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A market for memories: understanding public history at the Mindil Beach site in Darwin

Dr Mickey Dewar, 27 May 2008

PETER STANLEY: Good afternoon. Welcome to the Friends lounge for yet another talk mounted by one of our Director’s Fellows. This afternoon we are welcoming Mickey Dewar from the Northern Territory who will talk about understanding public history at the Mindil Beach site in Darwin. Many people here will know Mickey. We have had a number of fond reunions already this afternoon. But for those who don’t know Mickey, she was for many years senior curator of Northern Territory history at the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory but now she is freelance. As a freelancer she has done all sorts of things, as you do when you are a freelancer. She has taught at Charles Darwin University. She has worked at AusAID on a consultancy to establish a new national museum in Timor-Leste, which is just over the water from Darwin. She had a Frederick Watson Fellowship at the National Archives to look at housing in Darwin in the 1950s, and at the same time she is working on another project which deals with the many, contested and complex histories that revolve around Mindil Beach. Those of us who go to Darwin know Mindil Beach as a tourist mecca, but Mickey will unveil many other sides of Mindil Beach and the memories that are associated with it through the work that she has done. There will be opportunities for questions and discussion after Mickey has spoken. Without further ado, I will hand over to Mickey Dewar to talk about understanding public history at the Mindil Beach site in Darwin.

MICKEY DEWAR: Thanks, Peter. First of all, I acknowledge the Indigenous people of Australia on whose land we now stand and first nations people everywhere. Before I begin I would like to express my gratitude to the National Museum of Australia for the financial support afforded by the Director’s Fellowship 2008. As a freelance historian based in Darwin, it is difficult to find funding for historical research, and I feel extremely privileged by this support.

The paper today looks directly at a number of historical themes and indirectly raises a number of issues regarding public history. Although this paper deals with site history, museums, as I am sure you are aware, have borrowed the theoretical frameworks on responsible management of heritage places, including approaches to preservation, access, conservation, significance and interpretation outlined in documents like the Venice Charter and the Burra Charter and through such organisations as ICOMOS [the International Council on Monuments and Sites], and I believe there is a lot that is relevant about site management and interpretation and dealing with material culture.

Museums, no less than site managers, have to deal with public perceptions, social and community memory, legend, and presentations of the past. This is something we negotiate every day in our work. Finally, material culture and remains tell us only a part of the historical narrative. History curators in museums work with objects, and those objects which we work with are those that endure or are visible, and in many cases their visibility and their presence constructs the narrative. The same is true with heritage sites. But of course, as we are aware, that is not the entire picture.

Today I want to look at a very famous site in my home town of Darwin and explore some of the very multi-layered history that it contains. Again, my grateful thanks to the Museum for this opportunity, and I hope it will be of interest.

It’s almost exactly 25 years since a casino opened at Mindil Beach in Darwin and celebrations were held marking this quarter century anniversary, as visitors and locals alike celebrated what was tagged ‘Australia’s first mainland casino’. The casino, which is currently run by Skycity Entertainment, a New Zealand conglomerate, occupies quite a footprint on the Mindil Beach site. I will quote from their website:

Set on 18 acres, this beachside resort is right next door to the Mindil Beach markets and situated only moments from the CBD.

The five star international hotel casino has 117 rooms, over 503 slot machines, a VIP gaming room, a TAB, Keno, three award-winning restaurants, numerous bars, a specialty coffee shop and conference facilities to accommodate up to 500 people, theatre-style, indoors and 2,000 people, banquet-style, outdoors.

Skycity Darwin also has the unique ability to host outdoor concerts in a controlled area that can accommodate up to 10,000 people.

That is quite a footprint in a city that measures about 110,000 people. That includes Darwin, the satellite city of Palmerston and the rural hinterland which has quite a population.

In the same week in April as the 25th anniversary of the Darwin casino, the Mindil Beach sunset markets opened for their 22nd year – for the 2008 dry season. With 60 food stalls and 190 craft stalls, open Thursday and Sunday nights, the Mindil Beach sunset markets bill themselves as Darwin’s premier tourist attraction and claim to have half a million visitors each year, which surpasses, if you want to put it in context, the visitors to Kakadu National Park. The vision of the Mindil Beach sunset markets is: ‘Live the lifestyle’. The Mindil Beach sunset markets have won numerous awards, including awards for tourism, multiculturalism and were accorded national icon status by the National Trust in 2000.

