Aboriginal Protection in Queensland



What were the implications of being declared a ward of state under the “protection” of Queensland’s Aboriginal department? First and foremost, you lost almost every right for yourself and your family, rights which are, for the rest of us, so basic as to defy listing: the freedom to live and work where you pleased, the right to marry according to your choice, the conditions of your baby’s birth and whether that birth was even registered, whether your child was taken from you and confined in a dormitory, the right to provide adequate food and safe water for your family’s health, the choice to keep your growing children with you rather than have them sent to contracted employment for 12 months at a time, the right to choose your place and type of employment and the right to receive an equitable wage for your labour, the right to retain the monies earned by the sweat of your brow and to use these to better the conditions of yourself and your loved ones, the right to reasonable comfort and reasonable shelter; in short, the right to make your own life choices in line with the choices of all other Australians.

In the short time available to us today, I want to give you some idea as to how such a system came into operation, and more importantly, how it functioned. I want to give you enough knowledge to seriously doubt many of your preconceptions, and I want to challenge your understanding of race relations in Queensland.

When white settlers moved into Queensland last century there was bitter conflict as the Aboriginal occupants fought to stay on their land. The death toll among Aborigines has been numbered as high as 20,000 people, and countless more fell to starvation and disease. Families were destroyed as women and children were kidnapped as sex objects, and it was common practice to capture adults and children and “break them in” as servants. By 1886 more than 1000 Aborigines were in permanent work around Queensland. Without this labour force, which doubled in the following 20 years, outback Queensland may never have been developed; few white men had the skills or were prepared to endure the risks of pastoral work in remote areas, and the promise of Aboriginal servants did much to persuade white women to join their men on stations and emerging outback towns.

But this vast network of Aboriginal workers was unpaid in any real sense of the word. Most survived on a few food scraps and cast-off clothes, or relied on food-gathering skills in their extended families. All too commonly, however, compliance and dependency were induced through the supply of alcohol and opium, the latter a legal drug in Queensland until 1905. The police were commonly implicated in the culture of abuse and exploitation – records show some officers did a brisk trade in captured Aboriginal children, others also kept women for their own use, many turned a blind eye to the vendettas and killings as whites acted to clear Aboriginal families from land allocated for farms and stations, and too many officers earned their stripes as sergeants in the native police, a murdering machine feared by Aborigines throughout Queensland.


The 1897 Aboriginals Protection Act

In 1897 the Queensland government passed a law aimed specifically at imposing a legal framework of controls over all aspects of inter-racial relations. Significantly, however, this framework enclosed only the Aboriginal half of the equation. The Aboriginals Protection and Restriction of the Sale of Opium Act prohibited the supply of opium or alcohol to Aborigines, it allowed for areas to be set aside as reserves restricted for the use of Aborigines, it introduced a whole set of limitations and controls on the employment of Aboriginal men and women, and it initiated a network of police “protectors” to inspect, monitor and record every facet of the lives of local Aboriginal families. Most importantly, it decreed that almost any person of Aboriginal parentage could be declared a ward of state at the behest of these protectors, who also held the power to subsequently remove any Aboriginal individual from their family and home country for confinement on any nominated government settlement or church mission. For nearly 100 years, merely to be an Aboriginal person in Queensland was to live in fear of being seized “under the Act”.

Now most existing historical texts have focused primarily on the horrors of last century. Writers such as Henry Reynolds have put before the public, in painful detail, not only the widespread killings, which continued well into this century, but also the organised and committed resistances by which Aboriginal groups sought to repel attacks, to maintain links to their country, and to assert their right to survive the unwanted occupation. Much has been written about the role of the native police, and the failure of the legal system to stem these abuses. And these works are invaluable. However, I felt that racial oppression through denial of land and culture might not exhaust explanations of the deplorable circumstances of so many Aboriginal people today. It seemed to me there might be other information, and other lines of inquiry, which could be more useful in understanding what had been going on, particularly in this century.

So this was the starting point for my five-year research project. I wanted to position myself differently: rather than standing outside government operations and opposing or condemning them as racial oppression, I wanted to stand inside government operations and critically investigate these on their own terms. Exactly how did Queensland governments execute the duty of “care and protection” over thousands of unwilling wards of state until the late 1980s? By using thousands of internal letters and reports, could I tease out the thinking behind the countless adjustments and redirections in policies and practices from the earliest days of the colony to recent times? Could I analyse government operations to show how they measured up to their own intentions and claims? What could I learn by standing inside these activities as they were unfolding?


