The Curious Impact of Facts on Aboriginal History

My wife and I made the first Aboriginal flags, back in 1972, and more than a hundred of them up to 1981 or so, and sent them all around Australia. We were ardent supporters of land rights and self-determination and used to devour any new book on the subject. Invariably these books were based on secondary and tertiary historical sources, but they fitted in with our way of thinking at the time. Later, I was to find that without attention to primary source documents, indigenous history will remain seriously defective.

In the 1980s, I found the journals of George Taplin, the missionary who set up the Point McLeay Mission on Lake Alexandrina (where my wife was born) and managed it between 1859 and 1879. The journals were (and still are) in the State Library in Adelaide, in an old typewritten copy. At the time, I thought that some fool should type them up again. As it turned out, I was that fool. But I had discovered a goldmine of information, much of which did not conform to the dominant narrative.

A friend gave me some old letter-books from the mission, covering up to 1900, which I carefully copied. By then I was hooked on searching out first-hand sources and went on to type up the thousand pages of the various Royal Commissions “into the Aborigines”, of 1860, 1899 and 1913–16. Many other documents have now suffered the same fate. More recently, I have been typing up the correspondence of the Protector of Aborigines in South Australia, more than 13,000 letters in, and 8500 letters out, 1840 to 1912.

All in all, I’ve transcribed around 6000 pages of primary-source material and put it all on a website: www.firstsources.info.

Comprehensively, this primary source material does not support the current narrative. In fact, it supports a more complex and interesting perspective. The dominant paradigm, which is being taught around Australia, in schools and at universities, asserts that

• Aboriginal people were “herded” onto missions;

• Aboriginal people were driven from their lands;

• Countless children were stolen from their families.

I have found no unambiguous evidence of any of this. Let’s look at each of these assertions in turn.


Herding Aborigines onto missions


Between 1840 and the present, the Aboriginal population on missions never exceeded 20 per cent of the total Aboriginal population in contact with the state, except during the Depression when it rose to about 30 per cent. In other words, for most of the time, more than 80 per cent of the Aboriginal population lived away from missions, across the state.

The total number of full-time staff of the grandly-named Aborigines Department was one, the Protector. His main task was to set up and supply up to forty ration depots, as well as roughly as many issuing points for individuals and families. Issuers, who were mainly police officers, station managers and pastoral lessees, and missionaries, were not paid. So: one full-time staff member and seventy-five or more issuing points. Who was doing the “herding”?

Mission staff rarely numbered more than three or four. They were flat out issuing stores, building cottages, supervising farm work, running the schools, providing medical attention. As far as I know, no mission ever had a fence around it to keep people in.

Many times in the Protector’s correspondence, an issuer would ask urgently for more stores as a large number of “Natives”, sometimes hundreds, had arrived at their depot. A few weeks later, they were gone again. People came and went as they chose.

The Protector sent rations to a mission near Port Lincoln, located on 18,000 acres of crop and grazing land, with the express instruction that the rations were not for the residents but for “travelling people”, passing up and down Eyre Peninsula to and from Port Lincoln, and that the rations were to keep them supplied on their journey. The mission population there were supposed to be self-supporting (which they were from about 1868 onwards). The “travelling people” camped a couple of miles from the mission and occasionally worked for wages on the mission, grubbing stumps.

At Point McLeay, from Taplin’s journal, from the letter-books and from the Protector’s letters, one can read of hundreds of people suddenly arriving from down the Coorong or from up the Murray for ceremonies. They camped a mile or two away, and needed provisioning. A week or two later, they had gone back to their own country.

Rations were strictly for the sick, aged and infirm, mothers with young children, and orphans. Able-bodied people were expected to hunt or fish or gather, or work for farms and stations. Families that had been deserted or widowed were also provided with rations. Rations included: flour, tea, sugar, axes, rice, sago, tobacco, soap, fishing lines, fish-hooks, netting twine, needles and thread, clothes, clothing material, blankets, blue serge shirts, cotton shirts, spoons, quart-pots, pannicans, billy-cans, tomahawks, bags and tarpaulins for wurlies, occasionally tents, and free medical care and travel passes to and from hospital.

Rations were provided to isolated individuals. For example, on many occasions, an old man or woman on a station might need to be looked after. The Protector asked the lessee to ask the person if they wanted to go to a mission to be better cared for there, but they said no, they wanted to stay on their land, so he arranged for the station-lessee to provide that person with rations, often for years. One Aboriginal woman on Kangaroo Island, originally from Tasmania, was supplied with rations in this way for at least twenty years. A deserted wife and her family in Adelaide were provided with rations for many years, at least until the record ends.

Missions regularly expelled people who had behaved badly or immorally. In other words, they were fairly particular about who could and couldn’t stay on a mission. I suspect that one mission had to wind down in the 1890s simply because it couldn’t get enough working men to stay there: it seemed to have a chronic shortage of labour from the late 1870s as capable men found better-paying work in the district.

In sum, there does not seem to be any evidence of “herding”, or any obvious intention to ever do so.


Driving Aborigines from their lands


There is only one instance in the Protector’s letters of a pastoral lessee trying to drive people from his lease (in 1876), and as soon as the Protector was informed, he wrote to remind the lessee that he would be in breach of his lease, which stipulated that Aboriginal people had all the traditional rights to use the land as they always had done, “as if this lease had not been made”, as the wording went. It was assumed that traditional land use and pastoral land use could co-exist, as, of course, they could and still can. I’m informed that that condition still applies in current legislation.

