The Great Divide
Surely we cannot see these people, whom we have ruthlessly dispossessed (without any compensation or obligation favorable to them or theirs) die out for want of humane thought, and action? Let the fair-minded among us evolve something. We must admit the wrong: then let us right it.
---Walter Barker, “The Native Question”, The Hedland Advocate, May 14th, 1910.
It was an argument that grew into a lifelong friendship. In the last week of July 1900, Mrs Daisy Bates called upon Matthew Gibney, the Roman Catholic Bishop of Perth. Polite disagreement was inevitable. Gibney, a long-time campaigner against the mistreatment of Aborigines, had been in and out of controversy for twenty years. Never afraid to raise his head above the parapet, he had at different times delivered sharp criticism, triggered fiery debate, and received stern rebuke. He saw defence of the Australian Aborigine as a duty of his position. Mrs Bates also had great sympathy for the Aborigines, but there was a key difference. She was also staunch in her defence of the pastoralists, and was not receptive to allegations of widespread exploitation or mistreatment. She took exception to some of the bishop’s recent and not-so-recent remarks.
Fresh from her Nor’-West study tour, Mrs Bates came determined to be heard; she found herself disarmed, not by logic or authority, but by natural affinity with her new acquaintance. In Gibney she found a kindred spirit: an intelligent, affable Irishman, as vehement as she was. She argued that cases of cruelty and exploitation were anomalies, and that the pastoralists as a group were honourable men. The bishop did not contradict her, but spoke of mistreatment he had personally witnessed. He argued that both the best and the worst of human nature could be found by looking, and pointed out that in her recent travels she had remained very much within her social circle. By accepting invitations rather than choosing her own destinations, she had only visited stations that were recognised as models of humane treatment. If she were to range more widely, he suggested, she might come to a different conclusion.
The warmly defiant Daisy Bates was perfectly capable of resisting his argument, but she had no defence against the opportunity that came with it: to travel with the bishop and his associate Dean Martelli to the mission at Beagle Bay, for a very different perspective on relations between black and white.
To Daisy, ever the adventurer, the invitation was not merely exciting; it was irrefusable. She was a risk-taker; Gibney was certainly another. Was this not the priest who twenty years earlier had taken confession from the injured Ned Kelly? And who against police orders had entered the burning Glenrowan Hotel to minister to any of the Kelly gang that might remain alive?
After ten years of struggle, the Trappists had announced their intention to abandon the Beagle Bay Mission. Its future hung in the balance. For Bishop Gibney, the practical problem centred on an unsettled agreement regarding the mission lands. The state government had promised that the church would be awarded freehold title to the 10,000-acre site, once fixed improvements to the value of £5,000 had been demonstrated. To secure that title was now critical; without it, there was little incentive for another Catholic order to continue what the Trappists had begun.
Beagle Bay had proved more challenging than any had anticipated, and the mission was in no fit state to be assessed. The authorities, however, would not budge on the terms of the agreement and, as if to bring the matter to a convenient close, had set a date for the valuer’s visit. p89Unwilling to let it all come to nothing, Bishop Gibney determined to go north himself, to see what could be done before the day of material reckoning. He may have had second thoughts about his invitation to Mrs Bates, but he did not withdraw it. Instead, he left her in no doubt that she would come not as an observer but as a spade-carrying member of his team. He warned that £5,000 in improvements would not easily be demonstrated; she should expect to work hard.
On Friday, August 17th, 1900, Mrs Bates joined Bishop Gibney and Dean Martelli aboard the steamer Karrakatta for the eight-day voyage to Broome. A few days later, Father Nicholas Emo and his novices sailed south from Beagle Bay to meet them. Their schooner Sree Pas Sair would remain at Broome for several days. There were tools and supplies to be bought and loaded before the combined party could sail north and begin its work.
When Karrakatta arrived at Broome, there was a great surprise in store for Father Nicholas. There had been no opportunity for Bishop Gibney to tell him that Mrs Bates would be joining them at Beagle Bay. Deprived of any opportunity for contemplation, Emo was quite undone by the news. In French, he tried to explain that there was no accommodation whatever for a woman at the mission; in fact, church law permitted only a queen or the wife of a head of state to enter its grounds. Bates struggled to hide her amusement:
However, there I was, and the dear little acting abbot took it upon himself to grant a dispensation, and went out to see what furniture he could buy for me, making wild guesses at what a female might need. His bewildered and exaggerated idea of hospitality filled me with astonishment.
His consternation notwithstanding, “the dear little acting abbot” would rise rapidly in her estimation.
* * *
Nicholas Maria Emo, of an influential Spanish family, studied medicine before entering the priesthood. After twelve years of service as a missionary in Patagonia, he returned to France and entered the Trappist monastery at Sept-fons as a novice. There, at 45 years of age, he declared his wish to devote the remainder of his life to the cause of the Australian Aborigines.
In 1894 he came to Western Australia, hoping to minister to uncorrupted humanity. His superiors saw his role differently. He was sent to Broome, where a Spanish-speaking priest was urgently needed. Emo found himself confronting the same mix of disease and demoralisation that had dampened his missionary spirit in Patagonia. Nevertheless, he accepted his instructions and went to work. At first, his Trappist attire and observances were a source of amusement to the locals, but in Broome’s Filipino community he found affinity and support. Broader acceptance p90would follow; seen to be respected by some, he was soon helped and heeded by many.
The reluctant parish priest set his evangelical aspirations aside to deal with humanitarian imperatives. He opened a school for black orphans, and from donations paid a part-Aboriginal schoolmistress. With early success came a setback: when town gossip regarding the girls and their guardian forced the school’s closure, Emo saw no alternative but to place the girls in domestic service and send the boys to Beagle Bay. Over time, Emo won the respect of the pearlers; by their subscriptions he was able to build a church and a residence for himself. With money remaining he bought seven or eight town allotments near the church, and handed ownership of the land to mixed-race couples whose conversions and Christian marriages appeared authentic. Increasingly, the plight of part-Aboriginal children drew his attention. Aware of cases in which half-caste babies had been killed by their Aboriginal mothers, he began visiting the outlying camps, advertising his willingness to accept—and if necessary, barter for—any child not wanted. His foster family grew rapidly, as did his circle of dependants. After a few years he had established a new school, a home for half-caste girls, and a quiet seaside camp for the old and the sick.
