The Kadaitcha Sung – remembering Sam Watson

“the one god, a greater being, (who) made his camp on the rich veldts and in the lush valleys of the South Land” – Sam Watson describing the aboriginal spirit, Baiame in his novel, The Kadaitcha Sung.

The Kadaitcha Sung – A novel by Sam Watson Penguin Books (1990) – a review

This began as a review of Sam Watson’s book but has turned into a remembrance the life and times of this aboriginal leader. We are coming close to the second anniversary of Sam Watson’s death. This is a great personal and public loss for Brisbane Blacks and socialists in Meanjin. It is worth looking at a novel The Kadaitcha Sung that Sam wrote in the late 1980s to appreciate why. Sam told the 1993 Melbourne Writers festival that The Kadaitcha Sung is the first in a series. In this novel Sam used techniques from the paperback crime and adventure novel to portray the lives of blackfullahs in places like South Brisbane and Cribb Island which he calls Coontown in the novel. The people who lived at Cribb Island near the mouth of the Brisbane River were evicted, their shanty houses demolished and bulldozed, the mangroves destroyed and land fill piled on top. It is now the one of the runways of Brisbane International Airport.

Aboriginal Myth

It does not seem that long ago that I learnt about Baiame. It was ‘Budger’ Davidson, one of the Purga Elders from Deebing Creek west of Ipswich that explained to me who was the spirit, Baiame. We were sitting in a tent in Musgrave Park during the 30th anniversary of the Commonwealth Games protests in November 2012. And it was Sam Watson’s play The Mack that had revealed to me the significance of the Kadaitcha (clever) man, a mixture of superhero and spiritual leader. The Mack was put on at the Judith Wright Centre in Fortitude Valley in the early 2000s.

I suppose my lack of knowledge of common myths of aboriginal people is not surprising given that they were never mentioned in Queensland schools or universities. But it is surprising given that even in my own family we have books written by our forebears who knew aboriginal myth, culture and legend only a few generations ago. One of my grandfathers, Edward M Curr, even wrote a book in four volumes about The Australian Race: its origin, languages, customs, place of landing in Australia, and the routes by which it spread itself over that continent.

The Macquarie Dictionary 2nd Edition, 1991 offers these definitions: Kadaitcha, also Kadiatcha spirit. A malignant spirit, esp. one invoked to do harm to someone else as an act of tribal retribution …. of or pertaining to a kadiatcha. A Kadaitcha Man, among tribal Aborigines, a man empowered to avenge a grievance held by a tribal member, by pointing the bone at the wrongdoer].

Sadly little significance was given to the vast culture of aboriginal people by my family while I was growing up. This was despite my family’s direct role in the taking lands from aboriginal people only a few generations ago, firstly in Van Diemen’s Land and then North Queensland. I say vast culture because, prior to colonisation, some of the aboriginal elders could recite over 20,000 songslines or stories. As recently as 1996 John Howard refused to say Sorry for the terrible loss of this rich culture caused by colonisation, no doubt he was hoping the whole question would simply go away, be forgotten or pushed into the background by the more recent achievements by European settlers.

But, as Henry Reynolds points out this whispering in out hearts is hard to shake.

Arundhati Roy put it this way: “The trouble is that once you see it, you can’t unsee it. And once you’ve seen it, keeping quiet, saying nothing, becomes as political an act as speaking out. There’s no innocence. Either way, you’re accountable.”


Sam Watson sets out in The Kadaitcha Sung to make sure his readers know and remember these myths. Watson is angry and he ‘shouts’ out the terrible violence that has been committed in the name of European civilisation. Particularly the murderous deeds of the Native Mounted Police. The book is a mix of social realism and aboriginal mythology. Some critics say it is mysogynist and anti-gay. Lisa Hill who helped organise the ANZ LitLovers Indigenous Literature week in 2019 claims that “It’s a nasty book, full of vengeful violence, drunken brawls, racist hate-filled sprays, and brutal exploitative sex against women and gays.”

