Ten years ago when I first started researching the activities of the Queensland government’s Aboriginal Department I had several aims: to acquire for myself a knowledge of government operations during the twentieth century; to do a thorough job in accessing the widest possible range of information; and to come up with new ways of conceptualising practices such as exile to reserves, separation of children from their families, and forced labour. In particular, I wanted some sense of how Aboriginal families experienced these and other aspects of a century of ‘care and protection.’
I started off as a middle-class middle-aged woman researching for a PhD thesis and ended up, after reading hundreds of files and thousands of documents, sitting in a room surrounded by paper and thinking: What if this had been me? How would I have coped? What does it mean that I now have this knowledge? The complexity of this suffocating system of controls, the scope and depth of unbelievable deprivation, absolutely beggars belief.
Since the turn of the nineteenth century, in Queensland and around Australia, each of the states gave itself total power over Aboriginal lives. As settlement appropriated all the fertile land, Aboriginal families were deported even from dry areas; it was claimed their presence near waterholes or rivers frightened the cattle. Carted off to missions and settlements according to the provisions of carefully crafted ‘protection’ laws, people died of diseases and starvation because the institutions were invariably located on useless land and the government refused to provide funds sufficient for survival. People who escaped to look for food and work were hunted down and returned in chains. On reserves, work was compulsory and unpaid until the late 1960s, rations and housing condemned as pathologically substandard, and the whole sorry mess handed to Aboriginal community councils in the late 1980s. And now these conditions are largely blamed on poor council administration and misplaced ATSIC priorities.
Every employed Aboriginal in Queensland was contracted by the government for 51 weeks out of 52, with or without his or her family. To refuse such separation was to be beaten or banished, usually to Palm Island. Some never saw or heard from families again. On the backs of this workforce of between 4000 and 5000 men, women and children, the Queensland pastoral industry developed and prospered. Surveys showed that Aboriginal workers were often regarded as more skilled than whites, but a gentlemen’s agreement struck in 1919 between government and pastoralists set Aboriginal pay at 66% of the white rate for the next 50 years. That was the stated procedure. But in some years workers actually received as little as 31%, and never, during its control of private wages that only ceased in 1970, never did the government ensure that even this money was received by the worker. The government maintained a system blighted by fraud; it extracted levies from pitiful earnings; it misused and mismanaged trust funds; it seized around 80% of private savings to generate revenue for the state on the facile pretext that the money was ‘idle’ and ‘surplus to needs’. Account holders, some with considerable finances of which they were kept totally ignorant, lived and died in grinding poverty. Now we begin to understand the despair and destitution of today.
What most appalled me was the sheer bloody mindedness and perversity as, decade after decade, power compounded power, entrenching a punitive system for the sake of maintaining controls, in the face of mounting evidence of outcomes patently contrary to publicly stated aims. What I found most offensive was the realisation that during all of these years, when the causal factor was so clearly the pernicious system itself and the men who implemented it with such dogmatic determination, it was the people who were blamed, misrepresented, maligned and discounted as the root cause of their own damnable circumstances. As is still so often the case today.
If you are driven from country which has sustained you for generations, if you are denied access to rental housing or casual accommodation, if those of you in work are denied the cash you are earning, if you are thereby struggling in shanties without the clean water, sanitation, shelter, food, clothing and schooling that is mandated for all other Australians how does it feel to be told it is your failure to provide a good home environment that alerts authorities to the need to ‘rescue’ your children from your negligence? How does it feel to know, from experience, that you might never see your little ones again? To realise, from the cold hard facts of your position, that you can’t afford to follow to be near them? To know, from bitter experience, that the authorities will neither listen to your protests nor respect your heartache? What does it mean for ourselves as Australians to know now, as surely as I know from the evidence, that these children who were taken into government ‘care and protection’ and the adults they became were trapped, across many generations, in conditions as bad, and often worse, than those from which they were deemed to have been ‘rescued’?
Here are some sketches of conditions on government settlements. On Palm Island in the 1930s nearly every baby died who was not breastfed, because the only alternative was arrowroot and condensed milk. Here the doctor asked head office whether it was ‘worth while trying to save them’ by providing vitamin-enriched formula. At Cherbourg, the government’s showpiece institution, the walls of the dormitory were described as ‘literally alive with bugs … beds, bed clothing, pillows and mattresses are all infested … all pillows were filthy because the previous matron withheld pillowslips to save washing’. In the 1950s malnourished dormitory children succumbed to tuberculosis because, as the expert reported, they slept several to a bed in overcrowded and badly ventilated barracks. The government was warned that the encaging of large numbers of children and unmarried women behind barbed wire and locked doors was artificial, unnatural and pernicious, but dormitories continued to be used, even into the 1970s, as places of detention.
For around 70 years, the Queensland government simply ignored its own law requiring every child to be given a regular education. As early as 1905 the Chief Protector had obtained advice from the crown solicitor that Aboriginal children were not exempted from this basic right. Yet the government had no intention of providing standard teachers, classrooms or learning resources for these wards of state. Until the 1950s, lessons were limited to a half-day so children could work in the afternoons; they had to make do with cast off and outdated materials from the white schools, with unpaid native monitors as teachers. Only in the last few decades has orthodox schooling been provided. Yet the public was told Aboriginal children were intellectually backward. And in the wider community it was the atrocious conditions on the Department’s own reserves, where basic amenities were deliberately vetoed on the grounds that they might encourage people to reside there, that were reported, time and time again, as the sole grounds that children were refused access to local schools.