Although Emo remained supportive of the mission at Beagle Bay, he hoped that a second mission might be established in even remoter parts. To that end he travelled the coast with his Filipino friend and supporter Filomeno “Pat” Rodriguez; together, they chose a site near the mouth of the Drysdale River. But before Father Nicholas could prepare a formal proposal, he was made superior of the Beagle Bay mission—not to further its work, but to superintend its abandonment. It was a heartbreaking promotion. To Bishop Gibney he wrote:
Well, dear Father, although ignorant of the cause of this order, I confess that it has grieved me profoundly, especially because of the love I profess for the blacks for whom I have always sacrificed myself. I came to Australia for the secret attraction that I felt for this unfortunate race and for whose benefit I made the sacrifice of my life to God . . . To receive the present order that put me at the head of all, not to build and consolidate, only to destroy, that is to say, to disband the community, has been a hard blow to me and one I will not easily forget. And who would believe that the charge of Superior in such circumstances could be in any way enviable?
After baring his soul, Father Nicholas wondered if his superiors understood the possible consequences of their decision.
The only thing I fear is to receive a new order to proceed immediately with the liquidation. In such a case would it not be better for his p91Lordship to come to an understanding with me to buy for himself, from the government, the mission territory with its springs and gardens and existing stock to save our natives from falling into the hands of Jews and Protestants?
* * *
That Daisy Bates was excited and enlivened by the prospect of visiting the mission cannot be doubted. A diary energetically kept reveals a buoyant spirit undulled by three days at sea in the once palatial but now dilapidated Sree Pas Sair. After the anchor was dropped at Beagle Bay, time moved slowly for her. As the tide fell, the schooner settled down on the seabed and canted to starboard. Only after the sea had retired and the mud had hardened was there any sign of activity. Horses and a wagon came across the seabed to the schooner’s side.
Bates recalled an interminable ride across the pindan: nine miles of nothingness, in strange counterpoint to her vivid incantation of it: the shimmering heat, the incessant buzz of flies, and the Bishop intoning the rosary with a few straggling natives joining in whenever they knew the words. Even the horses were subjects of her wry observation. No thoroughbreds these, she mused, but “Trappists, too, skin and bone in their poverty, and stopped so often for their meditations and devotions that the bullock-team arrived before us.”
The first indication of nearness was a great wave-like rise of birds, apparently from water. The Bishop, as if woken, looked up. “They’re swearing at us!” Mrs Bates quipped, but Bishop Gibney was oblivious to her mischief. A decade earlier, he and the Spanish Trappist Dom Ambrose Janny had chosen this site for the mission. They did not claim to have discovered it. Friendly members of the Njul Njul tribe, who remembered with affection the pioneer missionary Father Duncan McNab, had brought them to this special place: an open parkland of paperbarks and spreading white gums with spring-fed pools, fertile soil and prolific bird life.
If the works of nature commanded reverence, the works of man did not. “When I arrived,” wrote Bates, “the Mission was but a collection of tumbledown, paper-bark monastery cells, a little bark chapel and a community room of corrugated iron, which had been repeatedly destroyed in bush fires and hurricanes.”
* * *
With the valuer’s visit less than three months away, the restoration of the mission began in earnest. With black helpers, Gibney, Emo, Martelli and the novices repaired buildings, restored wells, straightened fences, and attended to anything with a declarable monetary value. Daisy Bates, meanwhile, with an entourage of black women and children, set about transforming the gardens. “I worked like a Trojan,” she wrote, “but the force of my example failed dismally. Day after day those women played p92with the babies, and laughed both with and at me, full of merriment and good feeling.” Bates admitted that to have their help, she had resorted to all manner of trickery. Seeking to keep the children entertained while their mothers worked, she had introduced the game of Ring-a-ring-a-roses, only to have the adult women down tools and join in. And their delight was not feigned any more than it was momentary; thereafter, work proceeded in short shifts, with breaks for games. Ring-a-ring-a-roses was the new smoke-oh.
It is safe to declare that in the course of three months, powerful bonds of friendship and respect were forged, and that those bonds were further strengthened on the day of formal valuation. The government valuer, it seems, was surprised and impressed by what he found at the end of a desolate track from the ocean. Recognising the sheer determination that had brought it about, he approached his task more as a friend of the mission than as the agent of a distant government. Bates wrote:
He was surprised to see a thriving property where he had expected ruin and decay. Every screw and post, every fruit and vegetable, buildings, wells, trenches and implements were meticulously valued, and with the livestock on the run, the supplies in the store, the sorghum and sugar-cane fields, the tomato and cucumber patches, and the orange, banana, coconut and pomegranate groves, the sum reached over £6,000. Even one Cape gooseberry bush and one grape-vine had to be valued. The Mission was saved for the natives.
Bishop Gibney understood that the award of freehold tenure was but the first step in a long process. No Catholic order had yet declared a willingness to take over the mission. Still, the transformation of the 10,000-acre site p93was a great accomplishment. Their endeavour had not only satisfied the valuer; it had created new determination and new optimism. “All together and in much jubilation,” wrote Bates, “we made the first bricks of sand and loam and a clay for the new convent and monastery.”