Problems with law

For instance, when we consider the first years of the Moreton Bay colony from the 1840s, documents show that a major concern of government was how to extend the processes of law into this new northern colony. The logistics were almost insurmountable: they had to appoint local men as justices of the peace and police magistrates, but they knew many of these men were aligned with vested landholders, or were landholders themselves, and were likely therefore to be biased against Aboriginal groups on their land. Many of the local magistrates turned out to be villains, but few ‘good’ men would take on the job. The problem of ‘rotten’ police was also acknowledged, particularly white officers who allowed the native police under their control to run rampant. And all too often ex-police moved into positions as police magistrates – and took their prejudices with them. Indeed lack of funding, and a consequent inability to attract educated and reliable men, was a continuing problem for the police department into the early years of this century.

Government and judicial personnel were also well aware that Aboriginal people were severely disadvantaged in a legal system which operated in a language they might not know and with concepts, such as swearing an oath before the christian god, which excluded their participation. And during the last century many adjustments were indeed made to foster fairness before the law, including the provision, from the early 1840s, of interpreters and legal assistance, and changes to the taking of testimony, principally in 1884, to allow for a commitment to tell the truth rather than swearing an oath before god. So you can tease out and examine a whole range of issues relating to the treatment of Aboriginal people before the justice and legal systems in terms of the aims and failures of governing, which might not find space for consideration in a more drastic ‘racial oppression’ framework. 


Why set up reserves?

When I looked at the latter part of last century and the early years of this, I asked myself why did it even seem sensible to introduce a law in 1897 to set up Aboriginal reserves and then forcibly relocate thousands of Aboriginal families onto them in succeeding decades? I knew the conventional answer was that it was to get Aborigines out of the way of white expansion except for the few who were useful as cheap labour. But when you look at the correspondence within government, you find that the attitudes and concepts applied to what was called the ‘Aboriginal problem’ were the same as had been circulating since the 1850s with regard to a perceived necessity to remove white youngsters, deemed to be at risk physically or morally, and to confine such individuals in reformatories and industrial schools. Here they were given only the basics in reading and writing before being sent out, from the age of 10, as cheap servants in homes, businesses or farms. In fact in Britain, by 1900, one in every 230 juveniles under 15 years of age was under reformatory control.

Indeed the provisions of the 1897 Aboriginals Protection Act closely resemble many of the provisions in existing reformatory legislation – to ‘rescue’, confine, retrain and reposition those who were said to be unable to manage their lives competently in general society. So the 1897 Act was entirely consistent with measures which had been operating in the white community for nearly 50 years, and its provisions relayed similar aims and used similar mechanisms of social control. Although we judge it an extreme regime from our 1990s perspective, in the 1890s removal, retraining and underpaid servitude was common practice. We can identify the aims of government to take control and re-shape these “problem” groups, and certainly the push to place as many men and women out to contracted work as the market would bear, explains why thousands of Aborigines were sent as workers to remote pastoral properties. The double economic benefit – cutting costs by reducing dependents on reserves, and gaining access to workers’ income – was an added attraction of this strategy.


Controlling the workforce

Indeed control of the Aboriginal labour force, crucial as it was to all aspects of pioneering and development around Australia, was a major focus of the Aboriginal legislation and subsequent regulations. I have already alluded to the deplorable exploitation of these workers. Under the terms of the 1897 Act alcohol and opium were prohibited for Aborigines, employers were vetted by local police protectors to prevent abuses and exploitation, and token wages were payable for the duration of the 12-month “work agreements”. Orders were given for those who were unable or unwilling to work, and unable to feed themselves and their families, to be removed forcibly to government settlements or church missions where rations, shelter, and protection were provided. That was the theory.

Unfortunately the reality was terribly different. 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 then 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. To call these compulsory work contracts “agreements” is ludicrous: the only choice was to sign or risk jailing or confinement on a different government settlement away from family and friends.


Where the money goes

To minimise cheating, so it was said, all Aboriginal wages were paid directly to the local police protector, except for a small sum of “pocket money” during the work period; although internal records show that for the whole duration of this scheme, that is until the late 1960s, the department was well aware there was no system to ensure the pocket money was ever properly paid. The department was also 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 fraud and embezzlement, and I’ll return shortly to those bulk savings.

