A hairy book, a handprint and other strange finds in Darwin’s archives
Joanne Wood and Katherine Hamilton uncover strange artefacts in the archives. (ABC Radio Darwin: Jesse Thompson)
What do a book bound in furry cow hide, a set of detailed architectural drawings and a poster for a beer can boat-building competition have in common?
All are among the more obscure items found deep within a maze-like room in the NT Archives Centre that’s so brimming with records that staff measure the shelves in kilometres.
These outwardly ordinary items are highly valued by historians and people researching family histories, and together tell many stories of life in the Territory.
“What’s interesting about all the items here is that as mundane as they might appear, each and every one has a story, and overall the archives can provide the context for that story,” oral history manager Dr Matthew Stephen said.
“So regardless of how interesting or uninteresting an item might be, there is always a story behind it.”
The ABC paid the archives a visit and asked historians to choose four significant finds.
Returning non-European residents filled out certificates exempting them from the dictation test. (ABC Radio Darwin: Jesse Thompson)
Non-Europeans faced dictation tests
First up is a by-product of what was known as the White Australia policy, which aimed to prevent non-Europeans from immigrating to Australia
From 1901, the Immigration Restriction Act allowed immigration officers to impose a dictation test on any non-Europeans entering the country.
The test required people to write 50 words in any European language, meaning the odds could easily be stacked against unwanted applicants.
“As the language used was at the discretion of the officer, it was easy to ensure failure if an applicant was thought to be undesirable,” the National Archives of Australia website notes.
But even residents returning to Darwin, which was then home to more Chinese people than Europeans, were subject to the test.
“When people came back they had to sit a dictation test, and that was a way of the government deciding who they wanted to come back in or not,” explained Joanne Wood, archival officer with the National Archives.
“If non-European residents wanted to leave the country for a short period of time, they could apply for an exemption.”
The exemption certificates required a lot of detail — even handprints. (ABC Radio Darwin: Jesse Thompson)
To be eligible for exemptions, people filled out extensive applications including their height, build, complexion, age, headshot, character references and, in some instances, their handprints.
“And also particular marks. If they had a scar on their face, that was noted down as well. It was quite detailed,” Ms Wood said.
One unintended effect of such policies is that the meticulous records have made it much easier for families to research their ancestry.
This is the case for a lot of the items in the collections, according to Ms Wood.
“The government took all that personal information about people and we’re using it now to trace them,” she said.
“Also, we have a high number of Indigenous people come in and they’re looking for their families.
“They’re part of the stolen generations, so they’re looking to find a story about what happened to their families.”
House design sheds new light
In another record, a seemingly normal architectural plan for tropical housing sheds light on a widely condemned historical figure.
“It’s a complete architectural drawing of a house,” Dr Stephen said.
The detailed plans shed light on housing conditions for some Indigenous people. (ABC Radio Darwin: Jesse Thompson)
“Probably the most interesting part of this particular drawing is the title of the drawing, and that’s Residence for Half Castes, Darwin, Northern Territory, Type D.
“The date of this particular drawing is 1927.”
The same year, Dr Cecil Cook was made the chief protector of Aborigines within the Northern Territory.
But the title of protector is a misnomer, according to Dr Stephen, who said Cook had a wide-reaching, powerful responsibility for implementing Aboriginal ordinance, a regime today recognised as oppressive.
“But the fact that [this plan] exists tells us something about the regime that Dr Cook ran.
“The fact that he was trying to provide housing, and in fact did provide housing, for Aboriginal people of mixed-race backgrounds … this was actually quite a progressive housing scheme.
“At the same time, we’ve got an illustration through these drawings that there were also attempts to improve the lot of Aboriginal people by providing them with what at the time would’ve been seen as very good housing.”
Beer regatta cleans up
Less sombre is the large and lurid poster for an event that has become synonymous with Darwin’s beer-loving reputation.
“The proposition is to build a raft, basically, of old drink cans and float it to success in the world’s first beer can regatta,” Katherine Hamilton from the NT Archive Service said.
The first Beer Can Regatta took place six months before Cyclone Tracy struck in 1974 and has continued to draw large crowds since.
It also reveals the early goal of the event was as an initiative to clean the place up.
“I think the beer can regattas were definitely a tourism activity as well as part of cleaning up the town from beer cans,” Ms Hamilton said.
“They had beer can regattas in subsequent years and part of the archives collections show photos of all of them.”
The inaugural Beer Can Regatta was an event to clean up Darwin. (ABC Radio Darwin: Jesse Thompson)
A furry book of the dead
Working with history in the archives continues to unearth mysteries that persist to the present day.
Among them is an artefact that staff lovingly refer to as “the hairy book”.
The date range is 1983 to 1984, it comes from the remote community of Milingimbi, and it recorded the births and deaths of residents there.
Because of this, the record itself is not open for general access.
The bizarre item is lovingly referred to by staff as the hairy book. (ABC Radio Darwin: Jesse Thompson)
“What’s interesting is the binding of the register,” Ms Hamilton said.
“It’s actually cowhide with the hair still on it.
“Did somebody kill the cow and then think they wanted to put it on the register? We don’t know.
“But it’s in the archives, and isn’t it fascinating that you come across these strange things?”