* * *
At Beagle Bay in the spring of 1900, Matthew Gibney, Daisy Bates and Nicholas Emo became influential in each other’s lives, but it was the influence of Nicholas Emo on Daisy Bates that would emerge as the most striking legacy of the Beagle Bay visit. Bates recognised that Emo’s keen interest in Aboriginal culture, custom and legend set him apart. He was not primarily an evangelist; rather, he drew sustenance from humanitarian service. Her enduring memory was of a humble man “sitting on the ground in the midst of his aged and decrepit natives, making homely jokes as he tended their sores and administered medicines.” Importantly, Emo had told her that in any clash of tribal law and Christian teaching, tribal law would win, and that only by earning the respect of the natives would he—or she—be listened to.
Although Nicholas Emo could not have known it, Daisy Bates would soon devote herself to the study of Australian Aborigines, as he had devoted himself to their care. For the next fifty years, she would immerse herself in black culture and language, adopting key elements of his vision as her own.
* * *
In late 1902, after an unsuccessful return to the role of wife and mother, Daisy Bates moved to Perth, took up residence in a city hostel, and tried to build a career as a freelance journalist. There was some early success. For The Western Mail she wrote a series of articles on the Murchison goldfields. For the state government she wrote a paper on the Trans-Australian Railway. And for a few months the avowed Protestant was afforded her own page in The Western Australian Catholic Record. But all of this was not enough to sustain her; she supplemented her income by the sale of picture postcards on Nor’-West and Aboriginal themes, printed from her own photographs taken at Beagle Bay and elsewhere.
While taking whatever work came her way, she remained keen to document Aboriginal customs and language. It is known that she received encouragement from Bishop Gibney and Dean Martelli, and also from former state premier and now federal parliamentarian John Forrest, whose interest in the Aborigines was, like her own, characterised both by great sympathy and great pessimism. This was urgent work, they agreed, to be undertaken before it was too late.
Almost two years would pass before an opportunity arose. How it arose is not entirely clear. On May 3rd, 1904, Bates became an employee of the state government. She had been hired by registrar-general Malcolm p94Fraser, on a junior clerical wage of eight shillings a day, to compile basic vocabularies of the state’s Aboriginal languages. In an office in the centre of the city she began by reading the works of historical commentators. There was George Fletcher Moore’s A Descriptive Vocabulary of the Language in Common Use Amongst the Aborigines of Western Australia, and a French translation of Bishop Salvado’s Memorie Storiche dell’ Australia. There were also the diaries of explorers who had taken time to study those whose lands they crossed.
The work of compiling vocabularies began almost immediately. Questionnaires were sent to post offices and police stations across the state. Only upon their return did serious problems begin to surface. Not only was there inconsistency among the survey responses; there was no agreement between the responses and the reference works. Worse still, there were irreconcilable differences between the so-called authorities. Serious about her work, and never shy, Bates began corresponding with English anthropologist Andrew Lang and with the Australian surveyor and self-taught anthropologist, Robert Mathews. Once appraised of her situation, Mathews offered advice direct and simple. “Get out among the blacks,” he wrote.
The opportunity—or rather, the push—came incidentally. On August 10th, 1904, after a motion of no confidence was passed in state parliament, Henry Daglish became Western Australia’s first Labor premier. Some reorganisation of departments was inevitable; a few months later, Bates learned that her city office was to be requisitioned. Rather than risk the work for which she had waited so long, and which she had begun with great zeal, she put to Malcolm Fraser a bold proposal: that she be permitted to set up camp at Maamba, an Aboriginal reserve on the outskirts of the city, to live and work among the last living speakers of some south-western dialects. Her determination prevailed, and her boss agreed. Biographer Elizabeth Salter would later write:
On a winter’s day of July 1905, she set out with a police escort for Cannington. The men remained long enough to choose her site and pitch her tent for her. When they had seen her safely settled in they left her, a lone white woman, her tent a hundred yards away from the Government huts of her black neighbours. Impressed by the power of this white woman who could dismiss from her presence the policemen of whom they were so much afraid, the black people watched proceedings from a discreet distance. Daisy stood at the edge of her breakwind and smiled at them. Little by little they came closer. She did nothing to encourage or discourage them. Waiting patiently for her moment, she invited them to visit her. Then, speaking in the dialect of the Bibbulmuns, she asked them if they would care to join her for a cup of tea.
* * *
p95While Mrs Bates scouted for an opportunity to study Aboriginal languages and customs, Bishop Gibney continued to campaign against black exploitation and mistreatment. He and other churchmen had long advocated the establishment of a royal commission to inquire broadly into the condition of the Aborigines. In 1904, their perseverance was rewarded. Colonial Secretary Walter Kingsmill thought that Queensland’s Aboriginals Protection and Restriction of the Sale of Opium Act 1901 might be a model for new legislation in Western Australia. He invited Queensland’s Chief Protector of Aborigines Walter Roth to Western Australia, to tour with his local counterpart and advise on which elements of the Queensland law might be replicated.
In Queensland, Roth had come to the role of Chief Protector as a well-established anthropologist. His Ethnological Studies Among the North-west-central Queensland Aborigines, published in 1897, had been followed by a series of ethnological bulletins, written and published in the course of his wide-ranging work. Most importantly, Roth had been influential in the drafting of the Queensland law, and had supervised its implementation. The value of his visit to Western Australia was broadly recognised, and plans for a royal commission survived the sudden change of government. On Saturday, August 27th, 1904, Roth was interviewed by new premier Daglish and his colonial secretary George Taylor. A few days later, Perth’s Daily News reported:
THE ABORIGINES OF THIS STATE.
A ROYAL COMMISSION APPOINTED.
In this week’s “Government Gazette” the appointment of Dr. T. W. Roth, the Chief Protector of Aborigines in Queensland, as a Royal Commissioner to inquire into the conditions and treatment of the aborigines of this State, is notified. The Government’s desire is that the inquiry will be conducted on an entirely independent basis, and Dr. Roth will be empowered to take evidence on oath from any persons whose testimony may be deemed of value. . . . Dr. Roth, during his tour of the State, will not be accompanied by any local official, as it is the intention of the Government to obtain, as far as possible, an unbiassed report as to whether the allegations which have been made in regard to the treatment of natives in this State are justified or not.