Ms Hill questions why Sam Watson was given the National Indigenous Writer of the Year award in 1991 for The Kadaitcha Sung. This was prior to John Howard becoming prime minister and we can be pretty sure it would take a brave panel of judges to give Sam Watson this award were Howard in control. The publication (1991) by Penguin books of The Kadaitcha Sung predates Keith Windschuttle’s declaration of the history wars in The Fabrication of Aboriginal History (2002), a text full of lies about the level of colonial violence in nineteenth-century Van Diemen’s Land.

Some critics have written complete nonsense about the author and the book. For example, BUCKLEY, BATMAN & MYNDIE: Echoes of the Victorian culture-clash frontier compiled by David Kyhber Close falsely claims:

Watson was born a Torres Strait Islander, and as such belonged not to the land of the Rainbow Serpent, but to the even less understood culture of Mer with its octopus Creator. That as a cultural outsider he still felt ethically enabled to construct his novel and has not to my knowledge been called a culture parasite on the Aborigines, opens the way for other ‘New Australians’ such as myself to have my say.”

Sam Watson was not from the Torres Strait, his mob was the Chepara people that were part of the Yuggera language group. Sam’s grandfather was Birigubba. Sam had a bloodline connection to the Mununjali clan (around Beaudesert) and to the Bwgcolman on Palm Island in North Queensland. He also had connection with the Quandamooka of Minjerribah (Stradbroke Island). So his family’s country stretched from the border ranges out to the foothills of the Toowoomba range all the way up to the north Coast and out into Moreton Bay (Quandamooka). All of these tribes recognise the Rainbow Serpent and Sam’s Auntie Kath had the Rainbow Serpent as her totem. To my knowledge Sam Watson had no bloodline connection to the people of Mer but Sam always acknowledged the importance of Uncle Eddie Mabo and his people in the aboriginal struggle for land rights.

The Acts

Sam Watson was an expert on the Acts – a group of laws that subjugated most of his people. Sam had this to say about such legislation and how his grandfather liberated his family from these cruel laws:

“Grandfather [the first Sam Watson] was a senior man of the Birigubba tribe, in Bowen Basin country. Right back to his generation, our family have been the sort of people who wouldn’t accept the sort of bullshit that Aboriginal people have been expected to live with. When he was five, grandfather Watson was sold into bondage to a white station owner in central Queensland. After his day’s work, he was chained up like a dog under the station house and fed on a tin plate.” Fleeing this treatment, he worked in ring-barking camps until he had enough money to hire a lawyer who had him freed from the Aboriginal Protection Act, one of the first Aboriginal people to do so”Vale Uncle Sam Watson by Ray Bergman.


Privilege over poverty
There is a lot of violence, alcohol and sex in the book.

The Kadaitcha Sung by Sam Watson

In contrast to the criticism of Ms Hill about the sex and violence in The Kadaitcha Sung, Kath Walker’s response was she “slapped me on the forehead and called me a dirty little bugger,” Watson says, about Oodgeroo’s reaction when she read his novel. “The story had a bit of sex and violence in it, but she chuckled, gave me a hug and said, ‘That’s terrific.”‘

There was a lot of hidden sex and violence in Queensland during the years covered by the book. This was covered up by the homespun deceptions by those in political power at the time, particularly the Bjelke-Petersens, Joh and Flo. ‘Lady Flo’ (nee Florence Isabel Gilmour) helped create the myth with her love of pumpkin scones. This myth was enthusiastically taken up by the mainstream media. The reality was quite different. Petersen’s wife attained political power using down home Christian values by softening her husband’s hard edge. She also played both sides of the fence in a two party state, often crossing the floor to vote with the other side. Gilmour was raised in the wealthy Brisbane riverside suburb of New Farm, starting her schooling at the New Farm State School, and later attending the elitist Brisbane Girls’ Grammar School. Long before she met Joh the future ‘Lady Flo’ was employed as a private secretary to the Queensland Commissioner for Main Roads. Gilmour was the product of an inner city upbringing far from the rural power base of her party, the Nationals. Her simple, homespun sayings and her recipes formed part of the Queensland National Party’s promotion of Bjelke-Petersen’s “personality cult”.

