The transmigration of people from one island to another in the East Indies archipelago had its origins with the Dutch colonialists. Stemming from the Dutch “Ethical Policy” towards its colonies, it was introduced in 1905 to relieve overcrowding in Java by moving people to the less densely populated areas like Kalimantan and Sumatra. The Dutch transmigration program was not fully implemented and thus had little impact on alleviating Javanese overcrowding. It was under the Indonesian Republic however that the program was reworked, first by Sukarno, and later refined by Suharto and extended to its furthest eastern territory.
The acquisition of the New Guinea territory (known variously by the Indonesians between 1963 and 2001 as Irian Jaya and Irian Barat) from 1963 was a godsend for the vexing dilemma of overcrowding. This applied overwhelmingly in Java but also in Madura, Sulawesi and Bali, and transmigration provided surplus land for poor, landless Indonesians. The policy has seen more than a million Indonesians resettle in West Papua either as sponsored Transmigrasi or as ‘spontaneous’ arrivals*.
The genuine practicalities of the goal of population easing aside, the ideological underpinnings of the government’s transmigration policy focused on the goal of assimilating indigenous people so as to forge a single, national identity (consistent with how the government sees Indonesia – as a unitary state) [‘West Papua Information Kit’, www.utexas.edu]. The Transmigrasi program was meant to absorb local Melanesians into Indonesian life, economy and culture (‘Indonesisation’). The heavy-handed approach and blatantly discriminatory practices of the government have had the opposite effect, serving only to sharpen the Papuans’ sense of their racial and cultural distinctiveness from the Asian newcomers [D Gietzelt, ‘Indonesization of West Papua’, Oceania, 59(3), March 1989].
This sense of Papuan alienation from the centre was compounded by demographic factors, the steady, systematic rise in transmigrants has eventually made the indigenous population a minority in its own land**. The Papuans with their Christian or traditional native beliefs also found themselves outnumbered by a Muslim majority, an additional cultural gulf between the two ethically diverse groups.
With the transmigrants taking up residency in the province, especially in urban regions and around the mining and timber regions, the new jobs in construction, in extractive processes and in forestry have been distributed heavily in favour of the newcomers resulting in the marginalisation of the urban Melanesians in West Papua (previously I referred to Freeport Copper and Gold’s key role in this marginalisation).
The opportunities flowing from resource exploitation went hand in hand with Jakarta’s policy of transmigration in Papua. The government seized the Papuans’ adat (customary land by right) to exploit the minerals and timber therein, at the same time decimating Papua’s rain forests and spreading deforestation. The consequence of all this upheaval was to deprive the traditional highland Irianese forest-dwellers of their only source of income. Uncompensated, they were forced to move to lower-lying poorer quality areas which were conducive to ill-health.
Despite the government’s repeated claims that, under the province’s new Special Autonomy status, Papuans would benefit from the transformation of society promised by economic development, the reality has been that the indigenous population has continued to be the excluded sector of society, denied status (the stigma of ‘primitiveness’, as tagged by no less an international personage than JFK, persists), missing out on the opportunities of employment and education, and finding themselves the primary target of the state security apparatus [J Munro, ‘The Violence of Inflated Possibilities’, Indonesia, # 95 (April 2013)].
In financial terms alone, the resettlement project has come up short. In the mid-1980s transmigration was costing the Indonesian government US$7,000 per family, constituting an economic disaster which has had the effect of worsening Indonesia’s national debt. And despite the scale of the transmigration to Papua, the objective of reducing Java’s population pressure has not been successful, as the island’s current (2015) population of in excess of 141 million indicates [MA Sri Adhiati & A Bobsein (Eds), ‘Indonesia’s Transmigration Programme – An Update’, (Jul 2001) www.downtoearth-Indonesia.org].
President Widodo formally ended the policy of transmigration to the renamed provinces of Papua and Western Papua in June 2015, but the required action has been all too late – the transmigrants have taken root in Tanah Papua in significantly large numbers and the program has already taken a heavy toll on the indigenous Papuans and their relationship with the central authority.
* the Indonesian government has been quite guarded when it comes to revealing the actual number of transmigrants to the politically sensitive provinces of Papua and West Papua.
** the change in the ratio of Papuan to transmigrant resident is striking – in 1971 non-Papuans formed only 4% of the province population, by 2004 it was 50/50 – such was the escalation in transmigration (by 2010 it was 51/49 in favour of non-Papuans) [research by Ir YA Ukago/J Elmslie & C Webb-Gannon, cited in S Tekege,’The Intentional Annihilation of the Indigenous Peoples of Papua by the Government through Transmigration Approach’, West Papua Media Alerts, www.westpapuamedia.info]
Freeport-McMoRan is a leading US mining company, dating back to 1912, when it was formed in Freeport, Texas, to mine local deposits of sulphur. The part of its wider-reaching history that is of most interest though, dates from 1967 when it went into business with the new Suharto (“New Order”) regime in Indonesia.
