A Century of Protection: Kitchener Bligh’s Story


For the whole of this century, through a network of officials and intensive regulations, governments in Queensland have operated the most intensive machinery of supervision and surveillance ever imposed on a sector of the population. Through laws and regulations, the Aboriginal department has controlled births, marriages, health, education, where and how you lived, where and when you worked, even your savings and spending. To give you some idea of what it was like to be in the department’s ‘care’, I’ll tell you a story.

Once upon a time, around 1920, a young boy lived with his two brothers and older sister at Halifax, near Ingham. Their parents had died and they lived in their grandmother’s house. He was 9 years old and busy at his lessons in school when the police picked him up, stopping in at grandma’s to collect his two little brothers. His grandmother was distraught and pleaded to keep the boys; but the police were unmoved. They flourished orders from the Native Affairs department and declared that the boys were to go to Palm Island. Grandmother pleaded that the family be allowed to go together, but this was refused. Although he lived to be a very old man, the boy never saw his grandmother and sister again.

As with all Aboriginal people moved around Queensland under departmental orders, no overnight accommodation was provided – except to be locked in the cells at the police station. And next morning the youngsters were put on the boat to Palm Island. Many of their relations had already been shifted there after a cyclone in 1918 had devastated the coastal area. But the children were not allowed to know the comfort of their aunts and uncles and cousins; instead, they were locked up in the dormitory with about 100 other little boys.

Life was hard and cruel. You got flogged with a big cane if you did anything wrong, if you didn’t obey instructions, if you didn’t go to school, if you spoke your own language, if you wet the bed, if you tried to talk to your friends or relations through the wire which enclosed the dormitory. There weren’t enough beds and several children shared each mattress, sleeping head to foot on a filthy sheet and a single blanket; they were often very cold. You were locked in for 12 hours a night, with only a single lantern and nothing to do, just stare out through the wire and wait for morning.

Most days there was a few hours’ schooling in the bark hut; but there were no trained teachers, there were no real desks or chairs, there were only outdated textbooks and a few slates and chalks, and when it rained the wooden shutters had to be closed and it was too dark to see by the one lamp. Mostly you were taught the basics of sums and writing, and practical skills fitted for a life of labour. Until the late 1950s, few Aboriginal children on these government institutions were educated beyond grade four.

Dormitory children were trained as workers after their morning in school. The girls had to clean and sweep and wash clothes, and sew and cook for both dormitories, a total of nearly 300 children. The boys had to wipe down and weave hundreds of palm fronds for the palm thatch houses, pull out the big clumps of bladey grass with their hands, move rocks and stones to keep roads and pathways clear, hoe and weed the vegetable gardens. Like all dormitory children, at 14 his childhood was over, because he was then sent out to work.

Perhaps this boy was one of the luckier ones. He was not sent, alone, frightened, bewildered and extremely vulnerable, to cane farms on the mainland or to remote pastoral properties; without a youngster to talk to or a black face to comfort them. This was the fate of many of the dormitory boys and girls – called into the office and told they were to be sent to strangers in places they had never heard of, yelled at when they burst into tears, given a change of clothes and some shoes and a few shillings, put on the boat to Townsville and then locked in the watchhouse overnight, terrified by the drunks and foul-mouthed men, to emerge a trembling wreck in the morning and be put on the train to – anywhere.

It was policy to send this forced labour contingent out repeatedly. Youngsters were worked 16 or 20 hours a day, the girls at cleaning and washing, cooking and child minding, and many also worked illegally at horse work and fencing. For the boys it was early morning milking and yard chores, farm work, fencing, droving, mustering, branding – continual work, prevalent physical abuse, no choices and no reprieve. Even the boys were not safe from sexual assault. Youngsters and adults were sent out year after year, for a 12-month work term, allowed only a week or two with their families in between contracts. These were laughingly called “work agreements”, and you had the option to sign – or be jailed or removed to another settlement. And these work agreements operated until the late 1960s.

And these workers saw little for their labour. Since 1919 Aboriginal pastoral wages were pegged at only two-thirds the white rate, but the department was so lax that adjustments in line with increased white wages were often years behind. In 1950, for instance, Aboriginal pastoral workers were still paid relative to the 1938 rate, effectively at 25% the white wage, yet periodical surveys of Aboriginal employment consistently revealed acknowledgement that many pastoral stations would not survive without this heavily discounted workforce. Yet in 1962 the minister declared – confidentially to his colleagues – that Aboriginal workers were as skilled as the whites and were the mainstay of the pastoral industry.

The department’s own records show inspections were rarely made of work and conditions. When complaints arose – about unpaid wages or physical or sexual abuse – it was the boss’s word against the Aboriginal, and police routinely sided with the bosses. In 1927, for instance, when workers at Wrotham Park station refused to sign for another year because they hadn’t been paid, the local “protector” plied them with alcohol, threatened them, and locked them overnight in the poisons shed. Ultimately the Aboriginal department investigated and found the Aboriginal complaints proven; however the police department refused to take action, and then claimed victimisation when details were leaked to the press!

