Australian Communist Party 1944
Source: Current Book Distributors, Sydney, July 1944 (second edition); first edition, August 1, 1939. Printed by Consolidated Press
Transcription, mark-up: Steve Painter
Most Australians are conscious of shame in connection with our treatment of the aborigines. Stories of atrocities committed by pioneering settlers against the native race have aroused horror and condemnation. But the conditions in which remnants of the aboriginal race are now living remain a matter for shame — and we do nothing about it. Despite commissions of inquiry and conferences of commonwealth and state aboriginal authorities, little has been done to give the original inhabitants something like a fair deal in their own land.
Mr Wright, in this little book, indicates how bad these conditions still are, and the failure of state and federal governments to put into effect any policy for the solution of aboriginal problems.
As Marx said — “The native races know us chiefly by our crimes.”
It is true that the progress of humanity demanded the development of this country rather than that it should continue to be the vast hunting ground of scattered tribes of primitive people. But, with that development, surely, some regard for the rights of the aborigines should have been maintained, both in the interests of the primitive race, and in the interests of Australia as an autonomous dominion.
There appears, at one time, to have been concern on the part of the British government that these rights should be preserved. Captain Cook and Sir Arthur Phillip had instructions to treat the natives well and to refrain from arousing their hostility.
The Constitution Act for Western Australia of 1899 provided that after the gross revenue of the colony exceeded five hundred thousand pounds in any financial year, an amount equal to one per cent of such gross revenue should be devoted to provision for the aborigines. But when finances of the colony began to flourish and exceeded the specified amount, the Forrest government moved to have this section of the act repealed.
In Western Australia, government revenue for the year ending June 1939, was estimated at nearly £11,000,000, and the revenue from home production at approximately £50,000,000. So it would seem that had the conditions on which this state was granted self-government been adhered to with regard to the natives, there would have been funds available to make adequate provision for the dispossessed native race.
As it is, administrative and departmental costs eat up a great deal of what should be used for the direct relief of distress among the aborigines. The latest figures issued indicate an increasing death rate. Most of us in the West know the miserable and dejected figures which haunt the transcontinental line and the outskirts of country towns. It is more than time to check up on our methods of “protecting” the aborigines and consider a new deal that will atone for disgraceful apathy in the past, and insure practical measures for saving them from extermination.
Our treatment of the aborigines is a stain on the record of Australia as a self-governing state. We could have demanded long ago a more equitable administration of native affairs, based on scientific methods. The measures suggested by Mr. Wright in this book will have the support of all who have studied this question, not only from the anthropological point of view, but from the point of view of Australia’s social and economic progress.
The population and development of many areas after the war will intensify the necessity, not only of reserves for full-blooded aborigines, but also of a new deal for people of mixed blood.
Our prestige in the eyes of the world has suffered considerably by our treatment of the aborigines. It should be one of the tasks of the Labor government to introduce a scheme, based on a scientific and realistic approach to this question, that would be a model of national organisation, save a remnant of the aborigines from extinction, and give those of the primitive people who have become accustomed to contact with the white race opportunities to survive and develop.
Katharine Susannah Prichard, June 1944
It would be an important step towards a better understanding of the aborigines question if it were clearly recognised that there are two separate problems.
The most urgent problem is that of the Aborigines proper, the full-blooded natives, thousands of whom still live under tribal or semi-tribal conditions, and who could be saved from extinction if appropriate measures were adopted immediately by the Australian people. It is this problem, the real aborigines problem, that is the subject of this pamphlet.
A. second problem, often wrongly referred to as the aborigines problem, is that of the half-castes and others of mixed blood. Most half-castes and their descendants are denied social equality with other Australian citizens, and are subjected to social indignities that are a disgrace to our community. This second question has only passing reference in this pamphlet. It is a separate problem, not the aborigine problem, and requires a different and separate treatment.
August 1, 1939
Since 1939 there has been a further deterioration in the position of the Aborigines. Changes due to the war, particularly in North Australia, have further reduced the opportunities for effective remedial measures to ensure their survival as a race. A comparatively large number have been organised virtually as slave workers in connection with construction work in northern Australia, and the remnants of tribal life further disrupted. The young aborigine of 1939, whose photograph is again used on the cover of this pamphlet, went to work for a white exploiter, and has since died from tuberculosis.
At the time of this second edition of my pamphlet, written in 1939, the Curtin government is preparing for a referendum on constitutional powers that would give control over this question to the commonwealth government. This presents the labour movement, and all progressive Australians, with another chance to strike a blow for the survival and well-being of the Native Australians.
May 31, 1944
Tom Wright, Sydney
“Were a policy of laissez faire followed, the aborigines would probably be extinct in Australia within 50 years. Most of the aboriginal women would become sterilised by gonorrhea at an early age; many would die of disease, and some of starvation.” (Dr Cook, “Chief Protector of Aboriginals”, Northern Territory, at a conference held in Canberra, April 1937.)
