Croker Island Exodus

Croker Island Exodus is a documentary to be screened on ABC1 next Tuesday. I think I had heard of the story and in an odd way it intersects with some things in my life – with a place at least – and Jim Belshaw will be pleased to see there is an Armidale connection.

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1941, all white women and children are evacuated from Darwin. Japanese invasion is imminent. On a tiny Methodist mission on Croker Island in the Arafura Sea, the Superintendent and three Cottage mothers are responsible for 95 stolen generation Aboriginal children allocated to their care by the government. The missionaries are given the option of evacuating but how could they leave these children? However food supplies are running dangerously low and no help comes through the long Wet. February 1942, a message by pedal radio, Darwin has been bombed, the missionaries will now have to move the children off the island themselves. So they begin their perilous journey.

Their first destination requires a trek over many miles of open savannah and the harsh beautiful stone country of Arnhem Land. When the old truck becomes bogged, the children help push it to harder ground. They gather armfuls of water lily stalks and climb for berries in the bush plum trees. At night they make camp, using their dwindling supply of flour and yeast to make damper. It will still be many miles walking.

At Oenpelli they expect to stay 3 days but it is weeks before word that they will have to walk another 60 miles to meet government trucks. With help from the traditional Aboriginal men they cross the flooded East Alligator River by dug out canoe. The river is home to saltwater crocodiles but despite falling into the river they make it across safely.

After many days, they meet up with the trucks. But arriving in Pine Creek they find an American army base, no beds just the Butcher’s Paddock on the outskirts of town.

They finally board a cattle train en route to Alice Springs and their destination a Methodist Farm on the outskirts of Sydney. In 44 days these brave women and their young charges travel from Arnhem Land across the continent, a truly heroic and untold journey.

But this is also an epic story of human endurance and resilience.

In 1946 Margaret returned to Croker with the children including Alice, Netta and Jessie who are now in their 80s. They have endured so much in their lives but their friendships forged on Croker remain strong and feisty. These Aboriginal women still call Margaret, now 99 years, ‘sister’. It is their shared stories of love, humour and compassion that are central to this film.

They ended up at Otford, arriving no doubt in a train like this – as I also did in 1959 to attend a camp in the very house where these children stayed!

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The Armidale connection is through this book, which I have just reserved from Wollongong Library.

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a Reflection of Childhood Memories, 1942- 1946: Children from Otford, New South Wales and Croker Island, Northern Territory.

This wonderful first told tale of a unique childhood spent at Otford Public School with Aboriginal children evacuated from Croker Island during World War II.

Set in a rural setting outside Sydney, the author shares personal memories of an important time in Australian history, and reflects her own sense of cultural awareness at an early age.

Kardoorair Press was established in 1979, primarily as an outlet for poets based on the Northern Tablelands, New England Region of New South Wales or writers with an affiliation with the region.

An online history of Helensburgh, next station on the Illawarra Line towards Sydney, recalls the time of these events.

… During the ‘40s Australia was mainly absorbed with the War effort and post-war reconstruction. Stanwell Park beach was littered with concrete tank traps and coils of barbed wire. The old rail tunnel to Otford was blasted. Some installations were constructed and a small RAAF force settled in to await the attack. Naturally a number of the local men joined the services and the ladies auxiliaries set to for the war effort. Knitting, collecting old aluminium pots and pans became the order of the day. Otford served host to a group of Aboriginal evacuees from Crocker Island north of Australia. The school was enlarged to handle the influx of children. The Helensburgh branch of the Red Cross was reinstituted and set up shop in the Anglican Church Hall. Soon homes and public buildings alike had their windows covered with "black out" paper. Wartime want, rationing and the like, was thrown aside on 19th August 1945. It was "Victory Sunday". Services of thanksgiving were held in all the local churches to celebrate the end of the War.

During the post-war reconstruction a clothing factory was built in Walker Street providing some local employment to the women of the town. The old rail tunnels were used for mushroom production, another useful local employer. On the political scene the Bulli Shire amalgamated with Wollongong in 1947 to form the Greater Wollongong region. It was a controversial move and can still start a good debate…

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That appears to be the whole school…

In one neat package, this terrific doco explores our World War II history, the process of Aboriginal assimilation, the work of 20th-century missionaries, and the extraordinary personal stories of individuals involved. In the early 1940s, a mob of indigenous kids from the Top End were rounded up and sent to a new Methodist mission on Croker Island – off the coast from Darwin – and into the care of a young woman, Margaret Somerville. Not long afterwards, they were ordered to evacuate when the Japanese started bombing Australia’s northernmost city. Unfortunately, no one in authority bothered to do anything more than issue the order, leaving it up to Sister Somerville to almost single-handedly get 95 kids from Croker – via Arnhem Land and the Red Centre – to, eventually, Sydney. It was an incredible journey by boat, canoe, truck, train and foot, and it’s brought to life beautifully by clever re-enactments, as well as archival footage and interviews with survivors. The old aunties who feature are great characters, as is Somerville, whose memoir forms the basis of the program. It’s also a beautifully structured and balanced story that, among other things, gives one of the most nuanced and compelling insights into being ”taken away” we’ve seen on the small screen.

SMH

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One thought on “Croker Island Exodus

  1. How very interesting, Neil. Margaret Somerville was a remarkable woman. And I hadn’t caught that new book. I have a number of Kardoorair publications among my now 400 strong New England collection. Gwen Kelly who died recently also did some publishing through Kardoorair, as did Michael Sharkey. Thank you, my friend. I really appreciated this post. .

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