General Suharto had recently overthrown Sukarno, the foundation president of Indonesia, and Indonesia and Suharto had something that Freeport wanted – seemingly limitless reserves of gold and copper located in the former Dutch colony of Western New Guinea. Since the early 1970s Freeport has mined enormous holes in the mountainous central region of Irian Jaya (West Papua), first at the Ertsberg mine, and when that was mined out, at nearby Grasberg. This (second) gigantic mined hole in the ground north of Timika contains the world’s largest gold mine and it’s third largest copper mine.
The Suharto regime was rewarded very generously for liberally doling out mining licences and concessions to Freeport and other US companies. In 1967, General Suharto still trying to consolidate his tenuous hold on power, gratefully signed a contract with Freeport very, very much on the company’s terms. Freeport Indonesia Inc was given a 30 year lease on the mine within a 250,000 acre concession. The traditional indigenous owners of the land were excluded from the consultations and received no compensation. Under the agreement Freeport was under no obligation to contribute to community development and there were no environmental restrictions on the firm’s operations. The deal “signalled the beginning of a complex but mutually supportive and beneficial relationship between the American company, the regime and its arm of repression (TNI/ABRI) that was to last another thirty years” (Denise Leith).
Freeport Indonesia became “an integral part of Suharto’s patronage system” (Leith). Within a government already synonymous with corruption, the President and his close cronies were all generously taken care of by Freeport. This was in addition to the official benefits to Indonesia of the partnership. So important was the US company to the Suharto regime it even assumed the role of a “quasi-state organisation”. As part of the quid pro qua Suharto provided the heavy security (ABRI and TNI) for the Freeport operation (funded by Freeport) necessary for the strategically vulnerable location of the mine.
By the late eighties the original, Ertsberg, mine was just about bottomed out, and the newly discovered Grasberg mine neatly filled the void, going on to yield massively more mineral wealth than Ertsberg. Suharto’s government was in a strengthened negotiating position as Grasberg blossomed and secured a percentage of the mine’s profits for itself. By the early 1990s the company was Jakarta’s largest taxpayer*, the largest employer in the province, and the source of over 50% of West Papua’s GDP.
As the profits rolled in very conspicuously for Freeport the corporation found it prudent to be seen to be giving something back to the community. From the nineties Freeport started for the first time to contribute to community development, building schools, medical facilities and houses, more job opportunities for the Melanesian population, in an attempt to cultivate an image of a benevolent, socially responsible, all-inclusive multinational.
The climate of graft and corruption redolent in the Suharto era did not abate after his 1998 downfall. A report by the New York Times in 2005 alleged that Freeport made payments between 1998 and 2004 to Indonesian army and police commanders totalling nearly US$20 million. The government also provided political protection for Freeport whose dodgy labour and environmental practices were in violation of US laws.
Freeport’s practice of bankrolling TNI to provide heavy security for the vulnerably located mine (at a cost of US$10 million for 2010 alone)** has proved to be a two-edged sword. The ongoing abuses of the police and army against Freeport workers and against OPM rebels has implicated the US corporation in TNI’s human rights violations. Freeport has found itself in the difficult position of trying to avoid the PR disaster of being implicated in the military’s repression of indigenous Papuans whilst having the need to maintain a high level of security for its operations.
Freeport’s environment record in West Papua has come under scrutiny. The corporation’s practices have been severely damaging to the local environment. Tailings from the mine have caused massive damage to 28 km of the province’s western rainforest, and a quantity in the billions of waste rock containing acid have emptied in the surrounding rivers and lakes of the district.
The Suharto era were the halcyon days of Freeport in Indonesia. Subsequent Indonesian governments have not taken a compliant attitude towards the Phoenix-based US minerals corporation. On the contrary they had been distrustful and quite vocal in their demands of Freeport. In the wake of the 2009 Mining Law Jakarta has called for a larger cut of the royalties and increased domestic ownership of Grasberg to flow to it.
The parent Freeport company for its part is less sanguine about its future in West Papua than it once was. In recent years problems have magnified for Freeport – metals prices have collapsed and are at a “historic low”, mine workers in recent years have gone on strike over wages and safety issues, and production was affected by the company’s conflict with the government over export duties with Freeport’s right to export in doubt.
Despite the current setbacks it is far from apparent that Freeport Copper and Gold wants to cut and run from its Papuan commercial enterprises, it is after all literally sitting on a gold mine! In fact Freeport is currently earnestly negotiating with the Indonesian Government for the extension of its contract in West Papua which expires in 2021. Nevertheless it is a turbulent time for the mining corporation – last month the CEO of Freeport Indonesia, Maroef Sjamsuddin, abruptly resigned only one year into his term, and less than a month after the scandal involving the speaker of the Indonesian House of Representatives, Setya Novanto, who was forced to resign for soliciting kickbacks from Freeport in return for an offer to extend the Grasberg contract.
