Ben’s mother’s home at the time of his birth in 1891. Ben’s earliest years were spent here in this half-bush, half-town camp, within earshot of the railway steam-whistle. The people there were predominantly Wangkangaruu and Arabana and Ben grew up with these as his first languages. By the time he was four or five however, his mother, sisters Shirley and Myra, and brothers Ern and George had moved to Muloorina Station, east of Lake Eyre South in traditional Thirrari country. One likely reason for the move was that his mother had married a Wangkangurru man from the Simpson Desert who was employed at the station. Another was that his grandmother, Kuripthanha ‘Queen Annie’ lived there.
Ben learnt the Thirrari language from his grandmother and is now its only surviving speaker. Ben was also exposed to the traditional ways of his mother’s people and learnt a large amount from them. Already though, at this young age, he was learning to operate between the Aboriginal and European cultures. The following anecdote, related to Eric Bonython by Ben’s brother Ern, conveys something of this. It probably describes an event that took place on Muloorina and must have concerned Walter, the boys’ grandfather.
“Talking of tracking reminds me [Ern] of when I was a by and I examined the witch doctor’s bag of tricks. He was held in great fear by the tribe and he always had his bag of charms or curses hanging in a tree outside his wurlie. My brother Ben and I had always wanted to see what was in it, but were afraid to, because he would have known our footprints. So we waited until a day when he was away and I got a horse that we could ride and we went u to the tree and took the bag. We were very curious, for no-ne had ever seen inside before. Inside the skin bag were all sorts of coloured stones and little flint knives and what looked like gold in little pieces and several bones. Then we returned it just as it was, and got away as fast as we could. Next day, the old fellow caught us and asked if we had been at his bag. Although we said we had not, he didn’t quite believe us, as he said our horse had been there anyway. We hadn’t thought of that.”
The boys’ grandfather, Walter, was a ceremonial leader of the Arabana people and young Ben learnt much from him. One of Ben’s earliest memories is of accompanying the old man through Arabana country to Stuart’s creek at Kudnampa to attend a ceremony there.Walter showed Ben some of the special places in his country there: ‘sowing me country, all around Anna Creek and everywhere, Stuart’s Creek.’ Ben’s grandmother showed him the country on the west side of Lake Eyre and one trip took the family by foot as far north as Birdsville, following the Kallakoopah north from the Lake. This trip was also apparently for ceremonial business as well as for meeting relatives and friends, ‘…we mix up with the people, have a corroboree there…[and]…a bit of a look around the country…’.
The older Wangkangurru men in the Maree area, such as Ben’s step-father, still carried on much of their traditional life-style, and young Ben observed their ways. The two most senior of these men were Ngatu-thakali, known as ‘Rib-bone Billy’, and Punjili.
Ben began his working life as he was to end it eighty years later – in the saddle. Muloorina had been owned by the Bosworth family since 1885 and they were struggling to make a living on the station at the time that young Ben was camped there with his mother. She was given domestic duties and when Ben was only a child of about five, old Harry Bosworth thought he could start employing him on the station. His task was to operate a mechanical water pump, a couple of hours at a time. This is Ben’s account, given to Luise Hercus in February 1976.
“I was only tiny, and we were staying there (at Muloorina). My elder sister was there too, she was a big girl. We ere all camped there. Old man Bosworth came down to us, down by the creek. He said to me: ‘Come on, jump in this buggy! Me and you go down!’. He and I set out to go. He said ‘I want you boys to ride this horse!’. I got up on the horse. You know they had this old-fashioned pump, you turn on the cog-wheel, and pull in right in the well and turn this wheel, a big wheel with a belt on it, this works it. There is a rod going in and another wheel works on that. There is a belt on this pump and it pumps the water into the little dam. So he yoked this mare up in this turn-out, and he put me up on top saying: ‘Now you keep that horse going!’. I was only little, I hung onto the saddle, going round and round. ‘You right, keep on going boy!’. I was just up there going in his direction when he went u to the dam to have a look. It was only a little dam. That’s how it was. In the end, after a long time, he said: ‘Stop!’. I pulled the horse back. My legs wouldn’t reach on the flank, I just kept’m somewhere, anyhow. I had to put my foot against the body of the horse so that I could get down. You know that front bone there, I had to put my foot there to get down. He said: ‘Can you pull that chain off?’. I had to try you know, I couldn’t do it, so he came and did it. ‘It’s full enough’, he said, ‘I’ll take you back to camp’. He took me to the house, Muloorina homestead. He said ‘All right, you wait! Missus wil come out directly!’. She came out with a cake and sandwiches but as soon as she gave me that I nicked off, I ran down to the camp. I went back to our camp and the old fellow said: ‘Well, it is food.’ “
Ben’s family camped at Muloorina on and off apparently until 1902, when the Bosworths finally abandoned the station after several years of drought. The government took over the station and operated it until 1906 as a camel farm, serving the northern route to Birdsville and beyond, and to Oodnadatta and the north-west. The family then moved back to Maree and Ben’s mother found work at Mrs Murray’s boarding house (situated n the site of the present Progress Hall), one of several small businesses which sprang up as the town’s fortunes grew after the advent of the railway in 1884. Ben helped his mother there, doing odd jobs, and before long he must have come to know the town and its characters well. By now the family may have been living in the town itself, undoubtedly on the north (Aboriginal and Afghan) side of the railway line.
The fact that Ben’s family took its name from his mother’s employer, Mrs Murray, reflects an accepted practice of the times. It also indicates the lack of any close ties between Ben’s father, Bejah Dervish, and the family. Ben saw very little of his father, although the cameleer would have been a regular visitor to the town and to its Islamic mosque. As ben puts it:
“I didn’t go by his name because he wasn’t interested in looking after us. Mother had to carry on herself.”
When Ben came to learn the camel work a few years later he relied on other men for assistance rather than on his father.
