Historically, within Indigenous Australian cultures, public performances for entertainment were an important part of economic exchange, social prestige and political power.1 As an important focus within the community, performances act and have acted as a medium for cultural adaptation and innovation through the incorporation of new stories and information. Within these practices, there are dozens of named genres of performances for public entertainment. 2

After colonization of Australia, inter and intra-community practices of public performance expanded to incorporate European audiences and engage with the settler economy and communities. These performances in the cross-cultural context, usually referred to as corroborees, are rarely examined except as examples of lack of cultural power and agency for Aboriginal people. Candice Bruce and Anita Calloway, in their study of images of corroborees, describe these types of performances as a “white spectator sport” (1991, 88). They argue that Indigenous historical and traditional performances were controlled through the appropriation of them as “a form of entertainment staged specifically for the benefit and entertainment of ‘whites'” (86). Though there are numerous incidents that support this perspective, and many performances can be examined from this position, as a generalization it overstates the situation. I would argue that this reduction of these performances hides a much more complicated picture of economic and social transactions as well as a richer picture of the types of performances created and produced by Aboriginal artists. In the act of generalizing and focusing only on one aspect of the possible terms of reception, the claim that the performances are only appropriation acts as a claim of white possession of a wide range of Aboriginal cross-cultural performances and practices in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The major exception to this type of framing of this work is Michael Parsons’ valuable work documenting performances in Adelaide in the nineteenth century. He frames the work as “cultural tourism” (1997, passim; 2002, passim). I consider this is also problematic for the same reasons.

This article is part of a larger project seeking to document and examine nineteenth century Aboriginal Australian cross-cultural performances from a broader perspective. The examination here focuses on the audience and performer dynamic in the cross-cultural encounters that marked the performances of Aboriginal corroborees for European and Euro-Australian audiences in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as exemplified in three events. The events are, Grand Corroboree performed at the Adelaide Oval in 1885, The Soldier Corroboree by Billy Cassim on Stradbroke Island in the late 1880s and a tourist performance on Palm Island from around 1930.1These events reveal a variety of different responses to and negotiations between Indigenous Australians and the settler based society and economy.

As part of the context of performances within the colonised context, I want briefly to look at historical and ongoing Indigenous inter- and intra-community public performance practices as the context and history of cross-cultural performances. I am using the term ‘historical’, rather than the more common term ‘traditional’, to identify these performances because of the resonances and associations of a locked form of authenticity or museumised practice attached to the use of ‘traditional’.

Performances were presented within and between communities for entertainment, for gatherings of local clans and on a larger scale. There were many different types of performances at these gatherings. Indigenous performance can be divided into three major types: ceremony, public performances based on Dreaming stories for education and entertainment, and performances based on topical issues for entertainment (Casey 2009, 123). The focus of this discussion is the third type of public performance, corroborees based on topical or historical events that are created and performed for entertainment. Corroborees for social occasions were usually created around topical themes, events and observations. In the performance event, a story can be spelt out more or less explicitly in the shape of a narrative often with a parallel song series that focuses on a specific point or on a range of meanings, always taking the related story as given. The performance can also include mime and dance interpretations of the narrative, forms of puppetry and dialogue, costumes, sets, lighting and sound effects. The creator of the piece usually acted as manager and the performance crew included visual artists, singers, dancers, prop makers and so on. These types of corroborees were performed for intra- and inter-community gatherings.

In the nineteenth century European explorers and settlers observed many different types of performances at both large and smaller intergroup gatherings. Accounts of corroborees based on family and clan gatherings recur across the nineteenth century newspapers (examples can be seen in A Bushman 1841, 2). Regular major gatherings of all the groupings in a particular region were a part of social, political and economic life before and after European colonisation. Examples of these include the Bogon Moth gatherings for Kooris across a lot of Victoria and New South Wales and the Bunya Mountain Festival that was a major triennial gathering for the Goori peoples of south-east Queensland. Tom Petrie, a European settler, attended a Bunya Festival in the mid-1800s (1992, 21). These gatherings, among other social and political functions, were an opportunity to learn and exchange new songs, dances and corroborees. As an intrinsic part of all aspects of community life, performance historically provided a context for economic exchange and barter. For example, material objects, ritual items, stories and performances could be exchanged at the end of an event as part of acknowledging social ties and ritual reciprocity or as an economic exchange. These corroborees that were traded were not secret or sacred but public performances.