The copper and gold extraction of Grasberg, together with the exploitation of other natural resources in western Papua, especially silver, oil, gas and forests***, have gone hand in hand with the dispossession and impoverishment of native Papuans. The loss of traditional lands without recompense has contributed to the parlous state of the bulk of Melanesians in the province. The stark figures of a 2007 World Bank report tells the story of their exclusion from the province’s wealth generation – 40% of Papuans still live below the poverty line (double the national average); 1/3 of children do not attend school; only one in 10 villages have basic health services. Moreover, the famine in 2009 resulted in almost 1,000 deaths from starvation.
New President, Widodo, has signally his intent to put more focus on the West Papuan situation. How Jokowi and his government handles the poverty-stricken conditions of disadvantaged, indigenous Papuans, and how Freeport contributes in this, remains to be shown.
* this continues to be the case, eg, in 2010 PT Freeport Indonesia paid out about US$1.75Bn in taxes and royalties to the Yudhoyono government. ** the ever upward spiralling cost to the corporation of safeguarding its property with hired security (itself an increasingly tainted liability for it) is another concern for the mining giant. *** Freeport is far from alone in multinational exploitation of Papuan resources – the Tangguh natural gas to LNG project in West Papua province is a massive income generator for BP and its Japanese consortium partners.
Note: The present ownership of the Grasberg mine is divvied up as follows – Freeport-McMoRan Copper & Gold (67.3%), Rio Tinto (13%), Government of Indonesia (9.3%) and PT Indocopper Investama Corporation (9.3%)[www.miningglobal.com].
Glossary: ABRI Angkatan Bersenjata Republik Indonesia (Indonesian Republic armed forces including the national police) OPM Organisesi Papua Merdeka (Free West Papua Movement) TNI Tentara Nasional Indonesia (from 1999, Indonesian National Army – armed forces minus the national police)
D Leith, ‘Freeport’s troubled future’, 67, Inside Indonesia, Jul-Sep 2001
S Michaels, ‘Is a U.S. Mining Company Funding a Violent Crackdown in Indonesia?’, The Atlantic, 29 Nov 2011, www.theatlantic.com
P O’Brien, ‘The Politics of Mines and Indigenous Rights: a Case Study of the Grasberg Mine’, Georgetown Journal of International Affairs, XI(1), Wint-Spr 2010
‘Grasberg: The World’s Largest Gold Mine’, 24 Feb 2015, www.miningglobal.com
‘Biggest Gold Mine Keeps Working as Export Permit Expires’, Bloomberg Business, 28 Jan 2016, www.bloomberg.com
‘Indonesia parliament Speaker Setya Novanto resigns over alleged kickbacks’, The Straits Times, 16 Dec. 2015, www.straitstimes.com
Around 1978/79 I used to catch the 343 bus to work in the southern suburbs of Sydney. At that time I was working for a company that had the double distinction of (then) being both the world’s 9th biggest multinational corporation and the world’s 1st biggest industrial environmental vandal. On this particular day I was sitting on the bus thoughtfully reading a book by Australian journalist Jill Jolliff on Timor-Leste called East Timor: nationalism and colonialism. In the course of the bus journey I became aware of an Asian (Chinese-looking) guy next to me trying his hardest to read, over my shoulder as it were, the book I was engrossed in.
Suddenly, uninvited, he said to me, “why are you reading a book on East Timor mate?” Having invited himself into my personal space, he went on to voice his (popularly held view) that East Timor didn’t matter, it was too small, unimportant, no one cared about it. I asked him if he was Indonesian, to which he, shaking his head, quickly demurred. “No one cares”, he repeated and looked away.
At that period it did look to all the world that the cause of Timor-Leste was a lost one. Realpolitik prevailed. Australia (at government level at least) had happily washed its hands of this troublesome issue, with Whitlam giving Suharto the green light for a takeover in their hushed up Yogyakarta meeting in 1974, and his successor Fraser, rubber-stamping it with his Government’s formal recognition in 1976 of Jakarta’s Act of Incorporation of East Timor.
No one, or so it seemed, cared about the micro “half-island”. The neighbours in the region, the great nations of the world, all denied the Timorese the right to self-determination. In circa 1980 the chances of Timor-Leste ever gaining independence appeared to be zero! And yet that is exactly what was achieved by the Timorese in 2002 when East Timor attained nationhood whilst still sharing an island border with Indonesian Timor-Barat (West Timor).
As amazing, even miraculous, as this transformation was, advocates of a similar sovereignty for West Papua, a territory with much more economic viability and substance than Timor-Leste could ever have, cannot be as sanguine about its chances of achieving sovereignty and separation from the Republic of Indonesia.
When the Dutch former colonial masters of West New Guinea tried to counter Indonesia’s takeover of West Irian in 1962, President Kennedy, in seeking to curry favour with the Indonesians as part of the US’s anti-communist Cold War strategy, notoriously dismissed the Papuans’ right to self-determination with the words, (they are) “living, as it were, in the Stone Age” … a self-damning perspective of the indigenous Irianese as being too ‘primitive’ to matter to anyone [D Rutherford in M Slama & J Munro (Eds), From ‘Stone Age’ to ‘Real Time’, (2015)]
Even Jose Ramos Horta, East Timor’s former president and the man who led the decades-long diplomatic fight to turn international opinion in favour of an independent Timor-Leste, has not given his support to the notion of independence for West Papua [‘East Timor’s former president Jose Ramos Horta says West Papua “Part of Indonesia” ‘, (23-07-15), www.mobile.abc.net.au].
