Some memories get ‘burned in’. Though the events were more than 50 years ago, I was haunted by the spectacle of miserable Aborigines begging and trying to sell souvenirs to passengers on the eastbound Trans-Australian train at Ooldea, SA, on the eastern fringe of the Nullarbor Plain.
The Aborigines were clad in rags, and mothers carried infants and toddlers, also in rags.
I was on that train from Kalgoorlie twice, as an 11- and 12-year-old in early and late 1952. On one of those trips I bought from an old Aborigine a kangaroo carved from a forked piece of soft white wood. It bore a singed pattern made with a hot stick or wire. It must have been cheap as my spending money was meagre indeed. This became a treasured possession for several years.
I have a vague memory of the consternation among the train passengers, seeing the pitiable state of the Aborigines. People leant out and put not just money but food and lollies into pleading black hands.
Aborigines converge on the trans-Nullarbor train near the WA/SA border in the early 1940s.
(Photo: Frank Leydeen, 1913-’99, via the National Archives)
On the March, 1952, trip I was the youngest WA delegate to Sydney’s pink-tinged Youth Carnival for Peace and Friendship. I can imagine, if not recollect, the indignation of my fellow delegates on the train at this iconic indictment of an unjust and uncaring capitalist society.
Well, I’m sure you’re with me so far. But things are not always what they seem, and in this case, especially not.
My acquaintances Joe Lane and Alistair Crooks are working through the records of the South Australian Chief Protector of Aborigines from the1840s to 1950s and associated documents (see http://firstsourcesguide.com).
From these documents, it is clear that humbugging passengers on the Trans-Australian train had been a relaxed and lucrative past-time since 1917 when the line opened. It was done not just by local Aboriginals settled at the sidings but by groups wandering in from hundreds of kilometres, even a thousand kilometres.
As soon as the line’s construction finished, a couple of hundred tribalised Aborigines from the WA/NT border hurried down to see the sights, a bit like how we white tourists now go to see the sights down in Antarctica.
The SA Chief Protector W.G. South wrote at the time that the line’s visitors “were not giving the white residents any trouble and will no doubt return to their own country later on” – but he was wrong.[i]
South was soon lamenting,
There is no necessity for them to [beg], as their natural food is plentiful in their own country, and several ration depots exist in the district where the old and infirm may obtain supplies…
The able-bodied natives can find plenty of employment amongst the settlers, but as long as they are encouraged by sympathetic people to beg they will naturally refuse to work. In other parts of the north country, away from the railway line, all the aborigines find employment and earn good wages.”[ii]
The WA and SA governments were thereafter bombarded with criticisms from well-meaning passengers about the importunate clusters on the line, with letters to editors getting published as far afield as London. An irony was that, as normally happens, being charitable only encouraged more begging.
Leftist historian Stuart Macintyre AO (2011) in his biography of Sir Ernest Scott (1867-1939), a doyen of early Australian historians, quotes a private letter Scott wrote to Scott’s wife in 1926 mentioning the Aborigines begging from the passengers. ‘They are the ugliest, most wretched creatures imaginable, hideous, dirty and skinny … The gins all smoke pipes,’ Scott’s letter says.
According to Macintyre, this comment revealed that Scott’s ‘revulsion was atavistic’ and it was sufficient to condemn him as ‘ignorant and contemptuous of the Aboriginal way of life’. A third historian and editor of Quadrant, Keith Windschuttle, commented yesterday (Jan 10) that in trying to paint Scott as a racist, in the absence of any evidence in Scott’s academic work, Macintyre had used ” one of the flimsiest pieces of evidence ever brought to bear against a notable Australian historian”. (Macintyre became the Ernest Scott Professor of History at Melbourne University in 1990 at the expense of the former incumbent Geoff Blainey).
In 1937 there was a conference in Canberra of States’ Chief Protectors. The South Australian Chief Protector M.T. McLean told them:
“We issue them with clothes so that they may appear more or less respectable, but we find that they hang their clothes on a tree, and present themselves in their rags before the passengers so as to excite sympathy. The only solution I can see is to have permanent police officers on duty to turn the natives back from the railway.”[iii]
Worse luck for the Protectors, the Trans-Australian’s Commonwealth owners themselves were marketing the trip as an opportunity to see picturesque Aborigines en route. Similarly, missionaries were doing their best to succour the Aborigines with the result that even more drifted in to the line.
Among the earliest well-wishers for Aborigines on ‘the line’ was Daisy Bates, serial bigamist, one-time “spouse” of Breaker Morant, and for all that, a dedicated recorder of Aboriginal ways. She set up at Ooldea in 1919 on a quest to civilise the Aborigines, not getting far with the project during 16 years.
Her accounts are colourful and not suitable for today’s cossetted schoolchildren, given she reports common infanticide and occasional cannibalism. Her general veracity is subject to on-going controversy, with various academics writing her off as a fabulist. Others, such as anthropologist and editor Isobel White, were impressed by her extensive and painstaking notes and her willingness to put in the hard yards and years living among Aborigines in conditions remote from civilisation’s benefits.
