February Meeting

The next Society meeting is on Friday 7 February: Dr Michael Duke on Arabana and the Ghan: The story of an Aboriginal people and their involvement with the Old Ghan Railway from 1884 to 1983.

The Old Ghan was a magnificent feat of engineering, taking the Age of Steam through an arid landscape from Adelaide to the centre of Australia. It was built through Arabana Aboriginal land from 1884 and stayed in that location until 1983 when the line was relocated westwards.

On Arabana land from Marree to Oodnadatta that Aboriginal people helped to survey the track, feed the builders then work upon the line themselves. They were fettlers, gangers, firemen, locomotive engineers, yardmaster, train inspectors, train cleaners, station assistants, station masters.

They received equal pay from the 1920s onwards, quite unlike other Aboriginal people in near slave conditions on pastoral stations or domestic service. The railway helped Arabana stay on Country, transact traditional business but also leap into modernity. Their story, similar in some ways to maritime workers but allowing continued occupation of Country, belies the assumption of universal dispossession and exclusion.

Dr Michael Duke has worked with Aboriginal people from the 1980s. By profession he has been a consultant psychiatrist for forty-five years. His earlier two books were Detective Inspector Napoleon Bonaparte: His Life and Times (2010) and Victorian Holmes: essays on the world’s greatest detective (2011). For this book he travelled the length and breadth of Australia to discover information about the Old Ghan and talk to Arabana people about that aspect of their lives. He is now a research student at the University of Newcastle.

Other topics for meetings in 2020 can be found here.