The justness of the West Papua’s case for self-determination, a genuine self-determination, not the travesty of one that took place in 1969 (the so-called “Act of Free Will”), has never seemed to grab people, especially in Australia the third party with the greatest self-interest in the large island immediately to its north, in the same way as East Timor did. Its lack of ‘sexiness’ has seen the issue limp along under the radar, never really exciting the passion of progressive elements in Australia, New Zealand, or elsewhere in the West. Of course the media has played a key part in this, not getting the message out of Papua, in large part not being allowed to get the message out – such has been the persistently tight control of Indonesia over press freedoms in the province [‘Press Freedom in Papua?’ (R Tapsell), New Mandala, 11-05-15, www.asiapacific.anu.edu.au].
Notwithstanding the overwhelmingly slim prospects of a sovereign West Papua happening in the foreseeable future, and the sense of fatalism this engenders, it would be instructive to look in some detail at how developments during the period of Indonesian rule over the province reached such a grim outcome.
With the new NRL season just around the corner, one of the strongest clubs will be, as ever, the Sydney Roosters, formerly before their rebranding, the Eastern Suburbs District Rugby League Club, one of the foundation clubs of the NSW Rugby League in 1908. This sporting history piece focuses on three of the club’s greatest wing three-quarters who all had atypical careers with Eastern Suburbs.
The peculiar thread that connects these three is that their reputations as undeniably great players is based not on their respective careers with Eastern Suburbs, nor really on their performances at international level for their country, but on their prolonged, stellar careers in the English Rugby League (ERL) championship. They all began their first-class senior careers in League playing for Easts but circumstance, chance or opportunity, dictated that Easts (and Australia) were to be denied the full fruits of the greatness of their wing 3/4 play.
The first of the three Easts flankers of yesteryear, Albert Rosenfeld, played in the inaugural 1908 season in Australia, starring for Easts (alongside the pioneering League ‘immortal’ Dally Messenger). Rosenfeld played as a five-eighth, winning selection in the first ever Australian test against New Zealand. Although he initially wasn’t selected for the First Kangaroo squad to tour Britain at the end of the season (1908-09), after a public outcry he was added to the touring party. On the tour, Rosenfeld playing ‘stand-off’ (the English term for 5/8) against the powerful Great Britain team, caught the eye of several Northern Union (ERL) professional clubs. At the end of the Kangaroo tour Huddersfield secured the Easts star’s signature. Huddersfield turned the 166cm tall Australian 5/8 into a winger and the rest was British rugby league history.
Playing for Huddersfield Rosenfeld rewrote the record books. In the 1911-12 season he scored 78 tries, a new record for the ERL. Two seasons later, he broke his own record with 80 tries in the season – which remains the all-time record in first-class rugby league, never matched! In 287 games with Huddersfield (in a career interrupted for three seasons by war service for Britain in the Great War) Rosenfeld scored a prolific 366 tries! As his career tapered off he played a couple of seasons with Wakefield Trinity and Bradford Northern.
After his professional commitment to Huddersfield and the Northern Union, ‘Rozzy’ Rosenfeld played only four more games for the Eastern Suburbs Tri-colours in the early part of the 1909 season (overall for Easts he played about a dozen games and scored just the 6 tries and kicked 12 goals). Similarly in his international career, Rosenfeld played only the four tests for Australia in 1908-09 and never again donned the blue and maroon❈ of the Kangaroos.
Rosenfeld married a local girl and stayed on in Huddersfield after his retirement from the game. When he died in 1970 he was the last surviving Kangaroo tourist from the 1908 pioneers. As well as his inclusion in both the British Rugby League Hall of Fame and the ‘100 Greatest Australian Players’ list, Rosenfeld, an Orthodox Jew, was accepted into the International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame.
Lionel Cooper, the second of the trio, emerged towards the end of WWII, originally coming from western NSW. Eastern Suburbs stalwart Ray Stehr spotted Cooper playing Australian Rules in Darwin during the war. After a handful of games for Easts he was selected for his state (6 tries in 4 games) and helped Easts win the 1945 Sydney premiership. He had a super year in 1946, representing Australia with distinction, 2 tries (80 to 90 yard efforts) in 3 tests against the powerful, touring Great Britain Lions and capping it off by being chosen as NSW Official Player of the Year.
In 1946-47 Cooper was lured to play professionally in England, and like Rosenfeld joined Huddersfield over bids from Leeds. In nine seasons and 333 games for the East Yorkshire club, the physically imposing, dynamic Cooper scored 420 tries on the wing or centre. A sensation in England, his achievements include 71 tries in the 1951-52 season and a all-time record 10 in one match against Keighley!