I might add that wives of pastoral workers were compelled to provide 12 hours free labour every week, although no-one vetted these hours, and child labour was prevalent and unpaid. Theoretically department approval was required for employment of any child under 12 years of age; in practice a blind eye was turned. In a 1958 conference between the department and the United Graziers’ Association the department head freely admitted that child labour was common, that many were brought in for medical treatment with broken arms and legs. He suggested perhaps “undersized and weedy” children should not be put to hard labour, and added: “We try to look on these people as human beings”! And this is the man charged with the welfare of these Aboriginal wards of state! I could mention here that his predecessor was refused a salary comparable to the head of the state children’s department, on the grounds that the state did not think the welfare of Aboriginal children was as important as that of white children.

We know now that the government took direct control of all the wages of these workers, except for a little pocket money which was supposed to be regularly paid, but in fact was never properly checked. We know that wages went directly to the local police protectors, who were supposed to make sure workers were not cheated of their money. This system, in reality, simply deprived workers of their earnings. You had to ask for permission to spend any of your own money, and permission was frequently denied, even for the most trivial purchase. And although this system continued until the late 1960s, the department was well aware that police were cheating Aborigines of their wages: in 1930 thumbprinted and witnessed dockets were made mandatory for all transactions – specifically to minimise police fraud. In 1933 the bulk of Aboriginal savings was centralised in Brisbane, again to lower the incidence of police fraud and embezzlement.

Suffice to say here Aboriginal monies were never safe from illegal pilfering. But they were also not safe from “legal” pilfering. Because the department took multiple levies from the monies in its control, as well as confiscating bank interest, and none of this with the permission of the account holders who had absolutely no knowledge of these raids on their savings, because the department refused ever to allow workers to see any record of what was happening with their money.

One thing was for sure, no matter how hard you worked, you were only ever allowed to get a small amount of your money; we know now that the government profited nicely from investing huge amounts of these bulk savings, raising revenue to offset expenses. Not coincidentally, the inability of Aboriginal people to access their own savings swelled the amount in government control to unbelievable levels. In 1933 this savings nest-egg was nearly $14million in today’s value, but over $12million of this was withheld by the government for investment. A further sum of more than $1million today had accumulated in the trust funds courtesy of the multiple levies on Aboriginal savings. These trust monies, which were levied to ensure the welfare of the rural workers and their dependents, were instead shuffled around for expenditure on various departmental projects. During the depression years, for instance, more than $5million was directly diverted to consolidated revenue. Those who were the legal beneficiaries of this amount, whose already discounted wages had been further levied to produce this huge sum, were meanwhile living in abject destitution.

I’ll leave to your imagination the difference it would have made to Aboriginal lives in the 1930s, or indeed throughout the whole of this grubby financial deprivation which continued to the late 1960s, had these workers been allowed to use their own earnings – which would have totalled then the equivalent of around $20million – for their own benefit, like all other Australians. There are hundreds of stories which could be told today by impoverished Aboriginal men and women who have worked 30, 40 and 50 years, and found to their horror, when they finally gained control in the late 1960s, that little or no money remained in their accounts.

Fewer young lads were sent from the settlements to pastoral work, because they were essential to the building and development of these institutions. Aboriginal groups did not sit about under the trees with their hands out for rations while white work gangs built and maintained the communities for them. All the missions and settlements were established and run by Aboriginal labour; without this input over all the decades of this century there would be no communities on Aboriginal reserves today. In fact during the 1920s the head of the department boasted that all work on the communities was carried out by “native labour”. This included house building, water supply, crop production, road building, airstrips, clearing and ringbarking land for cultivation, farming livestock for milk and beef, operating power houses, sawmills and machinery sheds, boat building, operating and maintenance, as well as teaching, nursing, clothes making, baking, and domestic service to white staff, to name just a few work areas. But there was no pay for the hundreds of men and women who worked the settlements and for whom, by regulation, a minimum of 32 hours labour was required: to refuse was to be jailed or penalised with reduced rations.

The lad in this story was not sent to the mainland. He worked for 18 months as a mill hand, clearing sawdust from the pit and cleaning the yard. He got no pay, just a bit of tea, flour, and tobacco. He then worked full-time as a deckhand on the steamers which were essential to island life. He was on call 24 hours a day for two years, making 2 trips a week in a circuit from the mainland to the islands, bringing supplies and transporting staff. In searing heat and driving rain the boats kept operating, and it was hard work. But again, as an Aboriginal employee of the Queensland government he got no wages; only the white workers got paid.