Our Australian nation has cause for pride in its great development from the first convict settlement to the advanced community of today: But for the citizen who reflects on the tragedy of our aboriginal population, this pride will be linked with feelings of the deepest shame.
At the time of the first white settlement the native Australians had spread over the entire continent. There were hundreds of tribes with a combined strength of at least several hundreds of thousands. Isolated almost completely from the rest of humanity for tens of thousands of years they had nevertheless succeeded in developing a complex social organisation based on blood relationship and classificatory groups, the form of social organisation that scientific inquiry has shown to have been a stage in the history of all peoples.
He has evolved a table of kindred and affinity so complicated that few white men have ever understood it and yet which all must admit to be, in its workings, a perfect marriage code that ensures morality and safeguards the eugenic welfare of the race. He has formulated tribal laws competent to deal with every aspect of tribal life and to regulate all the social activities of the individual; … The traditional patriarchal rule by the old men of the clan and the high standard for admission into the rights and privileges of manhood ensure that wisdom and foresight shall prevail in their councils. All this applies pre-eminently to the uncontaminated Australian native who is still living under his own tribal organisation … His social code is, in many ways, far more exacting and far more rigid than are the inhibitions of the white man. It would be well, therefore, if the white man would respect the tribal organisation of the native and refrain from any attempt to break it down or undermine it in the name either of the white man’s religion or the white man’s law. (Professor F. Wood Jones — Australia’s Vanishing Race.)
When the whites first settled in Australia the native people were a happy and vigorous race. The tribal hunting grounds, abounding in game and natural supplies of vegetable foods made life secure. Left to themselves their social organisation and culture would have meant continued security and progress, although the lack of animals such as were domesticated by peoples elsewhere and the limited prospects for developing agriculture, precluded any rapid social changes.
The land is the property of the clans, which are linked together into tribes, and the people live by hunting and fishing and collecting vegetable food. The aborigines have no kings or tribal chiefs, tribal authority being regulated by customs exercised by the council of clan elders, or, in matters affecting only a group of closely related clans, by the elders of the clans directly concerned.
The normal form of contact with Europeans brought and still brings ruin and death to the aborigines. Robbed of their tribal lands by the advancing whites and their natural food supplies destroyed, the aborigines, inspired by centuries of totemic tradition and customs, tenaciously clung to the home territories of their tribal ancestors, dying of malnutrition, dejection, and the diseases of the white men against which their age-old isolation had left them defenceless.
Where the remnants of tribal groups continued to haunt their ancestral lands or, thus of necessity to infringe on white property rights, or in exceptional cases to turn in desperation against their destroyers, the non-understanding or antagonistic settlers did not hesitate to speed up the process of extermination by wholesale and indiscriminate shooting and poisoning. Irrefutable proof of this is contained in the collection of literature on the history of Australian pioneering in the Sydney Mitchell Library.
As a consequence, many of the Australian tribes are extinct; many others, especially in the southern half of Australia, are represented by only a few individuals living together with mixed-bloods in ugly squalor in camps and compounds. Some of the remaining tribes are in process of rapid disintegration, but in Arnhem Land and other parts of North and Central Australia, in Northern Queensland and Cape York, and parts of West Australia, the tribes are sufficiently intact to present good possibilities of survival if immediate and effective action is taken even at this late stage.
The great aboriginal population of a century and a half ago has been reduced to a mere remnant of 60,000 full-bloods.
Terrible as is the story of past treatment of the aborigines, it is even worse that in these “enlightened” days this treatment is permitted to continue. It is true that in April 1937, a conference of commonwealth and state aboriginal authorities was held, the first of its kind, and that Dr Donald Thomson was commissioned by the commonwealth government to conduct a scientific survey of the natives of Arnhem Land in 1935-36-37, and that recently the commonwealth government announced a “new” policy with respect to “aboriginals”; but despite these seemingly hopeful signs there is no promise of immediate action of the kind imperative to arrest the destruction of the aborigines through social and religious persecution, and diseases, especially tuberculosis and venereal diseases, introduced chiefly through whites.
The policy of the commonwealth government reveals that the official concept of the problem remains fundamentally the same as in the past and makes it equally clear that only pressure by secular bodies from outside can effect a genuinely new deal for the aborigines: this must be one of the tasks of the labour movement. Previously the labour movement has ignored the question or accepted the official policy. It should now be recognised as a duty for all progressive people in the community to demand immediate action at all costs to rescue and safeguard the remnant of the native race.
Dr Donald Thomson has stressed the need for immediate action to save the remnant of the native population in Arnhem Land and elsewhere:
I am of the conviction that the time is already late, that further delay or postponement, particularly in view of the alarming increase during the last two years of undesirable contacts, and the tremendous unrest already created in Arnhem Land as a result, will seal the fate of these natives.