As with Rosenfeld before him, Cooper never played for Easts or Australia after signing up with an English club. His accomplishments in the ERL sponsored internationals, playing for Other Nationalities and the British Empire teams against Great Britain and New Zealand (17 tries in 17 matches), however give testimony to how great a loss to Australia the star winger was after completing just two seasons in Australia.
Gregory’s Guide to Rugby League (1965) described the West Wyalong born Cooper as “a bullocking, bruising winger … a great finisher of back-line movements … incorporating a hip-bumping technique to brush off defenders”. After he finished with Huddersfield Cooper returned to Australia but could not be enticed to play again in the NSWRFL and retired.
Brian Bevan is the most curious member of this trio of Australian wing exiles. Waverley born Bevan left Sydney rugby league and Australia precisely because he was not successful! A contemporary of Cooper’s, he was an Eastern Suburbs junior who unlike Cooper struggled to establish himself at the club. Bevan spent four years at Easts rarely able to get out of second grade. During this time he managed only eight games in the top grade and remarkably, given his later English triumphs, no tries.
Bevan enlisted in the RAN during the war and his ship was sent to the UK for refitting. Whilst there, through the intermediary efforts of another former Easts’ winger in the UK (Bill Shankland), he approached first the Leeds Club, then Huntslet, for a trial. However he was summarily rebuffed by both clubs who thought the young Australian too frail-looking to survive in the rough and tough English competition.
Shankland advised Bevan to try Warrington. Whatever reservations they might have had about the frail Aussie winger, Warrington gave him a trial, playing him in a club reserves game. Impressed by his try-scoring performance, the South Lancashire club put him in the first XIII the next game and signed him up. In his first full season Bevan was an instant sensation, notching up 48 tries for the Wires (as Warrington rugby footballers are known), 14 to the better of any other player in the ERL comp that season.
Bevan continued the machine-like try-scoring exploits for the rest of his career with Warrington, consistency, sheer, relentless accumulation of three-pointers was his trademark feature. Five times he topped the championship try list, scoring a hat-trick (three tries) or more 98 times in his career (seven in a game twice!) With Bevan in its armoury Warrington was a very successful team in the period, both in terms of trophies won and in his crowd-pulling capacity for the club. Bevan in the starting lineup alone, could pull an extra 5,000 to a game (and not just home games) [‘Brian Eyrl Bevan: The greatest try scorer ever’, www.odeauk.fsnet.co.uk ].
In all Bevan scored 796 career tries (the nearest to him all-time, Wigan and GB great Billy Boston, is a distant 534 tries). For Warrington he scored a staggering 740 tries in 620 games (a shade under 1.2 tries per game!), plus 26 tries in 16 international games (Other Nationalities). His professional rugby career ended in 1964 after two seasons with lowly Blackpool Borough as player-coach.
What made this slightly-built, bald, toothless, chain-smoking winger such a phenomenon? Fellow Australian and ERL professional second rower Arthur Clues described him as “a skeleton in braces”, a physique looking totally out of place on a football field, but ‘Bev’ proved that looks can be deceiving. Firstly there was his sheer, blistering speed, he possessed an instant, rapid acceleration … he had been NSW sprint champion back home in Sydney. Allied to this amazing change of pace was a huge side-step off either foot without losing speed. The other weapon in Bevan’s attacking arsenal was his dazzling swerve, described as “a body wobble which totally debilitated (the opposition) … (Bevan was possessed seemingly of) swivel hips” [R Gate, The Great Bev: The Rugby League Career of Brian Bevan, F Keating, ‘Bald, toothless chainsmoker who staggered rugby league, The Guardian, 20 November 2000].
Another out-of-the-ordinary quality of Bevan’s was his ability to take intercepts, the “Wiz from Oz” possessed uncanny anticipation to grab passes intended for his opposite centre or wing and his extreme speed usually did the rest! Bevan’s physical appearance was certainly deceptive, slight of build but he was very wiry and undertook great preparations before a match, always spending an inordinate amount of time carefully and heavily bandaging his wonky-looking knees.
One additional factor distinguished Bevan from his peers and contributed vitally to his success. Bevan revolutionised the way wingers played the game. Before the Warrington “Wing Wiz” came along, wingers tended to stay fixed on the wing, running a line parallel to the sideline. Their positional role clearly defined as finishing off a backline movement, receiving the ball and making a hell-for-leather dash for the corner post. Bevan’s style was completely instinctual and unorthodox, he would often receive the ball and if well-marked on the flank he would suddenly pivot at right angles and make a characteristic diagonal run for the centre of the field to avoid defenders. The wandering wingman would often roam all over the field looking for an opening in the defence, and when he spotted one, he would turn on his incredible speed, usually leaving a bewildered trail of defenders in his wake. Warrington V Wigan (Ward Cup, 1948) typifies this, weaving from one side of the field to the other, beating over half the opposing team by himself and making them look complete fools in a zig-zagging 125 yard run to the tryline [Gate, loc.cit., Keating, loc.cit.].
