September 2008

Arts & Letters

Under the rainshadow

By Chloe Hooper

When I first travelled to Palm Island, to attend the inquest into Cameron Doomadgee's death in custody, I was venturing into Astley country. The great Thea Astley (1925-2004) had a love of the fecundity and the rot of tropical life, of small communities where agoraphobia and claustrophobia commingle, and she was one of the first novelists of her generation to write about the bloodshed of the Australian frontier. Astley was intensely interested in the effects of violence, of male violence in places where it seems too hot to move but punches are thrown liberally. She wrote of outsiders, of people "living on a cyclonic edge". And Senior Sergeant Christopher Hurley - the very tall, very broad, some said charismatic policeman suspected of killing Doomadgee - was a perfect Astley character.

But of course, Thea Astley had already written about parallel events. Her wonderful 1996 novel The Multiple Effects of Rainshadow is based on an incident that took place on the Palm Island Mission nearly 80 years ago. In 1930, the island's superintendent, Robert Curry, became psychotic and, suspecting the other white staff of conspiring to have him fired, tried to kill them all. Curry, a Kurtz-like figure known to the Palm Islanders as ‘Boss' or ‘Uncle Boss', was an ex-army man, a veteran of the Great War who oversaw the settlement of the island throughout the 1920s, establishing it as a kind of open-air jail for those Aborigines who had proved troublesome on Queensland's regular reserves.

The Aboriginal detainees cleared the land and erected buildings without even a horse or dray, and when eventually a dray came - with no horse - Uncle Boss Curry ordered the men to haul it themselves. He introduced gardening competitions, European dancing - so as to discourage traditional ceremonial dances - and a jazz band; those who failed to attend band practice could find themselves locked up.

As one of the island's officials noted, "Mr Curry practically regarded this settlement as a child of his brain." When rumours spread on the mainland that he was flogging young Aboriginal women, Curry suspected his rivals. But the allegations were true. Without these whippings, he told his superiors, his "authority ... would have been weakened". He'd turned tyrannical in a place he described as akin to "living on the rim of a volcano".

Curry hated the Palm Island doctor, an enmity that intensified when Curry's wife died in childbirth. Drinking heavily in his grief, and dosed with novocaine for neuralgia, Curry donned a long red bathing suit, a bullet belt, and, with a gun in each hand, went on a rampage. First he dynamited his own house with his drugged children inside, then he went out to shoot the doctor and burn down the settlement buildings: to kill the child of his brain. As the buildings burned, white staff gave a gun to a young Aboriginal man, Peter Prior, and deputised him to shoot Curry - and then they hid.

In The Multiple Effects of Rainshadow, Curry becomes Captain Brodie; and Peter Prior, Manny Cooktown; and Palm Island, Doebin Island.

"Time" rapped out the superintendent, remembering the Somme. He stood ridiculously to attention on the empty beach, presenting arms in his long, shapeless bathing suit. He blinked and found ... the beach empty except for the dot-pictures painted by rain ... Between body-rack and head-split he could not think beyond carnage ...

Then Manny Cooktown, his fishing-boy, hunter and shooter, pride of his football team, stepped cautiously from behind the trees and yelled his pre-digested migaloo command. "Put your gun down, Uncle Boss, or I fire."

The words meant nothing in the half-lit morning.

He laughed as the pain hammered for escape inside the bony walls of his head. He heard the words again and shouted back across them, tearing them apart, "They have to get my boys to kill me!" He strode forward ... the muzzle of his gun wobbling uncertainly on its target, to receive a terrible blow in the region of his gut and see the wetness of his own scarlet gush onto that of his bathers. 

Thea Astley's fascination with the Australian Gothic was influenced by the Southern Gothic of American writers such as Flannery O'Connor and Carson McCullers, whose works explore damaged characters as racial issues incubate in the background. Astley transposed this sensibility to northern Queensland, and I wish I had shrugged off the anxiety of influence and read her more widely, as a guide - not least because there are many echoes in the Hurley case of the Curry affair. And on a place like Palm Island, history feels so close to the surface, so omnipresent, it almost seems to run parallel to daily life.

What happened on the island on 19 November 2004 is now well documented: Cameron Doomadgee swore at Senior Sergeant Hurley, the island's officer-in-charge, and 40 minutes later he was dead on a cell floor with injuries as if he'd been in a car crash: he had a black eye, a bruised jaw, and a ruptured liver and portal vein. On a cell surveillance tape he is shown writhing on the concrete floor, calling for help; and when eventually an officer does come in, he kicks Doomadgee; then, kicking him again, the officer realises Doomadgee is dead.

The afternoon of the death, Senior Sergeant Hurley's close friend Detective Darren Robinson flew to the island to conduct the investigation. At no point in their taped interview was Hurley asked to speculate on how Cameron Doomadgee had died. In fact, he spent most of the interview complaining about Doomadgee having assaulted him. Hurley claimed he and his prisoner had both tripped on a step and landed side by side. That night, Darren Robinson cooked dinner for Hurley and the other investigators at Hurley's house. Then, the next morning, a second, even more farcical videotaped interview was conducted: overnight a witness had come forward claiming he'd seen Hurley standing by a filing cabinet, assaulting Doomadgee; and in the videotape Hurley stands in exactly the place the witness described, and mimes bending his arms back and forwards in an attempt to "pick Cameron up". Again the Senior Sergeant wasn't asked how Doomadgee might have died. Again Hurley claimed they'd simply tripped and landed side by side. Only later, when he learnt the extent of Doomadgee's injuries, did Hurley change his story - he must have landed on the prisoner with his knee in his abdomen, then forgotten all about it.

