World-famous Australian author Germaine Greer is on a quest to discover details about the life of ‘Toon’, a late 19th century man black-birded from the remote northern island of Ureparapara. She plans to engage in rainforest conservation work in his memory.
Australian-British author Germaine Greer, who has a doctorate in literature from Cambridge University, acquired her global reputation as an outspoken women’s liberation author in 1970. That year, she wrote ‘The Female Eunuch’.
The book is a powerful, polemical critique of traditional marriage, monogamy and the 1960s suburban family life in the West, which Greer saw as oppressive to women. It has been described as an “instant best-seller” and a “clarion call to change that galvanized a generation” of young feminists.
In recent years, Germaine Greer, who has written dozens of books and essays, shifted her focus towards criticizing the way contemporary Australian society treats Aboriginal first nations’ peoples. She penned her manifesto-style text Whitefella Jump Up in 2003, urging white Australians to embrace a sense of “assumed aboriginality” as their post-colonial national identity.
“Aboriginality”, Greer wrote, “provides a better template for 21st-century Australia than a phoney multi-culturalism that serves only to increase the dominance of a proto-British elite”. Greer’s arguments attracted strong criticism from some Aboriginal academics, such as Professor Marcia Langton. Langton censured the book for valorising an abstract sense of “Aboriginal influence on Australia”, offering “to beguile readers with nice arguments”, while failing to fully acknowledge the extent of persecution and oppression against Aboriginal peoples in Australia.
As her focus shifted, Greer also took began working on rainforest rehabilitation project in Australian province of Queensland; She acquired a piece of damaged forest land in the Numinbah Valley in 2001. In 2014, she wrote a book about her eco-conservation project there, focusing on her efforts to bring back the giant White Beech trees, a native rainforest species which had been logged by White European colonists.
Greer shared a letter she wrote last year with the Daily Post. “My workers”, Greer writes in the letter “now tell me that within five years the clearing and replanting will be complete, and there will be only maintenance to do. So I am looking for another project.”
Greer worked to document the forgotten history of the Numbinah Valley land she was conserving. As part of this research, Greer came across the remarkable story of one Ni-Vanuatu man.
“A very important person in the opening up of the Numinbah Valley was a man from Ureparapara, known to whitefolks as Toon.” Toon, who came to Australia as black-birded forced labour, arrived to the Numinbah valley along with the first white settlers in 1874.
Working for them “Toon cleared the land, and planted vines, fruit trees and fodder crops for the cattle and horses” they bred. Greer says Toon, who may have been repatriated along with other black-birded Pacific Islanders in 1906, was more well-known in the valley than the white settlers.
Inspired by Toon’s story, Greer decided to place commemorating Toon at the heart of her search for a news project. “We would now like to do what we can for Ureparapara, in Toon’s memory.”
In a letter, Greer explained she “would be most interested in helping to repair and conserve the biodiversity of Ureparapara, but we would not shrink from addressing other issues”.
Greer told the Daily Post that discovering more information about Toon’s life and background was a vital prequiste for starting a project in his memory.
“I have been looking for Toon for years and have already visited Vanuatu in search of him. We cannot very well create a monument to him, if we don’t know who he was.”
She said she had spoken to numerous people who migrated from Banks Islands to Port Vila.
“All said they would ask their fellow-islanders about Toon but none has got back to me.”
She said had recently received information from an Ureparapara man that Toon’s indigenous name in Ureparapara was ‘Pitien’. “Pitien”, the man had explained, “had a wife who waited for him but he did not return” after he was transported to Australia.
The Ureparapara man told Greer that Pitien was from a “tribe called ‘Veb Buyuk’”. The Ureparapara man, told Greer that his father, prior to his death had “always talked about this man Pitien during the slave trade”.
Greer told the Daily Post she was unsure of what to make of the information. “1863 is a very long time before World War 2, and I couldn’t understand why anyone would still be talking about a boy who went away in 1863 and never came back”.
Greer told the Daily Post that the cost of travel to Ureparapara made it harder to consider launching a project there.
She explained “If the chiefs on Ureparapara invited Friends of Gondwana Rainforest to help with rainforest conservation, the charity would first have to consider how we would fund the visit, which would be expensive… I cannot commit the charity to this project without a better notion of its feasibility, and would have to cover the costs of an exploratory visit myself”.
Greer also suggested that there may be priorities other than Rainforest conservation on Ureparapara at the moment.
Anyone with information about Ureparapara man Toon, or suggestions for how Germaine Greer can help the people of Ureparapara with a project in his memory, is invited to contact the Daily Post.