Bevan was capable of tackling but he wasn’t much of a contributor in this area and far from the strongest defender in League for that matter. This didn’t overly concern the club chiefs at Wilderspool (the Wires’ headquarters). They correctly reasoned that the wing king was not there to wear himself out defending, but was in the team for the attacking edge it gave them, they were happy for him to keep producing those spectacular, often match-winning tries he was famous for. Recognition by his own country of the magnitude of Bevan’s English achievements was shown in his 2008 selection as one of the ‘100 Greatest Australian Players’.
Three Easts’ match-winning wingers, absolute legends of the game in Britain, but all lost to the club in Bondi, Sydney, that gave them their start … leaving Easts’ fans and Australian RL supporters generally to ponder what might have been.
❈ the national rugby league colours for Australia prior to its change in the late 1920s to the now universally familiar “green and gold”)
Whichever way you look at it, its one absolute corker of a good walk … a leisurely 8km or so saunter from Rhodes Station around the foreshore to the former estate of the fabulously rich Walkers of Concord. Whether it’s your dedicated step-counting walker or your insouciant, rambling flaneur, the Concord shoreline walk is an interesting stroll through rustic, undulating fields and flat, serene bayside paths bordered by mangroves and what remains of a eucalyptus forest. A walk through the erstwhile Walker estate takes you past historic reminders of grand Victorian/Edwardian homes and World War repatriation hospitals and convalescence facilities.
As we leave the western side of the railway station, we immediately have our first encounter with one of the local historical personages. Walker Street (next to the rail line) is named after Thomas Walker, the first of two Thomas Walkers to leave a weighty footprint on the area of Concord/Rhodes. This first Thomas Walker, an officer in charge of government stores in the early colony, purchased land at Uhrs Point, a locale which eventually became the suburb of Rhodes, named after the house Walker had built for himself.
Rhodes – a background of industrial polluters of the environment and the suburb’s anonymous domestic makeover:
Heading north along Walker Street, we pass the sites previously occupied by many commercial and industrial enterprises including the large paint manufacturer Berger’s and the multinational giant Union Carbide’s Chemicals plant (environmentally notorious for its shameful practice of discharging dioxins/Agent Orange into the Parramatta River). In their place we see the shape of the post-industrial landscape that dominates Rhodes today – masses and masses of heterogenous high-rise blocks of modern apartments and large clumps of new ones still going up. At the end of Walker Street there is a nice little park touching the river (Point Park) where members of the ubiquitous local Asian community perform their daily Tai chi exercises.
Walking under the railway line and passing some light industry and the IKEA warehouse, we loop around Uhrs Point below Ryde Bridge near the sea scouts hall and turn south in the direction of Concord. After a stretch of street we reach Brays Bay Reserve, named after the first land-owner in Rhodes, Alfred Bray, who built the now long demolished ‘Braygrove’ in ca 1800 (the pioneering Brays owned property in Rhodes from 1794 to 1909).
In the Bray Reserve we walk onto a vacant concrete pier on the edge of the river, no indication that it once housed a Philips Industries site when they were in the bike manufacturing business. On the other side of the square there is a plaque with some rusty old sides of a ship signifying the former presence of Tulloch’s Iron Works in Rhodes (during WWII it functioned as ‘Commonwealth Shipyard # 4’). The remnants of a railed track with ship names engraved on the ground … female names, all curiously enough starting with the letter ‘E’.
Kokoda commemorative walk:
The next section of the trail, densely cordoned on one side by thick mangroves, comprises the 1990s constructed Kokoda Track Memorial Walkway. The walkway is set in a rainforest tropics-themed garden with Kokoda Campaign audio ‘stations’ named after various battles and campaigns of the New Guinea conflict (Efogi, Iorabaiwa, Myola, etc) positioned at different points. There is also a memorial with two high, semi-circular walls surrounded by a rose garden in the rainforest, and a small kiosk-style cafe at the mid-way point of the track. When the path reaches the open side gate to Concord General Hospital, the Kokoda Walkway ends and we take the path deviating to the left.
The path (usually muddy here) skirts round the back of the Concord Repatriation Hospital, which itself continues the WWII theme. It was built in 1940 as the 113th Australian Army General Hospital, taking in wounded and convalescing servicemen from the War. The ground on which the hospital dominated by the huge “Multi Building” stands passed to the Crown after the death of Dame Eadith Walker, daughter of the second Thomas Walker associated with the area. This Thomas Walker was a Scottish migrant in the 19th century who made it (very) big from property investment and finance in Australia (in his later years he was president of the Bank of NSW). At the time of his death his personal worth was estimated at around £2,000,000, a staggering amount for 1886!
Walker estate and convalescent hospital:
This is a very tranquil part of Concord, with only the occasional dog walker or jogger to be seen on the dirt track. As we come round the bend in the path, dense bamboo woods on our left, we get our first glimpse of the first convalescent hospital on the peninsula (much, much smaller than the Concord Repat). Walker left £100,000 for the construction of what became the Thomas Walker Memorial Convalescent Hospital, designed and built by famous architect John Sulman in the early 1890s after the injection of a further £50,000 from Eadith and her aunt and other relatives for the project’s completion. The hospital was an amazingly extensive complex in its day and the central core of the hospital remains, albeit a lot of the surrounding adjunct buildings have not survived.
