I’m here at Mataranka the capital of the Never Never, this is the original site of Elsey station- one of the biggest cattle properties in the Northern Territory. In 1902 Jeannie Gunn arrived here with a new husband to live and work on Elsey station, she had traveled all the way from Melbourne in Victoria This is the place that inspired the writing of two classic and much-loved Australian books The Little Black Princess and We Of The Never-Never Although the books were released as novels everyone knew that they were based on a cast of real-life characters, one by one these characters were identified by the public who fell in love with the stories of the Never-Never Only one character’s identity remained a mystery, the little black princess Bett-Bett Who was this little black princess of the Never Never? This was a question that readers of the books asked for decades, the true identity of Bett-Bett stayed unknown until she herself revealed it, more than 60 years after the books had first been published, together we’ll follow the footsteps of a little black princess and discover the true story of Bett-Bett’s life It’s a story we should all hear as it reminds us of some of the darker days of our history as a nation, but more so of the power of kindness and love to transform a person’s life, come with me on a journey into the Never Never In the era of the cattle kings this area was home to Aeneas Gunn and his young bride Jeannie who arrived here in 1902 to live and work on Elsey station. Aeneas, known as The Maluka, was a part owner and manager of the property, Jeannie was one of the first pioneer women of the outback and had traveled all the way from down south in Melbourne. Elsey station was one of the earliest and largest cattle stations established in the Northern Territory, it consisted of a homestead, kitchen, outbuildings, staff quarters, cattle yards and a small cemetery to the north. Over the years the old Elsey homestead has become a part of the legend of living in the harsh Australian outback many kilometres from civilisation This landscape and the people Mrs. Gunn encountered inspired the writing of the classic Australian books The Little Black Princess and We Of The Never- Never. What is the Never Never? Well it’s a term that was first used in the late 19th century and describes the vast remote outback regions of Australia. It was under trees like these near the billabong and just down the slope from the homestead that Mrs. Gunn first met Best Bett, one of the central characters of The Little Black Princess who also appears in We Of The Never-Never Although the books were released as novels everyone knew that they were based on a cast of real-life characters One by one these characters were identified by the public who fell in love with the stories of the Never Never, only one character remained a mystery, Bett Bett. Who was this little black princess of the Never-Never? For decades readers of the book continued to wonder after Jeannie Gunn left Elsey station princess Bett-Bett seemed to have just melted away into a lonely place in the bush. However the true identity of Bett- Bett wasn’t known until she herself revealed it more than 60 years after the books had first been published Elsey station was on the traditional lands of the Jawoyn people, a tribe of hunter-gatherers who lived and wandered over the vast catchments of the Katherine and Roper rivers. In 1894 a baby girl was born to a Jawoyn woman who immediately rejected the baby because her light-colored skin showed that her father was a white man, the baby girl was rescued by her aunt and named Dolly,
little did anyone realize that this unwanted little half-caste Aboriginal girl was to become known and loved throughout the world as the little black princess. Dolly spent her childhood wandering the lands of her people and living in a simple portable bark shelter Here at Bitter Springs she helped her aunt search for yams, water lilies, sugar bag and wild honey, goannas, snakes and crocodile eggs, she loved to play in the water and learn the dances and stories told by the tribal elders, but her nomadic childhood ended in 1902 when her aunt told Dolly that she was to live at Elsey station, Dolly was eight years old and didn’t fully grasp the significance of this, she assumed that she would simply rejoin her aunt in the great outback at some point in the future. Much of the Northern Territory has never been occupied by white people as the nature of the soil and the climate rendered most areas unsuitable for farming, many commercial ventures were tried but ultimately failed. What was moderately successful was the pastoral industry, there were enormous cattle stations, bigger than many small European nations, Aboriginal men and women were vital in maintaining these stations which would have failed without them Elsey station was one of the biggest cattle stations and Dolly was to join a large Aboriginal group who lived and worked at the homestead Dolly soon fitted into a new life at the homestead, sweeping floors, watering the garden, helping the Chinese cook and doing other household chores, she delighted Mrs. Gunn with her stories and adventures Mrs. Gunn tried to get Better-Bett to sleep on a bed, but to no avail, she preferred the stars and a dog on the verandah. Best-Bett found comfort under the stars