After a severe bout of pneumonia he was sent out with one of three youth gangs working 8 hours a day felling trees, clearing the bush, and clearing and constructing the airstrip and the hillside road back to the settlement. Again there was no pay – just the lousy rations and a bit of tobacco. As a lad of 19 he fell foul of the dozens of petty rules on the island, and was given two weeks’ jail for walking down Mango Avenue, a road reserved for white staff. In his old age he still remembered the humiliation of the regime, stating that “It hurts all the people on the island.”

Like the dozen or so missions and the two other settlements, Palm Island was established on land considered useless for farm development; all these institutions were drastically – and arguably criminally – underfunded; all were places of starvation, preventable sickness, inadequate amenities, and grossly overcrowded housing. Records for Palm Island in the 1930s reveal a death rate of over 6%, mainly from malnutrition and chest infections. Sacks of meat transported from Townsville on open boat decks were rancid by the time they were off-loaded. Medical reports stated that most of the ill and aged were slowly starving to death, that children suffered from chronic skin diseases, that nearly every baby died who was not breast fed, because the only available food was a mixture of arrowroot and water. In his monthly report the doctor pondered: “Should they be properly fed on peptonised milk…Is it worth while trying to save them?” And this was a government institution.

In 1940, at 27, the man in our story got married. Now there were token wages, and as a ganger he got 5/- a fortnight, the equivalent today of $12.60. Like thousands of other Aboriginal men from missions and settlements he spent most of the war years working on the mainland in positions vacated by enlisted soldiers. Because this was a federal scheme he was paid award wages for his labour as a cane cutter. But he never saw his money: it went directly to the superintendent on the island, and from it was taken income tax and a levy of 20% towards running costs of the settlement. Even what remained was not his to spend: because the money was kept in a settlement trust fund from which bulk sums were committed to revenue-raising investments. The small portion he could access was through vouchers for the island store, where fresh food and milk was rarely available, where groceries were routinely past their used-by date, which ran, by department decree, on a profit margin of 40%. For 4 years he cut cane from May to December for a good wage on the mainland; in the off-season he worked on Palm Island as a painter for a pittance. Yet often he was told there was no money left for his family.

After the war the white foreman suggested he train as a painter and he grabbed the chance, beating three whites for the position as apprentice. As a family man in his 30s he was determined to better himself. For seven years he set aside £2 a fortnight – nearly a quarter of his pay, to have lessons sent over from Townsville. But on finishing the course he had to leave his family to earn decent wages on the mainland. Here, in the mid-1950s, he joined a painting firm and got his ticket after only two weeks’ trial, and joined the union. Now he was paid £19 a fortnight (around $363 today), a huge sum compared to the pittance on the island. But he was allowed only enough for board and food; most of this money went directly to the superintendent on the island, and partially dispensed to his wife as vouchers on the department’s profitable store.

Records of the time reveal critical food shortages, chronic malnutrition and endemic skin diseases and hookworm infestation, water supplies routinely testing unsafe for human consumption, derelict and grossly overcrowded huts; the dormitories and hospital reported dangerous for human occupation. This was the reality of life under the government’s “care and protection”. In the 1960s, as old age, invalid and widows’ pensions were made available to Aboriginal people, the government encouraged missions and settlements to withhold this money, mainly because the pensions were significantly greater than the pitiful community wage. This confiscation merely followed the trend which had operated since before the 1920s with regard to maternity allowances, and which had brought a wealth bonanza to the department after child endowment – intended to improve infant and maternity health – was introduced in 1942. Deciding it was publicly unacceptable to seize child endowment from the missions, the department followed the simple tactic of reducing mission grants by an equivalent amount.

In the 1960s the man in our story was pressured by the superintendent to stay and work. Although he desperately wanted to remain with his family there was no margin for skill – all the jobs paid around 30/- a week ($27.60 today), less than 8% of the award rate for this experienced tradesman. He argued for the legal wage, presenting his hard-won qualifications as a painter and decorator, but the superintendent pointed to the waste-paper basket and told him they were worthless on the island. Once again he had to leave his family in order to earn a living wage, and for two years he was overseer to three other men. But in 1968 when his wife became ill, he finally took permanent work on Palm Island.

This was the same year that the government finally introduced wages for this compulsory labour force, allowing community residents cash to spend on their needs. Managers on some reserve communities urged payment should equal the basic wage. In fact the Palm Island manager stated several of his workers were eligible for award rates. But as head of the department, Patrick Killoran gave the orders. Wages were set at only 30% the basic rate, less than 10% of the award for qualified tradesmen and women. Families were thrown further into crisis; store prices were often double those on the mainland; merely to survive was a struggle.