As an able-bodied boy, Ben would have been in demand around Maree, but it is likely that from the age of ten or even earlier, his future was already tied to station work. It was probably during these years in Marree that Ben first met Sidney Kidman, the ‘Cattle King’, later to become the lease-holder of the pastoral land between Port Augusta and the Gulf of Carpentaria. In 1906 Kidman purchased the lease on Mundowdna Station, which included the Clayton run. He chose the young Ben Murray to work on Clayton, probably with several other Aboriginal stockmen, and Ben remembers his time on this property as his first real job, At the age of fourteen or fifteen he would have been away from his family for the first time and was expected to do a full day’s work. Kidman visited the station periodically with his daughters Edna and Blanche, on their way down from Queensland with cattle for the Adelaide markets. It was Edna who taught Ben to ride well:
“[She] used to tie me on the saddle, Edna did. She can ride, that girl, Yeah, rough horse too…People would say, ‘Who’s them jackeroos there?’ ‘Oh, they’re the boss’s daughters!’ They were girls, dress like boys.”
Ben was probably at Clayton for only a few months before returning to his family at Marree. By the following year he was on Wire Yard station, on the western boundary of the Lutheran mission at Killalpaninna. His new employers were the de Pierre brothers, two Frenchmen who took up the pastoral lease there in 1906, four years after it was abandoned by the Bosworths. The de Pierres took over the Peachawarrina and the Cannatulkaninna block (ie. part of Muloorina) from the Bosworth family. Their struggle as grim as that of their predecessors. Little is known about this anomalous pair; George Farwell describes them as:
“Count Charles de Peri and his brother, Bill [Baptiste]…men of adventurous disposition, well-to-do, possibly the French equivalents of remittance men….A big excitable man, with explosive talk, difficult to understand, Charley always travelled about with a team of huge kangaroo dogs.”
Ben was camped at Marree in 1906 with his mother, stepfather, his brothers Ern and George as well as his ‘cousins’ Jimmy Russell Wangamirri ‘Many Mornings’ and Emily Russell Mithanta ‘Shining in the Sunlight’. The two Frenchmen arrived to take Ben away to work for them.
The Murray boys worked for two shillings a week for the next year or so and were badly treated by the de Pierres. This was not an isolated instance; an even more extreme case of exploitation occurred in the following decade at Minnie Downs station, further up the Birdsville Track. Here the two German brothers, Louis and Nathaniel van Loon Reese exploited the labour of a number of Aboriginal workers, some as young as the Murray boys, in exchange for rations obtained from the Government for no cost. It may be that in the eyes of the local authorities the de Pierres were acting as the boys’ guardians. Legally this would have been possible as Ben’s own father was not prepared to take responsibility for him. In any event, the Murray boys were kept as virtual slaves, working from dawn to dusk on a property which was probably never viable. Ben’s brother Ern later recalled that the de Pierre brothers barely made a living despite their apparent capital:
“[They] usually had about 1000 or 1500 sheep. They used to shear them in a brush shed. In flood times there was water everywhere…but in dry years they depended on this one well. They never seemed to trust anyone, and used to carry a lot of money about with them.”
In 1907 the elder de Pierre, Baptiste, inherited money from relatives in France and returned home, leaving Charles to run the station. Ben’s job mainly involved fencing, working with horses (about 75 were kept by the Frenchman), but as a boy of sixteen he was probably not yet skilled, nor strong enough, to break them in. For this purpose the de Pierres employed an Aboriginal (Ngamini) man named Walter from the neighbouring Killalpaninna mission and Ben became his off-sider. Although Walter camped with Ben and his brothers, it seems that he was free to come and go between the station and the mission and to carry messages between the two places. By this time Ben’s other was living at Killalpaninna mission and although Lutheran discipline there was also rigorous, the contrast in their situations was obvious.
Walter told the boys that they should leave the de Pierres and come to the mission: “he said you better come to the mission, and learn, school”. After one unsuccessful attempt, Ben’s real chance to escape from Wire Yard finally came in 1908 when Charles de Pierre fell ill. ‘Old Walter’ arrived from the mission one morning to collect Ben and his brother Ern. Ben recalled the event in July 1987:
“He came over next morning. He said, ‘Your mother wants you to shift.’ ‘No, [I said], I can’t leave this bloke.’ He was sick, he was laid up a bit. So he came in the night time, picked me up. Two of us there was, my brother too. [We] travelled all night, get away from the Frenchman’s place…run away from there to the mission…got there…we told Vogelsang, ‘We run away’. ”
Ben needn’t have been so concerned for the Frenchman’s health; Charles do Pierre turned up at the mission soon after, fully recovered and doubtless accompanied by his kangaroo dogs, to demand the return of his employees. Helen Jericho (nee Vogelsang) recalled the occasion years later:
“three half-caste lads of school age came to the Mission asking to be allowed to stay..Charlie arrived…demanding their return. When Hermann [Vogelsand], who was in charge of the bys, would not comply with his demands, he became aggressive and threatened to fight my brother. However, the biys stayed there, so it seems that Charlie was in the wrong.”
This episode underlines the role of the mission as something of a sanctuary for Aboriginal people in the midst of what had become a threatening environment during the previous forty years. The Mission acquired the de Pierres block in 1913; Charles lived in Marree for a time, and eventually became manager of the Lake Harry camel farm before its closure in 1918.
Killalpaninna Mission Years: 1908 – 1914
Killalpaninna mission became Ben’s home for the next seven years, until he left reluctantly at the age of twenty-three. For most of this time he worked as hard as he ever had, but for the first few months at least, Ben was exposed to an entirely new experience – a European education. For the Lutheran missionaries at Killalpaninna the classroom held the most hope and promise in a Christian endeavour which Pastor Johann Reuther had described despondently as a ‘stony field of labour’. Helen Jericho’s assumption that the boys had fled from Wire Yard station in order to gain an education is perhaps an indication of the prominence which the school had as an active force of social change throughout the region. Certainly, the teachers at Killalpaninna achieved a high degree of success in training number of Aboriginal (and European) children in literacy in both Diyari and English. Ben’s ability to read and write in these languages later gave him a decided advantage in moving between the two cultures.
This was Ben’s first full encounter with both the Christian religion and the Diyari language.
“We start school there, in the Diyari language, not too much English…Diyari…I had to learn it there. Bible and all that you know, they give you Bible…religious turn-out.”