In Darwin, there are no other visitor attractions that compare to the markets and casino. They feature in all promotional material and are literally, in National Trust terms, iconic as an expression of the carefree, multicultural tropical lifestyle of Darwin town. Mindil Beach, for tourists and locals alike, has come to mean either the Mindil Beach sunset markets or the casino; in other words, it is eponymous. So if you say, ‘I am going to Mindil Beach,’ you mean ‘I’m going to the markets’ or perhaps the casino.

In Darwin where there is a very high population turnover of non-Indigenous people, there is unsurprisingly a poor local knowledge and lack of understanding about change over time. As part of a larger ARC [Australian Research Council] project, run through Charles Darwin University, looking at social memory and population transience, I was hired as a research assistant to do some work with Dr Julie Roberts, who was then with the visual arts department at Monash University, looking at the Mindil Beach site.

Looking at different strands of evidence gives slightly different stories of the Mindil Beach site. Archival evidence tells a story of a site linked to the enterprises of the town. As Adelaide has Colonel Light and Canberra has Walter Burley Griffin, the town of Darwin and its modern shape chiefly arose as a result of the works of ‘little energy’ as they called him – George W Goyder, who undertook the first successful survey of the town in 1869. When he surveyed the town of Palmerston, as Darwin was originally known, the name ‘Mindil’ was given and written on maps to the swamp which was behind the town blocks. Rapidly this name came to be applied to the beach in front of the swamp, and it was sometimes written as ‘Mendil’ or ‘Mendel’, but eventually became known as Mindil Beach.

The beach was some way out of town, although not itself the site of any commercial enterprise. Even in the nineteenth century it was close to significant areas of activity. Mindil Beach was the space separating the government gardens, which became the Darwin Botanical Gardens, from the sea. Prisoners trudged behind Mindil Beach in chain gangs down the hill from Fannie Bay Jail to work on the experimental gardens, labouring under curators Maurice and Nicholas Holtze, father and son, who were undertaking crop experimentation as staple for the town.

By the early twentieth century, Mindil Beach was flanked at one end by the Vesteys meat works at Bullocky Point just on from Dudley Point, and the Aboriginal Kahlin compound at Myilly Point at the other end. By 1919, nearby were Chinese market gardens which had originally occupied the site of the botanic gardens. They were chosen as the botanic gardens because of what the Chinese market gardeners were doing successfully there, so they were evicted and that was the site chosen for the botanic gardens.

Mindil Beach with its clear water, clean beach sand and little tidal creek, Mindil Creek, was an excellent place to camp and socialise, particularly in the dry season. From at least 1915 onwards, concerted attempts were made to prohibit Aboriginal entry onto the site. Despite this, by 1919, the site had gained a reputation as a drinking camp that included both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal participants. The administration could not prevent non-Aboriginal people camping there, but the records indicate a policy attempt to definitely exclude Aboriginal people from the Mindil Beach site. Apart from drinking, it was also the place that local townsfolk went to swim, picnic, play sport and fish. We know this from the archival records, because they requested permission from the administration of the time to hold specific events there.

During the military buildup of World War II there were some camps constructed on the beach front site and the beach was used for R&R [rest and recuperation] by military service personnel. After World War II Darwin’s population increased dramatically but the damage from World War II bombings meant that there was a huge accommodation shortage, and the site became used as a camping ground again, and in fact throughout the 1950s this was the place most people lived in when they first arrived in Darwin. By the 1960s, the Darwin City Council was ratifying this loose arrangement by formally setting up a caravan park and people would pay money to stay there. This continued until Cyclone Tracy in December 1974, and briefly after Cyclone Tracy, again in a time of great crisis of accommodation.

If you look at oral histories of which extensive collections have been made, both by individuals and also held within the oral history unit at the Northern Territory Archives, we get a slightly different story and it tells us a bit more. The name ‘Mindil’ is taken from the Larrakia word ‘Min-deel’, meaning sweet nut grass. Kungarukunj man Val McGinness describes ‘mindil’ in this way:

A little thing that grows up that’s like a little onion. It’s not actually an onion – it’s [got] a little nut on the bottom. But if you pulled it up out of the grass, out of the sand like that, it looks like an onion. That’s a mindil, and they’re edible. They’re beautiful to eat. You just put them in the fire … Oh you got to cook them, yeah. Oh, you can eat them raw but they’re nicer when you cook them. So that’s a mindil.