and she would spend hours watching them, they were her friends and she would whisper her secrets to them and share the events of the day. Mrs. Gunn was impressed with Bett-Bett’s energy and drive, her curiosity and wild ways, the two developed a close relationship and a bond was formed which lasted their lifetimes. Bett-Bett soon became a part of the Gunn household Mrs. Gunn was to have a profound effect on the girl’s life, she started to teach her how to read and write and sew clothes Both Jeannie and her husband Aeneas were children of church ministers, they loved the Bible and its message and Jeannie told Bett-Bett stories from the Bible, and so from a young age she developed a love for the Bible Tragically after only 18 months at Elsey station Jeannie Gunn’s husband died of Blackwater fever, the severe form of malaria Now Mrs. Gunn was alone in a tough, vast land, the outback. There was no reason or way for her to remain on Elsey station and she was forced to return to Melbourne alone, but the outback remained with her, she wrote over time here and of the characters that have become famous through her books. Jeannie wanted to take Dolly, her Best-Bett, with her but Dolly wasn’t allowed to leave the Northern Territory, instead she was introduced to her father, an Englishman who worked on the Overland telegraph line, Dolly traveled with him for a while before he decided that Dolly should live with a white family in Darwin, this marked the beginning of a succession of foster families for Dolly, the first foster family treated Dolly harshly, she was forced to work hard, sleep on the floor in the veranda and she was not given any clothes or toys, she was also beaten regularly. During these difficult times Dolly found solace at night in her friends, the stars, and shared her burdens with them, it was comforting to know that they were the same stars she’d looked at when she’d known perfect happiness at Elsey station with Mrs. Gunn. When the unkind foster family moved inter state Dolly was placed with the family of a Mr. Ward who worked at the post office in Darwin. The Ward family treated dolly as a daughter, she was given a bed to sleep in and clothes to wear and to
Dolly’s delight was taken to this church Today it’s the oldest church building in the Northern Territory, it’s been part of Darwin’s history since 1897, this church building has survived the bombing of Darwin during World War two, cyclones, termites and the hot, humid tropical climate and it was in this church the Dolly learned more about Jesus and the Bible stories that Mrs. Gunn had shared with her, it was then that Dolly decided she would like to know more about Jesus and the Bible She had an inquiring mind and so had many questions about her favorite book, the Bible; Who wrote it? Where was God? Who made the world? and why did Jesus have to die if he was such a good person? Mrs. Ward would open her Bible and patiently try to answer Dolly’s questions as best she could, Dolly was delighted when, one evening, Mrs. Ward pointed to the brilliant stars, the same stars that dolly looked at every night and explained that the God of the Bible had made them all, now she loved the stars more than ever Mrs. Ward became another mother to dolly and the Wards her new family, but although Mrs. Ward was a school teacher she firmly believed, as many people did in those days, that education was wasted on black children and so Dolly never learned to read properly. In her nightly talks to the stars she told them that if ever she had children of her own she would make sure that they would be well educated. While living with the Wards Dolly had the opportunity to travel with them to Sydney, Adelaide and Melbourne. In Melbourne Dolly was reunited with Jeannie Gunn who was again trying to get government permission to bring Dolly to Melbourne to live with her, once more permission was denied, but Dolly was happy to continue living with the Ward family, she’d grown into their hearts and they loved her. To Dolly it was a time of settling into a new routine, a time to learn about Darwin and its people, little did she know that her life was about to take you to another remarkable twist When Dolly was 15 the good years ended, Mr. Ward was transferred to Adelaide, the same law that had frustrated Jeanie Gunn now stopped the ward family from taking dolly with them, their request was denied by the government and Dolly was moved to yet another foster family, as a teenager Dolly was now viewed by this family as a source of labour and income, she was treated like a slave and beaten regularly, these were the dark years of Dolly’s life. When she was 17 Dolly was forced to work in the bar of a local pub, the foster mother worked there also and decided to rid herself of responsibility for dolly by selling her to an old man as a teenage bride. Summoning all her courage Dolly decided to walk across Darwin to the office of the government appointed protector of Aborigines, she was terrified, but after describing her situation and fear of being forced to get married, the government officials supported Dolly’s position, which resulted in greater anger and abuse from her foster family So Dolly decided to break the law and run away, during the two years since the ward family had returned to Adelaide Dolly had continued to attend a local church, she was about to run away when she was offered lodging and work by a kind woman named Mrs. Tyndall, now this was still considered breaking the law as Dolly was supposedly still in the care of her guardian foster family. The punishment for running away was to be sent to one of the mission homes or state institutions. Instead of forcing Dolly to return to her foster family the protector of Aborigines looked at her case and determined that now Dolly was old enough to care for herself. She was finally free of her abusive foster family No one had the faintest idea the dolly was the Bett-Bett of The Little Black Princess fame. Mrs Gunn’s books had now been published and were high on the best sellers list, everyone in Australia it seemed was talking about Bett-Bett and
