Walmajarrie Jimmie

An excerpt and poem from Johnny James and Other Verses, by the Broome Vet and bush poet Dave Morrell.

To be honest, Walmajarrie Jimmy is not a real person but, on the other hand, I was the manager’s son, and I grew up with five or six Walmajarrie Jimmys. The story I’m putting down here has repeated itself hundreds of times with hundreds of men like him. To me, it is an unbelievably sad story, and I cried quite a lot while writing it. I put myself in Jimmy’s head and Jimmy’s place and felt his pain and the pain of thousands of Aboriginal people and I cried on and off for several weeks after writing the poem when the sadness of the situation descended on me. I don’t say that in some attempt at mock empathy. I’m saying it because it’s true.

When I was a kid growing up on stations, these people were my friends and looked after me. And the stockmen were like my big brothers. I remember many, even today, and think of them fondly – men such as Ringer Gordon, Schmiler Thompson and Alec and Biddy from Lousia – all long gone by now. They were full of life and fun and loved the horses and cattle and everything to do with stations. They were hard workers and strong, proud men and women. But they were also humble and respectful. They were working on the land and in the country that was their ancestral homeland. To me, those were wonderful days, and I feel a melancholia coming upon me as I write this. When I talk to others who were around during those times, they agree that those were some of the best times ever. 

I’ve had many conversations with older Aboriginal men and women who talk about those days with nostalgia and a tear in their eye and will say, “Them were the best times ever, and we had so much fun.” Granted, this doesn’t apply to every single situation, but I believe it was the norm rather than the exception.

When I returned to the Kimberley as a veterinarian, maybe twelve years after leaving for high school and university, all these people had moved into town and alcohol had taken over most of their lives. They were shattered relics of the men and women I had known in an earlier life, and that was such an awful waste. A waste of good workmen and women; a waste of human potential; a waste of all that pride and humanity and love of horses and cattle and station life. 

From their perspective, it was a loss of connection to the country and their thousands of years of tradition, and often a loss of connection to the extended family and clan, which is a devastating waste in its own way.

Maybe a poem can’t capture all that, but that’s what I’m trying to do, and for me, it’s a sort of reaching out for forgiveness and connection and apology for all the terrible pain the past has caused.

Here’s a link to a live recital of the poem.

Walmajarrie was the name of Jimmy’s clan
They’d roamed this land since time began
They knew every hill and waterhole
This land was part of their very soul

In recent years the whites had come
And started to build a cattle-run
Houses, sheds and water bores 
Roads and fences and station stores

Some of Jim’s clan had joined the whites 
And lived in a camp near the homestead site
The men were part of the mustering team  
A job of which Jimmy would later dream

Jimmy’s family had kept their ways 
Doing what they’d done for a million days
Hunting goanna and kangaroos
Bush tucker aplenty from which to choose

Jimmy’s dad was tall and strong
His beard and hair were wild and long
Deep scars cut into his arms and chest
A tribal man who’d passed the tests

In ‘forty-four’ the year was dry
Kangaroos in short supply
He’d chased a ‘roo for half a day
Through scrub and creek and breakaway

He broke his leg in a nasty fall
No one there to hear his call
His blood soaked into the black-soil clay
Beneath burning sun he perished that day

His family waited, starved and weak
With hope abandoned and near replete
They struggled into the station base
Began life anew at the white man’s place

Jimmy thrived in his new location
Learning English in short duration
He learnt the ways of the “Cudia” man
Becoming a stockman his ultimate plan

Schooling was done with the manager’s son
They laughed and played and made their fun
They’d ride their horses to a river pool 
And dive and fish in the water’s cool

Brothers, they were as the seasons changed
Growing and learning and views exchanged
Boarding school claimed the manager’s son
Jimmy started work on the cattle run

At breakneck speed, he’d chase a bull
Leap from his horse, give the tail a pull 
And throw the bull down to the ground 
With leather straps his back legs bound

His riding skills noted far and wide
Much to the station manager’s pride 
Top rider at many a buck jump show
His name revered where the stockmen go

Where the spinifex grass has gone to seed 
Walking cattle, he’d take the lead
Shoulders back and head held high 
He felt a part of the earth and sky

With his stock horse snorting and sniffing the air
And he in the saddle without a care
He felt like a king who’d just been crowned
But his weekly wage was just ‘two pound’

The laws were changed around sixty-four
To give the black man a little more 
Now, for work performed he’d get equal pay
And strong grog, he could drink all day

In our God’s eyes all men the same 
But the truth just ain’t that plain
A hundred folks with their daily needs
Only twenty to perform the station deeds

The profit figure was non-existent
So, their fund request made the bank resistant
His pending decision made the manager grieve
’Cause he was forced to make them leave

There was wailing and screaming and protest loud
They were scared and broken and cowed
They hit their heads and smote their breasts
Until blood poured down their chests

The blood was mixed with tears of dread 
As from their country, the group was led
Refugees on their very own land
Was this what the legislators planned?

Jimmy’s body was ripped apart
A force descended and tore his heart
The pain numbed him to a rigid state
And he cursed his terrible fate

In the station life, they worked ’til dark
But the native reserve was a soulless park
Now they just sat around all day
Their desperation on display

Alcohol had never crossed Jim’s lips
Out of boredom he took some sips
He found it dulled his burning pain 
And he hit the bottle again and again

Diabetes claimed Jimmy’s wife
Medicines had helped her life
But she died from a complication
When her leg was taken in an amputation

This just doubled poor Jimmy’s grief
So, he drank more grog to find relief
With his pain piled layers deep 
Drinking all day ’til he crashed in sleep

They found him one morning near the walking track
Flies and ants had covered his back
There was no record of his birthing date 
But I reckon Jim died at thirty-eight

His sons were there to mourn their loss
And I shed a tear on Jimmy’s cross
As I remembered our childhood fun
’Cause, I was the station manager’s son

As the wind caresses the spinifex plain
The grass is swaying to each refrain
The rising sun makes the country gleam 
With a breathtaking beauty that’s seldom seen

The hills in the distance have a shimmering haze
As the Walmajarrie weep for days
And Jimmy’s spirit is free to roam
Back in the country, he called home.

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