Petrie recounts how at the Bunya Mountain gatherings a group from the north would demonstrate a corroboree to a group from the south, “so they might all learn something fresh” (1992,19). Men and women would place themselves around the performance in order to observe and learn the precise elements of the performance.

The men and women learning the corrobboree [sic] stood behind the rows of gins [sic] seated on the ground, and two extra men, other than those with boomerangs, stood placed like sentinels before the women, with torches in their hands, and they were generally also strangers learning. The torches were fashioned from tea-tree bark, and made a splendid blaze, aiding the fire in its work of lighting up the dancers for the benefit of those concerned… Always there were two or three funny men among the dancers, men who caused mirth and amusement by their antics—even the blacks had members who could ‘act the goat… At any time when a certain tribe had learnt a new corrobboree they would take the trouble to go even a long distance in order to pass it on. They first sent messengers—two men and their gins—to say they had learnt, or perhaps made, a fresh song and dance, and were coming to teach it. They would very likely stay a week and then go home again, or perhaps a number of tribes would all congregate. Father had seen about 500 aborigines at a corrobboree on Petrie’s Creek (1992, 21-3).

There are Geonpul oral histories and Bundjalong documented accounts of attending the Bunya nut gatherings and learning new corroborees in different languages (Moreton-Robinson 2007; Calley 1959, 11). In this way, a particular corroboree would travel across the country passed from one group to another finally being performed by other communities who would sing the songs in the original language aware of their general meaning but without necessarily knowing the translation of specific words.

After European settlement there were many new corroborees created around the interactions between the communities and their general observations. A European visitor to Australia in 1832 recorded a performance based around observations of the settlers’ horses and riding in Tasmania (Backhouse 1967, 82). As well as creating corroborees for entertainment based on their observations of Europeans, Indigenous performers in the nineteenth century created corroborees around European entertainments that they witnessed. Sir Roger Therry, an Englishman who lived in New South Wales for thirty years, recounts how in 1854, another settler:

took a party of Jervis Bay and Illawarra blacks to the Sydney theatre, to witness the opera of Der Freischutz chiefly with the idea of observing what effect the incantation-scene would have upon them. The scene in the Wolf’s Glen riveted their attention. They exhibited great excitement at the circle of skulls in the glen; the mystic casting of the seven bullets; Zamiel, the red man with the long fingers; the toads, and frogs, and other reptiles on the ground; the firing of the gun, and fall of the bird (1863, 297).

Six or seven years later the man returned to Jervis Bay, and witnessed the incorporation of several aspects of the Wolf’s Glen scene into:

one of their moonlight entertainments…They painted their bodies red and various other colours to represent the characters in the opera; with boughs of trees they constructed the glen; guanas [sic; probably meant goanna], frogs and other animals were supplied by their native forests. The firing of the gun and bringing down the bird, and, in short, all the principal scenic incidents of the opera, were imitated with amusing mimicry (297).

With colonisation, Europeans constantly demonstrated their fascination with corroboree performances. This interest, and its potential as a cross-cultural commercial transaction, was well established by the mid-nineteenth century. One report of an “immense congregation” of Aboriginal people in Goulburn in 1857 described a corroboree performance as “an immense hit” which “was well attended by the white population” (“Southern District”, 8). The writer went on to say that:The ‘gentlemen in black’ being shrewd enough to perceive [their success], have repeated the piece nightly, to the infinite amusement of their white brethren and I have no doubt to their own profit, and I have little question but that the sable performers will not withdraw this truly picturesque and natural drama, so long as it continues ‘to draw’. As colonial governments regulated and limited Indigenous movements, Indigenous people were restricted to areas and creating performances for local communities, nearby communities and of course reserve managers and visitors and what Michael Parsons has named “tourist” and “command” corroboree performances (1997, 46-7).

In this context of historical practices of using performance as a commodity for cultural and economic exchange, I want to examine some public performance events and the performer/audience dynamic, some on a small scale and one on a large scale, two that were contemporaneous with the Bunya gatherings that Petrie described from the late nineteenth century and one from the early twentieth century.

