When I imagine the Australian “outback” I think of the paintings of Tom Roberts or Frederick McCubbin and the relatively restrained colour palette they used to represent the landscape. While certainly complex, these colours are relatively dull and reflect the olive greens, straws, ochres, purples and blues of eucalypt, grass, rock and sky.
Weirdly, this is also how I picture the nineteenth century, perhaps because of the prevalence of black and white imagery — somehow restricted, reserved, a paler, slightly washed-out version of the contemporary world. Moments of more vivid colour change this perspective.
The scarlet facings on the Native Mounted Police (NMP) uniforms were the first indicators. These identified the Aboriginal members of the force so clearly across 40 years of operation that they were carried through into the twentieth century in the colour scheme of the tracker’s uniform and immortalised in Oscar’s hand-drawn sketches.
Other splashes of colour bleed through written descriptions to enliven the landscape. Gaudy red shirts seem to have been a frontier norm and are referred to as both Garibaldi and Crimean shirts, although the Garibaldi is usually claimed as an article of female fashion. Both forms would have been common from 1860 onwards.
In describing the stereotypical frontier stockman, Queensland (Qld) colonist Edward Palmer (1903:187–188) sketched a somewhat eccentric figure, dressed in,
Moleskin trousers, Crimean shirt, cossack boots, and felt hat … the modern type is less pronounced than he of the ancient school, the flash, hard-riding, tearing, loud-swearing, rowdy stockman of olden days, with a stockwhip sixteen feet long, sporting breeches and leggings, and a loud red shirt.
Miners were little different according to Corfield (1921:52):
Imagine to oneself the lucky digger in cord pants, top boots, red shirt, and sash with fringes hanging down, the whole topped by a wide-rimmed felt hat, and we have a man who may be seen in present-day picture shows.
In essence the red shirt was a common piece of wearing apparel for bushmen:
As to myself, I adopted the simple bush-dress of a red flannel shirt, worn open at the neck, and with sleeves rolled or cut off at the elbow, moleskin or cord breeches, and either boots or gaiter. (Eden 1872:188).
Other stereotypical frontier characters were only slightly less crimson:
There is first the dress of the packer, with his prodigious sombrero hat, Queensland leggings, loose jumper, and crimson silk sash. These, with the stockwhip and inevitable pipe, complete the costume. (South Australian Advertiser, 14 February 1880, p5).
Aboriginal people were swift to adopt such attire. John S. Bell, former owner of Stowe station, recalled that Aboriginal people, in stealing from the teamsters travelling with wool between Rannes and Gladstone, acquired,
… amongst other things, a red shirt. Red shirts used to be very popular with men in the bush in those days. They were called Garibaldi shirts. One of the blacks decked himself out in the shirt, and was seen about the mountain wearing it. And from that day on the mountain was known by the name of Mount Red Shirt. But there was retribution for this attack: in one bend of the river you could count the skulls of the blacks by the score. After that the carriers were not molested. (Capricornian, 16 October 1909, p9)
European reds were integrated in other ways into Aboriginal cultures. The blankets that were distributed to Aboriginal people were often this colour and were commonly found in abandoned camps (see also Brisbane Courier, 19 November 1867, p8; Queenslander, 24 September 1904, p8):
… they managed to carry off the red blankets of one of the men in triumph, and the bright colored strips of these will doubtless be an added charm to some of the dusky belles of the Daintree (Dalby Herald and Western Queensland Advertiser, 9 October 1875, p2).
It is tempting to speculate that the vivid red colour favoured by Europeans held some particular meaning for Aboriginal people (we know red is a common colour used in much painted rock art across Qld and beyond by Aboriginal artists), because in at least one instance in far north Qld portions of such objects were integrated into more traditional means of visual communication:
Over the whole of the slab of rock overhanging the cave, and thus preserved from the weather, are a large number of crayons in black, red, yellow, blue, and white, of men and women in the most indecent postures, and ornamented with tufts of red blankets (found in our old camp, doubtless), stuck on with gum to those parts of the person which are generally private. (Telegraph, 17 October 1872, p3)
Aboriginal people’s motives for such choices are not recorded, but historian Grace Karskens (2011:12), for the Eora in Sydney, posited that,
The colour red was … significant … painted in clay on the body, it was the colour of anger, revenge, fighting and mourning. The messengers who ran from one country to another with news were painted red too: it signalled important events, it was the colour of alarm, of warning.
All of these moments generate a strange friction with the ideal of a Tom Roberts background: they are small, vivid pieces of life standing out from the general clamour, moving across a landscape that is otherwise dark and harder to see. And, of course, the other source of red on this landscape was blood.
Corfield, W.H. 1921 Reminiscences of Queensland 1862–1899. Brisbane: A.H. Frater.
Eden, C.H. 1872 My Wife and I in Queensland: Eight Years’ Experience in the Above Colony with Some Account of Polynesian Labour. London: Longmans, Green & Co.
Karskens, G. 2011 Red coat, blue jacket, black skin: Aboriginal men and clothing in early New South Wales. Aboriginal History 35:1–36.
Palmer, E. 1903 Early Days in North Queensland. Sydney: Angus and Robertson.