The Tears of Tjilbruke Part 2


A half ibis, half man.

His tears falling on the ground and forming sources of water for the souls who inhabit his land.

From grief comes hope. From tears, life.

They sing songs about him. The songs are also poems.

Poems are remembered well. Long after the original indigenous inhabitants had vanished, the generations afterwards could still remember many of the poems of their people.

The poems give meaning to a vast land which to the eyes of the Europeans was – and still is – daunting, monotonous: a terrible emptiness. 

The song poems are maps of the mind….and together, they form another very different idea of Australia.

And so it happens that when Norman B. Tindale meets Ivaritji in the Adelaide Museum in 1927, he asks about the song poem of Tjilbruke. The son of a missionary, he is on a mission. Not a mission to convert others. The mission of a scientist. A mission to change the way Australians look at their country….

When he asked Ivaritji about Tjilbruke, Tindale was trying to collect enough data to compile a ‘tribal map of pre-white Australia’. This idea occurred to him after his first field trip – to Groot Eylandt, an island in the gulf of Carpentaria in today´s state of The Northern Territory. He spent a year there and at the end of his stay reached two conclusions which put him on a collision course with the entire British educated anthropological community: firstly, that the indigenous people had been in Australia a lot longer than was currently believed – a thousand years or so – and secondly, that whilst they had been nomads, their wanderings had occurred within definite tribal areas which could mapped.

On his return to Adelaide, Tindale was charged with preparing a report of his time in Groot Eylandt for the museum’s official records. When he attached to this report a map of Groot Eylandt and the adjacent mainland indicating tribal boundaries, he was forced to remove the boundaries because according to the museum authorities and in line with existing knowledge, ‘aborigines could not occupy defined territories’.

´Could not occupy defined territories’.

Where did this idea come from?

It was part and parcel of an ideology called Terra Nullis.

Terra Nullis was a Latin term dating from the seventeenth century, when the Europeans began sailing to the furthest reaches of the world and laying claim to ‘areas of interest’. Terra Nullis indicated land which was ‘without settled inhabitants or settled law’. As such, it formed the antithesis of those areas of the world such as Indonesia, India, Japan and China, which were heavily populated and had cities, agriculture, governments, armies, Kings, great buildings and fortifications, as well as a written language, music, books and learning – and which were interesting for the Europeans for trade and conquest.

If the term Terra Nullis was a nautical term born out of European commercial interest, the problems began when it took root amongst the people who settled the newly established British colony of Australia. In that setting, it grew into an insidious philosophy which legitimized the white theft of indigenous land. In this perverse new version of Terra Nullis, only a civilized, settled people who were technologically developed had any claim to the land. Australia at the time of white settlement had been ‘empty land’ because the indigenous aborigines had not had ‘a relationship to the land’: i.e., they had not grown crops or raised animals in paddocks. Terra Nullis was a convenient way to avoid any kind of moral responsibility for the brutality of dispossession and at the same time, it distorted how Australia gathered and interpreted knowledge about pre-white Australia. Racist attitudes and the fabrication of the past permeated Australia’s institutions.

And not only in Australia.  

Deeply entrenched in western science was the idea that ‘primitive peoples’ constituted a life form which fell somewhere between ‘civilized’ human beings and the animal kingdom. It had appeared during the 19th century when revolutionary advances in technology had allowed the Europeans to effortlessly colonize great swathes of the world. These revolutionary advances in technology, which had clear benefits for the human race, were also accompanied by ignorance and prejudice. Darwin’s theory of evolution became a new and powerful impulse behind biological race theories.

In 1830 for example, a Hottentot bushman in South Africa was dug up out of his grave and stuffed – like any other ‘wild animal’ – and sent to Paris, complete with traditional clothing and spear. It adorned a Paris café and later, was bought by a Spanish collector and ended up in a small museum in the town of Banoyes in Catalonia. Here it acquired the name of El Negro – ‘the Negro’. El Negro could have just as easily been an Australian aborigine – indeed, Ivaritji herself. Jacques Verraux, the French taxidermist responsible for robbing the grave and stuffing a human being, was by the standards of the time, not a bad man. He was a scientist; he worked with museums and eminent scientists of the day. He was a product of his times; he could have come from any other European country. 