The first event I wish to examine is a commercial corroboree at the Adelaide Oval in 1885. An estimated crowd of 20,000 turned out to watch the first night of a Grand Corroboree, making it possibly the largest spectator event of the nineteenth century at the Adelaide Oval (“The Corroboree” 1885, 6). In the late nineteenth century, many of the largest spectator events were Aboriginal corroborees performed as commercial engagements with the settler economy and fulfilling a number of roles for Indigenous people including cross-cultural education. Some of these events were Aboriginal initiated. Others were initiated by settlers. The Grand Corroboreewas in the latter category.

In a context where Indigenous entry to towns were highly restricted, around one hundred Aboriginal people from Point Macleay Mission and Yorke Peninsula were invited to Adelaide during the week of the Queen’s Birthday celebrations to perform a corroboree at the Exhibition Centre with licence to charge admission “for their own benefit” (“Aboriginal Corrobboree” [sic] 1885b, 7). The venue was changed to the Oval through the intervention of the South Australian Cricket Association to accommodate a larger audience in exchange for half the proceeds (“A Corrobboree Extraordinary” [sic] 1885, 4).

The Grand Corroboree was not organised by the Missions. After the performances, Francis William Cox, the Chairman of the Aborigines’ Friends Association wrote to the newspapers stating that the Aboriginal performers had been “entirely without the sanction of the committee” and “unauthorised” by either the management of the Point Macleay or Point Pierce Missions (1885, 6). Concerns were expressed that the event would, as Fredric Taplin, the superintendent of the Point Macleay Mission Station argued, give licence to “bands of Aborigines trooping through country towns earning money by means of a beastly exhibition” (1885, 7). To set Taplin’s comments in context, the practice of Indigenous people staging cross-cultural corroboree performances in Adelaide for a commercial return earlier in the nineteenth century is well documented by Parsons (1997, passim). There were Indigenous initiated and controlled corroboree performances for commercial return complete with press releases from within ten years of settlement in Adelaide and across the nineteenth century. These corroborees were so well organised that Aboriginal managers publicised upcoming events to the Adelaide Observer for inclusion in the “News” section (1844, 3).

The Grand Corroboree performance was planned to be presented on the Friday 30 May and Saturday 1 June 1885. Following historical practice, the Indigenous performers established a defined performance area, lit by fires, with specific places for male and female performers. The performance area was surrounded by metal hurdles. The planned performance was divided into four parts. The first and third sections were two parts of a corroboree focused on hunting kangaroos. The second section was a satire about white civilisation teaching the audience the values of temperance. A number of the performers were members of the Blue Ribbon Temperance movement. The last section was a traditional dance from the Yorke Peninsula described as a “saltwater dance” (“The Corroboree” 1885, 6; “Saturday Night’s Corroboree” 1885, 6). The content of the performance was chosen and controlled by the Indigenous performers.

The performance was attacked in some newspapers as inauthentic because the “resistless march of settlement” had destroyed their connection to culture and that they were “tamed” (“A Corrobboree Extraordinary” [sic] 1885, 4). The Indigenous performers may or may not have been “tamed”, but the white audience definitely was not. On the first night the Aboriginal performance was preceded by a dramatic performance by the audience. Tickets were available for the grandstand and the raised area in front of the grandstand. On the first night, there were issues with the ticket boxes being unable to deal with the numbers of people seeking entrance. According to one account it was a “main strength struggle and scramble for admission, indeed a verification of the evolution theory of ‘survival of the fittest’ in its muscular interpretation” (“The Corroboree” 1885, 6).

The organisers had expected an audience of around 5,000, instead the audience on the first night was around 20,000 (“The Corroboree” 1885, 6). Despite the agreement of all contemporary accounts about the attendance of “tens of thousands”, Bernard Whimpress in his history of the event disputes this figure on the basis of the box office takings and the advertised admission price (“A Corrobboree Extraordinary” 1885, 4; Whimpress 2000, 2). Like Parsons, I support the figure of around 20,000 on the basis of those who entered under the “Free list” and the estimated 12-15,000 people who were already in the grounds before the gates were thrown open (1997, 56). The accounts in the next day’s newspapers describe how after attempting to sell tickets under difficult circumstances, those dealing with the ticketing gave up and opened the gates allowing those still waiting to enter without paying (“The Corroboree” 1885, 6). The lack of concordance between the numbers present and the box office takings was attributed at the time to the number of people who “got in free” (“Aboriginal Corrobboree” [sic] 1885a, 6). Once inside, according to accounts in the newspapers, the standing room in front of the grandstand resulted in crowds “some twenty or thirty deep” blocking the view of those behind (“A Corrobboree Extraordinary” 1885, 4).

