Black Diggers tells the tale of a decision at once contradictory and extraordinary: that of thousands of Indigenous Australians to fight in World War I for the same white settler colonial government that massacred them and stole their lands. While the play draws clear parallels between colonialism and the war, it also shows how Indigenous people saw the war as an opportunity to overcome the wounds of colonialism—to join the Australian nation rather than staying irreconcilably “other” to it. In its dozens of vignettes and handful of interwoven plot lines, the play shows how this sacrifice was both utterly rational and deeply ironic, repaid in some limited ways during the war but completely forgotten after the Allies’ victory.
The play’s Indigenous characters recognize, some openly and some implicitly, that the Australian nation is founded on the theft and plunder of their lands and culture. It is no accident that the first scene depicts a group of white settlers massacring Aboriginal people in Bellender Ker, Queensland in order to take their land. This scene positions the white settlers’ genocide of Aboriginal peoples as not only the foundational injustice that sets up Indigenous people’s subsequent struggles, but also as the critical moment in the foundation of the Australian nation. In other words, it is impossible to separate Australian national identity from the genocide of Australia’s Indigenous peoples.
Some of the play’s characters recognize this: when the young soldier Bertie returns after the war, his grandad reminisces endlessly about how his land used to be before Europeans took it. In fact, his traumatic fixation on his land clearly parallels the veteran diggers’ fixation on the war, and Bertie’s grandfather promises Bertie that he will never truly find acceptance in Australia—although he also jokes that he does not even know what “Australia” means. At his first battle at the Dardanelles, Laurie sees the irony in “arriving in boats uninvited on someone’s beach after his ancestors were decimated by white settlers’ analogous violation of Indigenous Australians’ sovereignty and humanity. The patriotic songs that punctuate the play, like “Sons of the Southern Cross” and “Tattooed Lady,” show how Australian white settlers justify taking land and massacring its inhabitants precisely by constructing a national identity around natural features of the land they expropriated.
Facing exclusion from a nation built without their consent on their land, the Aboriginal Australians in this play see the military as a means to integrate into the nation and an opportunity to shed their “otherness.” To an extent, they fulfill this dream during the war. Immediately after the initial scene of plunder set in 1884, the play shows a Retired Schoolmaster telling Indigenous characters Harry, Norm, Bob, and Ern about their “duty” to fight in the war and to prevent “Turks” and “Huns” from taking over Europe. While he suggests that they do have a role in defending “their” country (even though the country is built on the theft of their lands), he also imagines the war as a struggle for white racial purity (even though the diggers ultimately end up fighting white Germans). In a scene shortly thereafter, Ern makes the promise of integration through military service (nearly) explicit. He says, “if you can fire a gun and stand in a sun, they might pretend to forget you’re…” (he clearly means “forget you’re Aboriginal”). In some limited ways, these promises are fulfilled—the diggers are allowed to feel part of the Australian nation for the first time by joining the military, and they are acknowledged as such by their fellow soldiers. A number of white soldiers come to Harry’s defense when a white Private starts berating him, for instance, and Ern and Harry both form friendships with white soldiers who promise to treat them as equals after the war.
But, when they return to Australia after the war, the black diggers never win the acceptance they were promised: in fact, they are forced to confront the continuity between the forces they are fighting against and the settler militia forces that stole Australia from them in the first place—and whom they are now fighting for. At first, the diggers are technically disqualified from serving in the military because only “Substantially European” people can serve (even though the Recruiting Sergeant easily lets them lie their way past this requirement). Just thereafter, a newscasting voice praises Australian fighters as demonstrating “the greatness of the White Man,” ironically valorizing Australia through praise for those who colonized the land, while erasing the people who are actually from Australia. And when he is captured as a Prisoner of War at Zössen, Nigel listens to a German guard lecture about the evils of British colonialism and discusses with three Indian soldiers their need to wage a war against their colonizers. After they sustain injuries, Norm, Bob, and Ern sit in the hospital disillusioned, wondering which “Australia” they were fighting for: their land, or the government that is occupying it. Most starkly, when they return to Australia, the Indigenous soldiers get kicked off their land again to make room for soldier settlements—but never get settlements themselves. When this happens to Mick, another soldier, he realizes that the war “[is] never going to end” for Indigenous Australians.
