Black Diggers

Black Diggers

by

Tom Wright

Teachers and parents! Struggling with distance learning? Our Teacher Edition on Black Diggers can help.

Black Diggers: End Matter Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Two final documents are included in the book after the text of the play. First is “A Brief History of the Indigenous Diggers in World War I,” in which a researcher for the play, Dr. David Williams, explains that “Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were not considered citizens” at the beginning of World War One in 1914. They were forced onto reservations and faced extensive discrimination, but many decided to join the military, even though those “not of ‘substantially European descent’” were formally excluded. Some managed to enlist anyway, and in 1917 the law changed to allow “half-castes” to join.
The inclusion of this document serves to remind readers and audiences that Black Diggers was truly a team effort, with the director, researcher, and playwright all playing similarly important roles. The “Substantially European” criterion—something Norm, Bob, and Ern had to face in the play—was a collective hurdle for Indigenous soldiers, leading largely the most determined to make their way into the military, and the limited change in the law in 1917 shows how racist policy is at once flexible and unnecessarily specific (in order to proclaim a single truth about race).
Themes
Racism Theme Icon
History, Memory, and the Archive Theme Icon
Ultimately, 2,000 of Australia’s 80,000 Indigenous people joined the AIF, and—for the first time in any domain of Australian society—served on equal footing with whites. They fought in various places and served various roles; many were decorated, many never came back, and all who returned were again shunned by the government, which took much of the land it gave to veterans from Indigenous Australians. Indigenous veterans were often deprived of their promised pay and excluded from RSL groups. These soldiers’ contributions are an incredibly important part of Australian Indigenous history, and only beginning to be acknowledged on a wide scale in the 21st century. Many fallen indigenous soldiers “remain buried thousands of miles away from their ancestral homes,” and re-burial ceremonies represent an important next step toward honoring their service.
Although Indigenous soldiers left and returned to a racist society that made it nearly impossible for them to live complete lives, Williams makes clear that it was still a remarkable accomplishment for these soldiers to temporarily escape their condition through the military; again, the variety of stories in the play reflects the variety of stories from the archive and the play points forward to novel and necessary means of recognizing Indigenous soldiers in the future.
Themes
Racism Theme Icon
History, Memory, and the Archive Theme Icon
The final document included in Black Diggers is an email sent by Indigenous Army serviceman named Col. Watego, whose family also has a long history of military service. He thanks the producer, director, and actors for the production, which he considers important in six ways. First, it honors and “exemplifies the character of our Indigenous heroes,” who enlisted out of a protective instinct for Australia—a “Warrior Spirit”—and not out of political motives or a desire for glory. Secondly, the play recognizes the horrible conditions that Indigenous soldiers faced in the war, something the government failed to do—and this failure contributed to the prevalence of PTSD among Indigenous World War One veterans.
This document is a testament to the play’s power as a tool for commemoration and empowerment. Although some of Col. Watego’s arguments might conflict somewhat with the play (e.g. the notion that Indigenous soldiers’ motivation was their desire to protect Australia), his reaction to the play demonstrates that it is a unique and important step towards including Indigenous people in Australia’s narratives of its military history and national identity—and acknowledging the long histories of military service that already exist in some Indigenous families and communities.
Themes
War, Violence, and Shell Shock Theme Icon
History, Memory, and the Archive Theme Icon
Thirdly, Col. Watego continues, the play shows Australians how much Indigenous people were willing to sacrifice for their country. Fourthly, it shows the racial equality within the ADF, and fifthly, it shows how soldiers’ absence and return impacted their families. Finally, the play “tells a very, very positive yarn or story of how much WE ALL HAVE GROWN in our journey to the present,” and how much Indigenous soldiers’ contributions have contributed to that growth.
The end of Col. Watego’s letter emphasizes how histories like Black Diggers are meant to teach about “our journey to the present,” and how this story shows both the severity of the conditions Aboriginal Australians faced and their drive to overcome them, a full generation before conditions actually improved. It reminds Australians, in other words, that the struggle for Indigenous rights in their land is much longer than they might remember, relatively uninterrupted since colonial times, and largely made of everyday struggles for equality by those who are now forgotten or invisible.
Themes
Australian Nationhood and Indigenous Dispossession Theme Icon
Racism Theme Icon
History, Memory, and the Archive Theme Icon
Get the entire Black Diggers LitChart as a printable PDF.
Black Diggers PDF