|Fifty years ago this week Aborigines in the Pilbara went on strike for pay and conditions, sowing the seeds of the land rights movement.||Duncan Graham reports.|
He was once the most hated man in Northen Australia, a perceived threat even bigger than the later bogey of Mabo.
Now almost 88 and with a hole in his head (his description of a can- cerous eye removed) Donald William McLeod is a gaunt, spectral figure and no longer the rednecks' most feared foe. But it's easy to see how he was seen as a threat.
McLeod was the original white stirrer, branded a traitor to his race and culture, a communist zealot determined to upset the cosy relationship between pastoralists, government and police and ensure the "blackfellas" were treated as equals.
McLeod was the first white child born in Meekatharra, the Murchison n gold-mining town 750 kilometres north of Perth. His schooling was basic, but the man was intelligent, nimble-minded and adaptable. His father, a bush mechanic, had a simple philosophy followed by his son: "Treat everyone as an equal; do the right thing to others and they'll do likewise. Don't put flowers on a bloke's grave - help him out now." There was nothing unusual about this credo, but the McLeods applied it to blacks and whites, and that was rare.
The young McLeod's ability to fix just about any piece of machinery kept him employed around the stations and mining camps. After work he read and talked politics, asked questions and started offering answers.
More interested in ideas and history than sport and possessions, he lived frugally in an old tent surrounded by copies of Hansard and acts of Parliament.
In 1937 senior law men from the desert and the Pilbara who had heard about the strange white man approached McLeod with two questions-
Why is this no longer our country, and why can't we move around without being arrested?
"I don't know why they asked me," McLeod said. "Some said I'd taken an old fellow to hospital when no one else would, but I can't remember. I told them to go away. I wanted to be a millionaire working minerals. I didn't want to get mixed up with them." The men persisted. McLeod went back to his books. Five years later the bush lawyer was asked to address a meeting of law men at Skull Springs, east of Nullagine, a massacre site. It was a turning point for McLeod and the Pilbara.
"There were 23 languages spoken," he recalled. "I reckoned then, and now, that they were the most civilised people in the world. Compared with them we're just mob of bloody barbarians who stole their country then ruined it, through overstocking. Everything we've got we stole from them."
A strike was discussed, but post-poned because the war was under way. Action was planned to stir the squatters, whom McLeod accused of treating their workers like slaves, paying only in food and clothing. The strike began on 1 May 1946.
The planning was extraordinary. No phones or radio, and the station workers could not read or write English. An Aboriginal man, Dooley Bin-Bin, rode a bicycle around the stations carrying a crudely drawn calendar.
The pastoral workers were instructed to cross off a square every day as a countdown to 1 May. The squatters heard and laughed. But on 1 May the strike began.
Men, women and children moved off the stations and on to a camp outside Port Hedland where they lived on kangaroos and goats. Eventually about 800 people were on strike. It was the first time Aborigines had taken industrial action.
Among the most prominent backers of McLeod was Daisy Bindi. She demanded and received wages from her white station boss, then used the money to hire a truck and collect workers.
When it became clear the Aborigines were determined, the police moved in, arresting the men for leaving their employers without written permission of the Government, Protector of Aborigines. They were held in chains. The lock-ups were filled with strikers.
McLeod was also arrested for being within five chains (about 100 metres) of a group Aborigines and enticing people to strike. Bail was refused. A church man who flew from Perth to assist was also jailed. They were released after an outcry from the southern cities where a Committee in Defence of Native Rights had been formed.
The dispute dragged on for three years, only ending when the graziers agreed to pay wages. But by then the strikers had proved their ability to be self-sufficient,
"They said I was a communist, but I was a member for only two weeks," said McLeod. "I quit when I saw how they treated their workers.Then they started attacking me."
McLeod was a hard man for anyone to love. Single-minded, idiosyncratic, obsessed and forever argumentative (as he is today), he drove his supporters to as much anguish as his enemies.
Five stations were bought from ore sales. Companies were formed and mining deals done. In 1960 the group split and McLeod and his major supporter Jacob Oberdoo started the Nomads Company, running Strelley Station and starting its own Independent school.
McLeod's strong views, his determination to ban grog and bureaucrats, brought more conflict, which seems never-ending.
He's planning to return to the Pilbara once his left eye-socket heals. He claims the cancer was caused by British nuclear weapon tests off the Pilbara coast in the 1950s.
Nomads is pursuing a claim through the courts for 1 per cent of the Western Australian revenue, an amount allocated under the states original Constitution to Aboriginal welfare but later repealed. McLeod argues this was done illegally, and the case is heading for the High Court.
Historian Professor Geoffrey Bolton, of Perth's Edith Cowan University, said McLeod was "just about the first person to take Aboriginal culture seriously".
"There were demands for better pay and conditions across northern Australia after the war, but only in the Pilbara did something actually happen," he said.
"McLeod was a catalyst. The Pilbara movement was successful and had a knock-on effect across the country.
"But McLeod was done like a dinner when he tried to deal with mining companies. Much more important was that the breaaways supported themselves mining wolfram, using Aboriginal cooperative principles, and because women like Daisy Bindi were involved."
"Of course the strike was the start of the land rights movement," McLeod said. "In those days it was like the American wild west. The squatters, the police and government were all in league. The blackfellas were considered to be s---.
"I'm not proud of what I've done, though I've torn the guts out of the squatters and hastened the end of the white Australia policy. I regret I haven't been able to do better. I'm ashamed of our society and its racism.
"The blackfellas are the kindest people in the world. We have so much to learn from them. They've looked after this country for 40,000 years and we've stuffed it up In less than 200.
"They know nothing permanent can be got by force. It's got to be talked through. That's something we've yet to learn."
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text marked up by Sarah Peckham 7/6/96.