The oral histories throughout the twentieth century of both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Darwinites talk with much pleasure about swimming and recreational activities on Mindil Beach. During the 1920s and 1930s, as a rare experience, kids from the Kahlin Compound were taken down to Mindil Beach to picnic, and they recalled collecting coconuts and bush tucker from the shoreline. But not just Aboriginal kids, the other townsfolk would go down there and swim. It was considered a perfect place with its sandy, sloping beach. It was just a pushbike ride or there was a track cut into the side of the cliff from Mindil Beach down what became known as Nurses Walk, because the hospital relocated there just before World War II. So you could walk down Nurses Walk to Mindil Beach. So it was very close to town.

During the 1930s, young police officers would go to Mindil Beach to sit around and drink in the peace of the sunset, or even the falling rain. By the war years, off-duty troops went regularly to Mindil Beach for swimming and other recreational activities. Critically, it was seen as a safe beach and people swam ‘without fear of sharks, crocodiles or stingers’. The bent palm tree ‘was a real landmark,’ somebody said. On warm evenings, the young service men and women would take musical instruments and crates of beer down to the beach to play music, drink and socialise away from the war. One young female officer, Joyce Johnson, recalled that ‘Mindil Beach was like a city beach’ – by this she means a southern city beach – ‘there were nurses and soldiers and airmen all – it looked like Bondi.’ But the oral histories also record a darker side in the story of the wartime history of Mindil Beach. Following the bombing raids by the Japanese on Darwin Harbour on 19 February 1942, over the next couple of days numbers of bodies washed ashore of those people killed in the air raids. In the tropics in February in the wet season it was important to bury the bodies very quickly, and they were buried where they came ashore at Mindil Beach.

After the war, in a program that was conducted not just at Mindil Beach but other sites around Darwin, the bodies were then dug up and eventually were all collected and currently the remains are housed at Adelaide River War Cemetery just down the track from Darwin, 70 kilometres or so south, which has come under the responsibility of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission since 1947. Not surprisingly, the burial of the dead service people at Mindil Beach is a powerful recollection of the site. Allan Foster remembers being told about the incident as a ‘story of Mindil Beach’, and here is what he says:

Some of my mates that were left behind after me were finding bodies out on the beach there at Mindil Beach. And how many – we do not believe the figure given of 240, or something like that, is anywhere near correct. We honestly believe that might have been the number of civilians, because they didn’t have to account for service numbers.

It was more of a story of Mindil Beach than perhaps the soldiers realised, because this was not the first time that there had been burials on Mindil Beach. Again, Val McGinness recalled:

It was an established rule that no Aboriginal could be buried in the white or European cemetery. So they had to bury them on Mindil Beach, and right about where the casino is now. But what they had to do, they had to put the bodies into a canoe and sail them right around Myilly Point like that and come back into Mindil Beach, and bury the dead … in later years – around about 1926 or ‘27 – they cut a track down there – [that’s the one I was talking about, Nurses Walk] right down to the beach … the old Aboriginals still buried their dead there, but instead of coming around by canoe, they carried the dead from Kahlin down through that path to the burial grounds. … Later on … the Tiwis – that’s the Bathurst Island people … had several graves there with the totem poles and everything erected.

This aspect of the site was also recalled by many non-Aboriginal residents. When human remains, bones, were discovered in 1981 during the construction of the casino and again during later works on the site in 1992, there followed a period of extensive debate within the Darwin community, and I understand Michael Pickering has circulated some information about this. You might like to talk to him, because he was actually a direct protagonist in some of these events in the 1990s. This became a source of debate within the community of Darwin. Long-term Darwin resident Henry Lee claimed that the bones were the remains of bodies buried at Mindil Beach after the first bombing raids: ‘The bodies were mainly those washed up from sunken ships. … Many could not be identified.’ While some agreed with Lee, many long-term non-Aboriginal commentators supported the Aboriginal version of events that the area was an Aboriginal burial ground and occasionally also the site of inter-group conflicts.