Since its establishment in 1866 in the heart of Diyari country on the lower Cooper Creek, the Lutheran Mission had attracted several other neighbouring language groups, including Ngamini, Thirrari and Wangkangurru. Diyari remained the ‘official’ language at the mission: the first Diyari texts were published by Johann Flierl in 1880 and a Diyari New Testament was published in 1897. Ben kept a copy of this Bible with him until his papers and belongings were destroyed by fire in 1979.
Ben came to Killalpaninna just a few months before Paster W. Riedel arrived as replacement missionary for Paster Johann Reuther, who had retired from mission life in 1906. Pastor F. Bogner was in charge of the mission in the interim, supported by the lay helper and original mission pioneer, Hermann Heinrich Vogelsang. Vogelsang’s son Augustus Hermann would have been Ben’s teacher and classes were held each morning from 9.00am to 12.00pm.
Ben’s skills as a horseman were soon noted and by the time that he had the rudiments of an education he was working again, initially as an odd-job worker around the mission and later as a stockman. One of his first jobs was to help in controlling the rabbit plague which threatened the mission following the Cooper flood of 1906. Shortly after Riedel’s arrival the mission purchased its first camel team to carry supplies north from Marree. Ben was taught the camel work on the mission by an Afghan man named Akbar Khan and a part-Aboriginal man. Ben also learnt from Afghan men in Marree – including his father and Fasi Khan. In the course of his work Ben became familiar with the Afghans’ ways and built up a rich store of takes about them.
By 1912 Ben was a partner in the ‘camel business’, working with Jack Hanness as a regular partner on the four day trip south to Marree and by 1914 he had become the boss. It was a tough job, managing a string of thirty or forty camels and tying and untying heavy loads. A typical load per camel might consist of:
“two bales of wool, four bags of four, six bags of sugar, or cases of potatoes carried two each side bound together with fencing wire.”
Although the mission never again reached the levels of wool production attained during the 1890’s, there were nevertheless large loads to be carted south after the shearing was completed at the Etadunna woolshed. Ben recalls that in these occasions he loaded o to seventy camels with bales of wool – 400cwt on a young camel and 600cwt on a large bull camel. Despite the heavy work Ben enjoyed the ‘camel business’, preferring it to al of his later jobs. Je know each camel by name: Kangaroo was his own riding camel, and others were Jim, Charlie, Susie, Soona, Nancy, Fanny and Nora. If any gave him trouble he just ‘worked them’, giving them a heavier load until they settled again: ‘quiet them down with six hundredweight’.
Ben would ride at the front, leading the other camels. Another man would ride in the middle and one at the rear. If they had made a late start they might stop the first night at Blazes Well, a few kilometres south of Etadunna. There was a well and an eating house there, but Ben and his men would water the camels and travel on to camp at the Big Sandhill (Dakupirna) just to the south of where there was a soakage for drinking water. On the next night they would water the camels and camp at Clayton Creek and the following evening they would reach Lake Harry with its constant supply of bore water. They would water the camels there, taking them in the evening for a drink before hobbling them at their camp for the night, away from the water. By the next evening Ben and the team reached Well Creek, about fifteen kilometres out of Marree, or Frome Creek on the edge of the town itself if they had made good time. This was their last camp before entering Marree in the morning.
Once in Marree, there was no rest for Ben. After unloading the camels at the railway station he visited the storekeeper, Mr Manfield, and bought two bags of chaff to feed the camels in the trucking yard before loading the bales of wool into the rail trucks. Once that was finished his next task was to load the mission supplies and collect the mail for the return journey to Killalpaninna. For all this work Ben received five shillings from the storekeeper who would be reimbursed by he mission. This amount was equivalent to an Aboriginal shepherd’s wage and was half the cost of a pair of moleskin trousers. It was, as Ben considered at the time, far too little:
“It got too much for me then. I said, ‘I want enough pay – give me 7/6 a week’. Yeah, they give me 7/6 a week after that, after I stuck up for it. I said too much hard work. I got to make the saddles, saddles for the camel. I got to learn [that], I got to go and see Afghans. They learn me, how to make a saddle, everything! And I get five bob when I get to Marree!”
Ben had friends in Marree and got on well with the publican, Tom Dooley and his wife, a ‘good woman’ who gave Ben a meal, charged to the mission. However, Ben knew where to draw the line in his relations with the town people.
Unloading at the Mission
Another delicate task fir the mail-driver was to bring small quantities of Parachilna ochre from Marree for Aboriginal people at the Killalpaninna Mission. Ben had to resort to various devices to help with the ochre. Ben played a part in maintaining the traditional red ochre trading network, demonstrating the way in which he operated between the cash economy of traders and missionaries and the traditional culture of his mother’s people.
In the case of the red ochre trade, Ben was dealing with the ‘wurley natives’ who lived outside Killalpaninna itself as a result of a firm decision not to ‘come in’ to the mission except for their fortnightly rations. Ben later spoke disparagingly of this shifting, independent group, which was mostly composed of older people from a variety of language groups, but he was nevertheless related to several of them and would have had specific obligations towards these individuals at least.
Ben had many stories about the ways of the Afghans with whom he worked. On one occasion he saw their attitudes to women lead to attempted murder.
The Afghans came in for a share of the racism often directed towards Aborigines, especially by Queensland drovers travelling the Birdsville Track stock route. One drover got a shock when he insulted Akbar Khan, an Afghan camel driver with whom Ben was working.
On the mission, Ben lived in single-men’s quarters – a single roomed mud-brick house near the church. He shared this accommodation with other stockmen when they came in from their work on the outlying run. Despite his position of responsibility at the mission, Ben was not entirely aligned with the missionaries. He had his own view of their morality and behaviour and while he did not participate in ceremonial activity himself, he believed in the right of Aboriginal people at the mission to maintain their traditional practices and beliefs. Although he attended church services and sang hymns with the other mission Christians in Diyari and listened to Riedel’s Diyari sermons, Ben joined in defying Riedel’s ban on Sabbath activity and games, by slipping off to the sandhills, a mile or so away from the mission, to play games with boomerangs (for example kunduwarra, a game played by throwing a boomerang end over end) or kukuru (played with a ricocheting wooden missile on claypans or along cleared ‘alleys’ in the bush) with other boys and men:
“We used to get out there on the sandhill you know, and play game, made out of a long stick…throw it onto the grass and it run along. We used to play game and we thought that was alright, no harm in doing it If they found out they’d soon cut it out.”