It was the heritage of this grotesque mentality which Tindale was determined to challenge by compiling a tribal map of Australia. His aim was clear: to refute the idea that Australia had been ‘empty land’ at the time of white settlement. To confront his country with the reality of conquest and theft. Tindale was determined to put indigenous people ‘on the map’ in more ways than one.

In doing so however, he had to assemble an enormous quantity of data concerning the life and above all, the beliefs of different tribes from all over Australia. He had to follow the trails of the mind, the song poems by which the indigenous people had understood their world and to show that these trails were defined by boundaries, beyond which it was dangerous for a member of a tribe to go without explicit permission from the other tribes. He wanted to prove the existence of a complex pattern of possession and identity – of tribal homelands – which had existed for tens of thousands of years before the arrival of the white British.

Little wonder then that Tindale was keen to discuss the tale of Tjilbruke with Ivaritji. All over Australia there were many different versions of Tjilbruke. To construct his map, Tindale needed to document those ‘Tjilbrukes’. But there were many different Tjilbrukes, depending on the physical circumstances of a tribe’s existence. He had to document a whole series of complex relationships between the physical and the metaphysical. And he had to also show, in a time when there was no such thing as Carbon dating, that the indigenous peoples had occupied the land for a very long time; that they were an ancient people.

The sheer scale of Tindale’s endeavour was not considered a possibility by his contemporaries. He was regarded as a brilliant, but misguided man. Many fellow anthropologists openly ridiculed him.

So this is the man who met Ivaritji in late 1927 and took her photo.

Not long after Tindale met her at the South Australian Museum – Ivaritji died. Gentle, misty rain was buried in an unmarked grave. With her passing, the last witness of the traditional Kaurna people and their Dreaming vanished forever. Her ability to adjust and make the best of the situation and find a reason to laugh was her strength. And what a strength it was. She endured a life of hardship, poverty, humiliation, racism and loneliness and she did so with dignity and most extraordinary of all: a sense of humour.

When she was born, the white colonists had arrived in wooden ships and ridden horses. In the following decades came electricity, lights, tall buildings, radios, photo cameras, gramophones, trains, trams, trucks and cars; came a devastating war in Europe in which millions of men died in water-logged trenches.

In the following years, Tindale lived a frenetic life, regularly undertaking field trips to every corner of Australia, interviewing indigenous people and recording their stories, collecting artefacts, making films, and recording hundreds of different aboriginal vocabularies and ‘grammatical sketches’, which are still used today. Travelling around Australia in the 1920’s would have been very hard work indeed; there were no sealed roads and the motor car was in its infancy. Most people travelled by train.

When the Second World War came, he was sequestered to work in Washington because of his knowledge of Japanese and his ability to interpret seeming unrelated data. He was instrumental in breaking the Japanese code. After the war he could have walked into an academic job and in the fullness of time become a professor. Many in his position would have jumped at the chance. He had other ideas.

He returned to the South Australian Museum and continued his work on his map and collected date on field trips.

In 1974, his map was completed and published. It was a big year for the elderly, white haired Tindale.

Not only was his map published but in that very same year, a new method of calculating the age of artefacts called Carbon 14 dating was used to show that the Australian aborigines had inhabited the Australian continent for at least 30, 000 years. In the following years, as the technology for dating artefacts improved, it was established that the aborigines’ presence in Australia dated 50, 000, rather than 30,000 years; today, this has been revised to 65, 000 years, making the aborigines by far the oldest indigenous culture in the world.

For decades, Tindale had argued that the aborigines were an ancient race, indeed, this conviction had been central to his mission of compiling his tribal map. Consequently, he had been ostracised and ridiculed by many Australian scientists. Now, finally, he was vindicated.

He was not a man to gloat.

He joked: ‘I’ve got so much work to do, I can’t afford to die before I’m 120.’


On the second floor of the Australian Aboriginal Cultures Gallery at the South Australian Museum is a copy of Tindale’s map.

The first time I saw it, I had to do a double take. I felt disorientated. It was almost a physical reaction. 

The outline of the continent, its coastline, was familiar enough. The rest of it certainly wasn’t. Imprinted on my mind was another, very different kind of Australia. It was the country I was raised with, it was the country I was taught to memorize by rote at school: to be able to draw on a blank piece of paper without the slightest hesitation, correctly placing the borders, major cities and towns, highways and ranges. It was my parents’ Australia, the country which was ‘discovered’ and explored and ‘civilized’ by the white British.

