The red and white stripes added to the above piece of needlework are a fickle and cryptic sign, pointing to a deeper puzzle. They are an oblique reference to the children’s puzzle ‘Where’s Wally?’ In the context of Brisbane’s street names, they symbolise the question, ‘Where’s Willy?’
There is a curious omission in the labeling of Brisbane’s map. In 170 years of naming the streets of Brisbane city, it appears that no one has seen fit to name a street in the city of Brisbane ‘Wilberforce’. This came to my attention when I was reading about the replacement of Lachlan Macquarie, as Governor of NSW, by Thomas Brisbane. My understanding of this change in leadership is that Macquarie’s civic ambitions for the colony of NSW were at odds with the desire of the British Parliament for the development of NSW as a place of punishment and terror. Brisbane was to advance the Parliament’s interests. One enduring indication of Macquarie’s civic ambition is the establishment, in 1810, of five towns – Richmond, Windsor, Castlereagh, Pitt Town and Wilberforce. The names Richmond, Windsor, Castlereagh and Pitt have all found their way into the map of Brisbane, even though there is at least one generation gap between Macquarie’s towns and the naming of the first streets of Brisbane Town.
The omission of Wilberforce from Brisbane’s vocabulary of place raises an array of questions about who we are as a people. For example, was and is there something substantially incompatible with Brisbane’s population about the anti-slavery aspirations, or anti-gambling aspirations, or Evangelical Christian missionary aspirations of William Wilberforce? There is a diversity of conflicting characters memorialized in the sub-division, naming and re-naming of Brisbane’s streets. Was he nobody’s noteworthy through the birth and early growth of Brisbane city? Jobs, gambling and religion remain at the forefront of our current public debate.
The street names of Brisbane point to stories of slavery and opposition to slavery. They also point to Christian aspiration as well as opposition to Christianity and religious conflict. Stories of gambling in the street names are less obvious to me, though the word ‘speculation’ looms large in the history of land in Brisbane.
Red and white stripes have taken on another meaning in the light of my curiosity about Wilberforce. Besides campaigning for the abolition of slavery, and the abolition of the lottery, Wilberforce campaigned (with a degree of success) for the inclusion of Christian missionaries in the British East India Company. Here is a picture of a flag of the British East India Company (after 1801, when the Union Jack changed).
It looks like the flags of two super-powers blended into one banner. There is some debate about whether there is a historical relationship between the flag of the East India Company and the star-spangled banner of the USA, but the symbolism is undeniable. Where they have stripes, we have stars. Where we have the Union Jack, they have stars.
I like stars on a flag. I would include the Seven Sisters on my design of a flag of Australia. So many cultures around the world who now live here, including the First Nations in Australia, understand this cluster to represent imperatives to care for creation, and to find security in solidarity with each other in the face of an aggressive, persistent and powerful predator.
Given these themes, I am not at all surprised that elements of local versions of various Seven Sisters narratives continue to be painted by Aboriginal and Torres Strait artists across Australia. The Seven Sisters may already be a national banner that unites contemporary Australians. Catch them before tomorrow’s sunrise if you can.