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 the 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. Meanwhile, you could only get access to your wages through the police protector, who frequently refused permission for you to spend even the smallest amount.

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 and used in revenue-raising investments. 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 had been taken directly to bolster consolidated revenue. Those who were legally the 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 particular workers retained their own earnings – which would have totalled around $20million in today’s terms – for their own benefit, like all other Australians.

Before leaving the plight of these pastoral workers, whom the minister acknowledged, in confidence to his colleagues in 1962, were the mainstay of the pastoral industry being as skilled and as competent as whites, you might be interested to know that since 1919 Aboriginal wages were pegged at only two-thirds the white rate. Yet year after year the department failed to keep abreast of wage increases for white workers, leaving Aboriginal drovers, musterers, fencers, cooks, cleaners and child minders desperately disadvantaged. In 1950, for instance, the department was hiring out this captive labour force at two-thirds the 1938 rate, effectively at only 25% of the wage set by law as payable to their white equivalents.

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 for 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.


Wards of state on Aboriginal reserves

Now although the department routinely failed to ensure the thousands of pastoral workers received their legal wage rate, and equally routinely utilised Aboriginal savings and Trust funds to raise revenue which offset expenditure, the thousands of people confined on the dozen or so missions and on the three government settlements received no financial return for their labour for the first half of this century. Most of these communities were established on land considered useless for white development, all were drastically – and arguably criminally – underfunded, and all were places of starvation, preventable sickness, inadequate amenities, grossly overcrowded housing and compulsory unpaid work. Aboriginal groups did not sit about under the trees with their hands out for rations while white work gangs built and ran the communities for them. All the missions and settlements were established and maintained by Aboriginal labour; without this input over all the decades of this century there would be no communities on Aboriginal reserves today.

The culture of labour was not only implanted from childhood onwards, it was enforced through punishment and withholding of scarce rations. It was compulsory for every able-bodied individual to perform at least 32 hours work each week in order to receive rations – a little tea, sugar, flour, sago, tobacco and a piece of soap. On most missions and settlements large numbers of children of school age were taken from their parents and confined in the dormitories. They were given a few hours’ daily schooling but until the 1950s this was generally in a bark and tin shack, where lack of windows and lighting meant the structures were completely closed, dark and airless during rainy weather. Only the basics of sums, spelling and scriptures were taught. There were no trained teachers, no real desks or chairs, only outdated textbooks and a few slates and chalks. Until the late 1950s few Aboriginal children on these government institutions were educated beyond grade four.

Apart from these few hours’ instruction, school children were prepared for a life of labour. Boys learned to clean and weave palm fronds for the thatch houses, to strip bark and clear scrub. Those with any aptitude were instructed in basic carpentry, machinery and farm work. The girls learned sewing, cleaning, washing and cooking; their childhood and youth was spent in meeting the needs of up to 300 dormitory children, as well as the clinics and aged homes.

From the age of 14 many of the young girls from the government settlements were sent to work – alone, frightened and extremely vulnerable – on cane farms and remote pastoral properties, usually without a youngster to talk to or a black face to comfort them. Youngsters were often 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. It was policy to send this forced labour contingent out year after year, on a 12-month work term, with only a week or two with their families between contracts. Often girls who fell pregnant were sent back out to work, with their new babies, and at a reduced rate; many suffered the agony of being separated from their children, who were kept to be raised in the dormitories while they fulfilled their role as useful income earners.

In contrast, few of the missions exploited their labour forces in outside employment, wary of the “contamination” from sexual encounters and alcohol, and from contact with workmates who might enlighten these contracted employees as to the extremity of their exploitation. More practically, retention of able-bodied workers, particularly of boys and men, was absolutely critical for the development and maintenance of these institutions. Indeed by the late 1920s the head of the department boasted that all work on the reserve 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, machinery sheds, doing boat building and maintenance, as well as teaching, nursing, clothes making, baking, and domestic service to white staff, to name just a few work areas.