Records show the deadly levels of malnutrition and sickness on the island at this time, where fresh bread, milk and vegetables arrived only twice weekly and sold out within hours, where 75% of child outpatients at the island clinic registered as severely underweight, where children evacuated to Townsville hospital during a deadly gastroenteritis epidemic in the 1970s were described as looking like “starving Biafrans”. And don’t forget, this is a government-run institution for compulsory wards of state. Records for this period show the government was sitting on the equivalent of nearly $17million of Aboriginal money, while those whose earnings and labour had generated this bonanza were living, and dying, in poverty.

By the mid-1970s internal reports acknowledge the impossibility of managing a family on only 57% of the basic wage, which, after all, was calculated as the minimum for survival for all Australian families. But while Aboriginal families were struggling with hunger and sickness, the government was profiting nicely: it was saving $15 million each year in today’s terms relative to the basic wage for these employees, and $29 million each year if award wages had been paid where due. Just commit your imaginations to those figures for a moment, and picture what difference that would have made each year if these government workers had been paid the wages which were well known to be their legal due.

Our man was one of thousands of employees who was cheated of his legal wage. When he retired in 1979 at the age of 65 he was supervising three gangs of four men each, yet his gross pay was equal to his award wage on the mainland 20 years earlier. From this he paid tax, rent, electricity and kept his family. Other white painters, often without qualifications, got far more than him. He couldn’t afford to buy a car until he got the aged pension, despite 30 years as a qualified painter and 15 as an overseer.

By the mid-1980s community wages were still only 72% the basic wage. It was then, with 6 other workers, that he started an action against the Queensland government in the Human Rights and Equal Opportunities Commission in 1985, charging that the department’s refusal to pay award wages was racial discrimination. He knew, as surely as other Aboriginal workers knew, that it was only because of his race that he had been paid so little; that as a skilled overseer he got less because he wasn’t white.

At the 1996 hearing on Palm Island, evidence was presented which showed the government had known its policy was illegal since it settled the first challenge out of court on the matter nearly 20 years earlier. Evidence was also presented showing that since at least 1982, and on several occasions since then, the Bjelke-Petersen government had discussed the fact that such underpayment was in breach of its own industrial laws and contravened federal racial discrimination legislation. And in 1983, in a failed attempt to force the federal government to cover the increase to legal wage rates, the premier threatened mass sackings which would, he acknowledged, cause “massive social problems”. When prime minister Malcolm Fraser declined involvement on the grounds that state wage rates to state employees were a state responsibility, the Bjelke-Petersen government held to its hard line funding freeze – and Aboriginal communities paid the price.

This, to my mind, is the worst aspect of government management in the 1970s and 1980s – the deliberate, calculated, and probably irreparable damage done to the communities as more than 1500 workers were thrown on the scrap heap, in a cold-blooded process of funding attrition which all but destroyed the social fabric. There were not enough workers to repair rental properties, building programs stalled to conserve funds, many hungry and impoverished families were forced into fewer overcrowded and increasingly derelict buildings. Several managers warned that essential services – water, power, sanitation – were frequently in crisis.

The HREOC found that the government had deliberately, intentionally and knowingly discriminated against these workers because of their race. The 1996 hearing was, in fact, probably the seventh or eighth time the government had opposed, and then capitulated, on underpaid Aboriginal wages. Although the Borbidge coalition government scorned the finding, it soon caved in after threats of renewed action in the federal court. In April 1997 it made a public apology and paid compensation of $7000 to each complainant, having spent in the vicinity of $1 million on a deceitful defence.

This story is a true story. This is the story of Mr Kitchener Bligh. The oldest and most respected man on Palm Island, Kitchener was an active and important member of the community, serving on the council from 1966 to 1972, on the board of the state school, and a key figure in assisting in correctional work with young hotheads in the community. Kitchener was 85 when he passed away in February this year.

But the battle started by Kitchener and his colleagues continues. Last week a further 14 Palm Island workers received similar compensation for wages owing from more than a decade ago, and more than 100 more Aboriginal former government employees, are making their painful, stressed and uncertain way through legal minefields in an effort to obtain what the rest of us take for granted – legal wages for work done.

Minister Judy Spence has said from the outset that this abhorrent process, whereby impoverished individuals have to battle for what is known to be their legal due, should be terminated. Just settlement should be acknowledged and accorded at government level for all these former employees, many of whom are in their twilight years.

When we hear talk of “extra” money going to Aboriginal communities, of positive “discrimination” in funding to address appalling health and housing and living conditions endured in so many Aboriginal communities, be well aware that this money is not “for Aborigines”. It is to redress deficiencies in government management. It is to redress money withheld – both through intention and through negligence – during a century of government control. As we approach the new millennium, could it be that the Beattie Labor government will gain a place in history by redressing a century of shameful and dishonourable abuses of the government’s duty of care to thousands of unwilling wards of state?

Copyright Dr. Rosalind Kidd. Website development by: Ryan-Thomas Robinson