This statement was made in December 1937, when Dr Thomson submitted the following recommendations to the commonwealth government:
(1) That the remnant of native tribes in federal territory not yet disorganised or detribalised by prolonged contact with alien culture be absolutely segregated, and that it be the policy of the government to preserve intact their social organisation, their social and political institutions, and their culture in its entirety.
(2) That the native reserve Arnhem Land be created an inviolable reserve for the native inhabitants, and that steps be taken at once to establish and maintain the absolute integrity of the reserve.
(3) That similar steps be taken to render inviolable any other reserves in which the native population remain undetribalised.
It is made clear that the proposed segregation should last only until a sound policy has been tested and proved, preserving the natives and their culture in the meantime.
These recommendations include a proposal that the watering depots established on the native reserve of Arnhem Land for the convenience of pearling vessels be removed. The depot at Elco Island was established at one of the most important totemic and ceremonial centres in Arnhem Land, a disastrous procedure. Dr Thomson comments further: “A summary of the facts relating to the recent activities of Japanese and others on the reserve during the past two years is embodied in my report and shows that the Japanese from overseas have freely entered territorial waters and have fraternised with the crews of Australian-owned vessels and with aboriginals in defiance of the Aboriginals Ordinance, the Customs Act, and the quarantine laws. All my statements are made from personal experience and knowledge and not from hearsay.” He had telegraphed “grave warnings” of Japanese activities to the government during April, May, June and September 1937.
Dr Thomson proposed further that special courts be established to deal with native offences, that the anomaly whereby police constables act as “protectors” of aborigines be abolished, and that the government establish a separate Department of Native Affairs under a trained director and staffed by men selected for their sympathy and qualifications. The proposal regarding special courts has been advocated by various Protection Societies.
After a lapse of more than a year during which the process of disintegration and persecution has gone unchecked, the commonwealth has issued a statement of policy that gives only sham recognition of the work and recommendations of Dr Thomson, but has given none to his outstanding scientific work, or his whole-hearted championship of the Arnhem Land aborigines.
The statement of government policy issued by the Honourable J. McEwen, Minister for the Interior, in February 1939, claims that henceforth the attitude towards the “aboriginal” will be “reversed” and that the government will establish for its own guidance “some final objective”.
This final objective is claimed to be the gradual raising of the status of the black Australians “so as to entitle them by right, and by qualification to the ordinary rights of citizenship”.
This, it is claimed, requires that attention be paid to immediate physical needs and training “to perform some useful service, and perhaps, engage in some useful occupation so as to convert them from their traditional nomadic inclinations to a settled life”.
This means that the minister sees the salvation of the aborigines in their transformation into workers (generally without wages) for station owners, miners, mission stations and others who already have contributed largely to the destruction of the native population and treated them virtually, both males and females, as chattel slaves.
It should be realised that although the native Australians are invariably described as “nomadic”, they would normally have left their tribal territory only for short periods, returning always to the same home locality, the clan’s estates, on which their tribal organisation and culture are based, and from which they cannot be divorced without irreparable harm.
The minister proposes further to instil a “recognition of authority, and of the fact that in any settled life there must be laws and property rights and penalties for those who break them”. That such words appear in the government’s statement of policy merely discloses and emphasises that its conception of the aboriginal problem is uninformed and remains basically that of the white exploiters who spoke in similar terms a century or more ago, so conspicuously does it ignore the fact that the aborigines have their own land property rights and laws.
As an indication that scientific conclusions have left the government cold, the statement of policy emphasises the question of religious teaching:
It is recognised that there must be some religious training to instil into these people some stability of character to replace that which has been lost by the destruction of their ancient philosophy and moral code through contact with civilisation.
This means that there is to be further encouragement to the religious missions, which have long and unsuccessfully worked for the conversion of the aborigines through the method of condemning and forbidding all the aborigines’ own social standards, moral codes and spiritual beliefs.
The role played by the missions should be closely examined. Various religious denominations for more than a century have been active among the aborigines and, despite their good intentions, it can be shown that they have not only failed in their aim of converting and “saving” the aborigines “spiritually”, but that they have contributed largely to the social downfall and ultimate extermination of the aborigines on their mission stations and in areas under their control or influence.
One after another, earnest men who loved the aboriginal and labored unselfishly on his behalf in the mission field, have passed away and left behind them diminishing flocks of apathetic natives, and derelict stations to bear witness to the inevitable failure of missionary methods, even when carried on with splendid zeal and conducted by men of outstanding high character and real love of the native. (Professor T. Wood Jones, Melbourne Herald, February 16, 1934.)
Dr R.M. Crookston, who accompanied Dr Thomson on the Queensland part of his expedition, told a Sydney audience on April 30, 1939, that he knew of a missionary in Queensland who chained young native women to posts, whipped them and turned them into the bush. Referring to the activities of the Queensland government, he characterised the employment of aborigines as a “slave trade”, only a miserable pittance being paid, and a portion of this being appropriated by the government, allegedly to be held in trust for the native; but payment was never made and the government holds more than a quarter of a million pounds.