Roth’s appointment was not welcomed by all. Many in the Nor’-West bristled at the prospect of being interrogated by an outsider. They knew that Roth had sharply divided opinion in Queensland; they had little doubt that he would do the same in Western Australia, and along the same lines. Almost immediately, the commissioner was under attack, and to his great irritation an old controversy was revived and recirculated. In Queensland’s parliament two years earlier, the conservative far-north p96member John Hamilton had alleged that Roth had offered some kind of inducement to have an Aboriginal man and woman demonstrate a particular sexual position, and that he had photographed the couple in coitus. Having obtained a copy of the photograph, Hamilton declared Roth’s behaviour disgraceful and called for his dismissal. Fortunately for the anthropologist, Hamilton did not have all of the facts at his fingertips. Roth, seeking redress from the parliament by letter, called attention to three facts: firstly, that Chapter XIII of his Ethnological Studies included an illustration identical to the offending photograph; secondly, that the publisher of his ‘pornographic’ work was none other than the Queensland government printer; and finally, that His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales had graciously received a copy as a gift!
With hardly a raised eyebrow, Roth had shifted the spotlight back upon his accuser, and when it emerged that Hamilton had obtained the photograph by lying to a public servant, the matter was all but settled. Nevertheless, when Roth came to Western Australia to interrogate, perhaps to uncover, a vague reputation for indecency came with him.
During November 1904 the commissioner travelled widely. He took evidence at Wyndham, Derby, Broome, La Grange Bay, and elsewhere. The parallels with North Queensland were striking, but one phenomenon seemed peculiar to Western Australia. For a few years, the number of natives imprisoned for killing cattle had been rising sharply. To explain that anomaly was an early priority. At Derby, Roth called Police Constable John Wilson of Isdell River to the witness stand, to explain how the rules of evidence were applied at the edges of civilisation. Roth asked:
Do you arrest every black you find in the camp?--- Not on all occasions. Sometimes we do when we have sufficient evidence against them.
You mean aboriginal evidence?--- Yes; and with what evidence we have seen ourselves.
By looking at the carcase of a beast that has been killed, do you mean to tell this Commission that you can tell whether one black or one gin or 20 blacks or 20 gins have killed the beast?--- The tracks are there to go by. We see the tracks of a large number of natives where the beast has been killed.
Does it follow that because you see a large number of tracks in the neighbourhood of a carcase that all these blacks have had a hand in it?--- They usually do. There is usually a large party of blacks assembled at the time one of these beasts has been killed.
How do you know this—by aboriginal evidence or not?--- We have the tracks to go by and we have the evidence of the gins who accompany the blacks.
Is this evidence of the gins obtained before or after you arrest the men?--- Before we arrest them. On some occasions we secure the men p97first and get the information from the gins afterwards.
You may really be arresting men who are not guilty?--- There is no other way of arresting them. These natives will not stand until we get the information from the gins unless we detain them. Civilised natives would certainly.
Constable Wilson’s testimony was as remarkable for the answers he gave willingly as for those he did not. Roth asked:
Do you ever arrest the gins?--- Yes.
Do you accuse them of cattle-killing?--- No.
Do you arrest them as witnesses?--- Yes.
Have you any legal authority to arrest these women as unwilling witnesses?--- No. Not that I am aware of.
How do you detain them? With neck chains?--- They are chained by the ankles.
Do you mean that their two legs are chained together?--- No. I fasten the gin to a tree with a handcuff and then fix the chain to one ankle with another handcuff—one handcuff for each prisoner.
Is it only at night that they are chained like this?--- It is necessary to detain them sometimes in the day when going through scrub or rocky country where they might get away. It is very rare that they have to be secured in the day time.
The Commission has received evidence that these witnesses are generally young gins or young children. Is that so?--- I have never brought in female children as witnesses, that is, what I have considered children.
Have you brought in young women?--- Yes.
Have you brought in old women?--- Yes.
Is it true that more young women are brought in as witnesses than very old ones?--- I think there would be an equal portion of each.
Do you allow your trackers or the assisting stockmen to have sexual intercourse with the gins whose relatives or friends you have arrested?--- They may do it without my knowing it.
Do you take any precautions at night that these assisting stockmen or trackers do not have connection with the women when chained to the trees?--- No.
Does such intercourse go on?--- I suppose so. It could go on in the camp at night and I would know nothing about it.
Roth was a skilled interrogator who moved witnesses quickly to matters of interest and substance. He pressed Constable Wilson to explain the economics of this remote police work.
How much do you receive per day for escorting each aboriginal prisoner or witness?--- 2s. 5d. each per day.
p98Do you get the same amount for returning the witnesses to their native homes after the trial is over?--- Yes.
Are they always taken back again, without exception, to their native homes?--- I have sent them out on one or two occasions when they have not had far to go.
Do you receive payment for this?--- Yes. I have given them the amount in supplies to carry with them sufficient to take them to their own country.
Have any of the accused prisoners you have brought into court been found “not guilty”?--- I do not remember any.
How many have you secured a conviction against during the same period?--- There may be about 100, or perhaps over. I am not certain.
Is there any name given by your Department to this special allowance for aboriginal prisoners and witnesses?--- Yes. It is called “prisoners’ rations.”
Are these rations paid for by the Police Department or the Aborigines Department?--- By the Police Department, until the prisoners are disposed of to the Gaols Department.
Do you actually spend 2s. 5d. per day on each prisoner or witness?--- No, but each native has sufficient food.
How could you make up 2s. 5d per day for rations for a young female aboriginal witness, for instance?--- They have the same rations as the men.
You say that they only receive flour, tea, and sugar, and that you kill kangaroo sometimes, and that they some times collect lizards and roots. I want to know how you can spend 2s. 5d. per head on each one?--- (No answer.)
