A few months ago, reviewing Donald Thomson in Arnhem Land (Miegunyah Press, revised edition, 2003), I reproduced this quotation from Nicolas Peterson’s introduction:

For many years, indeed into the 1960s, Aurukun was controlled with a rod of iron by a superintendent of long standing. Under his regime and by his hand Aboriginal people were summarily punished by complete or partial head shaving, flogging, chaining, and imprisonment. The prison was a galvanized iron building, seven by twelve feet, divided into two compartments and containing as many a six adult prisoners at one time. For such a trivial offence as late delivery of the milk to the white staff’s holiday camp on Archer Bay, miles from the mission, an Aboriginal man, Billy Blowhard, was threatened with goal. Worst of all, in Thomson’s eyes, was the power of the superintendent to have people exiled for life to Palm Island simply on his own word, and without any trial. On Sunday 11 December 1932, police troopers arrived from Laura to remove two women and three men forever to Palm Island. Not even waiting to conduct the afternoon service, the superintendent seized a rifle and led the police party up river in the mission launch to capture the five people. They were eventually caught. Back at the mission there was not even the pretence of a trial. On Thursday 15 December, the three men, each carrying a blanket, were chained neck to neck and, although the police had packhorses, were dragged off on a 240-mile walk to Laura at the height of the tropical midsummer. The previous year, when another party had been taken away by the police, one man died on the road from cruelty and privations (p.6).

Thomson, of course, was witnessing the start of that trail of tears. We are now watching its end, on Palm Island.

Somewhat belatedly, I’ve just read the news that Patrick Bramwell hanged himself on January 15. Bramwell was the man whose arrest for swearing at police officers led to Mulrunji Doomadgee’s arrest on the same charges, who was taken to the police station in the police van with Mulrunji, and who shared a cell with him while he died in custody of injuries received on the short trip from the van to the watch house, 

Most of the news reports mentioned the suicide of Mulrunji’s son, Eric, last July. The Townsville Bulletin also reported, without explanation, that Mulrunji’s niece Desley Johnni also hanged herself in the Gulf Country town of Doomadgee on October 4 of last year.

The newspaper stories say that Bramwell had been drinking heavily the day he died, had fought with his sister, and had frightened people on Dee Street where he lived, chasing them with a snake that he had caught. Police arrived and took Bramwell to a residential area called Chook City, about a ten-minute walk from his home, to give him a chance to cool down. He is said to have returned home around 11 p.m. Just before midnight, Bramwell’s grandmother, Muriel, saw him hanging from a tree in the front yard of their home. 

“In my beginning is my end,” wrote T. S. Eliot. Bramwell died where he and Mulrunji had been arrested on November 19, 2004. He’d been drinking heavily on that day too. Eugene Ionesco wrote, “Take a circle, caress it, and it will become vicious.”

Bramwell’s mother Andrea says she doesn’t know why her son took his own life. Lex Wooton, chairman of the Palm Island Alcohol Rehabilitation Council, said that the police had once threatened Bramwell after picking him for sleeping rough in a Townsville park, warning that if he spoke about what happened in the jail cell he would be “dealt with.” Relatives claim that the stress of the official inquiries wore him down. It could be that all of these explanations are true.

I’m reminded of the Chris Jones song I quoted last week: “You gotta watch yourself/You gotta protect yourself/From the pigs.” I would add, and the grog. In the photo of Bramwell that appeared in Daily Telegraph, he wears a VB stubby jacket around his wrist like a gauntlet.

Sir Laurence Street, the former NSW justice who is heading up the review of DPP Leanne Clare’s decision not to lay charges against Sgt Chris Hurley in the matter of Mulrunji’s death, arrived on Palm Island a few hours after Bramwell’s death; the timing was coincidental. In attempting to reassure the island’s people that his review would proceed successfully, he unfortunately chose to say “It’s obvious that [Bramwell] was a witness, but not an indispensable witness.” I understand that Street was taking into account the eight three-ring binders of evidence gathered in the course of the investigation. But what an epitaph for a broken soul.

There isn’t a single piece of this story that doesn’t break my heart. I remember that the reason the police were on Dee Street in the first place in November 2004 was to provide protection to Gladys Nugent, a diabetic woman, and Patrick Bramwell’s aunt, while she retrieved insulin from the home she had shared with Roy Bramwell–the other important witness to what happened at the police station. She needed the protection because she had been beaten by Roy. Roy was at the station at the moment when Patrick and Mulrunji were brought in because he was being questioned about that charge of domestic violence against Gladys Nugent. Mulrunji was arrested for harassing another Aboriginal man, Lloyd Bengaroo, who worked for the police. Bengaroo was later assaulted in Townsville in a revenge attack; his attacker was sentenced to two years in jail. There are no reports in the newspapers about Chris Hurley these days, but I imagine he doesn’t as sleep well these days as he might have after sharing a few beers at his home with the officers who were called in to investigate the night of Mulrunji’s death. The grog is woven into all this violence from start to finish. It is a story whose only themes are loss and destruction. Even Hope seems to have fled from this Pandora’s Box.

Patrick Bramwell (Photo: Daily Telegraph) Muriel Bramwell, Parick’s grandmother, at the home on Dee Street (Photo: Cameron Laird, Brisbane Courier-Mail)

From the news:

Mulrunji’s silent witness,” by Peter Michael, Brisbane Courier-Mail, January 16, 2007.
Tragedy begets tragedy,” by John Grey, Brisbane Courier-Mail, January 16, 2007.
Tragedy marks Street’s Palm Island visit,” Sydney Morning Herald, January 16, 2007.
New Death Shadows Island,” by John Anderson, Townsville Bulletin, January 17, 2007.
Custody death witness suicide,” by Dave Donaghy, The Daily Telegraph, January 17, 2007.
Palm Island mourns third death,” by Malcolm Brown, Sydney Morning Herald, January 17, 2007.
Police accused of threats to Doomadgee witness,” by Malcolm Brown, Sydney Morning Herald, January 18, 2007.
Life and death on the island of despair,” Sydney Morning Herald, January 20, 2007.

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