Once the crowd was inside, the event continued to be out of control. Before the show began, sections of the crowd burst the barriers and invaded the performance area, “there was no standing room on the lawn and the cricket ground itself was densely covered”; the women performers who were already in place retreated out of the oval. (“The Corroboree” 1885, 6). The result was chaos and the performers were unable to start their performance until police came and cleared the performance space (6). One newspaper account includes a quote from an Indigenous performer saying that the non-Indigenous audience had turned the event into a “white fellow’s corroboree” (“Aboriginal Corrobboree” 1885a, 6).

This invasion of the performance space can be understood in a range of ways. In any public performance there is an implicit contract between audience and performers; that the audience will respect the demarcation between the performance space and the area for the audience. The act of granting the performer the space to perform is taken for granted and audiences usually follow the lead the performers give them. In the context of the Grand Corroboree, the audience can be described as operating with a high sense of entitlement in relation to the performance. In the articles around the show, there were a number of claims stating that many in Adelaide at the time had never seen “a real native corroboree on anything like a large scale” (“The Corroboree” 1885, 6). Since Aboriginal people had been restricted from entering the city for some years at this stage, this claim is reasonable. Presumably given this context and demonstrated by the numbers who attended there was a high level of interest in seeing the performance. This level of interest was effectively expressed in practice as a physical demand for a privileged position, overriding the performers or at least the performers’ rights. This performance of privilege overwhelmed the event. In the context of Adelaide’s proclaimed sense of their citizens as having “an admirable temper” and “humane manner”, the exercise of the audience’s desire to have a good view also indicates acceptance of a particular performativity of whiteness in relation to Indigenous performance (“A Corrobboree Extraordinary” 1885, 4; Morice 1885, 7). In the newspaper accounts that followed, the only contract that was acknowledged was the one between the Cricket Club and the audience. There was no discussion or consideration given in print to the Aboriginal performers in this context.

There are many instances of audiences behaving badly, however the responses are usually linked to expectations. One account mentions that as the chaos increased some people brought their carriages onto the oval (“The Corroboree” 1885, 6). Once the performance had begun, the audience continued to act from the position of privilege in relation to the performers. During the performance, the singing and music was “almost drowned by the babel of the spectators’ voices” (“The Corroboree” 1885, 6).

This type of performance of white entitlement is revealed even in unsuccessful accounts of requests for performances. It is interesting to note how many stories there are of Europeans asking for corroborees on demand and mentioning the question and refusal in their diaries and published accounts. Examples include Noah Shreeve, a resident in Adelaide in the 1850s and 1860s, who devoted a section of his Short History of South Australia to recounting details of conversations he had in the 1860s with Indigenous people about corroboree performances. The conversations include statements that the corroborees were for fun and in answer to his requests for a performance on Saturday or Sunday that the scheduled performance was on Monday. He should return then (1864, 36-39).

Another aspect of the performance of whiteness in relation to this event is the claiming of the all-knowing subject position in relation to the content of the performance. This was done in the press from two different positions. The first position was that of critic, framing of the show after the event as inauthentic and describing it as not a real corroboree. One outraged contributor to theSouth Australian Register writer termed the event “a revival of a barbaric performance”, in his opinion the “whole affair was a gigantic sham” (“A Corrobboree Extraordinary” 1885, 4). Another writer insisted that: “The affair might be appropriately called a whitey-black corrobboree because of the utilisation of appliances of civilisation” (“Aboriginal Corrobboree” 1885b, 7). In this article, the appliances seem to refer to the wearing of suits and dresses for the temperance satire. The response in the press to the satire as an act to educate the white audience was mainly one of ignoring that it happened. Given the lengthy description from the one journalist who engaged with it, it seems strange that the writer who described the event as a “whitey-black corrobboree” decided the costumes were a sign of the march of civilisation. The performers claimed space to educate the white audience and the response was indulgent ridicule from one journalist and non-engagement from the others. The other main position was from those filling the role of the responsible adults who know best. The letters of complaint and “disgust” quoted above from those involved in the missions and Aborigines Friends Association claim the space of the protecting benefactor who wishes to prevent the poor Aboriginal people from being corrupted by exposure to the city. Neither the position of the critic nor the benefactor engage with the content of the show. Both through their claim to superior knowledge act as claims of ownership.

