Australian History

AUSTRALIAN HISTORY: Fannie Bay Gaol Immerses People in Life at Heritage Prison


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Ace Press News From Cutting Room Floor: Published: May.29: 2023:

#AceHistoryDesk – Audio tour at the Fannie Bay Gaol immerses visitors in life at heritage prison


Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are advised that the following story contains the names and images of people who have died.

Some consider him a murderer, while others would call him an Aboriginal freedom fighter.

But there’s no disputing that Nemarluk is a figure in Fannie Bay Gaol, and Darwin’s history as a whole, whose story deserves to be told.

Imprisoned during the 1930s for murdering Japanese pearlers who came on to his country, Nemarluk escaped from Fannie Bay Gaol.

He found an opening when a group of prison workers were leaving the gaol to empty slop buckets into the nearby ocean. He took off, swimming across Darwin Harbour, and made it all the way back to his country, near Wadeye.

The police search to recapture him was led by an Aboriginal tracker, Bul-Bul.

An Aboriginal man in a black and white photo smiling at the camera
Nemarluk was an inmate of the Fannie Bay Gaol before his escape.(Supplied: NT Library)none

Jared Archibald, the Curator of History at the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory (MAGNT), said it marked an interesting moment in Territory history.

“You’ve got this juxtaposition of an Aboriginal man who is fighting for his land, and for what he feels is his freedoms, and you’ve got an Aboriginal man who is an excellent tracker, but he’s on the European side … the authorities side,” he said.

After months on the loose, Nemarluk was recaptured and returned to Fannie Bay Gaol, where he later died from illness.

The story of the Aboriginal resistance fighter is one that has been largely untold, until now.

“It’s an amazing story of an amazing man, who murdered people in the name of what he thought was right,” Mr Archibald said.The gaol’s reputation as being remarkably easy to escape from is explored in the audio tour.(ABC News: Pete Garnish)none

Old stories told in new ways

It’s one of several stories being told in a new audio tour at Fannie Bay Gaol, commissioned by MAGNT and developed by NT producers Johanna Bell and Caddie Brain. 

The immersive tour was narrated by Larrakia Elder, Dr Richard Fejo, who through the process of creating the tour, discovered one of his own relatives, a great-aunt, was once imprisoned there.

He said the tour helped illustrate the experiences of those who were once incarcerated there.

“It’s delightful, it’s entertaining, it’s an emotional rollercoaster ride; you get highs and lows,” he said.

The tour brings to life dark stories, like that of Charlie Flannigan,  the first man to be executed by hanging in the prison.Dr Richard Fejo discovered a personal history while researching the Fannie Bay Gaol.(ABC News: Pete Garnish)none

Don Christophersen, a worker in the archives and library of the Northern Territory, says the telling of his story is an important part of Australian history.

“The Northern Territory has so many amazing historical stories that haven’t been researched properly and conveyed to the general public, and put in its rightful place in history”, he said.

But the audio tour also features quirky stories, like a man who was imprisoned for attempting to smuggle birds onto a ship by shoving them down his pants, and several stories of great escapes, from a time when the gaol had a reputation for being the easiest in Australia from which to escape.

“A prisoner goes to a guard and says ‘I was told I need to get a ladder from the workshop so some work can be done over here’, and the guard says ‘okay’. He just puts it up against the wall, jumps over it and runs off,” Mr Archibald recounted.The Fannie Bay Gaol has become a historical site since it ceased being a prison over four decades ago.(ABC News: Pete Garnish)none

Some things change, others stay the same

The gaol officially closed its doors in 1979, and in the four decades since, many things have changed. The death penalty, for example, is one of them.

However, the creators of the audio tour also observed how, in an almost eerie way, there are many aspects of the prison system that remain the same today.

“When you go through this tour, one of the things you’ll notice is there was a large Aboriginal intake of prisoners, and unfortunately, that still stands today,” Dr Fejo said.

“There are a lot of very sad stories about mental health issues, and times where people weren’t helped, there was nowhere to help them. And that’s still happening today,” Mr Archibald agreed.

“Right now, there’s still a lot of problems with our corrections system. But it’s what we have”.

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