Only a short distance from her comfortable family life in New Farm was the hard edge of corruption and violence, in Brisbane’s Fortitude Valley. This cesspit sported the highest number of murders in the state (in Kent Street), it was the home of anti-gay violence (diagonally across the corner from the Sunday Sun, the Hacienda Hotel), of prostitution (open selling of sex from the footpath in Brunswick Street), drug trafficking and illegal brothels (612 Brunswick Street), casinos (above Pinnochio’s Restaurant) and after hours drinking in nightclubs. All controlled by a corrupt police force from top to bottom. This was regularly denied by the Minister for Everything, Russ Hinze. Her partner in crime was a former special branch cop known to the waterside workers as Shady Lane. In 1971 Donald Frederick Lane was elected as the Liberal member for Merthyr, an electorate which included both New Farm and Fortitude Valley. During Lane’s time with the Police, he received bribes from Jack Reginald Herbert, the Chief Organiser of The Joke, and the “Rat Pack” of Terry Lewis (Commissioner), Tony Murphy (Licencing) and Glenn Hallahan (Licencing) well. Following the 1983 Queensland state election Lane’s cover up of crime and violence was rewarded by the National Party and he, along with Brian Austin, was given Ministerial leather in order to more effectively gerrymander and malapportion seats to increase National Party political control.

Police oversaw the burning down of the Whiskey Au Go Go nightclub on 8 March 1973; at the time, Australia’s biggest mass murder. Police involved, some still alive, have evaded detection and prosecution despite the re-opening of the inquest in 2021, nearly 50 years after the first.


Sex lies and anger
The control of sex and violence by a corrupt police force was aided by police magistrates and a supine judiciary. This was confronting, including some who were raised inside sexually repressive Christian churches. The sexual revolution of the 1960s bypassed many in Queensland. Sexual expression was not encouraged and was largely repressed, and perhaps still is but in different ways. Regarding the black anger in the book, perhaps this is an act of self-help to overcome the author’s own experience of violence and racism.

There was little opportunity for aboriginal people to get access to a good mainstream education. For example, Sam Watson’s Uncle Len was one of the first aboriginal people (if not the first) to attend the University of Queensland, at that time (in the1960s) the only tertiary institution in the state.

Sam Watson’s dedication in the frontispiece reads: “To Catherine (his wife) Wagan (his son) and Mai-Ra (daughter?). Into that place where reined chaos and despair, you brought love and hope and laughter so rare. Thank you …”

Lisa Hill curiously asks if the “cosmological myth” about the Rainbow Serpent is “the author’s creation or an authentic myth”.  She states “It might be an amalgam of several myths, as the myth underlying the ABC’s Cleverman series apparently was?” I have sympathy for Ms Hill’s confusion given the lack of formal education about aboriginal culture, the deceptions and the lies told by our leaders in academia (the history wars) and politics (the Bjelke-Petersens, Peter Beattie, John Howard, Scott Morrison). However I question whether a non-indigenous person with little knowledge of aboriginal culture is the best person to curate an Indigenous Literature week or even to pass judgement on whether Sam Watson is a deserving winner of the National Indigenous Writer of the Year award.

I would like to say something about the author. Some critics allege that the text of ‘The Kadaitcha Sung‘ is misogynist and homophobic. I ask does that reflect on the author? This is a work of fiction … it is a novel. Portrayal of misogyny and homophobia in society is not the same as the author being a woman-hater or anti-gay. The character, Tommy Gubba, is the protagonist in ‘The Kadaitcha Sung’. Watson does share some limited biographical similarity with the author who, like others, has drawn on life experiences and imagination to portray the character who is Tommy. For example both Sam Watson and Tommy were studying law and encouraged to do so by their aboriginal families, perhaps even to help them resist the racist attacks coming from the dominant paradigm in Australian society. Both Sam and Tommy gave up the law, presumably because the contradictions were too great. The legal system of the early 1970s in Australia was oppressive to aboriginal people. First Nations people had only just been recognised as being human beings and not fauna and therefore counted in the census as a result of the 1967 referendum.