Another performance, a year or so later in the 1880s, presents a different view of the performer/audience exchange. Nuwhju, known as Billy Cassim, from Stradbroke Island, was well known for the corroborees he created for the entertainment of Aboriginal communities on the Islands. These were documented in journals and accounts, such as in that of Thomas Welsby, a leading figure in Queensland and a European settler and explorer in the area of Moreton Bay in the nineteenth century. Cassim’s shows included the Monkey corroboree that was created after he observed an Italian organ grinder with a trained monkey in Brisbane. Cassim followed the organ grinder for days to study the “vagaries of the monkey” (Welsby 1968, 121). Using a couple of wallaby skins for costume, he entertained the communities on the island with his performances based on the monkey’s behaviour. The Soldier corroboree, another corroboree created by Cassim around 1884, was a performance based on satirising the military training of European volunteers and their brutal treatment of Aboriginal people (Welsby 1913, 116). Another European contemporary of Cassim’s George Watkins presented a paper in 1891 to the Royal Society of Queensland about “the Aboriginals on Stradbroke and Moreton”. He discusses how “whenever a large camp was gathered together ‘corroborees’ were held”. He identifies Cassim as the “chief performer” in shows that were “comic” and “a well known character”. Amongst other shows created by Cassim, Watkins describes “a parody” based

on the shooting of a stranded turtle by a white man on Moreton Island, that was always popular. A man on all fours acted the turtle, while Billy, with a stick for a gun, acted as the sportsman. The rest danced round in a circle and joined in the finale. Another production of Billy’s: mimicked the antics of a party of Chinamen attacked by sharks while fishing near shore (1891, 48-9).

Cassim’s comedic creations appear to have been usually satirical with a dark ironic edge. This type of work recurs across the country within documented Aboriginal corroborees for entertainment. Another example is a Yolgnu performance from Wave Hill in the Northern Territory documented by anthropologists Ronald and Catherine Berndt in 1944, but many decades in the repertoire. With dark humour, this corroboree satirises the treatment of Aboriginal people by the legal system as well as the European attitudes to Aboriginal women. As was customary, the performers were all male; the female roles were played by young men:

In one scene a policeman, a ‘man with chains’, was shown trying to bring ‘witnesses’ for a court case. The actors here were men, representing attractive young women all roped (‘chained’) together by the neck in a long line. The policeman led the way, dancing slowly around the clearing; but every now and then when he was looking the other way a small … ‘bagman’ or ‘swaggie’, would come sneaking up from behind and try to take away one of the girls. The policeman, turning and seeing him, would drive him away. Kicking at him and – lashing out with a stick, with a great deal of noise and commotion: he wanted the girls for himself. The side play, gestures and impromptu remarks of the actors, punctuating the singing, kept the audience in a state of hilarious laughter for over an hour (1965, 324).

Cassim’s performances for entertainment were toured and traded between Aboriginal communities throughout the islands and across to the mainland (Hardley 1975, 145).

Welsby recounts a story from the late 1880s about when, on the occasion of the visit of a “well known personage from Sydney, also in the political arena”, Cassim was asked to stage a performance to entertain the visitors (1968, 120). He wanted to perform the Monkey corroboree but the “command went forth that the volunteer [Soldier] corroboree had been chosen” (121). Welsby was one of the party and his account of the performance includes how Cassim resolved the issue to his satisfaction. The corroboree included in the last section a series of danced mock battles between the Aboriginal people and the “European volunteer army”. Towards the end of the final sequence Cassim feigned exhaustion and stepped out of the performance and sat down while:

Toompani [an elder] danced beyond the rest of his tribal warriors, no doubt his mind going back to younger days when his tribe was large and strong. The perspiration and all was forgotten save that he, Toompani, was king of his clan, and he was their mighty warrior.Cassim, in his simulation of fatigue, watching his companions all the while, saw his opportunity, and motioning a silence so as not to disturb the dancing warriors, with cap hidden close to the body, crawled from white man to white man, and “gib it tickpence,” finished with over five pounds being collected by the operatic conductor. Still continued the dancing and crooning, and the white men gave signs to discontinue. Unwillingly, the men gave up and prostrated themselves on the ground near the [women]. Still Toompani danced on. … [Finally] the stately leader being compelled by pure fatigue to end his jumping and shouting, and down amongst the group he settled. …For a long time Toompani was very silent, then, taking a cap off the head of one of the [women] he moved amongst the whites and solicited “something to buy tucker and baccy with.” No response from the first, the second or the third. On the fourth gentleman being requisitioned, the gentleman from the South, he replied, “Already been give ’em.” That was enough. The old warrior of the island sprang erect, looked around in all directions, spoke to both men and women in native language, and the cry of “Cassim” went around. There was no Cassim however. He had gone for the hills with the collected money, and the show was over (Welsby 1968, 123).