By the way, six months later, that pastoralist was applying for rations. The depot there was still issuing rations at least thirty years later.

The Protector provided dozens, perhaps a hundred or more, fifteen-foot boats, and fishing gear (fishing lines, fish-hooks, netting twine) to people on all waterways, even Cooper’s Creek, so that they could fish and “stay in their own districts”. He provided guns to enable people to hunt more effectively. Boats and guns were provided free—as well as their repair—to people unable to earn a living, and able-bodied people were expected to pay half their cost. The Game Act has always expressly exempted Aboriginal people from restrictions on hunting and fishing in “close season”, even now.

The Protector advised a woman who had been living on a mission, but whose husband had been knocking her around, that he could provide her with rations at a town near her own country. Over the years, whenever particular individuals or groups were “loafing about the City” or drunk and disorderly, or begging (what we call “humbugging” these days) about the streets, he provided them with rail or steamer passes to “go back to their home districts”.

From the earliest days, Aboriginal people were encouraged to lease plots of land, up to 160 acres rent-free, and to live on the land, which was usually in the country they came from. The earliest record seems to be a woman who had married a white man. Often white men thought that, if they married an Aboriginal woman, they could get a piece of land, but no, the lease was always vested in the Aboriginal partner.

During the 1890s, more than forty Aboriginal people, including at least three women, held such leases. One mission may have wound down precisely because the more capable men took out leases of their own, leaving the mission bereft of labour and in debt.

In sum, there does not seem to be any evidence of any intention to drive people from their country. Again, quite the reverse.


Stealing children from their families


Colonisation disrupted Aboriginal traditional life and family patterns. Women had children by white men (as well as by Africans, Chinese, Afghans and West Indians) and lived peripatetic lives around the towns. Many children were abandoned or orphaned by single mothers who either could not support them or died. Many children were brought down from the north by stockmen and survey teams, sometimes from interstate, and then abandoned in the city.

All states have fiduciary obligations to their inhabitants, especially to children. The Protector was, in effect and in law, the legal guardian responsible for the well-being of such abandoned children. Facilities in those days were either rudimentary or non-existent, so the most suitable place for such children, short of locating their living relatives (which occurred occasionally), was to ask a particular mission if they could take them. Often this was not possible, so the Protector had to look around to find a place for a particular child.

So how many? I typed up the School Records, 1880 to 1960, from one mission/government settlement and found that, for example, between 1880 and 1900, only eight children—out of a roll of 200 over those years—had been brought to this mission. There were barely as many again in the next fifty years.

And just in case “stealing children” means taking them from missions and settlements, it should be pointed out that, in that period 1880 to 1960, during which 800 children were, at one time or another, enrolled at that school, a total of forty-seven school-age children were transferred to homes or institutions or the Adelaide Hospital, and the vast majority of them came back within a year or two. Mothers died, fathers died and mothers re-married, families fell destitute or broke up for all manner of reasons. The reasons for Aboriginal children being put into care of any sort were not much different from those for any other Australians, and at 4 per cent, neither was the rate of “removal”.

Incidentally, more than thirty years ago, I got hold of the birth and death records from an Aboriginal community covering the period from 1860 to 1965. I typed them up and tried to identify the decade in which infant mortality was highest. I was surprised to find that the worst decade in all that time for infant mortality (including one poor child who died of “starvation”), was the 1950s. Why so?

Tentatively, I would suggest that, after the war, the movement away from the community by more enterprising Aboriginal men and their families, in search of better work and schooling opportunities, left the community short of carers, people who had customarily been expected to provide food and shelter for the children of the “stayers”, so that levels of neglect rose significantly.

In the period under study, 1840 to 1912, under the Protector’s watch, if children knew their own country and wished to go back there, he arranged for their travel home. At one mission a boy from the far north was unhappy and wished to return home, so the Protector promptly arranged for him to travel up to Oodnadatta and then on to his own country. A year or so later, he was back at the mission, working and asking for some financial support to buy a harmonium.

So, from the record, there does not seem to be any concerted effort to take children from their families. In fact, the Protector notes that he does not have the legal power to do so, and I suspect neither did he have the intention.

* * *

So why did I believe as I did, without evidence? Because the conventional paradigm, the “black-armband” version, fits together. It makes sense. It doesn’t need evidence. And perhaps in other states—Queensland, for instance—conditions were harsher for Aboriginal (and Islander) people. But that’s for researchers up there to follow up on, if they will.

There are such things as facts. There was only one full-time staff member of the South Australia Aborigines Department. There were forty or more official ration depots from around 1870 onwards. Sometimes facts are like rocks in a stream of interpretation: flow this way or that, twist and turn as one may, the interpretation of history still has to deal with the facts. What comes first, reality or ideology?

It may not have been all sweetness and light, but neither was it as brutal as the conventional paradigm supposes. Nineteenth-century people were no different from ourselves. It’s time we relied more on evidence than on feelings or suspicions, otherwise we will forever be getting it wrong.

Joe Lane is an independent researcher, usually focusing on indigenous higher education and indigenous student support. He runs the website www.firstsources.info.


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