Descended upon by looters

‘If you’re walking along and you’re cold and wet the morning after the cyclone, and you see a raincoat draped over a fence, do you take it, and is that looting?’
– Bill Wilson, policeman and Cyclone Tracy survivor.

There is a photo taken at the end of 1974 of a man sitting outside the remains of his shop on the Stuart Highway, Darwin, holding a shotgun to keep thieves away. It was a few days after Cyclone Tracy had wiped out close to 90 per cent of the town in what remains Australia’s greatest urban catastrophe. The sense that some felt of their town being descended upon by looters may have been their response to losing almost everything they owned – a fear for their few remaining belongings. The man holding the gun was, in a way, warding off his sense of devastation.

But what is looting? Is it looting if you break into a pharmacy in the centre of a ruined city and take the asthma medication you need or some nappies for your child? Is it looting if you grab food (that will perish anyway) from a grocery store? What if it isn’t medication or food but beer? What if it’s furniture to put inside what’s left of your house? At what point do you draw the line?

There is no doubt some theft occurred after Tracy. Lists presented to the Supreme Court in the wake of various arrests include multiple TV sets, cartons of pantyhose and what now seems like an amusing surfeit of banana lounges.

But two weeks after the cyclone, only fifteen people had been arrested on charges of larceny and possession of stolen goods. More significantly, the culprits identified in the most persistent rumours were not taken into custody at all.
Police from around Australia were flown into the town to help in the wake of the cyclone’s devastation. Tiger Brennan, Darwin’s mayor, accused one group who’d arrived only days earlier from Kings Cross, Sydney of looting and drunkenness. He described incidents in which police ‘stood over several publicans for beer’. Another senior official called the visiting officers ‘a gang of cowboys’. Brennan called for them to be sent home.

Anxiety around policing was further complicated because the uniforms of the local police, along with their other clothes, had blown away. Local officers were walking around in shorts and singlets, which made difficult figuring out who was a police officer and who was not.

NSW Deputy Commissioner Newman came out to defend his force; the NT Police Commissioner Bill McClaren said all complaints were investigated and no evidence of police looting had been uncovered. Yet, when I was in the Northern Territory’s extraordinary oral history archives researching a book on Cyclone Tracy, I found the following notes in handwritten police journals: ‘Interstate police – obtained 80,000 cigarettes from S.C. Eyles this date – Yesterday 6 NSW police went to camera shops – Coles Casuarina bypassed C’wth police on duty and removed a number of camera & equipment. Same Crew travel about in private car. Armfuls of clothing have been seen carried into Travelodge by interstate police who openly boast of achievements.’1

Given the circumstances, some police commandeering was legitimate. Bill Wilson, who went on to become the NT Assistant Commissioner of Police, gave extensive interviews to territory archivist Francis Good in 2003. In them, he vividly describes his attempts to drive around the town to help residents, only to have tyre after tyre shred:

because of the debris on the road. I think it took us fifteen or twenty minutes to drive from Mitchell Street to Daly Street … At that point, there was a garage on the corner … We broke into the service station there, and got whatever wheels and tyres we could find, and managed to replace all the tyres … In fact we left a note and said: The police have requisition[ed] … whatever number of tyres it was and left it on the counter in there, which we thought made it okay. [Laughs] … Later on we were told in fact that this was quite legitimate; that you could do what you want, provided it was recorded.

Later in the same interview, he acknowledged that:

official commandeering … was a form, I suppose, of looting … A policy was made quite quickly that legitimised this, and recorded it for future reparation to the owners of these places … I mean, for example, if an evacuation centre needed a generator, and there was one somewhere, then it would get taken and put into use. It wasn’t for people’s personal gain. I think that if it was for community gain it was acceptable; if it was not for community gain then it was unacceptable.

I found Wilson’s recollections so interesting that I tracked him down in Beechworth, the Victorian town to which he’s retired. One of the things I wanted to know was if many people actually followed up on these reparation slips.

Quite a few businesses did, he said. It was an honour system that, to all intents and purposes, worked.

Civilians developed a similar system, one that Kate Cairns, a survivor of the cyclone, considered a form of sharing rather than stealing.