If the apprehension of black suspects was a travesty, their court appearances were a farce. Aboriginal offenders were often so compliant as to exasperate those who sat in judgment. The accused cattle thief might declare “Me killum bulliman all right” but show no regard whatever for the consequences of his admission. The result was darkly ironic: having so freely admitted guilt, he took to prison an unassailable innocence. He could be made to suffer, but could not be made to feel guilty.
For the most part Roth’s advice to the Western Australian Government was measured and pragmatic, but with regard to arrest and incarceration he cast aside all reserve.
Your Commissioner has received evidence which demonstrates the existence of a most brutal and outrageous condition of affairs. The number of aborigines brought in being the great desideratum, each having a money value to the escorting officer, it is not surprising to find that little boys of immature age have been brought in to give evidence; that children, varying in age between 10 and 16 years, are charged with killing cattle; that blacks do not realise what they are p99sentenced for; and that an old and feeble native arrives at the end of his journey in a state of collapse, and dies 18 days after admission into the gaol.
In the capital, the finding of endemic police corruption enraged the Commissioner of Police, Captain Frederick Hare. He launched a personal attack on Roth, claiming that in support of preconceived notions he had secured evidence from “the riff-raff of the north.” Roth did not contradict the police chief; he simply affirmed that he had taken testimony from sergeants, constables, magistrates, gaolers, doctors, and from Captain Hare himself.
The published testimony was so revealing, and the finding so stark, that many in the south expected immediate governmental action. Surely Roth’s “outrageous condition of affairs” could not continue. And yet it did: for another three years, incarceration rates continued to rise. As far as can be told, the increase did not lead to any soul-searching on the part of white settlers. The prevalent view was that the increase in imprisonment was due entirely to the black man’s enjoyment of it. Even the state’s new Chief Protector of Aborigines, Charles Gale, in his annual report for 1908, acknowledged the lack of a deterrent effect.
During the year 156 natives were convicted from East and West Kimberley of cattle killing, or being in unlawful possession of meat. These figures represent an increase of 54 prisoners over the previous p100year, and somewhat point to the fact that our present system of punishment is not acting as a deterrent to this form of crime; many holding the opinion that natives look upon a term of imprisonment as more of a holiday than anything else. One has only to compare the condition of natives brought in from the bush before being committed to gaol with their healthy, fat, and sleek condition after being fed on prison rations, to realise that they fared better under civilisation than in their own country. The scale of rations per day allowed to native prisoners, as laid down by prison regulation, is as follows:—1lb. bread, 1lb. meat, 1lb. vegetables, 1oz. rice for soup, 3 pints tea, 1½ oz. sugar, ¼oz. salt, ¼oz. soap. With this plentiful supply of good food cooked for them and being made to do but light work, there is every encouragement given to natives to further commit depredations in the hope of returning to prison after their release.
By 1909, the transfer of black prisoners by coastal steamer had become quite an industry. In a letter home in May 1909, Koombana’s fourth engineer Jim Low wrote:
We brought 200 fat cattle down from there this trip and 3,500 sheep from Cossack. The ’tween decks of this ship are a sight sometimes. There is always a lot of dogs, generally a dozen horses or so, sheep, p101cattle, fowl of all sorts in crates, parrots and other birds in cages, black prisoners either being taken to jail or just let out, we had 25 coming down last time. It is like a menagerie generally.
While the targets of Roth’s criticism angrily defended their reputations and morality, others gave careful thought to how the lucrative “nigger catching industy”
If the rise in prison populations had been dramatic, the fall was even more so. For the State of Western Australia, in 1908, the total number of Aborigines imprisoned was 664; in 1909, the total fell to 344, with Derby and Wyndham accounting for almost all of that 47 per cent reduction. In his annual report, Comptroller-General of Prisons, Octavius Burt, expressed satisfaction at the result but repeated his assertion of two years earlier, that far too many natives were being imprisoned upon their own admission of guilt. Lamenting the lack of response to his earlier plea, Burt expressed himself plainly: “I do not think a plea of guilty should be accepted from an untutored savage.”
So effective was the change to policing arrangements that when Colonial Secretary James Connolly toured the Nor’-West aboard Koombana in June 1910, he was surprised by the rebalancing of local priorities. Journalist George Romans travelled with him, covering the tour for The West Australian. Under his nom de plume “Vindex”, Romans wrote:
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.
As the gaols emptied, and a popular opinion became untenable, a grain of truth remained. To some extent the cooperation of pastoralist and policeman also extended to the man arrested. For while the policeman p102had a great incentive to deliver the cattle-killer to justice, the gaoler had no comparable incentive to keep him there. The accused might be sentenced to a year in prison but was often out after a month or two. Few among the white settlers believed that short periods of imprisonment were harming the natives. Even Vindex acknowledged the emergence of an odd relationship:
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.
If complaints about the lack of free black labour left Colonial Secretary Connolly smiling inwardly, he must have been tempted to laugh out loud at a new quarrel between the pastoralists and the police. The cattlemen now openly criticised the police for their unwillingness to act upon reports of cattle-killing. The police rose smartly in their own defence. Surely it was unreasonable, they argued, for wealthy pastoralists to think that a million acres could be managed by two or three white men. Perhaps they should hire some boundary riders.
* * *
p103In polite reporting, it was sometimes softened to “loathsome disease” or, as one commentator circumscribed it: “the major physical evil of the north-western blacks, who have suffered severely from contact with Afghans, Chinese, Malays, and Japanese.” To those responsible for identifying sufferers it was syphilis, although with some symptoms peculiar to the Australian Aborigine. By 1905, the disease was widespread; by 1907, few doubted that it had the potential to decimate the black population of the Nor’-West. Even in remote parts the disease was beginning to make its presence felt. Whites had long marvelled at the stealth and mobility of the blacks: their ability to vanish silently into the bush and cover great distances. Few predicted that this ancient gift would be reincarnated as a curse. With consummate ease the natives came to the ports to barter; with equal ease they carried syphilis and other ailments to their homelands.