The Soldier involved a large cast with performers playing soldiers and officers as well as volunteers in training, Indigenous victims male and female and grieving wives plus musicians and singers, whereas the Monkey was a one man show. Possibly part of the reason that Cassim wanted to do the Monkey was so that all income would be his or only split with a few people as musicians. As Watkins noted, Cassim was quite a character and there are many stories about him in both settler and European visitor accounts as well as family oral histories (Moreton-Robinson 2008, np). It is not impossible that Toompani and Cassim’s performances at the end of the corroboree were part of the planned event, enacted for the white audience. Cassim and Toompani’s post-show performance performs Aboriginality as it was framed. Cassim’s performance offers multiple layers. On the one hand he performed the shiftless, untrustworthy black man. On another level, as the story runs counter to customary practices of sharing resources within the community, he is performing a more individualistic ‘white’ role. Cassim was undoubtedly entrepreneurial. The contemporary court records show that Cassim earned money selling seafood such as oysters on the mainland and as far afield as in Brisbane, though usually in collaboration with others in the community (Brisbane Courier 5 April 1886, 5). The overall result was a complicated performance that entangled the audience more actively with the individuals than they would have expected.

There are many ways of looking at this event, but one of the points of the story here is that it shows a so called European ‘command’ performances in detail, albeit on a small scale. The visitors wanted the performance so, following both Indigenous and European practices, Cassim was approached and negotiated with to stage a show. Following European practices towards Indigenous performers’ payment would be as a gift from the audience at the end. It is interesting that the performances under discussion all came from the contemporary entertainment repertoire rather than a Dreaming corroboree. The white visitors were entertained by both the performance and Cassim’s additional performance. His antics around the money would have added to the tales about the performance. The audience made it clear they had paid for the show and outcome for the performers was no concern of theirs. The many descriptions of white people attending community based performances follow the same pattern. The white people act in a way that implies they are in control of the performance, its content, length and the level of remuneration that they will pay at the end. The event is an economic exchange where the audience acts as both benevolent patron and disinterested customer.

To look at another type of cross-cultural performance, one in the 1929 on Palm Island, there is a different response from a visitor who filmed a ‘tourist’ corroboree. Palm Island was one of the largest and most punitive Aboriginal and Islander reserves in Queensland made up of people from about 30 different clans. Known as the “blackfellas graveyards”, from 1918, Palm Island was used as a penitentiary for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people labelled as “incorrigible”, “destitute”, “a larrikin”, or “a wanderer” (Watson 1993, 10).

In the 1920s, Palm Island was promoted as “a model settlement” and as the fashion for the exotic blossomed and ‘sightseeing’ was fetishized through the decade, visitors from across Australia and Europe came to see the ‘natives’ on Palm Island (“Palm Island Settlement” 1923, 4; Watson 1993, 121). The descriptions of the people and corroborees in newspapers and diaries include such descriptions as “grotesque movement”, “demon-like figures” and looking “for all the world like monkeys” (F.C.B. 1929, 11; Brown 1935, 48). Alexander Crosby Brown, a maritime historian and journalist, included Palm Island as one of his stops in a sailing trip around the world. In his account of witnessing a corroboree he reveals his framing of the people and the event:

The astonishing thing about the… performances at Palm Island was that it gave one the feeling of being face to face with utter elemental savages… the picture of a race whose very foundations lay in torture and cruelty (59).

