History Wars

Aboriginal Protector AO Neville

The Pocket Windschuttle: AO Neville

Tony Thomas: Strangely, all the Stolen Generation historians are very loath to name the governments and ministers who must have launched and guided the stealing of half-castes in their jurisdictions. After all, nasty welfare officers and brutal police can’t just run around grabbing half-castes off their own bat – they’re public servants after all. One thing a public servant (even a department head) likes to do, is cover his/her backside by pointing out, “My superiors told me to do it.”

A lot of the governments supposedly organising the stealings were Labor governments, so I suppose that is awkward for the historians.  Could the stealers and genociders include, say, Bob Hawke’s uncle Bert Hawke, who was WA Premier from 1953-59? I sat in the WA Parliament press gallery a bit in 1959. I never heard Bert mention the genocide or table a report on it, but then again, I used to doze off a lot. It’s all a puzzle, isn’t it!

However, you can hardly read any stolen generations history without coming across the name A.O. Neville, Chief Protector in WA, a public servant whose role seems to have included god-like powers and authority. And he was definitely a monster, with his henchmen criss-crossing the giant state ripping myriads of screaming babies from their loving mothers’ arms, to be corralled in the horrible Moore River Settlement.

The Moore River Settlement (operating from 1918 to 1951) was indeed a disgusting place. And Neville did have some foolish ideas about ‘breeding out the colour’ by integrating half-castes into white society, except that for all his talk, he had neither staff nor funds to do anything about it (see below), and it was logically impossible anyway.

[Note: All page references are to The Fabrication of Aboriginal History – Volume Three: The Stolen Generations 1881-2008 by Keith Windschuttle (Macleay, 2009)]

The Windschuttle reality-check.

WA Chief Protector A.O. Neville had 19,000 Aborigines under his control but at most a secretary and five or six clerks who worked with him in two rooms and a back veranda in Murray Street, Perth. His furniture was shabby cast-offs that other departments had rejected. p402 footnote.

(Compare this with Prime Minister Rudd’s department of climate change in 2010: 408 public servants and $8m for office rent, with nothing to do there but send memos to each other: TT).

Yet Neville, according to historian Alison Holland, was conducting with his tiny crew “a massive exercise in social engineering, (in which) administrators orchestrated the assimilation of the ‘half-castes’ into the white population largely via separation from their people, training in institutions and marriage in the white community.” p402

For most of his 25 year tenure from 1915-1940, Neville had no patrol officers or travelling inspectors at all. From 1925 to 1930 he did have one travelling inspector, E.C. Mitchell, and Mitchell was so busy organising rations distributions, job permits for whites to employ Aborigines, health work, and inspection of missions, that he had little time left to steal children.

In 1930, with the depression, the WA Treasury ordered that all public service travel was to be curtailed unless ‘urgently necessary’. And poor Neville had to sack his one inspector E.C. Mitchell to save money, and not replace the position for another eight years. p8 and p404

The WA government was barely interested in its Aborigines. In 1935, NSW government spending on Aborigines was five pounds 9 shillings per head. Neville was expected to run his show on a budget of a mere one pound 9 shillings per head.

He had to run Moore River Settlement on a budget of nine pounds 13 shillings per inmate per year, compared with the WA government spending 64 pounds five shillings per inmate at Fremantle Gaol.

He had to feed and clothe his Moore River clients on a quarter of the money per head spent on whites at the Old Men’s Home in Perth. No wonder Moore River conditions, food, staffing etc was awful. p403

Given the paltry size of Neville’s budget, Windschuttle says, this alone makes the Human Rights Commission claim that he was doing genocidal levels of child removal “unbelievable”. p403

Neville had to delegate the ‘stealing’ to local magistrates, doctors and police, who were not thrilled to be assigned extra unpaid work by an outsider. p404

Neville personally approved each removal and did or supervised the paperwork in each case, additional to his normal workload. This personal role was possible because the numbers of removals were so few. p9

Indeed, we all know about the three ‘rabbit-proof fence’ girls taken in 1931 and sent south to Moore River. A surprise though is that in that whole year, only one other Aboriginal child was sent to Moore River.

In total in WA in 1931, there were 25 removals: 4 to Moore River, 9 were old and decrepit Aboriginals sent to a feeding depot at La Grange Bay, and 9 were prisoners released to the Port George Mission.

In any year, child removals (for all reasons) to Moore River were generally under 20, and in some years, zero. 9.7 and footnote.

Windschuttle’s Table 8.1 shows how many native children were in WA government settlements and institutions in 1932-34: All-up: 212, of whom 120 were at Moore River. Total WA Aboriginal population of all ages: 19,000 plus 10,000 beyond contact. Again, remember the 212 children were in state accommodation for all reasons, positive, negative or just because there was nowhere else for a child to go. p408

WA Aborigines, who were 6% of the state population, over 25 years got about 0.3% of the annual state budget. “In other words, it is very obvious that none of the governments of WA in this period ever cared enough about the Aborigines to want to commit genocide on them,” Windschuttle comments. p405

Moore River, which contained Aboriginals of all ages and conditions, was not a gaol or gulag. Apart from the child wards of Neville, and convicted prisoners, adults who were there for welfare reasons or tucker and who could find work or sustenance elsewhere, simply walked away, with Neville’s blessing. Between 1930 and 1934, 1067 people were admitted but 1030 people left. 406.8

Throughout his tenure, Neville was losing turf disputes with the two more powerful groups in WA: the pastoralists who used Aboriginal labour; and missionaries, who had more clout, independence and influence than Neville. He was a dictator? “Those who make this claim should not be taken seriously,” Windschuttle says. p410

So what was Neville’s actual program?