The 1930 report of the Finke River Mission Station (Lutheran) to the Government Resident at Alice Springs, states: “It has been the worst year on record since the establishment of the station 53 years ago.” Severe drought had been experienced. At times there were more than 400 natives at the station and at times about 50 of these were laid up through illness. Reference is made to the “limited supplies”.
The situation had been eased by a few natives being employed on roadmaking, while fancywork made by the women and girls brought in a profit that helped along. “Unemployed” collected hair off horses, and the hides of dead cattle, all of which helped the mission along. The collecting and making of “curios”, which sold for £170, and the selling of wallaby and kangaroo skins and dingo scalps “bought” from the natives further helped to balance the budget. An appeal to charity brought some supplies of brown rice and citrus fruits, which helped in the fight against scurvy. It should be noted that the so-called “curios” are often irreplacable sacred stone objects that are sold to missionaries by mission converts and by demoralised natives, and that quite often they have been stolen from their rightful inheritors. Missions give an insignificant payment for them and reap a big profit from the sale of them to museums and collectors in Australia and abroad.
During the year the health of the natives had been “unsatisfactory”. What had been thought to be beri beri had really been scurvy. “Children suffered mostly, and the majority under school-age died in spite of all our efforts to save them.” Measles had been brought to Alice Springs “and all the natives with a very few exceptions had them, even people over 70 years and older. Although most of them stood the measles, they succumbed to complications, chiefly pneumonia and dysentry.”
A total of 41 natives died during the year ending June 1930. Despite all this, the mission could claim with pride that during all the illness the school was kept going. Two boys and two girls left school to take up stock and station work. For their “final examination” the boys had to make greenhide hobbles, a greenhide rope, and plait a whip, while the girls each made a dress for themselves.
The final paragraph of the Pastor Superintendent’s report reads:
The drought, and as a consequence the many sicknesses and deaths amongst the natives, together with apparently no outlet for the growing generation have been much against us. But looking backwards we feel that our time, money, and efforts have not been wasted, but used in the right direction, and that the seed sown will bear its fruit in the time to come.”
I have quoted extensively from this report because in a naive way it shows the criminality of a government policy that sees in these religious missions a means of dealing constructively with the problem of the aborigines.
The annual report for 1933 for the same mission station refers to an average of 261 persons. A visit from the minister for the interior, the Honourable J.A. Perkins, has been enjoyed. A number of tourists had also visited and helped the station. Finances are mentioned. The commonwealth government had assisted with a grant of £320, but the total cost of upkeep was £2500. The natives had been able to catch rabbits, so very few cattle had been killed for meat, but the station had succeeded in selling 85 head of cattle, making a profit of £229. In addition, the skin buying, fancywork, “curio” collecting, etc, again helped “things along”. With the animal skins the natives first paid for the cartridges they used and then spent the balance in tea, sugar and flour at the mission’s own store.
The report for 1934 shows another development. The mission store had also turned into a trading concern for whites. It served travellers and station people, and piecework was being paid to the natives wherever possible. The “spiritual work” was satisfactory, services having been held regularly, “and as a whole, being well attended”. The past and present record of missions of all denominations in all parts of Australia is much the same. Despite all good intentions, they have in the main no real appreciation of the scientific aspects of the problem. For them it is more or less a question of making converts to their particular denomination, and after a fashion preparing their proteges for exploitation by whites. They depend entirely on charity and the results of their converts’ work (usually without wages) in various enterprises. Thus they, themselves, become exploiters.
To the extent that they succeed in replacing the old religious concepts of the natives by new ones, to that extent they add to the artificiality of existence for the natives, thereby facilitating their demoralisation and final extinction. It is true that food is distributed, which is much inferior in nutritive value to the natural food, and that medical aid is given after causing most of their gastric and lung diseases, also that clothing is given (much of it second-hand), which assists in the spread of disease, but work of this kind can never stop the extinction of the aborigines, rather does it hasten their extinction. The real work that is required must be according to a general plan under central government control with adequate expenditure, and the general activity subordinated to the final aims of preservation and development based on a scientific and sympathetic understanding of the problem.
It can be said truthfully that church missionary societies exercise a strong reactionary influence fatal to success in the development of a genuine new deal for the aborigines. As an example, we have the declaration of the official organ of The United Aborigines Mission of Australia, of July 1, 1938, which ridicules the proposals for segregation of the tribalised and semi-tribalised natives. It distorts this to mean the gathering together of the full-bloods in “new surroundings” away from their old resorts and counterposes the work of the Christian missions.
The following is added:
It is quite easy to criticise or talk of the failure of those missions. Do those who talk thus know anything of what has been done in the case of countless individuals? The work of the missionary is to save souls, and there are to be found some, we hope not many, who deride that work. Is it nothing to point the aborigine to a saviour; give him an experience that makes him happy and lifts him above the sombre details of a miserable life, and at the same time lights up his horizon with a strange glory, and puts in his soul the hope of a Happy Land? The missionaries of the UAM do more than this — they teach him habits of industry and thrift; cheer him in sorrow, educate his children, and train them to be useful citizens.