At its height the adjoining structures included an admin block, separate dining rooms and pavilions for men and women, concert hall and servants’ quarters, with a tennis court for convalescing patients. Staying on the foreshore path we reach the distinctive Dutch bell tower on the water, from where a long stepped pathway leads impressively up to the hospital entrance. In the time it was a working hospital the bell tower was the landing-point for ferries conveying patients from Circular Quay, and it also served in a secondary function as a smoking room – for male patients only!
Walker’s convalescent hospital admitted 683 patients in its first year of operation and over the following 80 years took in thousands free of charge in accordance with Walker’s bequest. During WWII it was used to house the 3rd Australian Women’s Hospital. By the 1970s however it was no longer viable as a free convalescent hospital and in 1979 it began functioning as the Rivendell Adolescent Unit for the rehabilitation of emotionally disturbed youth, and it is still operating as such today.
Following the path further south we pass coastal bush and mangroves and come to a series of stairs (down and then up again) which are behind the Mental Health Unit of Concord Hospital – a newish facility relocated from Callan Park/Rozelle in 2008. The path curves around the peninsula into Yaralla Bay and the newer buildings (mental health and drug health) give way to a series of old, very dilapidated looking buildings comprising the hospital’s engineering and works divisions.
We walk toward a clear, grassy area and take a sharp left out of the hospital grounds, near the helipad, at its south-western end where the mangroves are at their most dense. This leads into desolate bush and scrubland alongside the bay. Pretty soon the path becomes fairly marshy and prone to be boggy after rain (avoid if waterlogged during a walk by veering to the right over the higher ground of the fields which has better run-off). This field is one of a series of large, empty and fenced off paddocks in this part of the former Walker Estate. What looks like a bare and fallow piece of land has become a hotly contested area of Canada Bay.
The paddocks had been used for decades by local horse-owners for the agistment of their steeds. The state government held an inquiry in 2012/2013 which found that the tenant in charge had mismanaged the site (fences not properly maintained leading to some horses escaping into the hospital helipad and adjoining streets, and other conditions of the agistment licence not fulfilled by the licensee). The government health authority then did a late night deal with the NSW Mounted Unit of the Police giving them the green light to move their 18 service horses from the city (Surry Hills) to the freshly vacated paddocks of Yaralla Estate. Then the government suddenly backflipped on its decision to move the police horses to Yaralla (prompting an ICAC inquiry into the whole matter of the paddocks’ usage). However it still went ahead with the revoking of the tenant’s lease and the recreational horses were turfed off the estate, causing a vociferous outcry from the aggrieved horse owners. Since then there have been signals from the government of an intention to turn the land into 18ha of parklands for future public use. However the agistment paddocks remain idle and unoccupied, giving further cause for protest from the ejected horse lovers at the current impasse.
Continuing the path through this second Walker peninsula we come to the grand Yaralla House set up on raised land 150 metres from the shoreline. Around it are the various auxiliary buildings of the Yaralla Estate. The Walker Estate was acquired by the millionaire banker in piecemeal fashion in the 1840s-1850s from the beneficiaries of Isaac Nichols, convict-cum-colonial postmaster and the original crown landowner in Concord. Yaralla House itself is an architecturally significant, asymmetrical Victorian Italianate mansion, the original alabaster white villa was built by colonial architect Edmund Blacket (1850s-60s) with John Sulman adding extensions to it in the 1890s.
Self-contained ‘Walker World’:
After Eadith Walker inherited the Yaralla Estate from her father she systematically built up the property holdings, adding a swimming pool, squash and tennis courts, croquet lawn, stables, coach-house, guest houses and other auxiliary buildings. The squash court was installed specifically for the use of the Prince of Wales on his visit. However the Royal declined to play on it because of its concrete floor (his cousin and travel companion Lord Mountbatten played instead!).
Yaralla also had its own dairy farm (supplying milk to the Walkers’ and other local hospitals), piggery, fowl enclosures, bakery, fire brigade and powerhouse (Yaralla was the first building in Concord to have electricity!). A good chunk of the 40ha plus grounds were used as a golf course – some of its members later established the Royal Sydney Golf Club in North Bondi. The rest broke away from the Sydney Club and formed the Concord Golf Course (Club) on land, then known as “Walker’s Bush”, that had been part of the Walkers’ holdings.
Eadith lived alone at Yaralla – in the sense that she never married, however in a very real sense she was far from alone, even after her companion/adopted sister Anne left to marry the architect Sulman. Dame Eadith maintained a huge retinue of some 200 servants, maids, grooms, cooks, gardeners, engineers and other live-in staff. In addition, twin cousins of the family from Tenterfield, northern NSW, Egmont and George (Walker), lived there for many years (each having a room named after him!).
