Local government is leading the way in recognising Aboriginal history and initiating a process of truth-telling through the renaming or dual naming of landmarks, sites and streets. Fremantle Council tells Reconciliation News that Reconciliation Action Plans have been a major catalyst for this process.
Nowhere does the truism about history being written by the victors apply more than to the recording of Australia’s colonial past.
The ancient occupation of this continent by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people is routinely omitted in the writing of our history, and the often violent and brutal behaviour of leading colonists is habitually sanitised. Australian cities and towns are full of streets, suburbs and statues honouring the names of colonial officials responsible for massacres and other crimes. The Aboriginal names of mountains, rivers and other key landmarks are replaced with the names of colonists and British aristocrats.
Place names, like revisionist history, tell lies about a landscape.
One of the key prerequisites for reconciliation, and one of its five key dimensions, historical acceptance, entails the honest telling and acknowledgement of the dispossession and violence which accompanied the creation of Australia.
We must make amends for these wrongs and ensure they are never repeated.
In Western Australia, the City of Fremantle (or Freo as locals know it) has started a process, under its Reconciliation Action Plan, to do just this; to recognise its Whadjuk Noongar history.
Fremantle Mayor, Brad Pettitt, is determined that this recognition is reflected in the names of the city’s public spaces.
“Freo, as a place, has a very long history, way before 1829, and the stories embedded in the old names are an important part of that history,” he says. “There’s a real hunger and desire to better understand this place and the names that have been used for tens of thousands of years.”
Fremantle joins other Australian local governments, including Perth and Hobart, in renaming or dual naming sites. It is currently planning to name its new civic centre and council chambers as the Walyalup Centre in recognition of the area’s original Whadjuk name.
However, the naming issues confronting Fremantle and other Australian local governments are not just about reinstituting Aboriginal names.
The naming of streets, parks, suburbs and towns after colonial figures, responsible for appalling historical crimes against Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, is another challenge to local government.
As Mayor Pettitt puts it, “There is a very dark history to this place, to Western Australia, and it is very important to recognise that. We can’t move forward until we do.”
“And for Freo that dark history is very real. The round house on High Street, which is the oldest public building in WA, was central in this history of transporting thousands of Aboriginal prisoners from all around WA to Rottnest Island – a place from where many of them never returned”.
Another historical atrocity confronting the council and people of Fremantle is the 1833 Fremantle execution, without trial, of Whadjuk leader Midgegooroo, who led his people’s resistance to the expansion of the Swan River colony.
Midgegooroo was executed by firing squad on the orders of Western Australia’s colonial administrator, Lt-Governor Frederick Irwin.
Midgegooroo’s execution, the only one by firing squad in the history of colonial Australia, was in retaliation for the killing of two settlers by unidentified Whadjuk warriors as the encroachment of the Swan River colony expanded.
Lt-Governor Irwin is remembered with street names, a river, a park, and a military barracks in Fremantle. However, the name of Midgegooroo would certainly have passed into obscurity had it not been for the determined efforts of his Whadjuk descendants.
Fremantle City is currently proposing to change the name of the city’s main square from King’s Square to Midgegooroo Square.
This proposal follows the naming of Perth’s main square after Yagan, Midgegooroo’s son, who was also murdered by Swan River colonists and whose decapitated head was pickled and sent to London where it was exhibited in museums.
After decades of demands for its return by Yagan’s distraught descendants he was finally returned for burial on his ancestral lands in 1997.
“We were never taught Aboriginal history,” confesses Mayor Pettitt. “Making sure that history is visible, and that it’s understood is a really important part of the healing process.
Under Fremantle’s RAP, recorded telephone messages and signatures at council offices will adopt a dual name of Fremantle and Walyulup, major roads into the city already have a welcome message in the Whadjuk language, and new roads are being given dual Whadjuk/English names.
Mayor Pettitt says the City’s Whadjuk residents have enthusiastically greeted the Council proposal and he is confident that the rest of the community will follow.
“Historically, there’s been a fear of a backlash and we’ve had moments of that but we are determined to take the community with us, through a strong collaborative approach around the renaming of King’s Square,” he told Reconciliation News.
The mayor is confident that Fremantle’s lead reflects growing calls by non-Indigenous Australians for historical recognition
“Even in the past 12 months, since we first started to seriously talk about renaming or dual naming, we’ve seen the same conversation happening in lots of places, including the Western Australian Government’s renaming of the King Leopold ranges in the Kimberley to the Wunaamin Miliwundi Ranges, and the renaming of five local parks around Perth”.
Whadjuk woman, Ingrid Cummings, a descendent of Midgegooroo and Yagan, and Noongar cultural advisor to Curtin University, talks of her sadness that her daughters are taught very little of their Whadjuk history at school.
“Ignorance is bliss,” she recently told a Black Lives Matter forum at Curtin University.
“Imagine the future conversations I am yet to have with my children, about Stirling Highway being named after the man who ordered the murder of hundreds of Whadjuk Noongars during the establishments of the Swan River colony, including their relatives, Midgegooroo and Yagan.
“And that our hometown is named after Captain Fremantle who illegally acquired the lands, forcing them off country, and setting up the colonial vehicle that saw the impacts still felt today.
“And of course, the Roe Highway named after John Septimus Roe who participated in the infamous Pinjarra massacre, the murder of young women and children in Binjareb country on 28 October 1834.
“Kids their own age. People just like us.”
Despite her frustration Ingrid is confident of a growing coming together of Noongars and wadjellas (whitefellas).
“Gnullar koorliny boorda mar barruniny mar ngoorn djookian. Koodjal boodjar kadadjiny, keny koorl – may we from here, go hand in hand to the future brothers and sisters. Two worlds, one journey,” she told the Curtin forum.
This story appears in the October 2020 issue of Reconciliation News