The government’s main departure from previous policy is the creation of a separate branch of native affairs in the Northern Territory with its headquarters in Darwin and under the control of an officer, “with administrative ability and training in practical anthropology, who will function as a director of native affairs”. It is obvious that the right man, one who already has an intimate knowledge of, and respect for the culture of the Australian aborigines, in such a post can do an immense amount of good, but only if the government sincerely aims at preserving the aborigines for other reasons than that of their “usefulness” to whites, and grants extensive powers to create a non-mission reserve as a sanctuary for each tribe; to make the reserves really inviolable and to deal with white offenders against black women, or those who trespass on reserves, or interfere with the natives’ social and religious freedom.
The statement of policy gives no such emphasis to the question of more and real reserves. Quite the reverse. It goes on to say, “In course of time” district officers are to be appointed under the director of native affairs. There is good reason to fear that these officers will be merely disguised missionaries or officials drawn from New Guinea and Papua. It is said: “This organisation will work towards the objective of training the natives and half-castes one by one for full citizenship rights, which will be the government’s objective.” Here again it is shown that the government conceives the problem in the same old way, not of preserving native organisation, but of destroying it and converting the natives individually into rural dependent poor, soon to follow the path of the present demoralised hangers-on of station properties and mining fields with casual employment, no or low wages, drudgery, disease and semi-starvation, in town and settlements.
The statement promises that natives still living in tribes will be left alone and protected from whites until further progress has been made “in the care of those who through their contact with civilisation are in need of training, education, medical attention and general care”. The statement claims that the policy of preventing any exploitation of the resources of the reserves will be maintained. But at this moment, in Central Australia, there is a tribe with no reserve, and its tribal land is being combed by prospectors and prospective squatters. There are many similar cases in the Northern Territory and other states. In other parts their tribal areas are invaded by pearlers and others, while government authorities profess inability to prevent it. Why is there no reference to recommendations for the removal of water depots in Northern Australia? Or safeguarding to each tribe a portion of its own territory? It is apparent that the government has gone no further than to make an empty declaration against inroads on the existing nominal reserves, which in some instances are almost valueless, without proposing to take any steps to undo existing evils with their disintegrating effects or in the interim to protect tribes in tribal areas where there are no reserves at present. It may well be that the government view of the future of the aborigines living at present under tribal and semi-tribal conditions, is that in due course they will become much the same as the few present entirely detribalised natives, once the government has learned how to hasten detribalisation and how to take “detribalised natives” and raise them to the empty “status” of “full citizenship”.
The problem of coping scientifically with the tribalised and semi-detribalised natives can never be solved on the basis of repeating past methods used on the present detribalised natives. We must envision a policy whereby there will be no demoralisation at any stage. This can be accomplished only by very gradual internal changes brought about by the aborigines themselves over a long period, the gradual development of their tribal life to a new social organisation, under the control of the members of the tribe and their own leaders, and in step with their gradual assimilation of new ideas conveyed to and discussed with them by special advisers, not converters or dictators, and with benevolent aid from the government of the commonwealth.
Instead of the past or future mission schemes, elementary knowledge should be given to them both in their own language and in English, linked with economic innovations such as the development of handicrafts and pastoral or other pursuits according to suitability and extent of the tribal reserve, and organised on the basis of co-operating clans, thus preserving the social structure and developing it.
The inclination of those in authority is to aim at the elimination of the aborigines by means of a gradual but planned “vanishing” and the physical absorption of the remnants into the white population. This was clearly shown at the Conference of Commonwealth and State Aboriginal Authorities held at Canberra in April 1937.
At this conference, Dr C. Cook, Chief Protector, stated:
The policy of the commonwealth is to do everything possible to convert the half-caste into a white citizen. The question arises whether the same policy should not be adopted in regard to the aborigines. First, we may adopt a policy of laissez faire, which to every protector of aborigines is repugnant; secondly, we may develop an enlightened elaborate system of protection which will produce an aboriginal population that is likely to swamp the white; or thirdly, we may follow a policy under which the aboriginal will be absorbed into the white population. My view is that, unless the black population is speedily absorbed into the white, the process will soon be reversed.
Mr B.S. Harkness, assistant director of education in NSW, and a member of the Aborigines Protection Board, stated: “If we remain callous we shall undoubtedly see the black race vanish. There is an historical appeal in preserving a vanishing race, but I think we should seek to assimilate these people.”
Professor J.B. Cleland, chairman of the Advisory Council of Aborigines, South Australia, and Professor of Pathology at Adelaide University:
I would not like an idea to get abroad that there is any suggestion of a deliberate attempt on the part of the conference to hurry up the detribalisation of the full-bloods. There are sentimental and scientific reasons why such a course would be very unwise. We would achieve exactly the same object in the ultimate if we dealt first with natives of less than full-blood.
