44[“Our Black Brother”, The West Australian, Friday 01 July 1910, page 3]

“OUR BLACK BROTHER.”

Side-Lights on the Native Question.

(By “Vindex.”)

In his necessarily hurried trip to the North-West it was impossible for the Colonial Secretary to get other than an impressionist view of some of the many aspects of the native question. Mr. Connolly is one of those who regard seriously our responsibility to our black brother, whose admission to our family—or was it our intrusion into his?—— has scarcely been for his advantage. Inquiry into the condition of the aborigine and our methods of applying the law to him was one of the most dearly-cherished objects of the Minister’s trip northward. He had hoped, too, that observation of the work of the Palatine Fathers at Beagle Bay Mission would throw some light on the higher capabilities of the blackfellow, and reveal the direction in which the State’s efforts for the care and improvement of the remnants of a dwindling race might be most profitably be applied. But though he was doomed not to visit the mission he had the opportunity of long discussion with two of the principals, viz., Father Bischoff and the Rev. Mother. There are so many different views of the blackfellow, and all of them so contradictory, that it was a pleasure to hear from them opinions which they asserted had beenn proved by actual experience and results at their mission.

A Missionary’s View.

Father Bischoff, for instance, regards the native with deep affection and fervent admiration. He resents the impression that he is naturally a being of murderous passions. “However warlike the natives may be in their tribal relationships,” he says, “that is far from being their attitude towards the white man. The black man, as I have learned from study of him, is deeply religious. I have traced and found even in distant tribes far beyond mission influences and the teachings of Christianity an undefinable but nevertheless fixed belief in one God. Not from the oldest of the natives could I get a coherent statement of what or who that god is, but nevertheless the belief is there, and its influence manifests itself in a thousand ways to those who take the trouble to study the native closely. And it is part of their religious belief or superstition that the white man is a superior spirit, and they live in religious awe and respect of him so long as he is not harmful to them. The trouble is that the white man too often reveals himself to be a harmful spirit, and it is then that the native makes war on him. But I do not believe—indeed I have proved what I say when I have gone into the camps of unknown and unchristianised tribes and without fear or precaution slept soundly by their camp fires—that the native unprovoked is naturally hostile to the white man.” Father Bischoff went on to say that the missionaries had found the natives, both boys and girls, perfectly amenable to instruction. In fact, at Beagle Bay one could see aboriginal and half-caste boys working in carpentry and blacksmithing, whilst with the girls the sisters have had most satisfactory results. So much for this aspect of the native question.

The Black Labour Market.

At every port on the coast from Carnarvon northward Mr. Connolly was deputationised by the municipal authorities for a loan of native prison labour. These local governing bodies in the North are in a happy position. When they have roads to make, drains to repair, or stone to quarry, they borrow a gang of native prisioners, the municipality paying the wages of such warders as are necessary to supervise the workers. In consequence, most of the town roads are in a very fair state of repair considering the smallness of the income of the local governing body, and the damage occasionally done when the elements run amok and develop cyclonic tendencies. But unfortunately for the municipalities—and it was the subject of complaint everywhere—the native prisoners were not as numerous as they used to be. None of the gaols is full, and Derby prison was stark empty. It is not that the native has become virtuous. He is probably today just as black and no blacker than he was twelve months ago, but possibly the law is more just to him. The fact of the matter is that the police system has been changed. Tales told to Mr. Connolly by authoritative people during his northern trip need not be here repeated.

The Policeman as a Caterer.

But imagine the temptation and the opportunities for abuse in a system which practically offered to the policeman a premium of so much per head for every native captured. There was, say an allegation of cattle killing on the part of natives at some station far distant in the Kimberleys. The district policeman was despatched to the scene to arrest the offenders. Under the system he became caterer for his prisoners. He was allowed, say, 1s. 6d. per day per head, and possibly there was no lack of game within easy range of the policeman’s rifle, or of that of his black tracker. Perhaps it was a case of “no game, no food.” At the end of two weeks, three weeks, a month, possibly even six weeks, the constable returned in triumph with a gang of fifteen or twenty prisoners on a chain, and half a dozen black witnesses. The black is a useful witness. He will usually swear that which he thinks will be most popular. Besides the policeman had to cater for the witnesses coming and going, for he would have to escort them back to their country after the trial—and always at so much per head per diem. Perhaps his account represented that he had effected the arrest a fortnight earlier than he really had done, but who was to know any different?

