Wielding her pen like a sword: Mary Bennett the writer

Our series of blogs based on articles published in Lilith: A Feminist History Journal continues with Alison Holland’s reflections on controversial Aboriginal rights campaigner, Mary Bennett, as a writer.

In the final stages of her life Mary Bennett’s words cascaded down her letters like lemmings looking for an escape. She had spent at least half her life writing in the cause of Aboriginal human rights. Epistolography was its dominant form, but she also wrote ethnography, editorials, memorandums, lectures, pamphlets and books.

Mary Bennett (1881-1961). Photograph courtesy of Elizabeth Roberts, via Collaborating for Indigenous Rights.
Mary Bennett (1881-1961). Photograph courtesy of Elizabeth Roberts, via National Museum Australia, Collaborating for Indigenous Rights.

Bennett is not remembered nationally as a writer, much less a human rights advocate. Yet the removal of her private papers by the state of Western Australia at the moment of her death is testament to the power of her discursive protest. Australian historians know her as an ardent Aboriginal rights campaigner and teacher. So how do we interpret Bennett the writer?

As for many women before and since, writing became an outlet – a purpose, a way to live. It enabled her to articulate her politics and vent her rage. In a world of limited opportunities for women, class restriction and familial disconnections, and silences, writing empowered and freed her. Bennett’s pen gave her the means to be the intellect, feminist, political activist, teacher, advocate, polemicist, ideologue, advisor, mentor, researcher, historian that she was. In her war with the state, it was her chief weapon.

Mary Bennett was the eldest daughter of Robert and Mary Christison, part of the Australian colonial elite. Robert Christison was a Scottish immigrant to Australia who built a pastoral empire – Lammermoor – on the Queensland frontier in the early 1860s. Although probably conceived in Australia, Mary was born in England in 1881. Her childhood was spent with her mother and other female relatives and carers in England, travelling the continent, or in Australia, at Lammermoor or at one of the Christisons’ southern residences. From 1908 she lived with her parents in Lincolnshire following her father’s sale of Lammermoor. Six years later she married Charles Douglas Bennett, a captain of the Royal Navy, friend and associate of her father and twenty-five years her senior.

Her career as a writer began in 1927 – the year of her husband’s death – with the publication of Christison of Lammermoor (1927), the story or her father’s pioneering the Queensland frontier and celebration of his ‘just relationship’ with the Dalleburra. They could live and work on his property and, as long as they did not interfere with his sheep and cattle, he and his family would not interfere with them. Members of the Dalleburra lived and worked there for another forty years. Following the book’s publication, along with an ethnography of the Dalleburra, Bennett left England and settled on the troubled Western Australian frontier to take up the Aboriginal cause.

Map showing the location of Robert Christison’s property, Lammermoor. Image via the National Museum of Australia.
Map showing the location of Robert Christison’s property, Lammermoor. Image via the National Museum of Australia.

In making the Aboriginal cause and the Australian frontier her focus, Bennett followed a path well-worn by Australian women writers. Yet, unlike most, non-fiction was her oeuvre. Further, she belonged to a tradition of anti-slavery protest which dated back to the seventeenth century and was rooted in British imperial identity and history. Slavery was central to Bennett’s construction of Aboriginal oppression and it is woven through all her written work. Dispossession created the conditions of Aboriginal enslavement: men and women as unpaid labourers, women as sexual slaves. Her advocacy ultimately amounted to an anti-slavery crusade. The removal of Aboriginal children from families was at its core.

First edition title-page illustration by Hammatt Billings, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom's Cabin (Boston: John P. Jewett and Company, 1852). Image via Wikimedia Commons.
Title-page for the first edition. Illustration by Hammatt Billings. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

It is no accident, then, that Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811-1896) was one of her literary idols. Stowe’s famous antislavery novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), was the quintessential protest novel of its time. The gross abuse of African Americans under chattel slavery, particularly the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, caused her to burn with rage. Bennett’s fascination with Stowe’s novel, written three decades before her own birth, is testament to its status as the best-selling novel of the nineteenth century, but also to its impact across Europe, particularly England, where sales vastly exceeded any other work in any other age or country.

The book appeared in the wake of the British abolitionist movement, but it spoke to a preoccupation with this theme in the British literary canon: from John Keats, to Percy Bysshe Shelley, to William Blake, a tradition with which Bennett was also familiar.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin also fired the literary imagination in the United States, where Helen Hunt Jackson (1830-1885) penned A Century of Dishonour in 1881 – the year of Bennett’s birth. In middle age, Jackson was stirred to action after hearing Chief Standing Bear on the Ponca land removals. An indictment of American Indian policy, her polemic was intended to rouse the American conscience. When it failed to do so, she wrote Ramona (1884), a novel about white rancher brutality. According to American historian Brian Dippie, Jackson was described as the ‘aspiring Harriet Beecher Stowe of the Indians’, and her novel one of the most ethical of the century.