A number of Aboriginal long-term Darwin residents, which included Bobby Secretary, Topsy Secretary, Margaret Rivers, Norman Harris and Maudie Bennett, recalled Aboriginal burials on the site and actually provided lists of names of people known to be interred at the Mindil Beach site. In the end there was a sufficient weight of evidence from the oral histories of long-term Darwin residents, both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal, to support the findings of a coronial inquest to establish that the Mindil Beach area was an Aboriginal burial ground.

After extensive discussion with the casino owners at the time, Federal Hotels, the Northern Territory government’s Aboriginal Sacred Sites Authority, which is now known as the Aboriginal Areas Protection Authority, and Aboriginal traditional elders from the Larrakia and the Tiwi, the bones were re-interred on a man-made island built on Mindil Creek. The site was marked by pukamani poles especially commissioned from Tiwi family members of the dead. And at the opening ceremony of the casino in April 1983 there was an accompanying Aboriginal ceremony and dance to honour their memory.

The sunset markets were established in 1987 with a comparatively modest beginning: 20 food stalls and 20 arts and crafts stalls. As the success of the markets grew, so too grew the demand for increased infrastructure – better power, lighting, toilets and water supply. In 1992, when further work was done on the Mindil Beach site, more bones were found. There was the horrible realisation that the entire casino markets area is literally a burial ground with human remains only centimetres under the top soil. Human remain fragments which had been unearthed were interred under a memorial site at the Bullocky Point end of the car park and markets area, very close to the public toilets and barbecue area. As a result of these further finds and negotiation by the Aboriginal Sacred Sites Authority in conjunction with traditional elders, protocols were put in place for police, which remain in place, for dealing with Indigenous remains and also protocols were put in place with contractors. This set a limit to the depth of any excavations that could be dug, so essential services have to be installed on top of the ground rather than buried underneath the substrata.

One of the things I was interested in looking at were ways of establishing a site narrative. I had the archival information; I had the oral history. But one of the things that I thought about – people who work in museums are very conscious of this – is that people undertake what I would call ‘conscious memorialising’ of history through their keeping of photographic collections. It’s quite easy to look at some of this information because of the Picture Australia website which provides a virtual database for researchers like me and others to be able to put in data and do searches and to see what you come up with.

If you look up ‘Mindil Beach’ on the Picture Australia website it pulls up 279 images, but not all of them relate to Mindil Beach. Some of them just mention Mindil Beach. The images captured in the photographs can be loosely grouped. I looked at what the images were comprised of and made a table with the groups that went like this: military, casino, palm trees and sunset, Aboriginal activities, a thing called Alan Cobham’s seaplane, Mindil Beach markets and then the beer can regatta in that order descending down.

I then re-sorted it according to decade as I was interested to see if this produced any differing results. No matter how you broke down the information on the database, what I found was that the images that had been consciously memorialised through Picture Australia are, above all, military predominately. This could be because Picture Australia is an umbrella entry for a number of collections held around Australia, not least of them being the Australian War Memorial. So that might have skewed the evidence, but on the other hand it might not have either. So military images predominated.

But if you look at the military photographs, the people aren’t engaged in the active theatre of war activities. They are mainly photographs of service people on the beach, having lunch, having picnics and photographing scenic images, so you could almost include that as scenic.

The casino is easily the next largest site narrative, then following close after are palm trees and sunset. Sunset is big at Mindil Beach because the sun goes down into the west like Bali. Aboriginal activities are nearly as big. Alan Cobham’s seaplane landing is one of those interesting examples. It’s big in the pictorial record and clearly it was big at the time. In 1926 he flew from England to Australia and back again. He had a seaplane. Once he hit Darwin the undercarriage was converted and it stopped being a float plane. Then he flew on to Essendon where he was greeted by a crowd of 60,000 people, so it was quite a big deal, and then he flew back to England. That also is a striking image in the narrative.

So that’s from the pictorial record.

How do we determine current narratives for the site? That’s quite an interesting thing. You could actually go along and ask people as they left Mindil Beach markets or something like that, but that was not the approach I was particularly interested in pursuing. What I found was an interesting clue that came up in 2006 when the Northern Territory government made the decision to release part of the land known as Little Mindil alongside the casino site. So you get Myilly Point at one end, Little Mindil, Mindil Creek with the man-made island and the pukamani poles, the casino, the Mindil Beach market site and then Bullocky Point – and that’s how it goes along the line. So Little Mindil was very close to the casino and also to the Mindil Beach markets site. A lot of people mounted arguments against the development of an ecotourism lodge, which was what the government proposed for the site.