‘People weren’t really looting, I think,’ she explained when interviewed in 1987. ‘They were using something that worked, but when the person whom it belonged to returned to Darwin … in lots of cases it was given back – perhaps not in all cases – but in lots of cases it was.’2

The issues become more complex when you realise that the city, or what was left of it, became, for at least ten days or so, an economy without cash. For the first few days, people didn’t, for the most part, have any money. Almost all possessions had blown away and banks weren’t open. Even if anyone did have cash, there weren’t staff behind the counters of ruined shops to put it in the till.
Food was provided, most of it flown in by the federal government, at the still-standing schools, such as Darwin High and Casuarina High. Local businesses got into the spirit of the occasion, in gestures that were both pragmatic and generous: Antonio Milhinhos, the owner of a small supermarket in Nightcliff, gave away his entire stock to cyclone victims, as did the owners of the department store, WG Chin’s. Even beer was provided for free – at least until 3 January, when local businesses began to object to the lack of opportunities to sell anything.

Robin Bullock, a young policeman who ended up staffing the Casuarina morgue in the days after Tracy, stressed the seriousness of being charged with looting – how something so ill-defined could ruin lives – when he was interviewed in 2001. ‘There can be a fine line between someone needing something and someone not needing it,’ he said, ‘but the person needing something being caught up in the accusation is a terrible thing to happen.’3

The first person to be sentenced after the cyclone was Goldin (also called Guildin and Goldie) Kelly. He was arrested on the Sunday night, and went to court the next day, 30 December. Kelly was an Aboriginal man. He’d taken whisky and brandy worth fourteen dollars from a bottle shop. In a twist on the problem of police in civvies, Kelly, who was not a member of the police force, was wearing a police cap.

Darwin magistrate David McCann, who imprisoned Kelly for nine months (though interestingly, McCann and many others recalled the sentence as only three to six months), remembered the situation for his archival interview some nine years after the event. ‘I was rather disappointed,’ he said, ‘that the first person they’d managed to arrest and charge with stealing, which was in the area of looting, was an Aborigine … it would have been a little more representative of what was actually going on had somebody other than an Aborigine been charged.’4

McCann – who had spent a terrifying Christmas night in the YMCA with a mattress pulled over his head – claimed to be sympathetic to Aboriginal people. Kelly’s identification with the police force could have been intended as a joke – there were no Aboriginal police in the Northern Territory in 1974 – but for McCann it meant an example had to be made of him under the secondary charge of impersonating an officer.

General Alan Stretton, who flew in from Canberra to take charge on the night of 26 December, felt that the Kelly sentence was another example of racism in the territory. Unfortunately, he expressed his concerns by storming up Darwin’s courthouse steps to confront McCann in what looked like a military invasion. The ensuing altercation made the front page of newspapers on New Year’s Eve, highlighting the tensions between the Commonwealth and the Territory, as well as between black and white.

‘My immediate view was I wasn’t going to take orders from anybody, particularly orders relating in a courthouse situation,’ McCann remembered for the archive. ‘He was – the major, was quite a smallish bloke. Stretton, I think he was in his full regalia, not in his best uniform but, you know, it was quite obviously a military presence …’

Kelly later appealed his sentence, without success.

In hindsight both Stretton and McCann were right: Cyclone Tracy, like many disasters since, became an excuse for military intervention, but the racial politics of the Territory were also problematic.

Accusations of looting certainly became a flashpoint for the tensions that existed in Darwin between Greek families – some of whom had been there since the 1920s – and Anglo newcomers, many of whom had only been living in the town for a few years or sometimes only months. The source of this antagonism is unclear. One Larrakia woman I interviewed, Stephanie, explained it like this: ‘They were the builders.’

Her point was that, as most of Darwin’s houses had been destroyed, the people who had constructed them were called to account for their shoddy workmanship.

There was also discussion in police reports about Greek evacuees not sharing, of differing cultural responses to a disaster. Spiro Papas, when on trial for larceny and possessing stolen goods, explained to the courts: ‘I put my family in the school and I go round and try and find some food because we got the wrong idea, so where we could find the food – just stole some food to live, because the Greeks don’t believe in Salvation Army and Red Cross. We don’t have experience – in our country they’re poor and happen, something like this happen – you know – we don’t get help.’5

Curly Nixon, who was president of the Waterside Workers Federation at the time, told the archives that ‘the NT News was the judge and jury of a mob of Greeks that [are] supposed to have got caught looting and taking stuff south.’ He went on to say that signs began to appear around the place: ‘Keep Australia Beautiful – Kill a Greek a day.’6 Tensions manifested themselves further in a rumour (later reinforced by the TV miniseries Cyclone Tracy) that a Greek man had dressed as a woman so he could be evacuated along with the children. While it’s true that the injured, children and women were evacuated first, this was done against the will of some women, which makes the presentation of them as lucky (and men imitating them as weak) particularly malicious.