The narrator tells of violent, racist, homophobic and misogynist attacks on migloo and balckfellas alike in the book. Tommy Gubba who is an advisor and translator in the legal aid division of an Aboriginal charitable trust,handling Death in Custody cases, is also being trained as a Kadaitcha by a bird Ningi and an imp Jonjerrie for a supernatural struggle ahead to restore the good spirit Baiame to his rightfull place in the Dreamtime.

Lisa Hill says the book is racist. Its protagonist surely is but does that make the novel a racist book. I think not.

“So, Kadaitcha, shall we try you for your evil designs? Isn’t taking an innocent life murder, Tommy Gubba?”
“No migloo who walks on this land is innocent. They are all guilty! And they shall all be punished for what they have done.”
“And they will be. You can be sure of that, young Kadaitcha,” Ningi was calm again. “But first you must learn patience. You must acquire cunning and skill. The evil that you will face was old when the earth you walk upon was young.”
“l do try, Ningi.” Tommy sounded repentant although his eyes still registered defiance. “It’s just … I don’t know. I live amongst the migloo and I just cannot love them. They are a mongrel-bred race, Ningi, and the land could only survive if every one of that seed were dead!”
The Kadaitcha Sung p131.

Tommy becomes a subversive who sees no hope in the white system of justice. It must be overcome by violence and he launches a scheme to visit an illegal death on the evil Booka of the Native Mounted Police. Tommy is arbitrarily hung for the murder of a cop whom he does not even know.

It is hard to reconcile some of the stories in the book with the man of peace that I knew. In literature there is a construct known as ‘the implied author‘. Distinct from the author (Sam) and the narrator (Tommy), the term refers to the “authorial character” that a reader infers from a text based on the way a literary work is written. Can we imply that the angry and violent man, Tommy, reflects the character and way of life of Watson the author? This takes some thought and knowledge of the time prior to the writing of the book. Sam Watson’s life had similarities with Tommy, the protagonist in the book. For example, they were both law clerks and were encouraged to take up the law as a profession by their mentors and elders. Both chose not to, probably because of the contradictions that would entail. How could Sam Watson be part of a system that so relentlessly put down his people and permitted so many to die in custody and at times to set about murdering aboriginal men and women. A system that took away their children and robbed them of autonomy of whom they should marry or associate with.


Murder most foul
I remember an incident at Parliament House in George Street Brisbane (Meanjin) in 2006.

Cameron ‘Mulrunji’ Doomadgee had been murdered by Snr Sergeant Chris Hurley on Palm Island on 19 November 2004. Sam Watson led a demonstration to parliament after the head of the DPP, Leanne Clare, refused to charge Hurley despite a finding by Coroner Clements that the police officer had killed Mulrunji in the Palm Island watchouse.

At the gates of parliament there were large numbers of police and security. Then Premier Peter Beattie came to the gates and offered Sam an invitation into the parliament as part of a delegation. An irritating tactic by Beattie to diffuse an angry situation. Sam declined saying we were there to obtain justice for Cameron Doomadgee and his family.

Beattie then asked to speak to the crowd. Sam arranged for me to provide Beattie with a microphone so that the angry crowd could hear what the Premier had to say.

Beattie then performed a masterstroke of appeasement telling the crowd that he intended to refer the matter to an independent arbiter, Sir Lawrence Street, a retired judge from New South Wales.

Lawrence Street was known to people in media circles as being the husband of Jessie Street, who was a supporter of workers and the poor in the 1960s. For example, Jessie Street was once invited across the class curtain by communist waterside worker Alby Graham to visit the waterside workers club at the top of Adelaide Street in Brisbane. The famous Black American actor and singer, Paul Robeson, was there as part of a tour to support workers’ rights including singing to the building workers on the construction site of the Sydney Opera House. And the wharfies wanted the high profile human rights activist Jessie to join in!

Anyhow Lawrence Street recommended that Hurley be charged with manslaughter. He was tried and acquitted by an all white jury in Townsville a racist, army town.