Previously, Professor Cleland declared in favour of keeping 150 to 200 natives of the Musgrave Ranges in their tribal state, not out of any desire to preserve their culture, but “because it does not pay to have these people detribalised”, and because the detribalisation “would increase the expenditure of the state”.
Mr Carrodus, secretary of the Department of the Interior:
I agree to some extent with what Professor Cleland has said. It would be desirable for us to deal first with the people of mixed blood. Ultimately, if history is repeated, the full-bloods will become half-castes.
It is a disgraceful hypocrisy and a great misfortune that those in authority on aboriginal matters with few exceptions pretend to believe in or have this conception of a “vanishing race”, and it is even worse that this extends to the anthropological and clerical advisers on such questions, who know quite well that it is whites who have deliberately caused their destruction.
These advisers are drawn largely from the churches, which, through a long period of association with mission activities, have become a combine to supply this need and have secured the key positions, including professorial rank in anthropology, directing the training of both missionaries and patrol officers, in a scientific department, where a proselytizing aim is disastrous for the native people, who should benefit from a purely scientific and non-destructive outlook in regard to their beliefs.
In direct contradiction to its statement that natives living in a tribal and semi-tribal state will be left alone, the government’s statement of policy declares: “On the boundaries of the reserves missions or district officer stations will be maintained to act as buffers between the tribal natives and the outer civilisation.”
The statement proceeds to point out that these “buffer” stations “will gradually attract” natives from the reserves who will return to their people, establishing gradual contact with civilisation. In other words, there is to be a clandestine missionising of the aborigines. Also, district officers who are likely to be missionaries are to be appointed who will establish “government stations”. This “will bring the benefits of intensive control and administration within relatively easy reach of Europeans and natives in the outback regions … It will enable non-official interests affecting native life and progress, such as pastoral and mission activities, to be supervised and co-ordinated from convenient centres.”
The district officers are to have squads of native police, seemingly to travel without wives. This will lead to sex troubles and resentment. Natives will be “attracted” to the government stations, which will “provide a centre from which natives could be drawn for employment”. A “detention camp” (jail) will be established at each station for native prisoners. Crafts will be taught … in accordance with the local opportunities for exploitation by whites … in connection with pastoral pursuits where there are cattle and sheep stations and, where there are white agriculturalists, crafts of use in connection with agriculture. This means also that the aboriginal women, as usual, will be exploited in herding stock, as domestic slaves, and in addition to these tasks, be used as mistresses of the white men.
In this program the government has in reality formulated a callous plan for speeding up the process of extermination of the full-blood native people.
In his report to the government, Dr Thomson attached the main importance to the immediate segregation of the native tribes by the establishment of inviolable reserves within the respective tribal areas, with a view to the preservation of their own culture as a firm foundation on which to build. He indicated that the activities of the missions were in reality harmful to the natives, their professed aim being to “save souls”, that is, to destroy the native beliefs associated with their culture and social organisation and to convert them into “Christians”, at any rate as far as outward conformity is concerned.
In reporting further on the terrible and accelerated rate of depopulation, he stated that in an area which he visited in 1933, the area controlled by the Mapoon Presbyterian Mission, Port Musgrave, Gulf of Carpentaria, three tribes had declined in number from 400 in 1903 to only 20 persons at the time of his visit.
Again, in his interim general report to the Government in April 1936, Dr Thomson, referring to the natives living in a tribal state, declared:
Any interference with this totemic life of these natives must result in the breaking down and disintegration of their entire social structure; it is the pivot of the sacred and ceremonial life of these natives, and the one which supplies the solidarity that maintains the social groups or that forms the base upon which the entire social structure stands, and must be preserved at all costs as a positive element of true survival value.
Again, in the same report, he stated:
The facts must be faced; if we desire to preserve the remnant of the natives in Australia, we must take the most drastic steps to preserve their culture also … the culture upon which their highly specialised organisation depends. If, on the other hand, we fail to take the necessary steps at this time, we doom the remainder of the native population, we do so with open eyes, knowingly accepting the responsibility.
While giving full recognition to the destroying influence of the religious missions, Dr Thomson, nevertheless makes concessions to the missionary interests, apparently as an afterthought, with a view to neutralising their opposition to the proposed radical changes in government policy which he advocates.
In his comment on recommendations made to the government, he states:
The objections that might be expected, for example, from certain missionary interests against any change of policy may be anticipated by approaching, at the outset, the bodies interested, and enlisting their aid in the establishment and maintenance of outposts or stations, on the outskirts of the reserve, to act as “buffers” and to prevent the entry of outside influence into the reserves.
The Government has seized on this contradiction in Dr Thomson’s report and, while neglecting the vital recommendations, has stressed the question of mission activity on the borders of the reserves, which will destroy the culture he so definitely and repeatedly states should be retained intact. These people, with their aims of conversion, can only continue the detribalisation and eventual extermination of the tribes. This, as vital statistics show, has been the chief product of their past activities everywhere in Australia.