Native Appreciation of Gaol.

Arrived at the gaol the prisoners became the charge of the gaoler, and it was only fair that he should have a reasonably lengthy opportunity of showing hospitality to them—at per head per diem, of course. How handy a remand for one week or two would be! These are suppositions only. But if such practices had prevailed, would the native have minded? Not at all. For a while at any rate prison life was a real “pink-eye” to him. In gaol he was fed and got tobacco, and if he was not loaned too frequently to the municipal bodies he became fat and lazy. Except that in time he would be yearning to get back to his own country, gaol was no hardship, although it might be a very grave injustice. Possibly the system stimulated zeal, for it has been stated that one officer was so zealous in making a comprehensive muster of alleged cattle-killers that he even went beyond the South Australian border in search of captives, and, of course, by the time he got his gang of prisoners to the gaol the catering bill had reached a quite respectable sum. These things one might, without saying more, imagine to have been possible under the old system. But that phase has passed. Some months ago Mr. Connolly realised the necessity for an alteration, and nowadays when natives are being travelled in from the back country necessary stores and food supplies are charged to the department direct. Arresting natives could no longer be a remunerative business. The reform has not been long in practice, but it is an interesting coincidence that there are less natives in the gaols than formerly. As the sentences of prisoners expire there are not so many taking their places. And yet there has been no suggestion that cattle spearing is showing any alarming increase; so far as the authorities have yet heard, the squatter still sleeps as soundly as he ever did. This, of course, is all very well for the native, but one has only to listen to the wail of the municipalities to realise that this altered condition of affairs has seriously diminished the usefulness of the gaols as a bureau for free labour.

Cattle Spearing.

And in regard to the offence of cattle spearing, it is undeniable that the pastoralists do lose heavily through the depredation of the natives. Indeed, the Government have acknowledged that in their latest scheme for acquiring two cattle stations in the most troublesome districts, and endeavouring to teach the natives that those stations are there for their special use and benefit, and that there is no need for them to spear private owners’ cattle when they have plenty of their own. But it was represented to Mr. Connolly while he was in the north that the squatters themselves were in some measure to blame for the prevalence of cattle-killing. Large stations in Kimberley and West Kimberley, it was stated, were worked with two and sometimes only one white man on them, the bulk of the work being done by station “niggers.” With supervision necessarily lax, her was a direct invitation to the untutored sons of the bush to come along and spear a beast whenever they were in need of meat. But the squatter then strove to restore the balance of white influence in the district by clamouring for more police protection, and often the policeman became in effect a State-paid boundary-rider for the station owner.

The Benevolent Squatter.

In mentioning circumstances such as these one does not forget that the majority of squatters show a very high sense of their responsibility to the original owner of the soil. Even in the olden days when harsh practices and a mild form of slavery undeniably prevailed, there were still many good men who ever treated the native with justice and humanity, but nowadays the considerate attitude to the black is growing, and Mr. S. P. Mackay’s gift last week of £1,000 toward the betterment of the aborigine is one generous acknowledgment of the pastoralist’s responsibility, as well as proof of the prevailing sentiment of kindness. But, unfortunately, there remain exceptions. The Minister heard particulars up the coast of one degraded beast who has lived for years with a veritable harem of black women, who worked with him while he lived in hoggish idleness, and was more recently living in flagrant immorality with own illegitimate half-caste daughters. This case, if as bad as represented, is it may well be believed an isolated one in which no effort should be spared to bring the offender to justice. Then again, there have been cases of individual abuse of the general permits, the holders of which authority to employ any natives. This distinct from the ordinary permits in which the holder is given authority to employ one native or natives named. Whilst the majority of employers use the general permits wisely and well, there are others who have been known to work a native for years, and then when he has become old and sick, have repudiated any responsibility to care for him, saying “that is not the man who worked for me.” There is on the books of a northern hospital the case of two natives, one man and one woman, sent into the institution from a large and prosperous station under letter from the manager. The natives received extended treatment, and in course of time the bill was rendered to the station-owner and employer. He frankly and positively refused to pay. This sort of imposition on the State Mr. Connolly is desirous of terminating. To that end the issue of general permits has ceased, and he proposes to inquire whether it will not be possible to make employers pay wages for the natives to the State, the money thus received to be applied to the benefit of the natives.

