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A world turned upside down

Wesley Enoch on the motivations for Indigenous Australians’ enlistment and how life in the AIF was different to home.
LAURA JAMES: I was wondering if you could explain a little bit more about some of the motivations behind why some of these men chose to enlist.
WESLEY ENOCH: Yeah, we won’t know for certain, will we? We will never know. But there’s a part of me that can imagine, as we talk to different people. One of the reasons we see is a kind of sense of service, serving your community. A lot of aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander men grew up on government-run reserves, or church-run missions. So this idea of service was always part of it. At the time, the second reason, was a lot of oppression– not able to travel, not able to own land, couldn’t earn the same amount of money as white people, and all that kind of stuff. So joining up to the AIF was a kind of freedom from that oppression.
LAURA JAMES: Gave you a way out.
WESLEY ENOCH: Yeah, gave you a way. A sense of adventure, as well, which I think was always part of the sense of why people would sign up for war. This idea, which is maybe a third thing, a sense of adventure– the idea of testing your manhood, going out and exploring the world.
And our fourth one is really about– and this is contentious, not everyone agrees with this one– the idea of the warrior spirit, that after– well, let’s call it 100 years of oppression, especially of men and their warrior position in Aboriginal culture and Aboriginal society– suddenly to have an opportunity to go out and to kill or to hunt in that kind of way, and to be a warrior and a recognised warrior was a big motivation, we thought. So those four very generic ideas of service, the idea of escaping oppression, about going for it, ans a sense of adventure, and this idea of the warrior spirit are what we think motivated Aboriginal men to join up.
REBECCA WHEATLEY: That’s so interesting. And once they’re actually in the service, one of the opening songs in your play is about a world turned upside down. Is that what the service was like for Indigenous soldiers?
WESLEY ENOCH: You have to imagine a world where Indigenous soldiers– well, Indigenous people– just didn’t have the rights. You know it’s hard to imagine 100 years on that the world was such an oppressive place for black Australia. And so not being able to earn money, not being able to be let into not just pubs, but shops and all these kind of things, to suddenly, when you signed up for the AIF and you volunteered, there were– actually, there’s this amazing thing in the, what do you call it, the charter, I guess, of the AIF, that you had to be of substantially European background, I think it was. And you go, oh, what does that mean?
And a lot of Indigenous soldiers were rejected early on. And then there were the two referenda, I think, at the end of ‘16 and then in ‘17, and that’s when you see a lot more Indigenous soldiers signing up. Well, not just signing up, being allowed to sign up. Because before then, the medical officer could say, well, we don’t think you’re substantially European enough, you know. What’s that mean? And so suddenly, you had all these little rejection forms saying, not substantially European, not of significant European background, blah blah. But after those referenda, a lot more Indigenous men are signing up. And there was no way of recording that they were Indigenous. There’s no way of saying, oh yes, this person’s Indigenous.
So therefore, the way that the state treated them– you know, this is Queensland, or WA, remembering that the Federation was so new that there were so many different laws still in place– that Indigenous soldiers were treated very differently by their states, but in the AIF were treated all the same. And the armed forces now like to say that they were the first equal opportunity employer in the country, so you know– I don’t know, that’s a bit funny to say. But this sense that they could earn money, they could travel, they were treated exactly the same– so this idea that the world was turned upside down.
What was up was down, what was black was white, and that creating these units of men– I think one of the foundation stories of Australia is World War I. You know, we think about the Gallipoli story, we think about the Anzac tradition, and this idea of mateship is really, if not formed, then really crystallised during World War I. And mateship in the trenches, in the front, in the desert– this whole idea that if there was a black soldier there, they were part of that mateship matrix. You couldn’t extract one, they were all treated as equal. And I guess the beginning points of true reconciliation in this country, where we try to understand each other and stories.
I like to say that if you are facing death together, then it’s easier to live together, and that sense of how it changed. So for me, this upside down, world turned upside down song, was really about saying, yes, how can a black man who’s treated so badly in some ways, then be treated as a hero in others?
LAURA JAMES: I think another character in your play makes the comment, I haven’t got the foggiest idea what we were fighting for. But I feel like I won something over there, and I’ve lost it over here. I think it’s a sentiment that many men like Douglas Grant, for instance, who we feature in the 100 Stories, would’ve endorsed. Can you tell us a little bit more about what these men won, and what they lost?
WESLEY ENOCH: That same speech talked about– it’s like they painted my colour back on. This idea that, I was just a man, and then suddenly I was a black man when I came back. Interestingly enough that, again, because of the constitutional issues in the country– that actually didn’t change until 1967 with the referendum, which allowed the Federal Government to find ways of supporting and to legislate for Indigenous Australians– people were treated very differently in each home state. There are stories of how Indigenous men who were fighting on the front, who had volunteered and off they went, whose families were taken away because there was not father there.
That even though he would be sending back money to his family, the protector would be taking that money and not passing it onto his family. And some odd things, that there was a real disconnection between the two. So this idea that what were you fighting for? What were we wanting to make– what kind of difference were we wanting to make as a nation? Why were we fighting for freedoms that we weren’t experiencing as Indigenous Australians here? So that notion of coming back, and expecting the world to have changed, and the great disappointment that it didn’t.
It’s interesting, World War II is a very interesting case in point, because after World War II, I think, there was a lot more momentum for social change. And through the 1950s and then into the ’60s, we get the lead up to the referendum in ‘67. There was a much stronger sense of social justice and change for Indigenous Australians then, but why didn’t it happen after World War I? And that’s a great question. I mean Douglas Grant is a fantastic story. We go, what ate away at him? And for us, it was this sense of the great hope that he returned to this country with, and he fought very hard for it.
That letter that he writes about the Coniston Massacre up in Northern Territory– the idea of going on the lecture tours, this radio programme in Lithgow, are all these things that he’s doing to try to make a difference. And then after time, I think, be it the– I don’t know, could be the shell-shock or it could be just the sense of being worn down–
LAURA JAMES: And feeling that he didn’t fit into a white or a black Australia.
WESLEY ENOCH: But that wonderful bridge, the replica of the Sydney Harbour bridge that he built–
LAURA JAMES: At Callan Park.
WESLEY ENOCH: At Callan Park in Sydney– now, some say that he was the groundsman at Callan Park, some say he was an inmate at the time, we can’t quite piece the history together fully. But we know that he was there, and he built this replica of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. And I think there’s a real sign of reconciliation there. I mean, it’s interesting in 2000, we walked across that bridge– the actual bridge– that there was a sense at that point, his ambition for something to bridge the gap between white and black.
He does this bridge as a sign of the working man, of the idea of the aspiration of not just black Australia, but also white Australia to make a difference.

Watch Wesley Enoch discuss the motivations for Indigenous Australians’ enlistment and how life in the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) was different to home.

Would you like to know more?

If you’d like to find out more about this topic, go to the See also section of this step for a link to a trailer for Black Diggers. Black Diggers, a play written by Tom Wright and directed by Wesley Enoch tells the story of the Indigenous Australian experience of Gallipoli.

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World War 1: A History in 100 Stories

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