An enlightened government policy should aim at preventing any further spread of mission activity and to the extent that present medical and relief activity is in their hands should aim at transferring it into the hands of secular advisers resident on each reserve proclaimed for each individual tribe as part of a general and uniform plan.
The government statement of policy gives a distorted version of the important recommendations to which we have referred. The essential feature of these recommendations is to make each reserve inviolable, as the only means of preserving native culture and tribal entities, until the development of a policy limited to specialised and scientific contact. Thus the destructive features of present and past contact would be eliminated and the aborigines would cease to be a “vanishing race”.
The government announces no real policy of conserving the aborigines in the present tribal areas by proclaiming a secular reserve in each tribe’s area, removing Arnhem Land water depots and resuming pastoral and mining leases when necessary; but, instead, pursues the old policy of detribalisation and attempts to organise this in such a manner that it will not make added calls for government relief and medical services, but will be gradual and thus to the best advantage for the gradual extension of the economic activities of the whites, especially in pastoral, mining and agricultural pursuits.
Instead of developing secular organisation in place of the multifarious religious mission activities, the government proposes:
As to the general care of aboriginals, in the first place the government will co-operate more extensively with the missions. This will involve increasing government subsidies to the missions, but it will be stipulated that all subsidies shall be contingent upon the missions following a general policy for the physical care and training of aboriginals in accordance with the requirements of the Native Affairs Branch.
The starting point for the government in its attitude towards the church missions is its belief that these missions can be used as cheap tools and can supply “something of a spiritual nature” to compensate for the loss of native beliefs and give “stability” of character. It should be self-evident that so-called “spiritual” teaching can never compensate for the confiscation of tribal lands, the trampling on their own beliefs and culture, their forced conformity to dogmas, the loss of their traditional livelihood and their conversion into paupers and mendicants later to be victimised by greedy exploiters and dissolute whites, who have been encouraged by the general belief in racial superiority to treat the native Australians, especially the women, as legitimate prey for their own depravity. Much of the literature of the missions is nauseating for its sanctimonious hypocrisy and the general glossing over of the indignities suffered by the natives physically, stressing instead the alleged “spiritual” uplifting. The fact must be stated that the despoiled natives everywhere, and especially where missions operate, suffer more and more the effects of cultural and moral degeneration, leading rapidly to racial extinction.
As an example of mission activities deliberately destroying tribal organisation, Monsignor Gsell in the press and at public lectures has boasted of his “purchases” of girls at Bathurst Island mission station — purchases made with a little flour or tobacco and other goods valued at £2 — the girls later are married to “Christian youths” on the mission station.
The unsatisfactory treatment of the question by the government is emphasised in its groupings together of questions affecting both the tribalised and semi-tribalised, on the one hand, and the detribalised natives, on the other. Activities among both are to be centred on the pastoral stations and mission stations on the boundaries of the reserves.
Actually, the problems require separate treatment. There are many areas in the north and centre of the Northern Territory in Western Australia and Queensland where there are no reserves, but where the natives, while suffering physically from contact with whites, yet still hold to the things they value most in their own culture and could be largely restored to the tribalised state as the starting point for gradual development. The alternative is a continuation of the present demoralising forces wreaking destruction in these areas. It is necessary that each tribe should have part of its own territory; so additional reserves should be proclaimed and made inviolable, even resuming properties, etc, where necessary to re-establish the natives in their ancestral territories under their own social organisation.
A specific area, the territory of the Wailbri tribe, lying between Cockatoo Creek and Tanami in the southern half of the Northern Territory, was stressed at the 1935 Science Congress. The meeting supported a motion for a secular reserve to be proclaimed in this area as an urgent need to prevent the destruction of that particular tribe. This timely and progressive request has been ignored, to date, by the government and the intervening period has been one of further detribalisation, physical ruin and persecution of the Wailbri natives. Three mining fields and a pastoral leasehold in this area continue to work havoc four years after the supreme need for action to preserve the tribe has been made clear to the responsible authorities, and since repeatedly stressed with added reasons given, right up to the present time.
While the government speaks of conserving existing reserves, it is a fact that the white prospectors and others continue to violate the reserves and the black womenfolk, and the authorities profess inability to prevent this. Also, they ignore the indisputable fact that each tribe is a self-contained unit, so that composite reserves, herding different tribes together, are useless and cruel. In maintaining and establishing each reserve it is vital that the native people should have all property rights over the land, water, minerals, timber, game, etc, and that these rights should be inalienable.
Another problem is that of the “detribalised” natives who it is alleged have lost all of their own culture. They have been converted into hangers-on at the white settlements and mining fields, with periods of casual exploitation. The government proposes to develop, with this section, the frightful policy of segregation in town compounds.