“Women played games with emu-feather balls or balls made from sewn rags or socks: they play with that…pass it to one another, another girl, they might try to jump in and take it away, grab it.”
Fishing was another activity which Ben enjoyed in his rare moments of leisure at Killalpaninna. He watched the older people make vegetable fibre nets, up to sixty metres long, which they would set on posts in the lake or the Killalpaninna channel, or smaller nets with ‘wings’ which the fisherman would enclose around a school of fish.
By 1913 Killalpaninna mission was in deep financial trouble. No useful rain had fallen for several years and the Cooper’s last flood had been in August 1906. In April 1913 the Mission Committee purchased the de Pierres’ adjoining run of 119 square miles in an effort to boost their income. The drought continued however and it became clear that the Lutheran Synod could not support both Hermannsburg and Killalpaninna missions. This was despite various attempts to economise, including major re-locations of stock between Hermannsburg and Killalpaninna. Ben participated in the last of these in 1913. With ten or so other Aborginal stockmen he rode to Warrina, south of Oodnadatta, to take charge of a mob of 1000 cattle brought there by Hermannsburg stockmen. The trip took Ben and the others about three weeks.
By the outbreak of World War I in August 1914, Killalpaninna’s debt exceeded 5000 pounds and showed no sign of diminishing. Barely 100 Aboriginal people were living on the mission and it became clear that the enterprise could not continue. A complete disintegration of the community was averted by the Synod’s agreement with Pastors Bogner and Jaensch to purchase Killalpaninna for 5000 pounds. They undertook to continue mission work and the Synod provided a school-teacher in return. Despite the new arrangement, for Ben, and for many other Aboriginal people the mission had ‘broken up’ with the departure of Pastor Riedel for the south at the end of 1914 and the outbreak of World War One. Ben’s mother died at this time too, and Ben saw no alternative but to go south as well, leaving his camel business to his brother Em:
“When Pastor Riedel left, I left too…I lost everything. My brother [Em], youngest brother, took it over, and another boy. They worked the camels and mission blokes went away, parson went away, all broke up.”
Ben has firm opinions on the economic management of Killalpaninna during its final years, sharing Pastor Riedel’s view that the roles of station manager and missionary should have been separated. Another reason was also apparent for the rapid decline of the mission after 1910. For Ben the connection between the outbreak of the war, local ill-feeling against the Germans, and the decision to sell Killalpaninna to private owners was obvious. As he expressed it, people in the north had a ‘set on the Germans’ and during his trips to Marree Ben found that he was increasingly criticised for associating with them.
While there is no evidence that popular feeling against the Germans precipitated the Synod’s sale of Killalpaninna, Ben nevertheless felt the strength of this opinion, a factor which must have influenced his decision to enlist as a private in the Light Horse.
While still at Killalpaninna during the first half of 1915, Ben received letters (like other young Australian men at the time) sent anonymously by girls and women inspired by patriotism. These letters exhorted him to volunteer for the army and ‘to fight for King and country’. Ben was bewildered and quite upset by this pressure and maintains that when he did join the army it was for his own reasons:
“them girls…they was cheeky…not only me, some other blokes too…letter from everywhere…I never answered them. No good – try to force you to fight! Fight for King and country! I did go, I went to Gallipoli…just wanted to have a look at countries then, different countries.”
The details of Ben’s enlistment are unclear; his personal papers, uniform and medals were destroyed by fire in 1979. Ben recalls that he travelled south by train from Marree, first to Quom and then to Port Augusta. Here he ‘got in touch with the military’, together with two German boys (probably related to Helen Jericho, one of the Vogelsang children) in mid-1915. After a brief period of training (probably at the Mitcham camp in Adelaide), when he was taught to shoot ‘just roughly’, Ben set off to Gallipoli with a Light Horse Regiment later in the year.
By the time of their arrival, the Australian assault on Gallipoli had only a few weeks to run (We got there too late’). This fact, the long sea voyage there and back, the ferocity of the battle itself, and Ben’s capture by the Turks, must have given the whole experience an air of unreality for Ben. Despite this, his recollections of his time at Gallipoli are graphic.
Turkish snipers swept the landing craft with fire (‘bullet flying everywhere’) as the men entered them for the landing. At least two men in Ben’s boat were killed as they neared the shore. Ben and other men detected the Turkish snipers standing on the cliffs, camouflaged with bushes, and they pleaded with their sergeant major to shoot back at them. According to Ben this man, named Wyatt, was a rigid disciplinarian who had already alienated himself from the men. Like other officers, he carried a baton and did not hesitate to use it to enforce discipline (‘treated] you like a dog’). He did not allow the men to shoot back at the snipers, refusing to admit that the bullets came from the bushes on the cliffs. Ben tells the story:
“When we got there, just like a tree standing, all along on the bank [cliffs]. I see one dropping down…’Hello! Oh!’, I sing out to the others: ‘Shoot the trees, that’s where the bullet come from’. We told the sergeant major, ‘Shoot at them trees!’. ‘No, no, that way the bullet come from’ [he said]…He didn’t even take notice. He got shot anyway, he was too smart. ‘You’ll get hit directly’ [Ben said]…and he did…’Yeah, I bet your time will come’. His time didn’t waste time! His time come alright, drop him dead too, right on the bank! We start shooting at the trees then. You see the people dropping, ’trees’ falling over. Blokes running away, Turks, Turks running away. We got into them properly then.”
With the passing of the years Ben has apparently telescoped his memories of the First World War and it is difficult to reconstruct the sequence of events. It seems likely that Ben went on after Gallipoli to fight in Palestine, and that in one of those battles, possibly during 1916, he was captured by the Turks. Ben recalls his unit making an advance on a town and that the Turks counter-attacked, killing Australians and narrowly missing Ben.