When I first started following this case, Hurley seemed to me a cartoon Deep North copper, but he soon became a paradox. As a young officer he'd been posted to Thursday Island, where, according to the Aboriginal activist Murrandoo Yanner, who was later his friend, Hurley realised he was a racist and decided to change his ways. He set up a sports club for local kids. He then continued working in remote Indigenous communities, along the way doing more volunteer work. Ironically, Hurley appeared to be a poster boy for reconciliation within the Queensland Police Service. So how had a young idealistic cop transformed from his brother's keeper into his brother's killer?

Thea Astley's work offers rich lessons in dealing with such difficult characters. Astley, like Graham Greene, was interested in burnt-out cases. Her characters are misfits afflicted with what she called "petrification of the spirit". They are those who live in their "own mini-hells", those for whom the violence of the frontier keeps spilling over. And Astley extended to them her total understanding. She claimed her work was "a plea for charity ... to be accorded to those not ruthless enough or grand enough to be gigantic tragic figures". I sense she understood that Robert Curry was perhaps as much a victim of the fetid, repressive atmosphere on Palm Island - an atmosphere he had helped create - as anyone else. And to a degree, so was Senior Sergeant Hurley.

It is striking to contrast how the authorities dealt with these two cases. After an 18-month inquest, Hurley was found by the deputy coroner to have lost his temper in the Palm Island police station and through fatal force killed Cameron Doomadgee. But then Queensland's Director of Public Prosecutions, Leanne Clare, infamously decided not to charge him. Eventually, the state's attorney-general stepped in and, after reviewing the evidence, announced that Hurley would stand trial for assault and manslaughter.

In 1930, Peter Prior, after being deputised to shoot the rampaging superintendent, was charged with murder and locked up for six months. In Straight from the Yudaman's Mouth, a book he collaborated on with his daughter Renarta, Prior recalled his time in jail:

The days were not too bad ... but from my first night out there all of my nightmares began. It was very lonely in the cell at night, I was missing my family and when I finally dozed off to sleep, I would see Mr Curry's face and it was always the same dream. Even now, I can see him lying on the beach in pain and just staring at me.  

At trial, Prior was found not guilty, but for the rest of his life he would dream of Uncle Boss Curry. Tony Koch, the Australian's senior Queensland reporter, told me he interviewed Prior when the Palm Islander was very old and both his legs had been amputated due to diabetes. Prior started crying because he was scared to die. God said, "Thou Shalt Not Kill," and he had.

Fast-forward 75 years from the Curry case. In court, Chris Hurley's lawyers admitted that he was physically responsible for Cameron Doomadgee's death but claimed that the fatal injuries had been accidentally administered. Hurley, in the witness stand - and in his police interviews - never gave a sign of regret or remorse. Two metres tall, with stony features and hair parted down the centre, he looked like a man if not from the First World War generation, like Curry, then from the Second. He cut a figure from an era before voting rights, before land rights, before reconciliation. And in looking so retrograde he was utterly contemporary: a Howard-era man who would certainly not say sorry. The jury acquitted Hurley, although it seemed he was not so much found Not Guilty as forgiven.

In writing about these events in The Tall Man I tried to heed Astley's "plea for charity", to be as sympathetic as I could towards Senior Sergeant Hurley, but in interviews and at bookshop events I've been struck by the depth of sympathy he evokes. It's as if, in the smelter of white guilt and sorrow and resentment and confusion, he has been cast as an underdog. On the one hand, I agree with his sympathisers: it must be incredibly difficult to be a copper in these places; Hurley would see scenes of horror those of us in the mainstream can barely conceive. But on the other, he walked through a doorway with a man who never walked out. Would people still feel as sorry for Hurley if that man had been white?

Cameron Doomadgee was left to die slowly in a cell while Hurley sat outside ignoring his cries for help; then, when Cameron's partner knocked on the station door to ask about his welfare, Hurley told her to go away; 18 months later, when the case seemed stalled, Cameron's only child, Eric, hanged himself. I can feel sorry for Hurley but I feel a great deal sorrier for Cameron. Just as I feel sorry for Uncle Boss Curry but again, a lot sorrier for Peter Prior.

Sympathy will change nothing, of course, but it's also true that nothing in Australia will change without sympathy.

Thea Astley was inspired by the writers of the American South, which today is called the New South. People laugh at this notion, but amid the Confederate flags and who knows how many psychological scars of slavery and segregation, there are now black mayors, black governors, black commentators, black memorials and a black middle class ...

In his now famous speech ‘A More Perfect Union', Barack Obama claimed, "race is an issue that I believe this nation cannot afford to ignore right now ... [and] understanding this reality requires a reminder of how we arrived at this point. As William Faulkner once wrote, ‘The past isn't dead and buried. In fact, it isn't even past.'"

In northern Australia, we did not have official slavery or segregation, but we did have racial atrocities of our own, and we did have, like the Americans, a violent, sometimes genocidal frontier. For years, we denied this reality. Who talks of a New North, much less a more perfect union? Our present may be more complicated than we let ourselves believe, but our past is also a long way from being past. The police investigation I've described belongs in the worlds of Faulkner and Astley - the Old South and the Old North. But it happened only yesterday on Palm Island. And this is the rainshadow we all still live under.

Chloe Hooper

Chloe Hooper is the author of The Arsonist: A Mind on Fire and The Tall Man: Death and Life on Palm Island, and the novels The Engagement and A Child’s Book of True Crime.

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