It is difficult to judge whether members of the white community took an interest in the matter out of sympathy for the Aborigines or concern for their own health. Whichever the motivation, the state government had a problem it could no longer ignore. Sexual contact with sufferers had to be prevented. Isolation hospitals seemed the only solution, but the government faced a dilemma. If Aboriginal patients were to be confined for months, perhaps even years, the hospitals would need security measures similar to those of a prison. But if the natives viewed the hospitals as prisons, they would not submit willingly to medical examination. Somehow, by education or deception, sufferers had to be persuaded that isolation and treatment were necessary.
In June 1907, at a meeting of doctors chaired by the state’s Principal Medical Officer, Thomas Lovegrove, it was decided that two isolation hospitals, one for men and one for women, should be established not on the mainland but on uninhabited islands. There was a strong consensus that only by that degree of separation would the primary objective be met. Bernier Island, thirty miles west of Carnarvon across sheltered water, had been gazetted as a pastoral lease but had been used mainly as a summer holiday camp by the lessee. Having the advantage of some existing buildings, it was chosen as the site for a women’s hospital. Barrow Island, three hundred miles farther north and sixty miles out from Onslow, had abundant fish and game; it was thought particularly suitable for the men.
By far the greater burden of syphilis was carried by women. Female patients being greater in number and need, a women’s hospital on Bernier Island was established quickly. The pioneering staff consisted of medical superintendent Dr Frederick Lovegrove (a nephew of Thomas Lovegrove), nurse Harriet Lenihan as matron, three orderlies (two with carpentry skills) and a cook. The first patients—about 55 in all—arrived by schooner in the spring of 1908. Some were so weak that they had to be carried ashore, and some would never leave the islands.
p104Although opinions varied as to the likely success of the venture, few doubted the government’s broad humanitarian aim. In pre-emptive defence, Colonial Secretary Connolly declared:
This is the first attempt made not only in this State but in the whole of Australia to give the natives fair treatment, and it certainly provides a decisive answer to the criticisms made regarding the treatment of natives in this State.
A few months later, invited guests and newsmen were permitted onto the islands to judge the work for themselves. Although the impression taken away was mostly positive, some were surprised by the lack of conventional hospital facilities. “The buildings are unpretentious,” declared The Northern Times, “and certainly no charge of extravagance can be levelled against the Department in connection with them.” Chief Protector Charles Gale was quick to respond.
Every effort has been made to introduce on the island conditions as nearly approaching those to which the natives are accustomed on the mainland as possible. Hence, instead of what would elsewhere be regarded as orthodox hospital buildings, here they take the form of tents, breakwinds, and small canvas-sided and iron-roofed cubicles, the natives having an excellent chance of leading the simple life to which they have been used.
No men’s hospital was ever established on Barrow Island. Early in the planning, a cheaper alternative emerged. By housing the afflicted men on Dorre Island, adjacent to Bernier Island to the south, one doctor and one bacteriologist could serve both exiled communities, and a single chartered vessel could keep both hospitals supplied.
In June 1910, at the end of his Nor’-West tour, Colonial Secretary Connolly visited the hospitals for a second time. Newsman George Romans observed, as others had done, that the women preferred their own bark shelters to the canvas and corrugated-iron structures provided for them, and that tribal divisions did not seem to be the great source of alienation that some had predicted. Certainly, they camped in groups according to their home districts, but with no more than a schoolyard separation. It seemed that the islands, and the affliction that brought the women together, granted some dispensation from the usual rules of interaction. As far as could be seen, they co-existed peacefully, aided by the shared experience of suffering and dislocation.
None among the visitors to the island doubted that the women were getting enough to eat. Vindex wrote:
With flour they make a damper which makes a good showing on the scales, and they get other stores, including occasional jam. In the p105matter 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.
The colonial secretary’s party also made the crossing to Dorre Island, where the circumstances of the men were a little different. Most were well enough to work; indeed, several certified “cured” were awaiting repatriation. For a few months, the men had been engaged in building a new women’s hospital ward and surgery. An exchange of islands was planned: when the buildings were complete, the women would come to Dorre Island, and the men would move to Bernier.
For the touring party, the visit to Dorre Island was largely recreational. Vindex wrote:
When the official duties were completed, the party moved over to the west side of the island, where the sea breaks in magnificent anger upon the reefs, and where oysters that would gladden the heart of an epicure may be collected by the hundredweight from the reefs. Good fishing, too, was enjoyed, and the day’s catch included a couple p106of groper weighing upwards of sixty pounds each. After dinner the natives, whose black bodies had been ornamented with fearsome designs in plaster of Paris cribbed from the building materials, danced a corroboree.
Vindex reported that after sticks and feet had fallen silent, one black man seized a rare opportunity. He stepped forward, buttonholed the Colonial Secretary and declared: “You good boss fellow, but me wanta my country go.”
* * *
While Fred Lovegrove and Harriet Lenihan worked in isolation from white society, Daisy Bates in the southern capital was dividing her life between her black friends at Maamba and a growing band of liberal white admirers. Word of a white woman living among the blacks on the edge of the city had spread. There was recognition of the unique grass-level fieldwork, and rising celebrity for its audacious originator. By 1909 Mrs Bates was recognised as an authority on the Western tribes and their customs, and much in demand as a public speaker. By all accounts she excelled in that role. Part evangelist and part raconteuse, she was lyrical, entertaining, and highly responsive to the interests and ideosyncrasies of an audience.
Such was the local regard for Mrs Bates that when it became known that the state’s Aborigines would soon be studied in the field by an English party led by anthropologist Alfred Radcliffe-Brown, many simply presumed that she would be involved. Indeed, The Western Mail went so far as to suggest that the expedition was the direct result of her endeavours.