wondering what had happened to her Without being aware of it Dolly was probably the best-known Australian Aborigine in the world, it was the secret she guarded well, Dolly spent the next three years with Mrs. Tyndall, working with her and attending the church in Darwin. It was at this church that Dolly met a handsome young Englishman, Joe Bunsen. Joe was a quiet and gracious man but it seems that when he met Dolly it was love at first sight, they were married in 1918 and had five children Dolly and Joe quietly raised their five children in the suburbs of Darwin Dolly’s promise to the stars so many years ago was kept to the letter. All of her children learned to read and write as soon as they were old enough and received a good education. It was by sheer chance the Dolly’s daughter, Florence, found out that her mother had a secret [Florence] Well, one day I happened to be going through an old tin trunk and lo and behold there was a book there, plus some letters. After going through the book now I came to the final chapter, there was a little chapter written and I saw my mum’s name come up and I thought: this is who this book is written about, it’s about my mum and that was the first time I realised that mum had a history that I didn’t even know about [Gary]Flo asked her mother what they were all about, a reluctant Dolly explained that she was Best-Bett, the little black princess of two world famous books, she begged Flo not to tell anyone about the discovery because only Joe, her husband, and a very few other people knew, she explained to a daughter that Joe and Dolly had agreed before they were married that the secret be kept as long as possible so that they could live as normal people Over the years the Bonsons became known and respected throughout the community as a loving and sharing family The street Bonson Terrace is named after their family. Dolly and Joe had a very happy marriage and they remained inseparable for forty years until Joe’s death. During her eventful life Dolly experienced great oppression and abuse, but she also experienced great kindness and love. Prejudice and poorly formed government policy were barriers that repeatedly caused Dolly pain, but key individuals in Dolly’s life showed her unconditional love and tried to fight these barriers. Jeannie Gunn repeatedly tried to get permission for Dolly to live with her in Melbourne, the Ward family raised dolly as their own daughter, but couldn’t get permission to take Dolly with thim when they moved from Darwin to Adelaide and Mrs. Tyndall opened her home to Dolly as an escape from horrible violence. Before she turned 18 Dolly had experienced the best and the worst of human nature, her challenge was to decide what kind of woman she wanted to become, what example would she follow? Would the hardship, violence and loss she’d experienced result in a life of anger and bitterness for princess Bett-Bett? Or would she find something that gave her strength in the dark years from the faith of those who loved her? The people who showed Dolly love all had something in common, they were all active Christians. Jeannie Gunn introduced Dolly to the Bible right here at Elsey station, whilst the Ward family took Dolly to church with them and so did Mrs. Tyndall After gaining her freedom Dolly continued to attend church, she considered it a safe haven, a place that had given her a small glimmer of hope during the difficult times, but she still had questions questions that were at the very heart of her search for happiness, could God accept a person who couldn’t read the Bible? Could God love a half-caste someone who was neither black nor white? Sometime after Joe’s death Dolly had a dream [Florence] Well my mum had a dream of the second coming of Jesus and I didn’t know about the dream until one day we were able to see it up on a screen and she revealed to me that she had already had this
