Monash University
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Arabana and the Ghan

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Version 2 2019-11-22, 03:39
Version 1 2017-06-07, 06:00
posted on 2019-11-22, 03:39 authored by Michael Duke
This thesis explores the interactions in northern South Australia of the Arabana people and the old Ghan railway from 1884 to 1983. The Ghan is the common name for the railway that now links Adelaide and Darwin. This latter destination, however, is only a 21st century development. For most of the period covered by this thesis the railway line extended only from Adelaide or even conceptually from Port Augusta to Alice Springs. In general, a railway was considered a symbol of modernity and European superiority over its colonised peoples. For the Arabana, however, this railway offered opportunities to engage with the white settler society which were denied to other Aboriginal peoples. The Arabana helped survey, construct, service and work on the railway from its beginnings in 1884. By the 1930s, Arabana started to be employed in skilled occupations and had wage parity with white workers. The railway also provided the Arabana with opportunities to travel beyond their country and participate in settler society. As this thesis contends, the Arabana’s experience challenges the widely held views of Australian Aboriginal-white settler relations as being solely marked by exploitation and dispossession. In the Arabana’s contrasting case, a determining factor was the opportunities offered by the Ghan. As the stories of individual Arabana show, they were important contributors in the development and maintenance of one of this country’s most important infrastructure developments while, critically, maintaining connection to country and culture. And this contribution was acknowledged with equal pay starting some forty years before the Equal Wage case of the 1960s.


Principal supervisor

Tom Heenan

Year of Award


Department, School or Centre

Historical Studies


Master of Arts

Degree Type



Faculty of Arts

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