From Ooldea, Bates wrote:
“Just as I was buttoning the men into their first trousers, a thunder came from the Plain. All rose in terror to watch, wild-eyed, the monster of Nullarbor, the ganba (snake) coming to devour them [i.e. the train]. I needed all my tact and wisdom to prevent their flight. Two of the women were heavily pregnant. One of these, in spite of the abundant food bestowed on her, later gave birth to a girl baby in a hidden spot in the bush, and killed and ate the little creature. The other woman reared her child for a year or so, and then, giving birth to a half-caste at some siding, took both along the line and disposed of them either by neglect or design. One of the men … contracted venereal disease, and returned to Ooldea only to die…We buried him near my tent, with Inyiga, a woman who, after killing her diseased half-cast child, succumbed to pneumonia.”
She went to great lengths to collect evidence of cannibal episodes. One set of bones she sent to Adelaide for analysis proved to be mere cat bones, but others were human. To be blunt, there are plenty of accounts by respected anthropologists about Aboriginal cannibalism, e.g. Elkin, Roth, and the two Berndts (under whom I studied in 1961). Even Manning Clark attested to the practice.[iv] A colleague of mine, the late Dr C.G. von Brandenstein, who learnt at least four Pilbara languages, told me once that in hard times, dead infants would routinely go ‘into the pot’.
As for infanticide, this has been estimated at up to 30% of babies before white contact, and close to 20% of babies even in 1966-67 in Pitjantjatjara country, the source country of many of the Aborigines on ‘the line’.[v]
Getting back to our train, WA’s pre-war Chief Protector A.O. Neville had a lot to say about it. He is today infamous for wanting assimilation of half-castes –but he also wanted preservation of full-blood communities and their culture. Those twin policies were in fact the unanimous desire of all Protectors from all States and the Commonwealth, as expressed at that 1937 conference in Canberra.[vi] The policy, however much reviled today, compared favourably with apartheid and segregation in South Africa and the US at the time.
For Neville, the begging on the WA side of the line was a thorn in his side for many years. He told the 1937 conference, in the sometimes uncouth language of the times:
“I absolutely deny that the natives along the Western Australian section of the line are living in miserable conditions. …. I do not want to criticize the South Australian control in any way, and in a sense, the natives cannot be blamed for coming to the train. I merely want to place the facts before the Conference. When these natives approach the train, they are received with extraordinary sympathy by the passengers, who give them money, fruit, cake and many other things, and in every way possible encourage them.
At Immarna about 100 very dirty natives of all sorts and conditions, dressed in filthy rags, crowded to the train. I have never seen such a collection. I should have been ashamed to have had anything to do with them. The train stopped at that station for nearly twenty minutes and these natives swarmed round it like flies.
One extraordinary feature of this business is that although, ten years ago, there was hardly a child to be seen among the natives along the line, there must have been from 30 to 40 children from ten years of age downwards in that company. Knowing the natives as I do, I am quite satisfied that those children were bred for the purpose of begging, The mothers carried them along the train on their backs, and the little children held out their hands to the passengers who gave them shillings and sixpences and other coins. Their pathetic appeal could not be resisted by the passengers.
It seems to me that only two things can be done to remedy this state of affairs. They must be taken away from the line altogether, which would involve the expenditure of considerably more money than Western Australia or South Australia can spare for the purpose, or the passengers must, in some way, be prevented from making gifts to them.
It is not charity to these people to give them money. It is actually pauperizing them. On our end of the line they are already properly fed and clothed, and they do not really want for anything. As things are, it is difficult to keep them from contact with the passengers.”
He went on that Aborigines were allowed free travel on the weekly tea and sugar train taking rations between Kalgoorlie and Port Augusta. But they used it as what we would now see as a hop-on hop-off exercise, waiting at remote sidings for the next Trans-Continental and plying their begging skills afresh.
Neville told his peers that provision of rations and supplies to needy Aboriginals was standard policy in WA, but it was always a problem working out if the poverty was actually due to gambling or work-shy lifestyles. He had no sympathy for handouts to able-bodied Aboriginals. For example, it was common for Aboriginals to get free trips to Adelaide, where they spent all their money and expected the government to pay their trip home. He said,
“…it is very difficult to do anything with them. I suppose it would cost £3,000 or £4,000 in capital expenditure to provide adequate quarters for them away from the line, and it would probably cost £1,000 a year to maintain them. This must be done, or the Commonwealth Government must request passengers to cease making gifts to them.”
Both WA and SA Protectors felt their hands were tied legally from doing much to fix the problem. McLean in his 1936-37 annual report said,
“Even if a large reserve were proclaimed for these natives they would in all probability leave the reserve and continue to visit the line. The only method of punishing them if they did leave the reserve would be by prosecution in a court of law and sending them to prison, which, with such people would be quite ridiculous and unsatisfactory.”
He also considered imprisonment counter-productive. The traditional men enjoyed the excursion to the Port Augusta jail, and it was an incentive rather than a deterrent, he wrote.
What emerges from the accounts of the time is officials’ honest desire to support Aborigines in their traditional lifestyle. The Protectors struggled to stem the pernicious creep of hand-outs, whether privately or government sponsored. They also, being good public servants, were highly conscious of both the limits to their legal powers, and a vigilant public ever ready to haul them over the coals for sins of omission and commission. As today, we can look back and criticise them, just as – who knows? – we too will be criticised from a 2070 perspective.
Tony Thomas wonders what happened to his carved kangaroo. He blogs at firstname.lastname@example.org
[i] Chief Protector of Aboriginals Annual Report 1917-18
[ii] ibid, 1919-20 Annual Report
[v] Quoted in Jarrett, Stephanie, Liberating Aboriginal People from Violence. Connor Court, Ballan, 2013, p135