“I got a bullet too, the coat here – just missed my guts. And I dropped, I dropped and I lay there then, with the other dead boys. Mates of mine.. They never missed them.”
The Turkish soldiers were close by now, near enough apparently to finish Ben off if he had made the wrong move. His response was quick, unusual and may have saved his life. For Ben there was little to separate Turks from the Afghans he had known in Australia and so he called out the few words he had learnt from his Afghan cameleer acquaintances – the Muslim prayer uttered by them before they slaughtered a beast – as well as some Afghan names:
“I sang out: ‘Moosha malad! Akbar! Dadleh! Bejah! [Ben’s father’s name]’. I said: ‘Bejah! Dadleh!’ That’s what I said. And they take me then. They kept me. Better than getting a bullet! If I didn’t sing out…they would have killed me alright! They put a bullet through me – just missed coat [i.e. passed through coat]. But the second bullet didn’t come, never come.”
And so Ben became a prisoner of the Turks, if only briefly. He was kept with other, Australian prisoners in an open compound for at least a fortnight:
“I couldn’t get away, ’cause they were watching you, all the time. Not only me, lot more, Australians…we waited.”
He apparently got on well with his captors and must have intrigued them, both with his appearance and his understanding of Islamic customs:
“Oh yes, they’d speak to you…speak about the war. They’d say it’s no good, all the fighting. Oh yes, they was very friendly, them Turks.”
They talked about Australia too – in fact two of Ben’s Turkish captors later made their way to Darwin. He met them by chance during his visit there in about 1942.
Ben’s capture must have occurred in the final weeks of the war. That is how he remembers it. His freedom came with the armistice on 11th November 1918:
“I been with the Turks…about two weeks…till they say, well, ‘Finish now, war’s over’. I thank them and they thank me, very good.”
The 1920s: Down South
It is unclear under which conditions Ben was discharged from the army upon returning to Australia. He may have been wounded at Gallipoli, as his account suggests, and this would account for an early discharge. He remembers asking to go, and being allowed: ‘I went away, I told them that I wanted to go…”Oh, alright”.’
With the closure of Killalpannina mission, the German community there had fractured, moving south to join relatives in forming communities in the mid-North, the Barossa valley, and near the Murray River. In retaining his connections with the Killalpaninna Germans, Ben’s fortunes became linked with the most cohesive of these communities, in the small town of Lowbank, near Waikerie on the Murray River. Ben’s cousins Walter and Selma Merrick lived there with their family, together with Ben’s friend Wilhelm Riedel (the Killalpaninna missionary), the Vogelsangs, Paschkes and Rohrlachs. After living through droughts and sandstorms on the shores of the empty lake at Killalpaninna, it is not surprising that this small community had re-established itself so close to Australia’s greatest river.
Ben went first to Robertstown though, west of the River, where he worked for a farmer named Heinrich. This man was a relative of one of the schoolteachers at the Hermannsburg Lutheran mission near Alice Springs and Pastor Riedel had probably arranged this job for Ben. Here Ben’s skills as a stockman were of little help; he had to learn the business of wheat-farming, from harvesting grain to sewing wheat bags. After a year or so he moved to Robertstown itself and found work lumping wheat for a buyer – ‘heavy work!’. This job was followed by more farm work west of the town, for a man named Killo at ‘Brady Creek’.
By now it was probably about 1924 or 1925. At this time Ben received a letter from one of his old Killalpaninna friends, Jack Rohrlach, asking him to help him build a new house at Lowbank. Rohrlach had married one of the Vogelsang daughters and had moved there soon after the missions closed. Ben was more than happy to rejoin his friends and relatives at Lowbank. He mixed mortar and helped with the Rohrbach house before taking up another farm labouring job, initially for the Paschke brothers, who had property nearby and then in the dry mal lee country near Karoonda, for a farmer called English.
Despite the drought years of the 1920s, this period saw much of South Australia’s marginal farming land cleared for crops and as settlement proceeded, so did the network of tracks and roads. Ben found work in one of the road-contracting gangs working in the Mallee area south of the River Murray. His boss was a German named Brockhoff and it is likely that Ben obtained the job through his German friends on the river. The gang worked on the ‘Pinnaroo line’ running west through Murrayville in Victoria, and on the road linking Tailem Bend with Karoonda and Alawoona in the centre of the Mallee, Finishing near the state border at Renmark. On one occasion this work took Ben to Mildura. After a brief spell there ‘looking at the country’, he took a leisurely trip back to Waikerie by the river boat ‘Jimmy’ (See Text J).
The roadwork was hard, but paid quite well, according to Ben. He began as a labourer and horse teamster but was soon promoted to overseer.
“Some were digging, like on the quarry, some on roadwork, spreading stuff…some driving drays, carting it…My job was standing over the mob…I was acting boss you know, when the boss goes away he put me in charge of them all. I had to start them right time, make ’em knock off right time, all that. And see the right thing done on the road.”
These road crews contained a colourful mixture of people and personalities, something like the cross-section found working on remote oil or gas drilling rigs today. There were a number of Italian people, (some of the early migrants from that country to South Australia), among these road-gangs, as well as ex-servicemen and Aboriginal people. As Text K relates, relations between the workers were not always smooth. Ben had the power to hire and fire gang members, and used it occasionally: ‘If they were too nasty, I put them off. You lose your job, that’s alright, you go.’
The experience of working in a road gang probably recalled something of the camaraderie Ben had experienced in the war. This sense may have become heightened as the Depression approached and as it did, many working men in country areas sought additional support by joining organisations such as the Royal Ancient Order of Buffaloes (R.A.O.B.). An R.A.O.B. Lodge was established at Alawoona in 1927 and Ben joined in March of the following year. He still wears the badge today. According to Ben, a large proportion of the road workers became members:
“I joined that Buffalo…They reckoned you’d get more jobs if you joined up. You’d make a road, stretch of road, might be thirty mile, forty mile, you knock off then. You’d have to wait till another contract come in. They’d have a meeting and they say, ‘You can get a job…put you on another job’.”