The credit of being the historiographer of the customs of Western Australian aboriginals is due to Mrs. Daisy Bates, whose work in the field of local ethnology is well known. What Howitt, Spencer, and Gillen have been to the vanishing races of Eastern Australia Mrs. Bates has been to the natives of this State. So much has her work attracted attention in the old world that a special expedition is being fitted out under the auspices of the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge (England) to win some further knowledge of the peculiar customs and institutions of our imperfectly known native races in the North-West. This expedition will be here about June next, and it is possible that Mrs. Bates may be permitted to accompany the expedition, and so render it the assistance that her previous experience will enable her to give.
Soon after Radcliffe-Brown arrived from London, an invitation was indeed extended to Daisy Bates and local interest in the project rose suddenly as a result. Brown’s financial position was also dramatically improved, as The West Australian of October 1st, 1910 reported:
Mr. Alfred R. Brown, the leader of the Cambridge Ethnological Exploring Party, lectured before a large audience at the Museum last p107night on the subject of “Primitive Man in Western Australia.” His Excellency the Governor presided. Mr. Brown announced at the close of an interesting lecture . . . that through the generosity of Mr. Samuel McKay, who had placed the sum of £1,000 at the disposal of the expedition, they would be enabled to spend nine months or so longer than they had originally intended in the work of anthropological research in Western Australia. He felt bound to mention that to a lady they owed much in connection with this gift. Mrs. Daisy Bates had been enthusiastic over the matter, and by her urgency the generous action of Mr. McKay was largely prompted.
Radcliffe-Brown was keen to investigate Aboriginal rules of intermarriage: the so-called four-class marriage system. The sanctity of tribal law had been dramatically demonstrated just a few weeks earlier. At Darlot on September 11th, nine Aborigines had been killed and 27 wounded in punishments exacted for marriage-law and other violations. From an anthropological perspective the killings were interesting. Brown decided that the troubled district would be the expedition’s first destination.
It was a party of four that went east by train from the port of Geraldton. Travelling with Brown were zoologist Elliot Grant Watson, self-described government attaché Daisy Bates, and Swedish cook Louis Olsen, recently hired. Bates wrote:
A few miles from Sandstone township, we pitched our tents among the natives gathered there, a travelling menage that consisted of a large fly for our dining and community room, furnished with folding chairs and other luxuries, the men’s tent, Louis’s portable kitchen, and my quarters. We were surrounded by nearly 100 natives, from Darlot, Barrambi, Sandstone, Laverton, Mt. Magnet and other nearby districts, and there was obvious ill-feeling and friction among the groups. I spent the afternoon making new friends, greeting old ones, and, with their assistance, digging out some honey-ants, which I proffered to the professor for supper. Grant Watson would have none of them. It took some time to convince the natives that my companions were not policemen, of whom, for their own reasons, they lived in an unholy fear at the time. After some vain endeavours at explanation, I found it easier to introduce them as my two sons.
Despite simmering tensions between tribal groups, the work began well. For Brown and Grant Watson, it was not only their first engagement with Australian Aborigines; it was also their first opportunity to observe Daisy Bates in her ‘native’ element. Grant Watson in particular was struck by her extraordinary rapport with the subjects of their study. Years later, he would write:
Mrs. Bates probably knew more about the Australian Aborigines than anyone else alive. She was not primarily an anthropologist, but an p108enthusiast, who has given all her love and sympathy to these outcasts from their own land. Her guiding spirit was not a missionary spirit, but one of charity and compassion, and she presented in her person, so neat and dapper, and so much cut after the pattern of an Irish county lady, a strange example of symbiosis with these stone-age men and women, who accepted her with trust and appreciation.
At first light on about October 24th, everything changed. Mounted police, on the trail of the Darlot murderers, galloped through the camp shouting, swearing and shooting in what Grant Watson would describe as “quite a cinematograph manner.” The ill-conceived raid achieved nothing. In the chaos, most of the natives simply vanished into the bush. Radcliffe-Brown emerged from his tent, closed the flap behind him and stood his ground, furious. He scolded the police, telling the officer-in-charge that if it were of any satisfaction to him, their work in the area was ruined. The police soon departed, disturbed more by their failure to apprehend the suspects than by any harm done to the emerging science of anthropology. A little while later, two of the accused murderers emerged from Brown’s tent. When the troopers came, they had dashed for what they considered the right kind of cover. They had thrown in their lot with the white boss who to their minds was “close up ’longside o’ God.”
Mrs Bates was amused and impressed, both by Brown’s willingness to harbour the alleged criminals, and by the mix of bluff and authority p109that had kept them safe. Paradoxically, the raid led to her first serious disagreement with Brown, and his authority was at the very heart of it. Brown believed that the raid had destroyed any possibility of further work; Bates was equally insistent that the natives would soon return, and that they should wait and watch. Neither gave way. Each by a different criterion expected deference from the other. Mrs Bates was 47, knowledgable, and determined; Radcliffe-Brown was 29, talented, and egotistical. He was also the leader of the expedition. Daisy’s challenge was too direct for his character and, arguably, his maturity. Without consultation, and with no apparent regard for Bates’s success in trebling the expedition’s finances, he announced that they would relocate to Bernier Island, where hospital patients from many tribal groups could be studied at leisure.
If Brown had any reservation about his decision, it related only to the correctness of leaving a woman behind. In the end he decided that he should treat Mrs Bates exactly as he would treat a man in the same circumstances. He reaffirmed his intention to decamp and left Daisy to decide if she was coming with them. Of Grant Watson’s allegiance, there was never any doubt. Years later, in his autobiography, he would describe the Sandstone incident as “the cause of our first breach with Mrs. Bates.”
Within three weeks, Radcliffe-Brown and Grant Watson had set up camp on Bernier Island and begun work in conditions they found surprisingly agreeable. Under a canvas awning on the beach they interrogated their captive subjects, taking regular breaks to bathe and fish. For Bates, things did not run so smoothly; almost a month passed before she reached the island. In his memoir, Grant Watson would recall a string of misfortunes for which Radcliffe-Brown and “Henrietta”, the hard-drinking skipper of the government supply boat, would be held accountable.