On the map I was looking at, there were no dots, big ones and small ones, to indicate the major cities and towns; no network of lines, like arteries and veins, to indicate the highways and roads; no state borders, those long straight lines which looked as if the continent had been divided up by someone with a pencil and a ruler. This was a very different version of the country which had been stamped on to my brain at school. There was a mass of small areas (at least small in comparison with one of today’s states), each one a different size and shape. Each area had a name. Australia looked more like a map of Europe with its numerous countries, regions and provinces, than the Australia I was familiar with.

Tindale’s map was a picture of a country which had vanished long ago. If every map encapsulated a picture, then this was a picture of the past – but one which was still relevant to today. It was an accusation at the address of a nation, one involving racism, ignorance and smallness of spirit. It was a cry for justice and redemption; for change.

Beneath Tindale’s map is a block of explanatory text:  

“This is Norman B Tindale’s map of Australian aboriginal tribal territories depicted at the time of European conquest. With the accompanying catalogue describing each group, the map was published in 1974. It represents more than fifty years of research.

This is a political map in the broadest sense. Its publication was a radical challenge to the popular notion that Australia was Terra Nullis, empty land. On a detailed level it shows the tremendous complexities of aboriginal social, religious and cultural relationships, which existed and still exist, in this country. Few other documents have had such an influence on the way we think about this country and its people.” 

A ‘political map’ – this from a man who had zero interest in politics.






1  The Song Poem

The Song Poem was first depicted in Ted Strehlow’s famous book ‘Songs of Central Australia’ – published in 1974, the same year as Tindale’s map – and often seen as the best non fiction work ever published in Australia. 

Strehlow was never happy with the term ‘songs’ of Central Australia pointing out that there were also poems. 

In ‘Songs of Central Australia’, Strehlow did something no one had ever done before: he recorded the songs/poems of an aboriginal people and put them into a European context. Firstly, he put the songs of the Aranda people into the notes and bars used by westerners to record their music – pages of his book are filled with musical scores; secondly, he explained the songs in terms of their poetic power and described how they gave meaning to the physical landscape and its plants, insects, animals and geographic features; thirdly, he compared these songs/poems to the folklore of pre-industrial Europe and described how they addressed similar themes – at the same time, he compared them, in the subtlety and complexity of their form, to the works of great European composers such as Bach and Handel. 

It was after reading Strehlow’s book that British author Bruce Chatwin wrote ‘Songlines’, referring to the way that indigenous mind maps indicated dreaming trails which often extended for hundreds of kilometres.



2 El Negro

Much has been written about El Negro. Probably the best known account – and which I read some years ago – is from Dutch non fiction writer Frans Westerman: ‘El Negro and Me’.


3 Animal Skin Cloak

The cloak that Ivaritji is wearing in Tindale’s photo – which is on display inside the same glass cabinet as the photo – is one of the few in existence. Most of the indigenous people in pre-white Australia never wore any kind of clothing. They ‘dressed’ themselves with their body art done in ochre and clay. The Kaurna it transpired – as well as some other tribes inhabiting the southern regions of Australia – were an exception. Living in areas where the winters were cold and wet, they made themselves cloaks from the skins of kangaroos, wallabies and possums, which were stitched together with the sinews from kangaroo and wallaby tails. It was like a big heavy blanket. It was worn by placing it over one shoulder and under the other and fastened at the neck with a small piece of bone. Cloaks were worn with the fur inside or outside depending on the weather: if it was raining the fur would be worn on the outside, providing its wearer with the same waterproof qualities that it had provided to the animals from which the hides had come. If it was cold and dry, the cloak was worn with the fur inside, for warmth. The cloaks were also used as rugs to sleep on at nights.

It was Ivaritji’s idea to wear the cloak, not Tindale’s. 

One can imagine her, near the end of her life, being overwhelmed by nostalgia and homesickness at the sight of that cloak. And so there we have it, that wonderful, haunting, painful gift to prosperity:  the last survivor of Tjilbruke’s people, wearing the last surviving example of an animal skin cloak. The best source of information is from Adelaide historian Tom Gara. I used his article ‘The Life of Ivaritji (‘Princess Amelia’) of the Adelaide Tribe.’ Journal of the Anthropological Society of South Australia 28, nos. 1 & 2 (1990): 64–104.








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