dream where she saw the second coming of Jesus and she was so thrilled about it [Gary] Determined to learn more about this picture Dolly asked to talk with a preacher, when they met she flooded him with the questions that had bothered her for so many years, she wanted to know about the second coming of Jesus and if he would accept her, sensing her fear and urgency the pastor reassured Dolly that everyone is equal in the eyes of God, regardless of whether they can read or not, regardless of the colour of their skin, regardless of their culture, the only thing that really matters is their relationship with Jesus Christ and Jesus himself said in John chapter 14: “Let not your heart be troubled: you believe in God, believe also in me. In my father’s house are many mansions: and if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you to myself; that where I am, there you may be also.” Finally she discovered the peace and assurance she’d been looking for, the promise of Christ’s return gave her hope, the second coming of Jesus became her passion and focus [Florence] Her greatest desire was to share what she had found, and when she found Jesus she want to share it but a biggest problem and caring was for her own culture and it seemed an impossible task then, but God had a plan where people of her culture are learning to know about Jesus and to love him and to realize that he was there for them too – like he was for her As Dolly grew older she moved to Humpty Doo where she lived with her children, she loved to sit on the veranda in the evening and watch the stars, they were still the same old friends that had witnessed her long and eventful life. Now they could share her inner peace in knowing that she’d always been accepted by Jesus and was part of the family of God and that Jesus is coming back for her Dolly’s story illustrates why we need to talk about and be aware of the poor treatment of Aboriginal people, the mistakes of prejudice and bad government policy and why many thought it was important that our government apologise to Aboriginal people in 2008. But your past circumstances don’t have to determine your present or your future, the story of Mrs. Gunn and Bett-Bett is a powerful illustration of this Yes, Jeannie Gunn could be seen as just a white colonial woman who tragically lost her husband after one year of marriage, Dolly Bonson could just be seen as a child who grew up without her biological family and childhood security, but their legacies say otherwise Jeannie Gunn’s journey led her to publish two best-selling books and she worked tirelessly for War veterans in Victoria during and after the two world wars. Dolly Bonson’s journey led her to 40 years of a happy marriage and five much-loved children and in the last decades of her life Dolly also found a spiritual peace in a faith that she’d been searching for since Mrs. Gunn had first told her about the God beyond the stars when she was a child here on Elsey station. Here at Elsey Cemetery just a short distance from the original homestead is the grave of Aeneas Gunn and a memorial to Jeannie Gunn, who died in 1961 and was buried in her hometown, Melbourne, there’s also a memorial here to Dolly Bonson, in the heart of the Never Never, in the landscape she loved, the words are as follows: “In memory of the last survivor of We Of The Never-Never, Beat-Bett, the little black princess, Dolly Bonson, who died in Darwin on the 3rd of March 1988, she sleeps awaiting her Saviour’s return and the gift of eternal life.” When Dolly died at the grand old age of 95 she was secure in her faith that Jesus is coming for her and that her journey would continue at the resurrection when He returns and that she would reach her final home, with Jesus, among her friends the stars. If you would like to experience the faith and assurance that brought peace to Dolly’s life, why not ask for it right now as we pray?
Dear Lord, the story of Dolly is both heartbreaking and inspiring, but we can also take encouragement from Dolly’s story knowing that you love us and care about us and that our past circumstances don’t have to determine our present or our future. You have a plan for our lives and you have the power to change them for the better, help us to trust you and give us the peace and assurance that comes from knowing Jesus. In Jesus’ name we pray, amen The story of Dolly Bonson is a fascinating and inspiring piece of Australian history, if you’ve enjoyed exploring the places and details highlighted in Dolly’s story and would like to experience Dolly’s story more deeply, you’ll want to make sure you receive the special gift we have for all our viewers today, it’s a book called The Girl Who Talked to the Stars, just before she died Dolly contributed to a biography about her life and shared more about the faith that helped her through the dark years In its pages you’ll learn more about the joy and sorrow that Dolly experienced and be inspired by her faith, you’ll also discover the source of her peace and happiness and learn how it changed her life forever and it could do the same for you Remember, there is no cost or obligation whatsoever, The Girl Who Talked to The Stars is absolutely free, here’s the information you need: Phone us now on 0481 315 101 or text us on 0491 222 999 or visit our website: theincrediblejourney.tv to request today’s free offer, so don’t delay contact us right now If you’ve enjoyed today’s journey be sure to join us again next week when we will share another of life’s journeys together and experience another new and thought-provoking perspective on the peace, insight, understanding and hope that only the Bible can give us. The Incredible Journey truly is television that changes lives Until next week remember the ultimate destination of life’s journey, “Now I saw a new heaven and a new earth… and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes, there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying, there shall be no more pain, for the former things have passed away.”