Preserving a culture in wild honey
“What is heritage?” sounds like the kind of essay question a lecturer might set when they run out of inspiration. It depends where you ask it. In some places it’s a question that carries a sting for the unwary. In the UK it’s almost always old buildings. Sometimes it’s very old buildings, but we build our heritage around the things we build. Sometimes a place can have a historical potency, like a medieval battlefield, but usually we insist that something leaves a mark before we acknowledge its historicity. It’s not surprising. The UK is an industrial society. It’s a settled society. So is the rest of industrialised world. So how to you even start to examine the heritage of a non-industrial society? Is the very concept of heritage loaded in a way that disempowers some peoples? Mick Morrison, Darlene McNaughton and Justin Shiner have a paper ‘Mission-Based Indigenous Production at the Weipa Presbyterian Mission, Western Cape York Peninsula (1932–66)’ that tackles the problems of power in 20th century Australia by looking at indigenous activity around Weipa.
Weipa is in the northern part of North Queensland on the west side of Cape York, the pointy bit at the top of Australia. It’s around here that the Dutch made first landfall in Australia. The settlement was built due to the arrival of a Presbyterian Mission in last years of 19th century. The mission was moved closer to the shore and it’s the later mission that the article is about. There’s a plan of the mission and the first thing that struck me was the position of the Boy’s Dormitory and the Girls Dormitory. I wondered where the adults slept, then I wondered why the children were sleeping in dormitories anyway and not with their families. Finally, because I’m a bit slow of thinking, I realised what the mission was doing there.
The article briefly covers the history for anyone not familiar with the story. The Native Mounted Police, an Aboriginal wing of the Queensland Police Force, dispersed local aboriginal peoples in the region, often bloodily. The natives were not always seen as a problem. Others saw them as an opportunity. There was a demand for cheap labour, and the life of an aboriginal worker was cheap. In the 1880s violence became routine as people were press-ganged and kidnapped into work. The mission arrived to bring order to the chaos. The mission knew what good order was, and so part of their aim was to remove the chaos from the aboriginal population. In the 20th century this became easier.
Changes in State Government legislation in the 1930s extended the powers of the mission superintendent and left Aboriginal parents with no recourse to prevent their children being removed and held at the dormitories. Dormitory children’s lives were entirely governed by the mission staff: contact with village residents was extremely limited and typically under the supervision of mission staff while in the compound interaction between boys and girls was also heavily controlled. Outside of school, chores and occasional recreational activities, dormitory children seem to have spent much of their time within small fenced yards around their respective dormitories.Morrison, McNaughton & Shiner 2010:93
Australia is physically distant, but the timescale gives me a raw response. These photos were taken in 1957. Reports make the aim of the mission plain. The children would be suitably educated for manual labour. Undesirable attitudes would be driven out of the younger generation. How can you preserve your culture when it is being attacked by powerful opponent intent on destroying it? How do you pass on your skills to your children under a persistent and hostile gaze? The aboriginal people were an underclass, but they weren’t entirely powerless. Morrison, McNaughton & Shiner show that the mission used trade with the aboriginal population to gain food. As well as calories and vitamins, the food carried a cultural payload; to some extent you are what you eat. The mission in Weipa ate many things, including sugarbag.
Sugarbag is wild honey produced by Australian bees, Austroplebeia spp. and Trigoma spp. This is Australian wildlife, so they’re going to be different to bees found elsewhere. The article describes them as ‘black, brown, or dark grey in color, less than 5–8 mm long and more closely resemble small flies than the European honeybee.’ They’re stingless bees, which makes their hives excellent sources of food. Ben Walsh, who’s kindly allowed me to use his photo doesn’t know if his photo is of Austroplebeia, but they’re some kind of stingless bee, so they’re close.
Finding a hive is difficult. The bees nest in the hollows of living or dead trees. The lack of sting means they lack a defence that other bees have. That would add to their need to nest in secure locations and the entrances to the hives are both small and hard to spot. Really you need to be there to spot the bees, called sugarbag flies by the aboriginals, enter or leave the tree.
One elder explained the process of finding sugarbag as follows: “In the mission time we would go out very early with our parents, when the sun was coming up, look into the sun and see where the flies were and follow them to the nest. A lot of flies coming in and out tells you it’s a big one.We took the young ones too, but mostly we took the big one.” Another elder added, “they [her parents] put their hands up like this, up in front of their eyes and look up into the sky, towards the sun, looking for sugarbag flies.”Morrison, McNaughton & Shiner 2010:98
After following the bees to find the tree there’s a couple of ways of getting the honey. The amount of honey a hive yields tends to be small, so one idea is to gauge the size of the hive and see it it’s worth tapping. You could do this by scrambling up the branches of the tree near to the hive and tapping it with your hatchet. The sound tells you where the hive is, because it’ll be filling the hollow interior of the tree. You’ll have remembered to bring a steel hatchet with you, because when you find a suitable hive, you’ll want to get into the tree to get the honey. A small hole either at above or below the hive will allow you to push a stick in to extract honey and wax. A small hole can be easily covered in mud, protecting the hive when you’ve done and preserving it for future use. If you like the idea of living in harmony with nature, this seems like a good idea.
Finding the hives is not easy, but it’s a lot easier if someone else has marked out the location of a nest by whacking a hole out of a tree and slapping a large earthen plug on it. Obviously poaching someone else’s work was seen as anti-social behaviour. To help claim trees the finders would also hack into the trunk near the base to mark it as taken. So rather than seeing a noble savage wandering through the land like some sort of eden, a gathering trip for honey would be journey through a woodland with a web of social claims on the trees. The bees were ambiguous, and you wouldn’t know if they were leading you to honey until they arrived at their tree. A further blow to the stereotype of the aboriginal wanderer is the second way of getting the honey. You take an axe, cut the tree down and chop open the hive.