On the positive side, he wanted half-caste kids educated and he wanted work found for all half-castes, to get them off welfare and penury and absorb them into the white community. He even wanted to ‘take’ kids from six years old and educate them in vocational boarding schools. He certainly had the legal authority to do so, but not the means. p411

An astounding fact is that around 1900, under compulsory primary education run by the WA Education Department, 31% of non-tribal Aboriginal kids over 5 could read and write and a similar proportion were in full-time schooling. p412

But once responsibility was shifted to the cash-strapped and neglected Aboriginal department, Aboriginal education crashed. White parents also began forcing the removal of Aboriginal kids from the primary schools, claiming hygiene issues, but there were virtually no facilities to educate them separately. p412

The WA government reacted in 1915 by building a good-standard settlement at Carrolup to feed and house 150 half-caste adults on welfare and educate their children (note: not separate them). Neville wanted to expand it with a hospital and farm for training. By 1922 the government resented the expense, closed Carrolup and ordered the inmates into the Moore River Settlement, rightly described by Paul Hasluck as ‘a dump’. p413

A vermin-ridden dump it was. There were 100-200 youngsters there, most of school age and with their parents camped nearby, plus orphans, neglected kids and some forcibly removed because, Neville said, their mothers were unfit to bring them up. Neville viewed that as a cruel but necessary last resort, adding,

“Where there is no question of unfitness, the mother should be allowed to accompany the child.” p414

Kids and parents could come and go to each other in daylight but at night, for their own safety from predators and assault, the kids slept in separate dormitories.

Whatever his motives, Neville was a poor administrator, Moore River never remotely fulfilled its welfare and training roles, and it was inhumane. Windschuttle says that Neville should have been sacked rather than serving out his term to retirement age at 65, thanks to the indifference of WA governments of both Labor and conservative ilk. 417.5

How many children were removed by force to Moore River?

As usual, the Stolen Generation historians bluster about numbers stolen but don’t seem keen on the specifics. Windschuttle researches the WA admission records, makes ratio estimates for a few years where data is for combined adults/children, and this is his finding:

From 1915 to 1940, the total number of ‘unattended’ children sent to Moore River was 252, that is, an average ten per year. This included a large-ish number in a single year 1933, when about 90 adults and children arrived from a Northam fringe camp to be quarantined because of a scabies epidemic in the camp. p419

The academics, TV producers and Human Rights Commission talk not of hundreds of WA kids removed, but ‘thousands’. They seem to be out by a factor of ten. It could not possibly be true, Windschuttle says.

Of the 252 removed, A.O. Neville says they were orphaned, abandoned, or neglected welfare cases. One baby, for example, had been picked up after being left in the bush at Perth’s Kings Park.  

There were plenty more like them in the camps, leading tragic lives, whom Neville said he wanted to ‘take’ but regretted that he had no resources to do so. There were also large numbers of half-caste children whom he would never contemplate ‘taking’, except with their parents alongside.

“We do not take infants from their mothers. The minimum age is six and generally not then. If we have to do what is unusual, viz. take a child from its mother, it is because the mother is not fit to look after it,” Neville wrote.

The Human Rights Commission cherry-picked the phrase about his wanting to ‘take’ many more children, concealing his actual point that he was unable to ‘take’ them, despite the need to do so. p421 and footnote.

Neville elaborated that in 18 years, he had taken only 20 half-caste girls from the Kimberleys, plus a few boys. That is, about one or sometimes two per annum.

In 1937 he reported his ‘takings’ of all Aboriginals state-wide as 24, of whom 17 were women and children sent to Moore River:

“Of these some were sent in because of health reasons and mainly because of the condition of the children’s eyes which required prompt attention, and the others due to the undesirable conditions under which the children were living. Residence at Moore River in the case of most of these is likely to be only temporary.” p423

Neville had no reason to lie about the numbers. He was proud of his work, as he saw it, of rescuing kids from squalor and helping to get Aborigines off welfare (however parsimonious) and into jobs.

All-up, the number of Aboriginal children in WA government institutions in 1932-34 totalled 212 and there were 397 with missions, thus 609 all-up. They were admitted for all reasons – positive (e.g. training), negative (e.g. convictions) and especially welfare (orphaned, neglected). And about 92% of WA Aboriginal children were not in institutions. p441

Windschuttle is scathing about claims by stolen generation historian Anna Haebich and the Human Rights Commission that not one Aboriginal family in WA escaped the removal policies. “A massive exercise in social engineering”? How could they have got it so wrong, Windschuttle asks. p441

Buy The Fabrication of Aboriginal History – Volume Three: The Stolen Generations 1881-2008 here…

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