Watson has a right to be angry when confronted by incidents like this coupled with Anglo Australia’s collective ignorance of the vast history and culture of his people. I knew Sam Watson on and off for many years and found him to be a positive person, a builder not a destroyer, a man of peace. Only once did he engage in violence against the cops and that was when Daniel Yock, a close aboriginal ‘brother’ was killed by police in West End. For the most part Watson unlike the protagonist Tommy in The Kadaitcha Sung kept his anger in check.

Watson was certainly not misogynist or anti-gay. Sam Watson reached out to everyone regardless of gender, creed or race.

Sam Watson had a strong affinity for his Auntie Kath, as he called her. Sam spoke of Oodgeroo with admiration on many occasions. He wrote a play about her life Oodgeroo: Bloodline to Country reviewed in these pages by Rosemary Sorensen. Many of the myths in Kadaitcha are to be found in Oodgeroo’s book Stradbroke Dreamtime. Oodgeroo was a good educator. I can remember attending forums in the early 1970s at Moongalba on Minjerribah where Auntie Kath told students of all races about the strong connection that aboriginal people had to the land and to the animals, plants on her island. She told us how aboriginal people sought and obtained help from dolphins in catching sea mullet that run along the beaches each year from May to August. Kath Walker explained to us the old ways of how Aboriginal fishermen and local dolphins used to cooperate to catch the big patches of mullet as they ran close to the beaches. More than 180 generations of aboriginal fishermen caught mullet in those ways.

An early edition (first published by Angus & Robertson in 1972) of Stradbroke Dreamtime

But Kath Walker was more than a poet and writer, she was an activist seeking change. Her son Dennis (Bejam) and Sam followed in her footsteps and set up the Black Panther Party here in Brisbane (Meanjin). Both Kath and Sam were conflicted about Dennis who was a clever man but also violent. Denis beat up on women and stabbed comrades. His anger would spill over into the public arena, he threatened to murder the first black President of the University of Queensland Students Union, Jim Varghese. When Jim reported Denis to police, the Left supported Denis and he was kept out of jail. Auntie Kath also had a gay son who committed suicide. Somehow Kath Walker’s strength and resilience came through. Hear her torment in this poem, Son of Mine:

This is the context within which Sam Watson wrote The Kadaitcha Sung. Sam has used Auntie Kath’s Dreamtime stories and brought them into a time of street violence and police murder where the myth of the noble savage is trodden under foot. All the characters of the Dreamtime are there: Biamee, the Bunyatt, the Rainbow Serpent, the Kadaitcha: Koobara and Booka. Sam Watson has used his imagination to tell a story set during the Joh years in Queensland. A time when there was no sex education in schools, where sitting down and being quiet for 12 years was mandatory for school kids.

It is hard for following generations to understand the damage done during those years. The racism led to the police murder of Daniel Yock in 1993, a young dancer close to Watson and his countryman, Lionel Fogarty. The Royal Commission that ensued was headed up in Brisbane by Labor lawyer Lou Wyville who made recommendations that were never implemented by successive Queensland governments causing even more deaths in custody.

I remember the 2007 May Day march and rally in the Exhibition grounds when Sam Watson was about to step up onto the alternative platform. Kevin Rudd was on the main platform saying that he was here to help. The Left had hurriedly organised an alternative platform in the lead up to 2007 elections when Howard was defeated by Kevin 07 and even lost his own safe Liberal seat of Bennelong.

Just as Sam was about to give a welcome to country, he got a call from the Police Commissioner reporting a serious incident in the Fortitude Valley watchouse. This incident led to a death in custody. So Sam had to go and console the family of the young aboriginal man who lay in a coma in the Royal Brisbane hospital but later died of those injuries sustained after a suspicious fall from the second storey of the Valley police station.

Sam would organise and turn up at every Black-Death-in-Custody rally seeking justice for his countrymen and women. He chaired every Invasion Day rally in Brisbane save for one … the time when Kevin Rudd said Sorry, Sam went to Canberra to witness the speech and to march with the new generation of first nations people. So close was Sam to his country here in Queensland and so strong were his ties to Brisbane Blacks that he told me that he felt conflicted about going.