It was in the Mallee country that Ben met his sister Shirley again, by sheer chance after many years separation. His sister had married a man named Hirsch and Ben met her two sons at a football match at Paruna:
“I ran into the two boys…I was watching the football…One of the boys said, ‘Come over there, mum wants to see you [they said], you might know her’. I couldn’t make out whose kids…calling me uncle! When I got over there…my sister starts talking the lingo, I know her then! ‘Oh, sister! [I said] What are you doing here?’ T been away a long time’, she said. T got two sons and a daughter’…She went to the football to have a look.”
Recorded by Peter Austin at Cooper Creek 27th June 1976 (fieldtape D37a, transcription Book IV pp 53-55)
When Ben was working at Murrayville in Western Victoria building roads there occurred an incident which demonstrates perfectly his willingness to help those in need and to take action when he believed that an injustice had been done. Looking back on the incident, Ben recalled that the woman involved called him ‘Dr Murray’ after the event.
After making the road from Karoonda to Cobera and Alawoona, Ben’s gang moved to Malpas and then Paruna where they were based for some months, before turning north to the Murray River and meeting it at Paringa. Ben left the gang there and returned to Lowbank, to stay with his old friend Jack Rohrlach. This was probably some time during 1930.
At Lowbank he met another old school friend from Killalpaninna, Helen Jericho (formerly Vogelsang). She was visiting from her home at Kadina at the top of Yorke Peninsula, and urged Ben to come over there to work on her husband’s farm. He agreed and within a few weeks was ploughing the fields and driving a header – this time on a tractor, rather than a horse:
“I got on alright [after] a while. Not too good for a start. Anyhow I had to work the ground, one way first then across again…put the seed in, and go and cut hay… all that machine work.”
After working for the Jerichos Ben moved to a neighbouring farm at Moonta, this time to work for a less sympathetic employer (see text below). This man was heavily mortgaged to the State Bank and obviously considered that he could get by without paying Ben sufficiently or allowing him basic conditions. Ben thought otherwise and gave notice. He had decided to return to his own country in the far north of South Australia.
1934: North, ‘Where I Came From’
Instead of making his way north immediately, Ben first caught the train to Adelaide. His mother’s old employer, Mrs Murray, had moved her business to the city from Marree and Ben stayed at her boarding house on North Terrace. He spent a few days seeing the sights and ‘having a bit of a sit down’, before making his next move. Apart from Mrs Murraj Ben knew at least one person in Adelaide, Helen Jericho’s brother Ted Vogelsang, grandson of Hermann Heinrich Vogelsang, the patriarch of Killalpaninna mission. Teddy Vogelsang was employed as an attendant at the Adelaide Museum. Here he worked, betweei his other tasks, at translating the fourteen volume manuscript describing the life and beliefs of the Diyari Aborigines which had been prepared by Pastor Reuther of Killalpaninna between 1888 and 1906.
Ben assisted in the translation and remembers seeing the remarkable ethnographic collection gathered by Reuther which was on display in the Stirling Gallery, including the toas. He met the ethnologist Norman Tindale (‘Tintail’ as Ben remembers him) and recalls discussing the respective veracity of Vogelsang’s translation and that offered by George Aiston. the ex-policeman and Birdsville Track storekeeper who had criticised the Lutherans’ ethnographic work. The fact that Ben was literate in both English and Diyari put him in a unique position to judge the translations. Ben was heavily in favour of Vogelsang’s work:
“How would he [Aiston] know? He reckoned he bom amongst them. I said: No, he’s a police sergeant!’. All the Diyari lingo, he altered them…altered this, altered that, said this not right, that not right…I went there, that Museum, and I saw the other bloke [Tindale]. I said: ‘Now, that’s not wrong. Vogelsang was born and reared amongst the blacks. He knows the words’…He Tindale] said: ‘We got both words here [i.e. Vogelsang’s and Alston’s], but me didn’t know if Alston’s was the truth’…I said: ‘Because he was a policeman you took his word!’”
While in Adelaide, Ben met up with Mick McLean, a Wangkangurru man related to his stepfather who was employed in the police force as a black tracker. Ben accompanied Mick one day to the wholesale markets where he participated in the apprehension of a chicken thief. He was impressed by the two young police detectives he met there called Barrington and Beek: ‘Young policemen, plainclothes, they knocks about.
They don’t say much but, by cripes, they know a lot though.’ However, Ben had made up his mind to return to his country in the North, and typically, took the opportunity in Adelaide to arrange a position for himself before leaving. This time, instead of relying on his contacts in the German community, Ben went to see his first employer, the ‘Cattle King’ Sir Sidney Kidman, at his office in the city. Kidman, by now an old man, was willing to give Ben a job at Witchelina station and sent him to see his son-in-law, Sidney Reid, to arrange the details. Ben tells the story:
“I went to Sidney Kidman, old feller was still alive then. ‘Oh [I said], I was looking for a job’ [Kidman replied:] ‘Oh, you go back, go up north, to Witchelina’. Alright, I went the next morning, I went to Sidney Reid. The boss [Kidman] sends me, to see about a job.’ ‘Oh [said Reid], I don’t know you much, you can’t get a job. No job‘.”
Ben’s reaction to this setback was typical. Rather than become intimidated by Kidman’s son-in-law, he decided to offer his services to someone of equal stature:
“That’s alright, I’ll go and see Barr Smith’…[Barr Smith said:] ‘You can go to Mumpeowie, I’ll give you the fare – do you want a fare?’ ‘Yes [said Ben], I’ll give it back to you, as soon as I get a job’. ‘Oh, there’s a job there [said Ban-Smith], on the border netting. You’ve got to ride the border netting‘.”
Ben went away satisfied, and prepared for the trip north to Marree. In the meantime, Kidman must have heard of the treatment which Ben had received from his son-in-law and ‘jumped on his neck’, ordering him to give Ben a job:
“Next morning, Sydney Reid sent a man around, [saying:] ‘I cancelled that job for you [i.e. reserved a job for you]’. ‘No [said Ben], I wasn’t good enough yesterday, I’m not good enough to go back there now…Old gentleman Ban-Smith give me a job… Me and you never agree. You knock me back in the first place – you knew me from a little kid, those girls too [Edna and Blanche Kidman]’. They used to help me on the horse and tie me down and all that, that’s where I learnt to ride the old horse.”
