54[“Native Lock Hospitals”, The West Australian, Saturday 02 July 1910, page 9]



By “Vindex.”

The feelings inspired by a visit to the native lock hospitals, established by the Government on Bernier and Dorre Islands in Shark Bay for the segregation and treatment of diseased natives are depressing and discomforting rather than otherwise. Little that is picturesque, less that is romantic is to be seen on those islands or in the work to which they are now being applied. Dorre Island—Dirk Hartog so christened it because of its barrenness—and Bernier Island form, together with Dirk Hartog Island, a long rampart protecting Shark Bay and Carnarvon from the roll and sweep of the Indian Ocean. But for that defensive use the two smaller islands might well be waste islands—low accumulations of rock and sand and scrub, un undulating monotony of unpicturesqueness. It is to such places as these that the unfortunate natives who have contracted some of the foulest and most loathsome of diseases are shipped by a maternal Government, there to remain exiled till drug and knife and nursing have rendered them fit to return to native society without menace to their fellows. It is on these islands that a staff of men and women have unselfishly consented to be marooned to care for the sickly aborigines, and for one who has not been there it is impossible to realise the loneliness and monotony of life that is far, very far, from the world of plate-glass windows. The one redeeming feature of the establishments is the Christian humanitarianism which pervades the work—work which is of the very essence of practical charity. No matter with what relief one may leave those compounds, the uppermost feelings in the visitor’s mind are those of sympathy for and appreciation of a truly benevolent scheme. Disease was one of the prices the black races have had to pay for their contact with white conquerors and the yellow and brown sojourners, but somewhat tardily the State has stepped forward to the rescue of the natives by the enforcement of a system which embodies as the essentials of success the segregation of the patient and competent treatment of him or her till a cure has been effected.

Extending the Scope of the Hospitals.

The work at these lock hospitals has been deseribed often enough to be understood by now, but the Colonial Secretary had a special object in revisiting the islands a few days ago. Sufficient success had already come out of the experiment to prove that it was proceeding on right lines, and the Government had come to a decision to persevere with the work and to adopt measures which it was believed would conduce to greater efficiency. There were things being done and to be done which Mr. Connolly wanted to see for himself. It was for that reason that coming southward after his trip to the North-West he ran across in the Penguin from the mainland and landed on a stretch of shelving sandy beach on the eastern side of Bernier Island. The resident medical officer (Dr. Lovegrove) was absent, but the Minister was met by Dr. Steele, the Government bacteriologist, who has been conducting research work there, and is acting-officer in charge, and the matron (Miss Pengelly) who with two nurses and a laboratory assistant constitute the staff. A cottage built by a squatter, who was so hermit-like as to choose Bernier Island as a summer watering place, provides very cosy quarters for the nurses, who, when the day’s task is over, can get vigorous relaxation by playing tennis ankle-deep in sand, or fishing, or swimming—when the sharks are not looking. Bernier Island is reserved entirely for the women, who, at the time of Mr. Connolly’s visit, numbered 78. Half a mile from the staff’s quarters is the dressing ward, and on the surrounding flats are the camps of the patients divided and regulated into little tribal communities. This odd jumble of low shelters of brush and hessian is the village of the Marble Bar ladies, and [?40] yards yonder is a settlement of Kimberley origin. The furniture in each domicile consists of a couple of coloured blankets, a billy can, perhaps a couple of jam tins, and a small smouldering fire. In summer and winter they all have their fires—not that the fires are of any use but simply that they are part of their lives. Everywhere a little wisp of smoke is rising from a few smouldering chips, and near by the modest conflagration sits Mary Broome or Rosie Marble Bar, or Fanny Somewhereelse in a loose overall of coloured fabric. The wardrobe of these ladies is not half so extensive as their vanity.

Leading the Simple Life.