The people who were chopping down trees were on horseback and after the big or otherwise inaccessible nests. This seems to be a later development, and follows the mission-educated children returning to the landscape. In someways damage to the indigenous culture is mirrored by the damage to the forest. It also parallels an increase in economic activity. The evidence presented by Morrison, McNaughton and Shiner is that the area round Weipa was worked intensely. The mission stored the gathered honey in the “sugarbag tank” which is quoted as being 1.5m high and several metres in diameter. Even a 2 metre diameter tank would have a capacity for 4.7 cubic metres. It’s not often you measure volumes of foodstuffs in cubic metres. It’s a tank large enough to hold over 14,000 cans of Coke. A 4m diameter tank would hold over 57,000 cans. Either way, it points to astonishing amounts of honey being gathered by aboriginals and stored at the mission.
The great advantage of studying sugarbag procurement is that the process leaves physical remains. But it would be odd if the supply was massively biased in favour of gathering sugarbag over everything else. Documentary evidence from the mission shows there was also a supply of fruit and meat to the mission. If this happened on a similar scale then Weipa must have been the hub of bustling social and economic activity that simply doesn’t appear in the historical record, and leaves little in the way of concrete remains. The activity is all within the forest. Can it make sense to talk about aboriginal heritage without recognising the centrality of the ecosystem? It’s an urgent question because the ecosystem around Weipa is changing.
In the past patches of Cape York was cleared and exploited for farming and small scale mining. These days the opportunities for exploitation are different. Weipa sits on the world’s largest deposit of Bauxite. This is aluminium ore that is usually found around the tropics, and because of the way it’s formed, it’s usually near the earth’s surface. That makes it cheap to extract through strip-mining. People were driven from their land before. Now vegetation and topsoil is overburden, and being removed. The landscape changes dramatically when you scour it to the bedrock.
A report from The Age in 1976 opens “If men ever establish a base on the barren surface of Mars it will look like Weipa.” There are studies of how soil rehabiliation will work after mining, but the results suggest that the soil will be poorer than the natural soil for at least a generation and possibly on the scale of 90 to 160 years. Whether or not this is a reasonable price to pay probably depends on how long term your views are, and on how much money you make from the aluminium. I’m willing to bet if I had a family to support with a job at the mine I’d be pretty clear about the wealth that’s being extracted from the land and pumped into the economy. In the longer term a century isn’t so long when you look at the industrial landscapes of Europe.
While it would be easy to paint Rio Tinto Alcan, the mine owners, as blackhearted villains, it wouldn’t be fair. It’s not 1976 anymore and Rio Tinto Alcan is not Comalco, the mine company of that era. Like a lot of extraction companies, they’re taking an interest in what they’re destroying and funded the tree surveys in this study. Yet ultimately the mining is still destructive. However quickly the soil might recover, the heritage that is lost will not grow back. What is the heritage that’s gone? There are the physical remains in the trees, but also the important oral histories which only make sense tied to a landscape. Activities that don’t leave the traces that honey gathering does, live only by word of mouth. When the land they are embedded in is gone, all that remains is silence.
There’s plenty of reasons to like this paper. One is that it shows the differences between archaeology and history. At their worst historians see archaeology as ‘the bit that fills in the gaps.’ That’s not what happens in this paper. The aboriginal experience is not a gap. It’s an entirely different way of seeing life on the cape. The evidence means that you can, indeed must, ask different questions to the historians. The picture this paper paints is of human action in a landscape, rather than imposed on it but still separate.
Another factor is the constant problem that what you find is never everything that was there. What you have are the ruins and remains of activity. Some remains last better than others. The Stone Age would probably be better named the Wood Age, but wood rots quickly and little survives beyond a millennium. The hunting and gathering practices of the aboriginals around Weipa would have left even more ephemeral traces. The economy of the area was not purely sugarbag, but by examining the scale of honey gathering, it’s possible to make sensible estimates of what other activity was happening in the area. That’s a result. Given the diversity of the sources of information that can’t be easily cross-referenced with each other, pulling out a coherent paper is an achievement. But despite the very worthy reasons for admiring the work, that not actually why I like the paper. It’s a lot simpler than that.
This is about a people who live in the tropics with a way of life entirely different to mine. Weipa is a remote place. I doubt it gets many visitors from people who live in Queensland, let alone the rest of the world. Even reading the article is a mini-adventure. Gathering the data for the paper meant trekking inland along the rivers looking for right markings among all the trees. It even meant looking through the undergrowth to find where the trees were missing, leaving just a stump — and then for the rotten remains of a log, because not every tree cut down was for sugarbag. It’s a matter of looking for the details that everyone else has missed. As important as the detail is, when the strip mines are fed with fresh land, they leave nothing behind. The sites on mined land cannot be resurveyed. The tale Mick Morrison and his colleagues are telling is of a band of people who resisted the oppression of a distant government. A people who wouldn’t give up, and found ways to outwit an unjust authority. Now, if you were writing the ultimate 21st century archaeological adventure, wouldn’t it look something like that?
This could only be a 21st century adventure, because now is the only time such a study could happen. For some people the mission at Weipa is an inconvenience in that past that should be lost, and that’s what’s happening. Even now last traces of the mission are disappearing.
Morrison, M., McNaughton, D., & Shiner, J. (2010). Mission-Based Indigenous Production at the Weipa Presbyterian Mission, Western Cape York Peninsula (1932–66) International Journal of Historical Archaeology, 14 (1), 86–111 DOI: 10.1007/s10761-009‑0096-8