Stowe’s legacy is littered through Bennett’s work too. Her characterisation of the east-west fault-line in Australia mirrors Stowe’s (and America’s) north-south. Stowe’s central themes – the break-up and separation of families, sexual exploitation of slave women and the cycle of violence slavery generated – were also themes Bennett explored.

Further, Stowe’s fictional world had resonance in Bennett’s life. Christison’s wealth was built on the labour of Aboriginal people. His compact of dual occupation was also a contract in which they would labour for food, shelter and protection. Bennett cordoned her father from the charge of slavery by emphasising his benevolence and long-term loyalty to the Dalleburra.

Photograph of ‘Barney’ of the Dalleburra, 1896. Oc,B76.2, AN449636001, The British Museum.
Photograph of ‘Barney’ of the Dalleburra, 1896. Oc,B76.2, AN449636001, The British Museum.

Family folklore had it that the Dalleburra called the station Canada, the land of freedom for fugitive slaves. Whether this was true or not, it relieved her father of complicity. He embodied the benevolent protector and his station a sanctuary. Barney, his right-hand man, was characterised (by him) as one of his ‘faithfuls’, much like the character of Uncle Tom.

Despite believing that the Aborigines needed a storyteller of Stowe’s stature, Bennett pursued her cause through non-fiction. She was interested only in the facts and was faithful to the historical record, attacking Aboriginal policy head-on. This was partly about timing. She grew to maturity as British colonialism expanded in Africa and the sensational crimes in the Belgian Congo became a metropolitan media staple.

The horrors reverberated in tales of inter-racial injustice on the Australian frontiers. Then came the disenchantment of World War I, the League of Nations and, in 1933, the centenary of the abolition of slavery. A meeting with Anthony Martin Fernando (1864-1949), the embittered Aboriginal exile and protestor, in London in the late 1920s, as well as a nascent Australian humanitarian movement, catalysed her to action.

Like antislavery crusaders of old, Bennett saw her task as education and publicity. Her ten years teaching the Wongutha on the Western Australian goldfields were also some of her most feverish collating of facts – and writing, including accounts of her Aboriginal friends’ lives and their predicament. Following a spectacular battle with Aboriginal affairs in the west and a return to England, she came back and settled in Kalgoorlie.

Joyce Maher (Tapakari), with Bernadette and Roderick, 1960. Box 12/6, Council for Aboriginal Rights (Vic.) Papers, MS 12913, State Library of Victoria. Photograph published with the permission of Bernadette Maher, via Collaborating for Indigenous Rights.
One of Bennett’s friends, Joyce Maher (Tapakari), with her children. A photograph Bennett commissioned in the late 1950s to publicise Aboriginal conditions. Box 12/6, Council for Aboriginal Rights (Vic.) Papers, MS 12913, State Library of Victoria. Published with the permission of Bernadette Maher, via Collaborating for Indigenous Rights.

Battling the propaganda machine of assimilation in 1950s Australia, her pen became her sword; her writing, intelligence gathering and counter-surveillance. Her quest for ‘incontrovertible facts’ became an obsession as she targeted governments and their abuse of power. This was not about telling stories. It was ‘facing the conspiracy of silence in order to tell the truth’. Via her pen, Bennett inflicted brutal wounds on her enemies whom she fixed to the page and excoriated. The men of native affairs were ‘cardboard lions in their dens’.

The swift removal of her papers within the hour of her death demonstrates that the state was at war with her too. Far from being remembered and celebrated, like Stowe and Jackson had been and still are, she was silenced, her crusade obliterated. If Bennett fitted a tradition of female literary engagement with the Australian frontier, her explicit anti-slavery polemic did not, particularly in twentieth century Australia. Stowe and Jackson could talk of black suffering but they could not invoke the League of Nations or the United Nations. They didn’t utilise the language of rights per se. There were no expert international commissions on slavery in their day. They didn’t cite genocide.

While appreciating what she called the ‘soul and music’ of words, Bennett was no story teller. Her pen was her sword in the tradition of William Blake, her other literary idol, who used his pen to build a better world. Furthermore, writing a fictional account of conditions akin to slavery in Australia might go too close to holding a mirror up to herself and her parents.

Writing non-fictional polemic ultimately gave Bennett distance and enabled her to critique the system while camouflaging and divesting her own complicity in it, something neither Stowe or Jackson needed to do.


For the full article, see: Alison Holland,Wielding Her Pen Like a Sword: Mary Bennett’s War Against the Australian State,’ Lilith: A Feminist History Journal 22 (2016): 37-51.


Alison-Holland-683x1024Alison Holland is a senior lecturer in the Department of Modern History at Macquarie University. Her book, Just Relations: The Story of Mary Bennett’s Crusade for Aboriginal Rights (UWA Publishing), was published in 2015 and shortlisted for the NSW Premier’s History prize for Australian History in 2016. Alison is currently writing a book on the politics of Aboriginal Affairs in the first half of the twentieth century, utilising research from a National Archives Fellowship.


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