What reasons did they use? This is interesting, it seems to me. Even though it’s not the Mindil Beach site; it is very close to the Mindil Beach site. In an interview with the ABC’s Stateline program, a couple of people from the National Trust argued that you couldn’t do development on the Little Mindil site because it would impact negatively on the built heritage site at the top of Myilly Point. In other words, its proximity to the built heritage at Myilly Point was the reason that you couldn’t build on Little Mindil.

There is an organisation in the Northern Territory called PLan, the Planning Action Network, which is broadly speaking a community of individuals who oppose the government’s agenda for planning and development in the harbour and also in Darwin town. Their reasons for not building on Little Mindil were that you needed to preserve the conservation and wildlife aspects of the site and that people had the right to have unrestricted access to the beach.

In fact, only one person actually mentioned the burial site, and that was in an interview with the planning minister, Delia Lawrie, who just happens to be a second generation Darwin person – that is relatively unusual in Darwin but she was actually born in Darwin – and she said this would be taken into consideration. But she was the only person who actually mentioned it in the protest.

Looking at the way the site is perceived now, there is some signage that tells the visitor that they are on Larrakia and Tiwi burial ground. The 1981 reburial site on Mindil Creek, with its faded pukamani poles emerging from a jungle fowl mound is clearly not known about much, nor is it visited. The pukamani memorial pole structure and accompanying plaque put in place in 1992, the one very close to the toilet block, does acknowledge the site as a burial ground, but it is difficult to tell how apparent this would be to the half a million visitors each year.

Mindil Beach is a complex site with many layers of meaning. In order to understand how this place has been viewed, it is necessary to look at the physical structure, records, memories and images. I expected when doing this work to find a different or a hidden history to the site. In one sense I did. The story of the dead servicemen washed up on the beach, hastily buried and then removed and reburied is a grim story of loss and war. The Larrakia and Tiwi use of the space, where language groups fought for land or honour and where communities interred their dead, is a different side of Darwin’s history. In the contemporary narrative there is not much space for either account and they are both probably not very well known by either locals or visitors to Mindil Beach.

Photographs don’t show dead bodies, and archival records don’t mention burial grounds. There is no photographic evidence of the shanty town and the makeshift accommodation that existed at Mindil in the decades after the war when there was nowhere else for poor people to stay. Oral histories don’t tell you about Allan Cobham’s seaplane – in fact, not much tells you about Allan Cobham’s seaplane, except for the photographs.

The enduring story of the site though, which is apparent in all historical sources as well as contemporary perceptions, is ironically that most Australian of stories: it is the story of beaches and swimming, fishing and collecting coconuts, drinking, eating and celebrating. Darwin claims a title as multicultural and multiracial, a city unlike others in Australia. The history of the Mindil Beach site, which almost equally shares between Aboriginals and non-Aboriginals experiences of partying, sport, recreation and even war and death, arguably supports this contention.

The weird thing about the Mindil Beach site is the exclusiveness of the stories. There appears to be hardly any crossover. The story of the Darwin casino is not the story of the sunset markets. The story of Aboriginal art and culture marketed to modern tourists is not the story of an Aboriginal burial ground. In all the constructions of Darwin as an iconic city of World War II and the bombing which are huge, every year on 19 February in Darwin there is huge outcry, ‘Why isn’t this a national public holiday?’ I am sure Peter Stanley in his former life can tell you about the amount of correspondence he received on that note. In all the constructions of Darwin as the important site of military encounter in World War II, no-one mentions the Mindil Beach connection. No knowledge about the dead washed up and buried.

These disconnections are a product of what a PhD student at Charles Darwin University, Jamie Seaton, is currently looking at: the production and marketing of site narratives in a context of high population turnover where the transmission of oral histories is poor and fragmented. But it is even more than that, I would suggest. Rather than actual production of a site narrative or deliberate omission, I think in the layering of the stories it also tells us something specific about the nature of Darwin’s multiculturalism. The stories coexist independently, without them informing each other – so perhaps this describes the nature of the multiculturalism – resilient and informed by a strong tradition, but one which is contained within each group and not shared.

Date published: 1 August 2008