This concession to convention is the only attempt to restrict the natural life of the natives. Small cubicles of wood, hessian, and iron are provided by the Government for them to live in, but in the majority of instances the girls prefer their own little rude shelters of leaves and brushwood. Food they get in abundance. With flour they make a damper which makes a good showing on the scales, and they get other stores, including occasional jam. In the matter of supplies they sometimes show a dainty fastidiousness, as, for instance, when one lady of precise tastes returned her tin of black currant jam saying, “No want black stuff; gib em white jam.” They prefer their native game, and as some of the tribes are particularly good hunters they feed plentifully on wallaby, boodie rats, and fish, and turtles when in season. The treatment of the women does not require very studied dieting, and the consequence is that the majority range from fatness to positive corpulency. The pride of the island is Rosie, who tips the scales at 15 stone. Except that each day they must attend for dressing, they live a free and unfettered life, and they seem to take their detention with smiling philosophy. They are affable and tractable, but beauty is a rare grace, whilst in some instances disease has reduced the features to revolting hideousness. They all smoke and even exceed the daring of the lady of fashion in that it is not a dainty scented cigarette, but a well-seasoned clay pipe that one sees between their lips. A couple of picanninnies, one born on the island, afford opportunities for the natives to reveal the maternal instinct which is strong in all of them. The real sordidness is not revealed to the visitor, and clothes cover a multitude of sins, but knowing why the women are there one feels glad to wave goodbye to the unfortunates, and to get beyond the menace which each fly of the myriads that throng the camps seems to convey. At the same time there is a breath of hope and sunshine in the record of the many cures effected, and former sufferers, who had been veritable perveyors of disease, returned whole and happy to their tribes.

Changes at Dorre Island.

Practically the same work is in progress at Dorre Island, which has less than 50 male patients. But the men seem more civilised than the women. They nearly all speak intelligible English, and they appear to be cleanlier in their person and in their camps, in which the portable cubicles supplied by the Government have been more largely employed. Disease in the case of the men is more easily treated, and provided that the sufferers are brought to the islands before it has advanced too far, a fairly high percentage of cures can be relied upon. When Mr. Connolly was there he saw a number of patients who had been completely restored to health, whilst half a dozen of the more able-bodied of these were being usefully employed in knapping stones and doing other work connected with the building operations then in progress. At present the male patients occupy the larger of the two islands, but as the treatment of the women is a bigger and more important work, the men will shortly vacate Dorre, and will take up their abode at Bernier, whilst the women will take their places at Dorre. In preparation for this change special buildings are being erected on this island. A small cottage for the doctor and extensive premises for the staff, built with due regard to ventilation and coolness, are already completed, and the erection of a surgical ward with baths, sanitary conveniences, washing room, and operating room attached is well advanced. When first the native lock hospitals were established it was believed that ordinary outdoor treatment would be sufficient, but as experience has proved that in many cases surgical treatment is better than medical, the provision of wards for such cases becomes necessary. Patients on whom the doctor’s scalpel had been used could scarcely be left to lie about in the sand and dust. Therefore the Government are erecting this ward to accommodate twenty beds; and in it the most serious cases will be housed and treated. The building is to be of timber and iron, with graded concrete floors, so that the place may be kept fresh and clean. Some distance away is another smaller building, where the out-patients will be attended to daily. This building as well as the living quarters for the doctor and staff will be of wood and iron, with walls of asbestos sheeting. At Bernier also a surgical ward identical in design with that at Doree, except that the accommodation provides for only twelve beds, is to he built. The Colonial Secretary has further arranged to run a flock of goats on Dorre Island, and to have experiments made in vegetable gardening.

The Problem of Mustering.

When the new buildings are completed. the proposed transfers made, and a medical officer in charge permanently appointed under the Public Service Act, Mr. Connolly expects to gets good results from these lock hospitals. Much importance is attached to the bacteriological investigations now being made by Dr. Steele at Bernier Island, with a view to determining the origin and character of the malady with which the natives are afflicted. The folly of the present system of leaving to the police the responsibility of saying whether a native is or is not a subject requiring the aid of the hospitals is obvious. For whilst the force undoubtedly contains many able and earnest officers the identification and diagnosis of an obscure disease is not the proper province of any layman. And yet it is essential to the success of the Government scheme that disease should be detected and the sufferer segregated for treatment. The natives will not submit themselves voluntarily, and the station owners, though cordially sympathetic towards the Government’s efforts, seem not yet to have seen a satisfactory way of co-operating with the State. What has been recommended to the Minister is that the Government should engage a young doctor to travel through the North and North-West, examine all suspicious cases, and make arrangements for the transport to the seaboard of those who need the services of the lock hospitals. To this proposal, provided it can be proved to be practicable, Mr. Connolly is cordially favourable. The need for an efficient mustering of the diseased natives was several times impressed upon the Minister, who was assured that the sufferers are legion, and that they are spread throughout the country. Unless these natives can be collected the present hospitals, while they may slightly ameliorate existing conditions, must utterly fail as a means of eradicating the disease.

AB notes:

Another information-rich “Vindex” piece.