During the war years thousands of Aboriginal men from the reserves worked on farms and properties in positions vacated by enlisted soldiers. Because this was a federal initiative all workers were paid award wages. But, like the pastoral workers, they never saw this money: it went directly to the superintendent of their mission or settlement, and from it was taken income tax and a levy of around 20% towards running costs of the institution. Even the remainder was not theirs to spend: because the money was kept in a settlement trust fund from which bulk sums were committed to revenue-raising investments. All they got was vouchers for the community store, where fresh food and milk was rarely available, where groceries were routinely past their used-by date, stores which ran, on average, on a profit margin of up to 40%. Even after years of continual labour, families were frequently told their was no money left in their accounts.

By 1950 a few key personnel on each community were paid a token few shillings, around $12 today per fortnight, as “incentive”. So deprived were the missions and settlements that it was a battle merely to survive. Records chronicle food shortages so dramatic that inmates had to be sent bush to forage; they show chronic malnutrition and endemic skin diseases and hookworm infestation; they show water supplies that routinely tested unsafe for human consumption; they show derelict and grossly overcrowded huts; and dormitories, hospitals and school buildings declared dangerous for occupation. Of all these institutions, filled as they were with thousands of suffering individuals, only Palm Island had a permanent medical officer, and that only because he also was in charge of venereal and Hansen’s disease patients cleared from all over Queensland and banished to nearby Fantome Island. This was the reality of life under the government’s “care and protection”.


Profiting from poverty

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 cash payments currently paid to workers. This continued a pattern of deprivation which had actually commenced before the 1920s with the withholding of maternity allowances, and brought undreamed profits to these institutions after child endowment was allocated in 1942. It was the department which instructed the missions and settlements how to have mothers sign over this cash entitlement which was meant to improve child and maternal health, so that it could be appropriated as part of institutional revenue. In fact internal records reveal that the department plotted to keep all child endowment for its own distribution purposes, but, after deciding it was publicly unacceptable to do this on the missions, which were well known as places of hunger and destitution, it simply reduced mission grants by an amount equivalent amount, effectively forcing them to use private pensions for public expenditure.

It was not until 1968 that a wage system was introduced in place of the rations for this compulsory labour force, allowing community residents cash to spend on their needs. Several community managers urged payment should at least equal the basic wage, and some reported that several workers were eligible for award rates. But the head of the department set the level at only 30% the basic wage, which, in reality, was the calculated minimum for family survival. Families were thrown into crisis; prices at the department-run stores were often double those of nearby country towns; most families found it impossible to meet essential needs; surveys showed large numbers of malnourished children; sickness and premature death continued. At this time the government was sitting on almost $17million of Aboriginal money, while those whose earnings and labour had generated this bonanza were living, and dying, in poverty.

During the 1970s a commonwealth-funded building program produced new houses on all communities, real houses with tap water and electricity; but those families who were most in need were unable to afford the hugely subsidised rentals, because – by department decree – community wages were so low. Overcrowding and community upheaval intensified, as families inevitably had to double up in undersized and derelict older housing. At Yarrabah, for example, surveys showed many homes sheltered between 14 and 20 people, yet commonly lacked fridges, food cupboards, cooking utensils, hot water or even wash basins. Homes with more than ten occupants averaged had only one bed between three people, some had only four mattresses and four chairs. How could families eat properly and cleanly standing up or sitting on the floor every day, lamented the hygiene officer. And floorboards rotted, because mothers were forced to hose out the houses daily in the dusty dirty environments.

During the 1970s and early 1980s, as federal and union pressure was applied against the Queensland government to force payment of legal wage rates to its Aboriginal employees, the government retaliated against each grudging increment by slashing an equivalent number of jobs from these struggling communities. At this time the average community wage was still only 72% of the state’s basic wage, and the savage job cuts, which saw more than 1500 workers thrown out of work in the period between 1975 and 1985, all but destroyed the social fabric on these communities. There were not enough workers to maintain and repair rental properties; building programs stalled as the state government squeezed wages; and managers on several communities protested more than once that essential services – water, power, sanitation – were in crisis.

In human terms the outcome of this merciless strategy was appalling. Families fractured as many women decided they were better off on a pension than struggling to feed their families on the portion of the minimal wage which their husbands gave them, and told their men to leave; other men who had succumbed to alcohol and violence also found themselves banished as wives reluctantly refused to continue living in fear and tension. Bereft of family, bereft of work, bereft of dignity, and hooked on alcohol, a floating population of males cadged beds from friends and relatives but had no real place to call home. The worst aspect of this, to my mind, is that it was all premeditated. Correspondence shows that premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen, in trying to force the federal government to fund the increase to award wage rates, had threatened from the beginning that he would sack workers rather than commit any state finances to this legal wage requirement. He warned prime minister Malcolm Fraser this would cause “massive social problems”. When Fraser pointed out that state wage rates on state institutions were a state responsibility, the Bjelke-Petersen government held to its hard line funding freeze. And Aboriginal communities paid the price.

