‘Dogger’ by Philip Fitzpatrick, Independent Publishing Platform, ISBN: 978-1791741747, 390 pages. $A22.89 plus postage from Amazon; ebook for $US1.00. Available in Australia soon
TUMBY BAY - When I left Papua New Guinea in the 1970s I went to work with the South Australian Museum as a researcher and site recorder, carrying out extensive fieldwork in what was then the North West Aboriginal Reserve where people were still largely living in their old ways.
Over the next 50 years or so, between forays to Papua New Guinea doing social mapping, I continued to operate in the Australian outback with Aboriginal people.
In many cases I ended up working with the children and grandchildren of the tribal people I’d first met in the 1970s.
Many of them were descendants of marriages and liaisons with dingo trappers, who were in the region up until the 1980s. The dingo trappers were paid to control the predatory dogs that killed stock.
Many of those half caste children had been taken from their tribal homes and put into orphanages by the authorities. They became what was later called ‘the stolen generations’.
The stories of the dingo trappers, or doggers as they were generally known, intrigued me and I undertook a lot of research about them. Most of that was in the government archives or came from oral histories.
I suppose the appeal of the doggers came about because they represented the kind of frontier men you see in American westerns – rugged individuals living in dangerous places.
I toyed with the idea of writing a conventional history but finally opted for a work of fiction. That seemed like the best way to capture the scope of events and to fill in the unknown gaps.
The book was first published as ‘Dingo Trapper’ in 2010. I wanted to call it simply ‘Dogger’ because that was how they were known, but my publisher seemed to think that could be confused with the doggers who work on high rise buildings.
That original book is still available in second hand bookshops and in many public libraries but, after I got the copyright back, I thought I’d tidy it up a bit, add a few extra details and publish it on CreateSpace using my original preferred title.
The book is set in the 1930s in Central Australia during the desperate years of the Great Depression when everyone was struggling to survive. Among them were the doggers.
The doggers were paid seven shillings and sixpence (about $36 today) by the government for every dingo scalp they could trap or trade with the Aborigines. It was a kind of ‘make work’ program similar to the programs the government set up for gold prospectors.
The doggers penetrated deep into the Central Australian deserts on their camels and often took up with tribal women. Apart from the physical attraction, it was a way to enter the social system and gain a form of protection. From that came the half caste children.
Enter the missionaries in what they saw as a last ditch attempt to save the wild tribes. One of their first steps was to try to rid the area of the doggers.
They offered better prices to the Aborigines for the scalps of dingos they trapped or bred and, using devious means, they forced the cancellation of the special leases the doggers had.
In the book the heroine is the half caste daughter of a dogger called Tjulki (Pitjantjatjara for ‘fairy owl’). She rescues dogger Martin McCarthy after he has been speared. One thing leads to another and they set out in life as couple.
Tjulki and Martin struggle to stay together and the battle they have with missionaries and the government makes up the narrative of the story. Their daughter is taken by the government, aided by missionaries, and put into an orphanage. Their pastoral lease is cancelled and handed to the mission.
The drama is played out against the backdrop of a little known period in Australian history. Many of the characters, suitably disguised, were real life figures.
Some of the government and mission people were hard line individuals but many others were sympathetic and that dynamic provides an interesting theme for the novel.
I dedicate the book to an old Aboriginal friend, Wintinna Mick, or Mungatja as he is correctly called. I met up with Mick when he was in his early nineties and we travelled for many years over his country recording all of the sacred places and the songs that go with them.
Mick had been a dogger and had worked on the vermin proof fence, which runs from the Great Australian Bight, west of Ceduna, right up into Queensland and is designed to keep the dingos out of pastoral country.
Mick and I travelled the fence quite often. On one memorable day I piggy-backed him over the sand hills to the water soakage where he was born sometime in the 1890s.
I took the photo on the cover of the book in the 1980s when doggers were still trapping and poisoning dingos with deadly strychnine. The vermin proof fence is in the background.
No one really knew how old Mick was, but I would guess he was well over 100 when he died. As a child in the desert he remembered when the first rabbits appeared in the area.
My late father came with us on some of our expeditions and he and Mick became great mates.