Ben refused Reid’s offer and after taking the train to Manee and the mail truck north to Mumpeowie, met the manager.
“Mr Lou Newland, he was managing. ‘Oh’, he said, ‘Who sent you here?’ ‘Ban Smith, [he gave me] job on the netting’ [I said]. ‘Oh, we better wait until the netting boys come along’ [Newland said]. Stan Watkins, he come over, he give me the job – ‘You come with us’. Him and his brother [Ben Watkins], they was on the netting…They give me camels then, couple of camels [four in fact]. [They] give me a length, how far I got to travel, till I meet somebody else, another netting rider, and turn back again. You got to clean everything along the netting, shovel sand away, put the netting up again. Buried, some of the netting, buried…Hard work, yeah.”
Ben was sometimes away for two or three months at a time, patrolling his sector of the fence on the eastern boundary of the station, before returning to the head-station for a fresh supply of rations. He worked south from Murnpeowie Creek to ‘Donkey Comer’ at the bottom end of the netting: ‘I was on me own…I had four camels…carry some posts, carry some netting, one to carry water, one to ride’. After the Watkins brothers left, Ben’s cousin Gottlieb Merrick worked sections of the fence to the north, with his wife Frieda and daughters Susie (with her husband Rudi Kennedy) and Gertie (with her husband Jimmy Sweeney).
The days of camel trains in the north were over by this time and the old ‘wool road’ south from Cordillo Downs through Murnpeowie, Donkey Comer (on the netting fence) and Blanche water to the railway at Farina was falling into disuse. The wool load was now carted by wagons and the first motorised trucks. Nevertheless, Ben occupied his time at the head-station between boundary riding forays by making camel saddles for his own use and for the others patrolling the fence.
Gottlieb Merrick became ill while working on the netting fence in about 1940. Ben tried to get him back to the head station at Murnpeowie but it was too late. Gottlieb died soon after and Ben and Gottlieb’s sons-in-law buried him at Dingo Waterhole. With Gottlieb’s death his family moved away from the station and Ben decided to go as well.
A holiday in the Top End
With no immediate family to support Ben had accumulated some savings from his work on the netting fence. After leaving Murnpeowie he took the opportunity to see parts of Australia which he had never visited and was unlikely to see again. He began by catching the train to Alice Springs. From there he travelled at least part of the way to Darwin by motor car with two other (white) friends whom he met in the Centre – one of whom was a Queenslander named Jack Reid. The Japanese had bombed Cking-hit’) Darwin by this time, and as Ben puts it: ‘General MacArthur took it over then…chasing the Japanese. He did too – he soon made a mess of them’.
Ben spent some time in Darwin before taking a steamer with a friend along the coast of north Australia to Thursday Island in the Torres Strait. This was apparently a free trip, given in exchange to Ben and a friend for bringing a mob of horses to Darwin from Alice Springs, probably at about the same time.
When asked what he did on Thursday Island, and in Darwin, Ben’s reply is short, if laconic: ‘Just to have a look, that’s all, went to have a look at the country’. As a single man of independent means Ben would have been an attractive proposition for many of the girls he met on his travels but he remained unattached. In his earlier years Ben was not interested in marriage:
“That time I didn’t worry about any girl. I wanted to have a look around, have a good look around. Woman didn’t worry me.”
During the 1930s, when he was working near the River Murray, Ben had become very friendly with a white girl from New South Wales named Alice McArthur. She was a nurse at the Loxton Hospital and was later killed by the Japanese during the early stages of World War II. Ben’s bachelorhood was perhaps the price he paid for his free and independent life. As he puts it:
“I never had the chance to pick up a girl. I been travelling around…too busy. I met a girl – 1 went to Thursday Island, that island other side, Brisbane. I went there, ‘Come on, |she said] please take me home, take me back, please!’ ‘No, I’m too busy’. I went to Darwin, the same. Alice Springs – there was a mob of girls there…Every where I went, ‘take me home, take me home’…I never hooked any of them.”
Ben took his time returning from Darwin, visiting the Aboriginal mission at Katherine, and travelling by horse through the north of Western Australia. Here he saw bush Aboriginal people – ‘naked, walking around’ – and met Chinese people for the first time: ‘Chinamen breed…I give them a chance, couldn’t understand what they were talking’. He and his friends reached Alice Springs, where they stayed for a while, attending a rodeo:
“we went to turnout there, buckjump, roughhorse show…And a girl…I forget the girl’s name – she was riding a horse there, from Queensland! Queensland girl, she beat the lot of them.”
After all this excitement, Ben finally returned to South Australia and another job on the netting fence at Mumpeowie station.
1940s – 1960s: Station work
In about 1948 the netting fence finally lost its battle with the drifting sand and it was taken down. They didn’t want any more netting rider’, Ben said. A new manager had been appointed to the station at this time and without consulting or recompensing him, shot Ben’s camels and horses. Ben left in disgust. This man was, as Ben puts it, a rubbish manager…’he didn’t last long anyway’. Ben returned to Murnpeowie for a while when a new manager was appointed, and found three camels which had belonged to a man who had perished on the Strezlecki Track not long before:
“Young feller called Shaw…all the Afghans went up there, trying to find him – they give it up. He’s out there somewhere.”
With the netting work finished, Ben’s skills as a horseman were enlisted to hunt down the dingoes which now had easier access to Mumpeowie. He was paid five shillings for most scalps, and ten shillings for those dingoes which the other station men were unable to catch. He rarely missed his quarry:
“It was a lot of work. You got to track him down, hard to see the track in the hilly country. I used to come to the water, where he used to come in and get a drink. Wait for him there…I had a rifle, had a good horse too…He come in and have a drink, went out again. I’d see the way he went out, get the horse, went after him. I see him on the flat. I after him, I chase him, ride him down. Get up right alongside of the dog…aim just in front of the dog, and I hit him. I get the dog, go back [to the station]. ‘I got the dog, he look the same as what you said [Ben said to the manager]’. I show him the skin. ‘Alright’.”