She arrived, very tired and very cross, for she had had a terrible time. She had stayed for some days at Sandstone, then had been forced to follow, first to Geraldton then to Carnarvon. At Carnarvon the yearly race-meeting was in full swing. Every house, every bed, every chair was occupied. Crowds of drunken, swearing men, and no place for a lone woman. Henrietta was in a blissful state of continuous intoxication. Nothing on earth, or from heaven, would move him till the end of the races. He drank and slept and drank again, and Mrs. Bates had to live how and where she could, sometimes on a table for the night, when she was lucky. And when at last the hated races were over and Henrietta sober enough to sail The Shark, they had the worst crossing on record. Thirty-six hours of being tossed and buffeted and buffeted and tossed on a small boat, and wet through all the time, p110and very sea-sick. This undeserved suffering was put down, not quite logically, to Brown’s account. It must have been galling, also, to find us so comfortably established and happy in our work. There followed an ever-widening estrangement.
While Brown and Grant Watson worked among the male patients on Bernier Island, Bates spent more time with the women confined on Dorre Island. She also worked to refine and reorganise her manuscript of The Native Tribes of Western Australia. Perhaps surprisingly, she was still receptive to having Radcliffe-Brown edit and criticise her work. Disagreements aside, she recognised his ability to help her toward a leaner, more academic publication. Brown, for his part, saw great value in the work but did not quite know where to begin. His comments—pleas for reorganisation for the most part—often overflowed the margins and overran the text. There is no doubt that he confided his frustration to Grant Watson, who wrote:
The trouble was that Mrs. Bates’s knowledge, collected through many years of close contact with the natives, was not in a condition that Brown considered easily available for the ends of science. Indeed, he found it to be in a most hopeless tangle. The contents of her mind, in his estimation, were somewhat similar to the contents of a well-stored sewing-basket, after half a dozen kittens had been playing there undisturbed for a few days. At first he optimistically thought he might disentangle some of that rich medley, but in this he proved mistaken.
Although Bates and Brown were still working with Aboriginal patients on the islands in February 1911, their collaboration in the field was effectively over. By different routes, they arrived back in Perth in the second week of April. That both were interviewed by The West Australian on the same day was probably due to the newspaper’s assumption that their partnership was alive and well. Indeed, in their respective statements, there was no hint of disharmony. Radcliffe-Brown indicated that he would soon go north again for six months of work in the Ashburton district. Mrs Bates declared herself “fit as a fiddle” and eager to resume the work disrupted by the Darlot killings. She would travel alone to Meekatharra.
The newspaper described Mrs Bates as “brimming over with enthusiasm over what had already been accomplished.” She was very happy with the work she and Brown had done, and also impressed by the humanitarian work being done on the islands. She was particularly struck by the affection that had grown between the natives and their nurses.
Men and women alike revere their nurses, and I am convinced that when the time comes for the natives to return to their tribes this affection will be found to be a happy means of inducing other affected men and women to go to the hospitals before they become very bad. p111The nurses, too, although they lead a lonely life, seem to be throwing themselves heart and soul into the work, and their attention and devotion to the sick natives is every bit as marked as the attitude of the natives towards them. Nothing more could, I am sure, be done for the natives than is now being done there.
Radcliffe-Brown told the press that upon the advice of the Cambridge University committee overseeing his work, Mrs Bates’s services would be retained for the duration of the expedition. And in a sense they were: when Brown with new assistants left for the north, he took with him Mrs Bates’s 800-page manuscript. That he continued to edit the manuscript is certain. Its influence on his work, however, is difficult to judge.
* * *
It is not known who had the idea to send the cured patients home as cabin passengers aboard the elegant Koombana, but the merit of the suggestion was immediately obvious. Since the hospitals had been established, the greatest challenge had been to convince afflicted natives that to be sent to the islands was not a death sentence. Managed well, the repatriations might soften the blacks’ view of the hospitals, and lead more to accept the need for treatment. There were issues to be considered. If the natives aboard ship were intimidated by their surroundings, any positive effect might be nullified. It was decided that Harriet Lenihan, who had recently left the islands, would be the perfect chaperone. Lenihan—or “Missie” as she was known to the black women she had cared for—was remembered with great affection.
Having accepted the high cost of cabin accommodation, the Colonial Secretary’s Office was determined to extract full value from its investment. If possible, the families and friends of those released would hear of their homecomings in advance. Before the repatriation, message sticks from the islands would be carried across to Carnarvon and sent north with the government-owned ketch Namban. There was no doubt that a lasting impression would be made upon those who came into town for Koombana’s arrival. The long-missed would arrive home in new clothes, looking well, and considerably fatter than when they left. Moreover, they would step ashore in the white way, down the gangway, from a ship that few imagined they would ever travel by, except perhaps in chains on the ’tween decks.
As far as can be told, Connolly and his department were willing to stand any criticism of the repatriation arrangements. The plan was pragmatic, but cynical it was not. If more diseased natives were willing to submit to medical examination, the benefit would outweigh the inevitable grumblings about the cost, and any amount of tut-tutting from the leafy suburbs of the capital. The programme went ahead. At Carnarvon jetty on February 5th, 1910, Harriet Lenihan and 37 Aborigines boarded Koombana for the run north.
p112In the great scheme of things, a few cured patients were of little consequence: mere specks of light upon a great, dark dome. But for black and sympathetic white, there was no alternative but to draw breath from optimistic moments, so few and so widely spaced. To focus upon the present was to guard hope and guard it jealously, against overwhelming odds.
At Cossack, Hedland, Broome, Derby and Wyndham, Harriet Lenihan saw two years of difficult humanitarian work come to modest fruition. From Koombana’s rail she shared her girls’ delight as down the gangway they tramped, overweight and over-pleased, with a government blanket under one arm and waving wildly with the other. And below, on the jetties of the Nor’-West, black faces responded with joy and wide-eyed fascination as their abducted kin crossed from the white world back into their own.