Rockery from Italy:
Dame Eadith spared little expense on the beautification of her estate. Stonemasons were imported from Italy to build an sculptured Italianate terrace and a grotto. The grotto is a series of sculpted rockery caves interspersed with exotic flora, ferns, palms and especially succulents, lying at the foot of the bluff on which the former Walker home sits. The area between the grotto and the shoreline once contained the Walkers’ swimming pool complete with its own pumping station. There is also a decorative sunken garden and the evocative Four Winds Fountain located near the house.
At one period around WWI Eadith was a regular holder of lavish parties and charitable fetes and balls at Yaralla (Walker received her DBE for charitable activities). For the socially advanced, “old money” set, it was the place to be seen! Periodically she entertained royalty … both the Prince of Wales (the future Edward VIII) and the Duke of Gloucester (the future George VI) stayed at the Yaralla Estate. Lesser luminaries, including governor-generals and premiers, also stayed at the Estate. In one celebrated incident aviator Ross Smith landed on the front lawn in a bi-plane in 1920 and had cucumber sandwiches on the lawn with the good Dame Commander. From her art and artifacts collections garnered from frequent overseas’ trips she brought back many Indian treasures to incorporate into a special showcase Indian room at Yaralla. After visiting Scandinavia she had a Norwegian cottage shipped out and reassembled on the Concord estate.
During the Great War the patriotic Eadith gave over Yaralla’s grounds to the army to be used as a ‘tent’ hospital. Yaralla House (sometimes known by the name Eadith Walker Convalescent Hospital) fell into the Crown’s hands after her death sans heirs in 1937. It eventually came under the trusteeship of Royal Prince Alfred Hospital (the RPA) and then that of the Sydney Local Health District (SLHD). RPA now uses the former mansion (and other on-site cottages) as a residential care facility to house HIV and dementia outpatients.
After Dame Eadith died, the contents of the Yaralla properties were auctioned in 1938 by Lawson’s and de Groot. Held over eight days, it was the biggest auction held in Australia to that time. Some of the Yaralla items sold are now in the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney.
Fortunately for the vast Estate, there has been a lot of conservation and restoration work carried out at Yaralla in recent years – a combined effort by the City of Canada Bay Heritage Society, the Council itself, and the SLHD. We resume the walk, past the grotto, where the path slopes gently down towards a dense patch of very tall and wild bamboo on the water side with a small child care centre on the right. If you look west up the road that leads away from the centre, you will see a row of planted trees which guards an elaborate rose garden created by Eadith.
In the next section of the walk the narrowing path is encroached upon by overhanging branches in what is a pleasant little, untamed stretch of bush. Shortly we come to a metal fence signifying the boundary where the Yaralla Estate once ended, it has a gate that is no longer locked. Past the gate is a large, well-kept park which looks out on to Majors Bay. A small but dense turpentine-ironbark forest leads to the right in the direction of Nullawarra Road which is flanked by Arthur Walker Reserve (coincidentally named after an apparently unrelated ‘Walker’!).
The expansive park curves around Majors Bay with a continuous trail of dense mangroves on the foreshore and sporting fields on the right. The concrete pathway ends, abruptly and surprisingly, at the back fence of someone’s house. Surprising because, with just a little imaginative urban planning and some funding, a bracket-shaped boardwalk could have extended the foreshore path around the houses to connect with close-by Shadrock Shaw Reserve (much in the manner achieved with sections of Salt Pan Creek and other coastal walkways).
The conclusion of a wonderful walk full of interesting history and natural beauty and charm … a tranquil corridor of nature with an air of unhurried ambience. From the Majors Bay Reserve end-point you can choose between walking on through the Mortlake and Breakfast Point streets to the ferry at Cabarita, or heading west, cutting across Concord Road to the nearest train station at Concord West.
The entrance to Yaralla is the main (wrought iron) gate and the Hyacinth (Gatekeeper’s) Cottage at the junction of Nullawarra Rd and The Drive. In its heyday however, the Estate extended as far west as Concord Road (the original gate being where the Masonic hall is on Concord Road). Where privately owned red brick cottages and Californian bungalows are today, Dame Eadith constructed retirement cottages for her loyal staff to live in at the end of their working lives.
Sheena Coupe, Concord A Centenary History (1883-1983), Sydney 1983.
Jennifer MacCulloch, ‘Walker, Dame Eadith Campbell (1861-1937), Australian Dictionary of Biography, ANU, published in hardcover 1990
Patricia Skehan, ‘Yaralla estate’, Dictionary of Sydney, 2011, http://dictionaryofsydney.org/entry/yaralla_estate, viewed 31 January 2016
Graham Spindler, Uncovering Sydney: Walks into Sydney’s Unexpected and Endangered Places, Sydney 1991
‘Rivendell School’, http://www.rivendell-s.schools.nsw.edu.au/
‘Thomas Walker Convalescent Hospital (Rivendell)’, City of Canada Bay Heritage Society, www.concordheritage.asn.au
Yaralla Estate, Dame Eadith Walker Estate Management Plan, 2014-16, (draft), www.edas.canadabay.nsw.gov.au