The Aboriginal soldiers portrayed in Black Diggers suffer discrimination not only from the Australian state—which appropriates their land before and after the war, deprives them of wages and promised veterans’ benefits, and denies them respect as the original inhabitants of Australia and dedicated fighters in World War One—but also from other people they encounter, Australians and non-Australians alike, in their everyday lives. This discrimination is founded on an open and flagrant racism that justifies itself through pseudoscience—early anthropological attempts to rank the development of various human “races,” which inevitably put whites at the top. This play shows how racist ideology, while founded on supposedly objective science, is also flexible enough to accommodate feelings of equality and camaraderie during the war, and then revert back to square one after the fact, when it was no longer in white Australians’ interests to treat Indigenous people (including those who formerly fought by their side) as fully human.
The play shows how racism and discrimination, sanctioned by shoddy science, devastated Indigenous people before the war. Early in the play, many characters seek to escape racism by joining the military. In the play’s first scene, a group of settlers nearly kills Nigel, whom they call “a bloody picaninny” and talk about as a subhuman animal. But a Taxidermist decides to save him because he is a “perfect specimen.” A later scene shows that the Taxidermist has adopted Nigel as his son—but takes him to a museum to show him apes that are related to humans. When Nigel asks the Taxidermist about his parents, the man disappears. While science saves Nigel from being murdered, the Taxidermist is also clearly part of the colonial project that would have murdered him, charged with justifying the systematic slaughter and dispossession of Indigenous Australians by scientifically “proving” that they are the closest humans to apes. Nigel must relive this disturbing scene in the German Zössen POW Camp, where a professor asks to use him as an “anthropological specimen,” and then at the end of the play, when he (no doubt due to his race) is hired to wear a sign advertising the show “TARZAN THE APE MAN.” As scientists turn him into anthropological evidence rather than treating him as a living person, Nigel’s humanity, individuality, and dignity—not to mention his welfare—are severely threatened. Nigel’s suffering and sense of alienation in Australia are typical of the other diggers’ experiences, although these generally come out during flashbacks during the war—such as when Ern recalls that a fellow soldier’s father, the owner of his local bar, “took his belt to [Ern’s own father] a few times.”
While white soldiers do occasionally treat the black diggers as equals during the war, this is not because they have overcome racism, but only because they make exceptions to their usual racism. The moment they put on their uniforms, Norm, Ern, and Bob note that people seem to have “forgotten” that they are Indigenous. And when a white Private is outraged that Harry is allowed to share a meal with him, the other white soldiers come to Harry’s aid. But, afterwards, a song announces that “the white man needs us coloured boys now” because “the world’s turned upside down.” In other words, Indigenous men are only valued because of the temporary, exceptional, “upside down” state of the world at war. But, for the most part, the black diggers continue to face racism and discrimination during their service.
In one scene, white soldiers send Laurie on reconnaissance—a dangerous task to which he has already been disproportionately assigned—because of his “tracking skills” (even though he insists he grew up in a city). Later, a commander sends Nigel to enter the battlefield because he is the “shortest,” although ironically he ends up being the only one to survive a German attack. Four Trinidadian soldiers insult Mick for his race, calling him an “Australian nigger,” even though they are also black British colonial subjects. And when Archie beats a German soldier to death, he hears the soldier’s last words, which translate to “Black devil … last thing I see”; Archie’s blackness seems to bother the man more than the fact that he is being killed. Although Indigenous soldiers find their white compatriots reluctantly accepting in Europe, a white soldier reveals their underlying thought pattern to Harry by calling him “as good as a white man,” which shows that whites have not learned to see Indigenous Australians as equals, but rather learned to see Aboriginal servicepeople as better than the rest of the Aboriginal population.
After the war, however, the Indigenous veterans face the same racism they lived with before it in Australia and are dismayed to see that their service has not changed anyone’s minds. When they meet again after the war, Harry is a beggar, while his former white buddy Stan works for the government department that gives Indigenous people’s land to soldiers. Another day, workers try to kick Archie and his friends out of the pub on Anzac Day, and they ultimately do make it inside, but only because they are wearing their war metals. Tommy and Bertie receive no attention for their PTSD, and when Archie tries to stand up for the other Indigenous men working with him on a cattle ranch, the manager overtly threatens his family. As Norm puts it, “[whites] painted my colour back on the day I got off that boat.”
Although the Indigenous soldiers profiled in Black Diggers sought to fight for a more equal Australia as well as for the Allied forces in World War I, their Indigenous identities were always seen as a troublesome footnote, somehow antithetical to their identities as Australian soldiers. In Europe, therefore, they occasionally and inconsistently found respite from the racism that defined their lives in Australia and continued to do so as soon as they “got off that boat” after the war.
Racism 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 …
I’m sorry, son, I have no idea what to do with this. With you. Wait here.
He goes and talks to a superior. There is much consulting of books and disagreements until a half dozen men are all scratching their heads and carrying on.
Anyone have the slightest idea what “Substantially European” means?
Listen to us and you shall hear, news that’s been coming for a hundred years: Since Captain Cook, and many more, you’ve never seen the like before.
The white man needs us coloured boys now
Here in the shit every face is brown
You see the world’s turned upside down
See the world’s turned upside down.
Fellers — You see the world’s turned upside down
See the world’s turned upside down
VOICE IN THE DARK: Have we ever met?
ERN: Passed in the road. Your old man took his belt to mine a few times, when he went for a drink.
VOICE IN THE DARK: Why would he do that?
HARRY: If you blokes have a beer with me then that’s a start.
STAN: What are you on about? We’d always have a beer with you.
FIRST WHITE SOLDIER: You’re as good as a white man, Harry.
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.
You listen to me and you listen to me nice and close. I don’t give a rat’s arse where you’ve been and what you’ve done. I don’t give a fuck what happened on the other side of the world. I don’t care for your airs and graces. As far as I’m concerned you’re still the boy who used to shut his lip and do as he was told. Ever since you came home you’ve been the worst kind of black, an uppity one. I suggest you get on with the job at hand and stop being a troublemaker. Or things might get tough for people you care about. Jesus, now you’ve gone and got me angry. Who put these bloody ideas in your head?
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?
Tarzan. At the Empire. Tarzan, man of the apes. The ape man. Tarzan. Ape. Man. Lowland Gorilla. From Zanzibar. Ape. Man.
He stops, has a surreptitious swig from a bottle. Stands still, watching people rush past him.