Olive Pink and The First Garden

Chris Raja

In the 1920s, almost forty years before Amnesty International first raised the awareness of human rights, Olive Pink was deeply distressed by what she read and heard about the massacres and brutal treatment of the Warlpiri and Aranda people who live in Central Australia. She sought to carry into reality her own idea of true equality for the tribal Aborigines of central Australia, a fairness firmly underpinned by full human rights and by cultural and economic independence. From the 1920s until her death in 1975 she scrutinised the actions of governments, civil servants, missionaries, academics, pastoralists, the courts and the police and wrote harshly worded criticisms to those whom she hoped would fix the defects she observed. When they botched things, she took her trepidation direct to the newspapers, to politicians, to the departmental heads of governments or even higher. She was often controversial. She argued against using ‘Aborigine’ as a term to describe all indigenous Australians, regardless of their way of life and integration into European social patterns. She arrived at this after seeing how unlike the interests of those still living on their ancestral lands was from those who had been displaced. All the same, she considered the removal of Aboriginal children from their families to missions as forced and unconscionable.

Since her death in Alice Springs, she has been the subject of many amusing and sometimes nasty stories and these were the stories that first caught my attention when I moved to the centre in 2004 but ever since I read Professor Julie Marcus’s biography The Indomitable Miss Pink A Life In Anthropology it’s been my aim to raise the profile of this remarkable Australian hero who was way ahead of her times and get her face on our currency. ‘She still haunts Alice Springs,’ writes Julie Marcus, ‘an elusive, ghostly presence.’

Drawing on Professor Marcus’s biography, lots of letters, many court documents, hundreds of diary entries and notes, ASIO files, listening to oral histories from a range of sources and informants, and with the help and support of Ben Convery, the curator of the Olive Pink Botanic Garden, our musical director Christopher Brocklebank, my wife, Natasha Raja, our director Steve Kidd and I began sketching a script and started to seek out a narrative for a play, The First Garden, about this astonishing woman, that will be a part of the 11th Alice Desert Festival which is an initiative of Red HOT Arts Central Australia and will be held in September. The 2011 program includes new initiatives such as the Darwin Symphony Orchestra performing orchestral arrangements of contemporary indigenous desert music with Warren Williams and Desert Divas and The First Garden theatre project at Olive Pink Gardens – a site specific theatre piece about Olive Pink written by us, in development with renowned dramaturge Peter Matheson. We got to work with someone as experienced as Peter through the assistance of a grant from Arts NT and this was of great benefit.

So why did we choose Olive Pink as our subject? Olive Pink led a life filled with extraordinary events and causes. Her story touches on numerous aspects of Australian history. But it is her garden and what it stands for that finally became our greatest curiosity. In October 1956, at the age of 72, Olive Muriel Pink set up her tent on the grounds of what is now Olive Pink Botanic Garden. From this tranquil location she lobbied NT politicians vigorously to establish a Flora Reserve to protect native flora and provide a site where locals could visit and learn about desert environments.

Miss Pink’s conflicts with administrators, missionaries, pastoralists and her anthropological colleagues are well-known and still talked about amongst the Alice Springs gentry. They often regarded her as an eccentric in Edwardian dress, ‘cantankerous to an extraordinary degree’. But today she can be seen for what she was – a trailblazing Aboriginal land rights activist and environmentalist.

Miss Pink was an unconventional woman. In 1930 at the age of 46 she travelled the railway to Alice Springs to see firsthand what ignominies were taking place against the indigenous peoples of central Australia and indulge her ardour for botanical drawing and collecting samples of native plants. Her first understanding of herself was as an artist and she painted Central Australian wildflowers, collected plants and made notes on their use by Aborigines, but when she happened to attend the trial of an Aboriginal person charged with murder she was incensed at the court’s disregard for traditional law. It fired her with an ambition to work for the Centre’s indigenous peoples.

She began to study anthropology in Sydney, however was soon disillusioned with the patronising attitudes she witnessed. Olive Pink was troubled by the role anthropologists played in training the colonial officials who ran the missions and reserves. ‘Contact anthropology’ was her answer. Subsequently she lived for several years among the Warlpiri and Aranda people of the Tanami Desert, eating their food and observing their ways. She also recorded the effects of missionary work on tribal life and developed her own idea for Aboriginal autonomy and dignity – a ‘secular sanctuary’, with herself as administrator.

There began one of Australia’s most remarkable political letter-writing campaigns. Her letters are chock-a-block with condemnation designed to disturb the official recipients. ‘”Compromise” or “tact” or “diplomacy” – all mean moral cowardice,’ she admonished. Such rebukes also meant political naivety, and Miss Pink lost her battle. ‘There is a war on,’ she was told in 1942 and her idea of land rights was expediently ignored.