Ben finally left Mumpeowie and went west to Mundowdna, a Kidman property, where he cut fence-posts (‘a thousand’) with his old camel driving partner from Killalpaninna, Jack Hanness. Other station work followed, and filled the years from the 1950s through into the 1960s. After Mundowdna, his next job was fencing, on another Kidman property to the south at Witchelina from 1950, followed by stockwork, horse-breaking and dingo-tracking on Myrtle Springs, the station adjoining. Here he worked for Smith and Sons – ‘champion people’.
Making dingo baits
Recorded by Peter Austin at Farina 11th January 1975 (fieldtape D15a, transcription Book II p 4).
While making dingo baits on Myrtle Springs Ben was bitten by a poisonous snake. Quick thinking saved his life.
After the 1967 referendum and subsequent legislation, Aboriginal people became eligible for social security payments. Ben’s war-time service had already qualified him for a pension however (two pounds a week, according to Ben), and he relied on this more during the 1960s as he began to work at a slower pace. While at Witchelina Ben bought some good horses (one named Walklate, after a nurse at Marree, and another named Daisy, an ex racehorse) with his savings and used these to hunt down dingoes for local station people: ’Myrtle Springs used to send for me: “Come and have a look at the dogs [dingoes], they’re killing the sheep”.’
A new manager arrived at Witchelina in 1959 – ‘they was changing managers all the time’ – and Ben decided to move to nearby Farina, a town which had shrunk during Ben’s lifetime from a busy rail and commercial centre with a large Afghan population to little more than a ghost town. When Ben moved there the Pattersons were the only other residents and within a few years he was the only occupant, still active in his 70s. For a while he lived in an iron house in the main street with his brother Em. Ben would sit on the veranda there with his dog Butch, looking out on the main road which still passed through the town, observing the traffic north or south. Following Em’s death in 1968 he moved to the old stone police station in Farina and when the roof blew off a couple of years later he shifted once more to the Pattersons’ house. He often had guests staying with him, friends or relatives who arrived by the ‘Ghan’ train on its weekly run. Ben often used it himself to visit Marree or Port Augusta, in much the same way as city dwellers use buses: T might even jump on the rattler and come down’, was a favourite saying of his.
Living in Farina
Recorded by Peter Austin at Farina on 20th May 1974 (fieldtape D9, transcription Book I p 98). Here Ben speaks of his life in retirement at Farina.
1970s-1980: Into retirement
From the late 1960s Ben began to collaborate with white researchers interested in learning about the languages, anthropology and history of the Lake Eyre region. He recorded a short Thirrari text with Bernhard Schebeck at Witchelina in 1965,104 the same year that he met Luise Hercus, and he began recording Arabana-Wangkangurru and Diyari-Thirrari with her from 1968 (see introduction). In January 1974, Luise introduced Ben to Peter Austin who was just beginning his Diyari language studies.
A horse-riding accident on Witchelina station caused Ben to come south again later in 1974. As Ben tells it, he was given a horse which no-one else on the station would ride because of its temper:
“Put me in hospital too…I was riding Witchelina station and no-one could ride that horse, they give it to me. I ride it alright…down the hill, coming down, it start bucking then. It fell, four legs up, up the hill and I’m underneath. I kept hitting him, trying to pull my leg out, keep on moving like that and I did get out. I got out the reins and pull him up that way. Then I got on again, and I went to Witchelina station, manager and all the men were there…they wouldn’t ride it themselves, no. Force you to ride it.”
Ben’s active working life was finally over at the age of 83, a milestone which he still recalls with regret from 1975 onwards, Ben devoted more time to research: he assisted Hal Scheffler with his studies of Diyari kinship,106 and worked intensively with Peter Austin and Luise Hercus on Diyari, Thirrari and Wangkangurru. He continued to travel extensively, and accompanied Austin and Hercus on a number of fieldtrips to the north and east of Farina, helping to locate and record important mythological and historical sites for preservation, including such places as Blanchewater, Boocaltaninna, Ditjimingka, and his old camping spots between Marree and the Cooper. In February 1977, Ben flew to Canberra where he spent two weeks living and working with Peter Austin and Luise Hercus. He took the opportunity to ‘look around’ a new part of Australia and spent some time, among other business, reliving old memories at the Australian War Memorial.
After an operation in the Royal Adelaide Hospital, Ben moved back to his birthplace at Marree, where he lived with his nephew Arthur Warren, ‘just pokin’ about’. One day in 1979 a gas leak from the stove in Arthur’s house ignited and Ben was lucky to escape through a window before the house burnt to the ground. He lost his personal records, army medals and uniform in the blaze.
Following the fire, Ben’s last big move was to Port Augusta. He lived first with an old friend, Graham Hill:
“across the bridge…then we shifted to this side. I lived with him there for a while…then when he left, I came to [Davenport] camp. I live with that bloke called Dodd, Don Dodd’s son.”
Finally, in 1980, Ben was contacted by Sister Morton and moved into his fully-serviced house at the Amewarra Old Folks Home. His time there has been punctuated by visits from family, old friends, and ourselves. Occasionally Ben has been able to take short trips himself. His last major excursions were to Killalpaninna to help document the ruins of the old mission, and to the Marree Centenary celebrations in 1983. His travelling days are over now, but there are few regrets:
“I been travelling around Australia, I seen the country… Only one place I didn’t go to – Kangaroo Island, that’s a place I never see – I don’t want to see it either!”
Ben is now the oldest resident of Amewarra, restricted in his eyesight and movement, but with an active mind sharpened by nearly a century of memories. He enjoys visits and discussions about the old days, as well as catching up on recent events. He still takes an interest in politics and recently made a special application to continue his voting rights which he has exercised for many years now: ‘I vote everywhere, wherever I’ve been’.
Ben enlisted and served with the AIF in World War 1, however there are scant records of wartime service by Aboriginal people.
Ben’s wartime service is well described in this article by Phoebe Spurrier.
Full text of biography of Ben Murray by Peter Austin, Luise Hercus and Philip Jones
The information in this profile of Ben MURRAY was compiled by Farina Restoration volunteer Mark Roberts.