At this time, as the records show, the Queensland government was profiting by the equivalent of $15million each year by underpaying Aboriginal workers relative to the basic wage, or $29million each year if it had paid award wages where due. Just commit your imaginations to those figures for a moment, and picture what difference that would have made each year if these particular government workers had been paid the wages which were their legal due. Since as early as 1979, when the government fended off the first legal challenge on this matter by settling out of court, it has known such underpayment is illegal. Since at least 1982, which happens to be the first evidence I found, the government discussed on several occasions that such underpayment was in breach of its own industrial laws and contravened federal racial discrimination legislation. But it has fought, and conceded, about six separate actions on this matter, the last as recently as 1996, when it wasted nearly $1million in a failed attempt to avoid compensation of $42,000 to six Palm Island workers. Other cases are in the legal pipeline today. As is a massive class action of more than 600 people which challenges the government over entrenched fraud, mismanagement, misuse and misappropriation of Aboriginal wages, savings and Trust monies.



Many people today say that to acknowledge Aboriginal pain is to wallow unnecessarily in guilt. But when governments claim the moral high ground for so-called “well-intentioned” practices of the past they are in fact invoking a collective social amnesia. They are hoping that a century of poverty, hunger, sickness, despair, under-education and under- or non-employment will continue to be blamed on those who were trapped, unwillingly, in the most comprehensive regime of controls ever imposed in this country. But guardianship which continued into the late 1980s cannot be masked as a “well-intentioned” policy of the past. Today’s circumstances are an outcome of carefully crafted and deliberately implemented practices which continued to the present. We know trust funds were spent on development projects on missions and settlements, we know the bulk of private savings was withheld to raise revenue for the department, we know child endowment was diverted to capital works, we know only a small portion of pensions was passed on to the elderly, to widows, to invalids. We know the government deliberately compromised the social fabric of Aboriginal communities in a bloody-minded determination not to put a single cent towards paying its Aboriginal employees the legal wage.

So when we hear talk of “extra” money going to Aboriginal communities today, 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. Acknowledging the truth of the past has nothing to do with self-defeating guilt. It is about living honestly in the present. Surely the body which controlled all aspects of Aboriginal lives for all of this century must be questioned as to why its guardianship created and sustained the worst outcomes on all social indicators for those people who they decided to call “wards of state”?

It is the operations of governments which have dictated the possibilities and limitations of Aboriginal lives. And we must now question these operations. We must ask why children who were removed from their families and homelands “for their own protection” were then institutionalised in dormitories which were well known as health risks? Why were they given schooling which was well known as substandard, why were youngsters sent out to work on remote properties where it was well known they were prey to sexual and physical abuse? Why were families on reserves fed rations which were well known as medically inadequate? We must ask why people who worked all their lives were deprived of the bulk of their savings, and why they are then somehow blamed for living in overcrowded poverty. What other agency of “care” would claim the right to walk away from 80 years of failure in its duty? And insist that those whose lives were so dreadfully damaged have no right to question their actions, that they are vindictive in exposing the scandals, that they are ungracious to seek an apology.

It seems to me there is a clear opportunity – or should that be responsibility? – for all of us to stand together and demand accountability from our governments for what they have perpetrated in our names and for what they have hidden from our knowledge. We can stand together and refuse to accept a distorted and partial version of the realities of Aboriginal experiences, and we can reinstate these experiences to their true position – precisely as outcomes of government mismanagement over many decades and not, in what seems to me to be almost a doubling of denial, not to impute that present circumstances derive primarily from inabilities of Aboriginal families to function effectively.

Each one of has a choice. Governments are counting on our ignorance and indifference to mask their failures and deceptions. Surely now, as we move into the new millenium, we should stand together and honour the truths of our painful past, we should expose wrongdoings executed under the protections of official powers. We should understand that these things happened, and armed with this knowledge, say Never again.

I think this is what history – and reconciliation – is all about.

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