The Department even denied local councils permission to erect necessary amenities, and dismissed white lobbyists as socialist meddlers. From the 1960s, in the name of assimilation, it sanctioned the eviction of families and the destruction of their huts ‘on health grounds’ conditions for which the Department was itself responsible when it knew that no alternative accommodation was available. In the 1970s, as federally-funded low-rent houses proliferated, families trying to help each other out risked eviction as Departmental agents warned against overcrowding and ‘unsuitable’ visitors.
I am horrified and ashamed to read the machinations of this pitiless system. I am ashamed to know that many families with large bank accounts had to go cap in hand to ask permission to make small withdrawals, permission that was frequently refused. Shame turned to disgust now I know that the government knew of, was consistently warned of widespread frauds by both employers and police, but always refused to implement the simplest check namely that people see some record of what was being done to their own savings. Disgust turned to anger now I know that the government itself was taking money from savings for trust accounts it misused and purloined, it engineered ‘consent’ for deductions to pay for improvements on Departmental reserves, it seized the bank interest and, in the late 1950s, it simply wrote itself a regulation so it could invest hundreds of thousands of pounds of those savings in development projects of regional hospitals when Aboriginal patients were dying of cross infections in the under-resourced and inadequately staffed equivalents.
I am horrified and ashamed to have lived oblivious to such calculated inhumanity. I am also diminished. My sense of myself as a member of a just society is fractured as surely as if I had stepped on a landmine. I am horrified at how late it was in life that I came to learn the terrible realities endured by Aboriginal families at the hands of governments. And this knowledge is very confronting: because I’m one of the millions of Australians who have never gone hungry, I have never been cast adrift from my family, I have always had a roof over my head, a warm bed, my wages in my hand to spend on my needs.
It’s not just a case of ‘adding in’ this untold history. This evidence cannot be characterised as a few awkward last pieces to be fitted in to an almost-completed national jigsaw as our Prime Minister seems to suggest. This is not simply a matter of adjusting the colour and contrast of a two-dimensional representation of our ‘development’ from the primitive to the modern. What this evidence reveals is a submerged operational dynamic within our national psyche. The diminishment and degradation of Aboriginal agency in Australian history is the diminishment and degradation of us all. Knowing only part of our history, our identity is open to manipulation and distortion. If we could embrace the true content and outcomes of government management of Aboriginal lives, much of the ‘whiteness’ of our identity would be replaced by the multi-colours of reality. White explorers did not, like conquering heroes, ‘open up’ the outback and pave the way for ‘civilisation’; they were watched, guided and often rescued by those whose country it was, those who knew it infinitely better, those who moved and endured lightly on the landscape. White miners, stockmen and settlers did not ‘pioneer’ life in the bush; most remote properties and towns were dependent on the labour of thousands of Aboriginal men, women and children, with more than 1000 working full time by 1880 in Queensland alone. Time and time again in the twentieth century pastoralists stated they could not survive without cheap black labour.
These facts are indicative of more than history untold; they also represent debts unpaid. Debts of acknowledgment, debts of regret and, in practical, accountable terms, financial debts. In Queensland alone, calculations show that Aboriginal labour, unpaid and underpaid in the pastoral industry and in developing the communities, is more than a billion dollars in today’s value – calculating only from the 1940s. In Queensland today the state admits it has profited from this forced labour; but while this profit amounted to around half a million dollars annually the state is currently offering about $55 million, ‘in the spirit of reconciliation’ as they put it, ‘so we can move on.’ That’s $4000 for some workers and half that for others. For decades of work.
This is not some unfortunate blight on our past to be ‘whited out’ with an amount the Departmental budget can comfortably accommodate. My argument is that their wages and savings, denied or missing or misappropriated, are their legal right; they are not within the province of the government to bestow ‘in the spirit of reconciliation.’ These workers helped build each state. Aboriginal workers, Aboriginal families, are integral to our nationhood, not a late addition. It would seem, in our present political climate, that we have a fight on our hands to reclaim this dynamic our multi-coloured past and present. Well, so be it. History is far too important to leave to the whims of temporary politicians.
This is a good fight, a purifying fight, a fight to claim truth for our nation and our identity. My personal belief is that it is also a unifying fight. We can stand together and work for truth in our history, for the expansion rather than the contraction of our knowledge, for the inclusion rather than the ostracism of our brothers and sisters. We can demand acknowledgment and dignity for those denied it by our forebears and, sadly, by many of our peers; we can be enriched by their stories, their experiences, their culture. And I have found, without question, that I also am empowered through this fight to disseminate knowledge and to win justice. I am still only five foot one; but I am taller, stronger, and richer through my friendships and this shared struggle. I am fighting because to know is to be indelibly implicated: the choice is to walk away or to take action literally, for truth and justice. My reward is to look my children and grandchildren in the eye and say Yes, I learned of it; Yes, I am ashamed and disgusted; and Yes, I am doing all in my power to change it.
A version of this article was presented at the Unfinished Business Conference in Melbourne in June 2002.