Again disillusioned but still undefeated, she returned to the Tanami to continue the fight. With the help of trade unions she attempted to start a communal labour cooperative for the Warlpiri. She fought for communal mining rights, and female employment in Aboriginal affairs and she single-mindedly continued to write letters and speak out in an attempt to expose the truth believing that justice would inevitably follow. What effectively followed was a clandestine official report that Miss Pink was Red!

She took her tent, her botanical collection and her challenging presence back to Alice Springs. With the help of her Warlpiri warriors, gardeners and men, Johnny Tjampitjinpa and Jimmy Jungarai, she shaped Australia’s first arid zone flora reserve out of a plot of land in Alice Springs. Johnny’s story in particular resonated and caught my imagination and he has turned out to be one of the five characters in our play!

‘I worship trees and flowers,’ she wrote. ‘And especially the gallant ones of the arid regions of Australia.’

Although she found a consolation in her garden that persisted for the rest of her life, it didn’t soften her. Olive Pink felt very strongly that the early pioneer women should be commemorated more in place names and parks. ‘And with their first names,’ she wrote, ‘making it clear that they were women and not their husbands.’ She also argued that more Aboriginal place names should be used.

Miss Pink used the garden to make her proclamations. In the grounds, she assigned trees to the various politicians and public figures she lobbied and watered them or left them dry depending on whether they were in her favour.

Miss Pink lived in the reserve for nineteen years in very reduced circumstances until her death in 1975 at the age of 91. She planted native trees and shrubs as well as an eclectic collection of garden flowers, agaves and other introduced plants on her quarter acre block around her hut. One of Miss Pink’s much-loved plants appears to have been the Sturt Bean Tree (or Batswing Coral Tree: Erythrina vespertilio) and she planted over 30 of these trees from seed she collected from Aileron Station in the 1960s.

Olive Pink died in Alice Springs Hospital and is buried in the local cemetery within the non denominational section. After her death, the botanical garden she built was renamed the Olive Pink Botanic Garden and opened to the public in 1985 and this is where our play will premiere.

In a production conceived specifically for the Olive Pink Botanical Gardens, we have brought the Garden’s iconic namesake to life. Not only is the play about Olive Pink, the woman who took no prisoners in her quest to develop her life’s dream, it is also about how diverse cultures have valuable lessons for each other. Olive Pink’s life and character is the narrative heart of this work, a brash, no-nonsense woman born before her time who on moving to the Centre attempts to create a distinctive take on botanical gardens. She began with collecting all plants but became more specific over time, focusing on local plants and ecosystems. It is her relationship to the people who helped her succeed in her vision that is pivotal. Captain Harold Southern, her guardian angel who died on the slopes of Gallipoli, her Warlpiri friend Johnny Tjampitjinpa and the young Communist, Henry Wardlaw, guided a woman who wouldn’t be led, survived her sharp tongue and eccentricities, and allowed her to see her dream unfurl into reality.

In one final curious twist, even the naming of this amazing arid-zone botanic garden is one of numerous instances in which her wishes have been disregarded by posterity. Miss Pink did not want the garden named after her but preferred to call it the “Altjere-Tjukurpa Reserve”. Both are words for what people call “The Dreaming”.

Over the course of writing the play something unexpected took place. Natasha and I began gardening. As the play developed so did our garden and now we too are gardeners.

5 thoughts on “Olive Pink and The First Garden

  1. Chris, fantastic piece on the extraorindary Olive Pink and your play and collaboration with DSO sounds brill. I missed seeing a live performance of ‘Fierce’, Track’s production about Olive Pink but was able to watch a video recording of it (and excerpt of it as part of a Tracks retrospective at Darwin Festival). Do you have plans to make a audio visual recording of ‘The First Garden’?

  2. Thanks for some more enlightenment on this wonderful gutsy woman…as a temporary resident here in Alice Springs,she really has captured my imagination and her story is very inspiring – seems amazing she isn’t celebrated much more within wider Australia – I guess,like you say,she was ahead of her time,but one day I’m sure history will recognize her determination and compassion in regards to Indigenous issues.She was a true visionary.A wonderful idea to create the play.

  3. Hi Chris,

    Have you come across any connections between Olive Pink and Douglas Grant?

    “Interest in the approaching extinction of the Australian aboriginal is no more than it should be, and I appreciate the honor of being asked to express and opinion on the matter….” – DOUGLAS GRANT (Annandale Digger, 1928) http://ramin.com.au/blog/index.php?itemid=211&catid=22

    Memorable Production in Sydney

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