It is stated that the Aboriginal Compound being constructed at Darwin will provide “a home” where “there will be provision for them to have their own small houses and to engage in gardening and fishing”. They will have goats, a school and a “native hospital with isolation provision for venereal disease patients, etc”. A similar compound will be established at Alice Springs “and with limits the same policy will be applied to other centres”.
The standard of living and culture designed for these “detribalised” natives will be neither the condition of their tribal ancestors nor that of the whites, but an artificial life of penury and restrictions under which there can be no urge to survive. More or less rapid extinction is the callous sentence passed on these people by the present federal government.
When the natives were overtaken with despair and were deprived of a will to live, since the whole of their interest in life was taken away from them, they were provided with a catechist. When deprived of their native food, since their ancestral hunting grounds were only cherished memories, and sickness overtook them, they were given the cast-off clothing of the European and, thereby, their chances of recovery were lost in their gain in respectability … The reasons for their racial death were variously stated at the time. The Reverend Mr Threkeld — a missionary — ascribed their passing to the wrath of God. The Reverend Dr Land called it “the general appointment of Divine Providence” (Professor F. Wood Jones, Tasmania’s Vanished Race.)
Further on in its statement of policy the government outlines its new-old program for half-castes. It is the same story that has been, and is still being, repeated in every state. Under it the people of mixed blood continue to suffer everywhere that the government and churches have established “institutions” for their “welfare”.
The mixed bloods are divided by the federal government into two categories — those “born in wedlock of half-caste parents, and those born of an aboriginal mother and a non-aboriginal father”. The former, it is claimed, are usually cared for by their parents in the same manner as the children of whites. The latter are the responsibility of the administration, which will establish institutions for them.
They will be given “certain elementary education”. Girls will be trained for domestic service “and a limited number, perhaps, in typing and stenography”. Boys will be trained in station work “and occupations such as horse-shoeing, elementary bush carpentry, elementary mechanics, etc, so that those who prove adaptable will be able to work amongst windmills, motor cars and so on”. That is to say they will become fit for effective exploitation by pastoralists, government officials and townfolk as cheap labour.
The Conference of Commonwealth and State Aboriginal Authorities held in April 1937, resolved that, in regard to people of mixed aboriginal and white blood, they must aim at their “ultimate absorption by the people of the commonwealth”. No explanation is given for delay in acting on the resolution, and conceding full social equality.
Every progressive Australian must demand for these people of mixed blood equality in all respects with other citizens, full civil rights, equal education and opportunities for employment and the rights that all other citizens have in regard to unemployed benefits and pensions and social services generally.
In pressing for immediate reforms in government policy with respect to the full-bloods, main importance should be attached to the following measures:
(1) Each reserve for aborigines to be made inviolable and their absolute inviolability maintained.
(2) New reserves to be established, one for each separate tribe, wherever there is any surviving tribal organisation in areas now without reserves.
(3) Recognition of the absolute legal ownership of the land of reserves by the corresponding tribes, together with all mineral and other resources to be found there.
(4) All organisations established for necessary contact with aborigines on the reserves to be entirely secular in personnel, character and aim. Women to have equal opportunity with men according to qualifications for service in the administration. Mixed bloods not to be used because of the danger of providing focal points of disintegration.
(5) Contact with reserves to be confined to medical services and non-missionary advisers, the technical personnel to be chosen for their special knowledge, sympathies and personal integrity, and all to aim at giving their instruction in the particular tribe’s native language as well as in English. No mission stations to be allowed on or in the vicinity of the aborigines’ own reserves.
(6) After first restoring and giving security to native tribes, government plans for aid to be based on gradual economic developments, pastoral pursuits, handicrafts, etc, on a co-operative basis and under the control of the aborigines for themselves.
(7) Drastic penalties for whites and Asiatics or others trespassing on reserves, molesting aborigines or interfering in their affairs, beliefs and customs, or enticing them away from the reserves.
(8) Administration of affairs affecting full-bloods to be centralised in the hands of the commonwealth government to ensure a uniform policy. A separate government department with new personnel to be established at Canberra for this purpose.
(9) Acts and ordinances to be amended to provide that the words “Aborigines”, “Aboriginals” or “Natives” shall apply only to full-bloods and not to persons of mixed blood.
(10) In view of the extreme urgency, a sum of not less than £1 million to be set aside for initial expenditure in restoring and extending reserves and establishing essential organisation.
These proposals, moderate as they are, would represent an enormous advance and offer a real prospect of rescuing the remnants of the aboriginal race. They are a minimum that will be supported by all Australians who reflect on the inglorious past record of our relations with the aborigines and desire that genuine amends now be made.
1. Tom Wright, 1902-1981, was born in Scotland and emigrated to Australia in 1913 or 1914, where he was apprenticed into the metal industry at the age of 14. He joined the Communist Party of Australia in 1923 and in 1924 joined the NSW branch executive of the Sheet Metal Workers Union. He remained a metal trades union official until his retirement in 1972.