In any case, in the hundreds of interviews I’ve read, only one person claimed to have seen a Greek man dressed as a woman at the airport.

In his archive interview with Good, Wilson explained: ‘You shouldn’t tar the whole community with the actions of a few people, but if the police were winners, reputation-wise, out of the cyclone, the Greek community were the losers.’

The stories that circulated about Greeks mostly didn’t mention that one Greek man, Theo Rigas, who’d been arrested for looting, ended up in hospital having his jaw wired together. It had been broken when in the Fanny Bay watch house.

In the Supreme Court of the Northern Territory on 2 January 1975, Ian Barker QC interviewed Constable Griffith of NSW about the incident:

And if people present said they saw you punch Rigas on the jaw, you would say that they, perhaps were not telling the truth would you?
That’s correct, sir.
I put it to you you did punch him on the jaw?
No, sir.
I suppose you would go on denying that if I asked you for the rest of your life?
Yes, sir.

Rigas was brought into the watch house at 8 pm on Friday 27 December. He was one of seven Greek men (including Spiro Pappas, the Greek Consulate-General) and two teenage boys questioned after their homes and cars in Rapid Creek were searched and found to contain a large number of clothes, bolts of cloth, furnishings, cassette stereos and the like. They were arrested for larceny and possessing stolen property. The court transcripts quote Constable Ian Doube as saying: ‘I noticed that the vehicles in the yard, apart from the truck, were loaded with what appeared to be new goods in the way of lazy boy chairs [sic], great quantities of food, great quantities of clothing and linen. Some of the clothing and some of the linen was in new wrappers.’

The men claimed these were their own goods – and, indeed, there are many stories of people being arrested for putting their own possessions in the backs of their car or, as with the architect Cedric Patterson, being harassed when they were trying to get back into their own homes.

The Greek men were formally arrested and the children sent home, although not until the next morning: ‘Both prisoners’ fathers still in custody and they were therefore given permission to sleep in one of the cells.’

On Saturday 28 December, a solicitor from Legal Aid visited the prisoners. At 11.30 am all thirteen were released for a court appearance and returned just after midday. It was sometime after 5 pm that ‘Sgt Blake advised that prisoner 4764 Rigas [was] complaining of a toothache’. The next morning Spiro Pappas came to see the men and ‘advised that prisoner 4764 Rigas has mouth injury’.

At 3 pm it is noted that ‘Sgt Wyatt [has been] advised that prisoner 4764 Rigas still complaining of mouth injury’. By midnight Rigas was in hospital with ‘facial injuries’. On New Year’s Day he was taken to court to arrange bail, before being returned to hospital late in the afternoon.7

Finally, on 27 March 1975, Rigas stood before Justice Muirhead and pleaded guilty to two counts of receiving stolen goods. Defending Rigas, Barker argued that ‘it was hard for people like that to see their town virtually disappear overnight’.

In his response Muirhead commented, ‘I have said previously the courts will not be slow to impose sentences which may serve as a warning and perhaps as a deterrent to those who have in the past been tempted to profit by or may yet be tempted to take advantage or unusually exposed premises and property.’
Rigas was imprisoned to hard labour for fifteen months. Constable Griffith was never charged.

1 Northern Territory Archive Service (NTAS), NTRS 2983 Message log book relating to Cyclone Tracy 1974–1974, Commissioner of Police.
2 NTAS, NTRS 226, Oral history interview transcript 549 (Cairns, Kate).
3 NTAS, NTRS 226, (Bullock, Robin).
4 NTAS, NTRS 226, (McCann, David).
5 NTAS, E100, Criminal dockets, annual single number series, 1955–1979 File 17 to 30 of 1975, Supreme Court of the Northern Territory.
6 NTAS, NTRS 654 (Nixon, Curly).
7 All quotes in this paragraph from NTAS, Police Station – Darwin, F 760 Watch-house keeper’s day journals, 1970–1980.

Sophie Cunningham

Sophie Cunningham has been on the publishing scene in Australia for thirty years. A former publisher and editor, she is the author of two novels. Warning: The Story of Cyclone Tracy, her most recent book, was published by Text Publishing in 2014. She is a former editor of Meanjin, and a former Chair of the Literature Board of the Australia Council. She is a founding and current board member of The Stella Prize. She won the Australian Book Review’s 2015 Calibre Essay Prize.

More by Sophie Cunningham ›

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