He saw the corroboree as “protest” and a refusal to submit. As he filmed a performance, he felt vulnerable noting there were “several hundred of them” and that he “was one of but a dozen whites” (59) Joanne Watson argues that, Brown’s fear and the fears held by other white observers were “deliberately nourished by the performers” (Watson 1993, 122). Palm Island was a penal colony for Aboriginal people, though they may not have been guilty of more than protesting race based mistreatment. In articles in the 1920s and 1930s, promoting Palm Islander as a tourist destination, emphasize that the people are “a peaceful lot” who are regulated and supervised (Special Correspondent 1928, 17; F.C.B. 1929, 11). Corroboree performances were a feature of the entertainment offered to visitors. So called ‘War’ corroborees, with up to a hundred performers, feature in most accounts (for example “The Englishmen Visit Palm Island” 1928, 6; Special Correspondent 1928, 17). The practice of performing ‘War’ corroborees was not just on the island itself. If a group of Palm Islanders, such as the football team, were on the mainland a ‘War’ corroboree was part of the program (“Island Natives Entertain Footballers” 1928, 15). These performances for tourists are often described as “thrilling” with details of the violence of the battles, the throwing of spears and defence with woomeras (B.T. 1926, 11; Special Correspondent 1928, 17).

From the first settlement in Botany Bay, Europeans exhibited a fascination and interest in ritualised judicial performances and dances based on mock battles (for examples see Collins 1802, 543; Bellingshausen 1945, 85-90; “A Scene in the Wild” 1836, 4). In the ‘War’ corroborees on Palm Island, according to the oral histories collected by Watson, the performers set out to make the ‘War’ corroborees as powerful and terrifying as possible (1993, 122). Older residents of Palm Island have told stories of the entertainment the islanders would get from the tourists’ responses (123). For the islanders imprisoned on the island and segregated according to gender and age, prevented from any large gathering or meeting, the tourists provided an event where they could gather and a source of money and amusement. The performances were designed to offer a spectacle of savagery to thrill the visitors. Eventually, the authorities put a stop to the practice of performing for tourists on the basis that it was turning the place into a “circus and fairground” and that the Aboriginal people were collecting the money (123).

Post European settlement, all the power is usually represented as resting with the white managers and the white tourists but the picture is not as singular as it is generally presented. The economy of the exchanges is often dominated by the settlers at the expense of the Indigenous people and focused on containing and controlling Indigenous performance. However, the terms of the exchange rather than being fixed are constantly negotiated. Though the Indigenous performers were limited in their power, they were not powerless. Like Parsons, I argue that these corroborees, rather than being, as Manning Clark framed them, a case of the “few survivors… reduced to prostituting the corroboree”, were “an Aboriginal-initiated and organised cultural performance”, that was “significant and successful” (1997, 47-48).

Within the transaction between performance and reception, the framing of Indigenous performance is a fine example of Levinas’ notion of the “violence of categories” (Levinas 1992, 148). The containment, control and assumption of possession of Indigenous performance by settlers in the nineteenth century and the performance of that possession by Euro-Australians have played an important role in the enterprise of colonization and have had and continue to have an impact on Euro-Australian knowledge of the shared exchanges of performances over much of the last 200 years. I would argue that within the economy of these exchanges there are two sites of performances in the events. On one side there are the choices and exchanges made and offered by the Indigenous Australians involved. Counter to these performances, there are also the performances of white possession by the Euro-Australians and Europeans in their behaviour and attitude to the performances and in the accounts of the performances. This is demonstrated by the behaviour of the crowd at the Adelaide Oval, and in the accounts that followed the event in the press, in the attitudes to Billy Cassim and reactions to the performances on Palm Island. In other work I have looked at the manipulation of the terms of the reception of Indigenous theatre work in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries to effectively contain work and locate it in a culturally derivative or secondary position in relation to Euro-Australian and European derived work (2004, passim). In the nineteenth century this need to claim and perform ownership was much more blatant and verging on aggressive at times. It is as if claiming ownership and control of the performance and the performing body is rhetorically imperative to ensure ownership of the land.


(1.) In the writing of this article I am indebted to the generous feedback of Jonathan W. Marshall as editor and the anonymous referees.

(2.) For further discussion of this see Ellis 1964; Strehlow 1947; Berndt & Berndt 1965.

(3) Following current practice, in this article I use corroboree as the general term for a wide variety of performances other than sacred, public or private ceremony, that have many different names within Indigenous languages. The word corroboree, an adaptation of Dharruk words such as caribberie, meaning to dance or a mode of dancing was quickly taken up and popularised as a term by the European settlers, then reclaimed by Aboriginal people for staged public events in the nineteenth century: see Gummow 2002; Howitt 1904.


“A Corrobboree Extraordinary” [sic] (1885). South Australian Register 30 May1885, 4-5.

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