Law and Punishment.

Perhaps one of the biggest problems connected with the native question is as to the justice or effectiveness of imprisoning natives Upon this subject opinions run to strange extremes. There are men who can see only the angel in the blackfellow; he is a poor child of the bush that can do no wrong. And there are those who almost decline to recognise the black as a human being at all. But perhaps the most dangerous person of all is the man who sees no legal or moral distinction between the untutored savage of the bush, to whom the fighting grounds of tribal warfare are the very lists of chivalry, and the man trained through countless generations to a civilised code of laws and public morality. Mr. Connolly had the surprise and amusement of listening to an eccentric magistrate who seriously proposed that the Vagrancy Act should be made applicable to the aborigine! This is even more amusing than a police court farce, which is laughingly told up north. Black Polly, straight from the bush, and incapable of speaking a word of English, is arraigned before the Bench. And the Bench reads the charge to her, ending up with the usual “guilty or not guilty.” Polly doesn’t know what it’s all about, but she thinks it is probably a good joke. Her face cracks into a broad grin. “Seven days for contempt of Court,” says his Worship. This but shows that not only must we have to some extent a law for the white and another for the black, but that the State must have on its benches rational men with a sympathetic understanding of the blackfellow’s position. To sentence to imprisonment a nigger brought from far beyond the influence of semi-education of towns is, it is argued, absolutely ineffective as a deterrent from crime. Gaol to him is as good as a holiday on full pay with travelling allowances to a civil servant.

The Native Gaols.

In fact, when one sees the prisoners in the gaol they are the picture of well-fed contentment. The gaols generally seem to be the model of comfort and cleanliness, although at first glance there is something revolting in the sight of a cage-like structure, and, lolling about behind the bars, 20 or 30 chained to each other and to bolts in the floor, and smoking and grinning like so many monkeys. But however repellant the notion of chaining native prisoners, they are certainly not hurt, nor are they visibly inconvenienced by this method fo detention. They seem healthy and happy, and as they are entirely devoid of sense of guilt, shame or repentance, it is not incredible that a reasonably short term of imprisonment is a reward rather than a punishment for evil-doing. The suggestion has been made, and by men who know the native from experience, and would have him humanely dealt by, that, though it may sound repugnant, flogging would be the most effective and at the same time the most kindly way of correcting the black criminal.

One can clearly see that if the native question is to be effectively dealt with it must be studied by the man on the spot. Hence the necessity, for the Chief Protector of Aborigines spending a fair proportion of his time in the north. The subject of the treatment of the native is like a stone of many facets, and it seems impossible for one many from any one standpoint to see it in all its aspects. Certainly we who see that degraded specimen of his race, who slouches about towns and cities, and cadges tobacco and drink, are hardly prepared to understand Father Bischoff when he says that “the blackfellow in his own country and in his native conditions is a king of men.”

AB notes:

Much of interest here.

A key observation of the Aborigine convicted of cattle stealing:

“entirely devoid of sense of guilt, shame or repentance”

Quotable:

“It is not that the native has become virtuous. He is probably today just as black and no blacker than he was twelve months ago, but possibly the law is more just to him. The fact of the matter is that the police system has been changed. Tales told to Mr. Connolly by authoritative people during his northern trip need not be here repeated.”

A careful treatment of the administrative changes that removed the financial incentive for police to round up cattle thieves:

“These things one might, without saying more, imagine to have been possible under the old system. But that phase has passed. Some months ago Mr. Connolly realised the necessity for an alteration, and nowadays when natives are being travelled in from the back country necessary stores and food supplies are charged to the department direct.”