It is little wonder that the main character (Tommy) in Sam’s story ends up being hung for murdering a copper he had never met. Watson writes:

“Baiame turns out to be a vengeful god. He had granted the demands (made by Tommy Gubba for powers to seek revenge on Booka); but once the heart had been restored to its rightful place and He had descended into the mortal plane, Baiame had called Tommy Gubba to answer. The novice had been cast down, stripped of his powers. Matters bad been arranged so that be would be dealt with by the migloo. Tommy had demanded vengeance; therefore the migloo must also be allowed payback. Tommy Gubba , was arrested and charged for the murder of a white policeman. Tommy did not even know the man, or how he bad died – it had been the work of Ningi or Jonjurrie. So be it. “Come on, come on. Get on with it” the judge demanded.

Tommy gave this address to the court prior to being sentenced for the murder of the unknown policeman:

Excerpt from p 311 of The Kadaitcha Sung by Sam Watson

In one sense, this is Sam Watson speaking, his words unfiltered and proud … this is the same Sam Watson that refused Peter Beattie’s invitation into the parliament to discuss the government’s refusal to prosecute Senior Sergeant Chris Hurley for the murder of Mulrunji Doomadgee. Sam’s refusal to be corrupted by the politicians won the support of his people and so when he died a gaping hole of leadership was left, yet to be filled.

At his funeral I am reminded of what Gary Foley said: “Native title is not Land Rights and Reconciliation is not Justice” – words that could easily have been said by Sam himself.

Then there are the sensitive and beautiful words of his son, Sam Wagan Watson:

revisiting childhood through that time-gauze of greying
back to a time
when the road seemed wider
but had the same volume of insanity

Dad always concrete at the wheel
Mum in the “Worry” seat
sharing with Dad,
the worries sometimes reaching the backseat
as the sporadic vapours got too heavy
and did their backdraft thing
upon our small foreheads
breathing in the pockets of
yet, we ride
our little bodies fading into the upholstery

the rear-view mirror
keeping its eye on us

– Sam Wagan Watson, Back Road in Smoke Encrypted Whispers UQP 2004

Aboriginal Cultural Centre

There is one more story which I would like to tell about Sam Watson.

Brisbane is the only capital city in Australia without an aboriginal cultural center.

.Sometime before Jackie Trad was unseated in the Queensland state elections of 2020 Sam asked me to come with him on a visit to the deputy premiers office to discuss an Aboriginal Cultural Center to be built in or near Musgrave Park which is the home of Brisbane Blacks.

It was evident from the outset of the meeting, that there was strong chemistry between Sam Watson and Jackie Trad, the member for South Brisbane.

They enjoyed each other’s company. Anyhow, when the question arose, Jackie made a statement which some could interpret as an offer to build the much longed for cultural centre. I didn’t see it as a precise offer. Certainly not when the Deputy Premier mentioned the figure $30 million as being the cost to build a cultural center appropriate for a city of this size and having a fairly large Aboriginal population.

Sam was unfazed by such a big figure so early in the negotiations. Sam joked: “We’re blackfellas Jackie, it should only cost you $10 million.

Unfortunately, Jackie Trad lost her seat and we will never see if she was serious. The Cultural Center is still yet to be built. Despite several generations of Brisbane Blacks wanting and needing a place where future generation of black fellows and white fellows can learn more about the vast Aboriginal culture of this South Land.


I am sad I never got a chance to discuss The Kadaitcha Sung with Sam Watson for in the making of that book somehow Sam managed to emerge proud and strong but without the corrosive anger contained in the book. We all have much to learn from this man and I congratulate that panel that had the courage to award Sam with the National Indigenous Writer of the Year award in 1991. However it may have been more a matter of Penguin jumping on a wave already begun with a number of indigenous authors publishing books. Penguin may even have been seeking a degree of notoriety given the amount sex and violence in the book.

Maybe Sam Watson really was a Kadaitcha man? Who knows what the good spirit in Sam Watson could have achieved had he lived a lifespan equivalent to the people who stole his country?

Ian Curr
30 October 2021

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