Ultimately, Black Diggers points out not merely the profound injustice in making the victims of colonial aggression in Australia fight against colonial aggression in Europe, or even the way that these people were lured into their service by the false promise of finally becoming seen as full members of the nation built on their own stolen land. It is, more fundamentally and more importantly, also an attempt to rewrite the myth of nationhood—that Australia is a white country built on “empty” land, which sent white soldiers to fight along white Europeans in World War I—by showing how Indigenous Australians continually lived the shadow of this story, suffering immensely in and through the Australian nation’s creation and nevertheless fighting valiantly for its interests in the war.
Australian Nationhood and Indigenous Dispossession ThemeTracker
Australian Nationhood and Indigenous Dispossession Quotes in Black Diggers
Full-blood, too. Unusual. Perfect specimen. And if I’d been only five minutes later … it’s all chance, and fate. [To the baby] Look at you. Back from the dead, if only you knew it.
RETIRED SCHOOLMASTER: Think about what it might mean, if swathes of Mahommedan Turks or creeping armies of sausage-breathed Huns over-ran our country, imposing their foreign ways, interfering with our women. Imagine the horrors of what it would be like if we were to lose, and you wake up one morning and find us all under occupation.
HARRY: Yeah. Imagine.
They laugh. The old bloke moves on muttering under his breath. They join him, mimicking him at first, but one of them has a bass-drum, their parade of mimicry becomes a rallying march.
NIGEL: Father, what happened to my aborigine parents?
TAXIDERMIST: You know that, little man. They died.
NIGEL: How did they die?
TAXIDERMIST: I’ll tell you one day. Look, a chimpanzee. They are our closest relatives.
NIGEL: Why not now?
TAXIDERMIST: Because you’re not ready yet.
NIGEL: Ready for what?
TAXIDERMIST: The world—the bigger, grown-up world—is a complicated, difficult place. You should enjoy every moment of your childhood. Plenty of time for truth later.
ERN: Soldiers. If you can fire a gun and stand in the sun, they might pretend to forget you’re …
It needed to be seen; these extraordinary specimens, these gallant figures, resolute as they were silhouetted against a foreign sky, they had the toughness, the ingenuity of the land of their birth. They had come to the other side of the globe to defend noble ideals; to protect motherhood, the safety of law, the sanctity of liberty, to fight for their King and all His Majesty carries … truly, from some confused, even shambolic frontier, the Australian has arrived. Fair, clear of eye, the finest of the British race cast anew under a southern sun. These boys are us, those that remain; those that returned. The greatness of the White Man, rendered greater still by peril, fighting not just for God and Empire, but to define what it is to be a man, an Australian man, in this our young Commonwealth …
Australia. Never heard of it.
Your folks do something, over in the West? [BERTIE shrugs] I wouldn’t know where to begin. His you know, his soul will be stuck here. You know what I mean. With all these trees, they will grow here one day all these—what do you call them? Elms and oaks and all that. And all these hedges and the flowers and we don’t know the names of any of them. And when they burn the smoke is different and will lead him a different way.
You must all see now, having been captured, that you have been used and abused. You are victims of your oppressive masters, who brutally seized your lands and took from you your birthrights. You are little more than slaves until you rise up and throw off the shackles of your British masters. The time for being lickspittles has ended, this war and the inevitable defeat of Great Britain has washed it all away. The question is, who will acknowledge they have been made fools, have been kept children, have accepted their own slavery? It is Time to fight, to fight against your oppressors, for a free India, for free Africa…
It might have passed some of the less observant of you, but I happen to be aboriginal. My ancestors came up from Mackey river way. And I’m proud of it. But I have to say, thank God for the Army. Thank God for the uniform and the chance to serve. Because when I was a whippersnapper and first joined up I was just another woebegone failure. And in the army, you earn your way. You take on dignity. A dignity perhaps that no-one was going to let you have back home. But in the service, you are forged into something … not white, you’re not erased of your past, but it’s … it’s … incorporated into who you are, and you realize — maybe in those hideous moments in hell on earth, maybe on parade, maybe with mates, I don’t know — you realize, “I belong.” And I came back, and like you gentlemen I found myself identifying with Australia. It wasn’t for them or about them. It was for me too.
For you the war’s over. What’s starting to dawn on me is that, for us, it’s never going to end.
REPORTER: Surely the letter’s point is about the massacre up in the Territory?
EDITOR: No-one’s interested in payback in the back of Bourke. An Aborigine who can write like this is a much better story. He must be doing all right for himself, mustn’t he?