History Wars

Turning saving into “stealing”

The Pocket Windschuttle: Why the WA missionaries ‘stole’ young half-caste girls

Tony Thomas: In northern WA, old tribal men acquired retinues of wives, assigned to them at birth. From as early as five years old, and normally from about eight years old, these ‘wives’ were penetrated. Sometimes this was preceded by genital incision using broken glass. Thereafter the girls were often prostituted by the old men around the tribe, especially to Asian lugger crews. The young girls’ first baby usually died at birth. If the mother survived, she commonly died young from venereal disease. This situation, and not racism, drove to the missionaries to ‘steal’ girls, especially half-castes, to safety.

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

Keith Windschuttle notes that last-century’s missionaries to WA Aborigines are not admired by the historians of the ‘stolen generations’, who prefer to demonise and caricature them. The missionaries are viewed as having worked in tandem with WA authorities to grab half-caste girls from their parents to be ‘whited-out’ and Christianised.

As historian Anna Haebich put it:

Missionaries needed a flock of young children – they were the ‘putty’ for creating a strong Christian community – and the government subsidies they brought with them. To this end they actively encouraged families and pressured the government to send in ‘half-caste’ children to their care. p461 

Here’s a few examples of what actually worried the missionaries: 

  • A five-year-old half-caste girl was ‘taken’ by the Chief Protector in 1905 from the upper Fitzroy River. The local telegraph operator C.J. Annear had reported:

    A few days ago she was out with the old woman, Mary Ann, when a bush black took her away for two nights during which time the blacks here said he made use of her. Such actions as that of Polly and the man are very common among the natives. 443

  • In 1900 at La Grange Bay, another postmaster F.W. Tuckett reported how girls under ten years had been cohabiting with Asiatics for many months. The half-caste girls commanded the best prices and enabled the mother and so-called father to live without any exertion whatsoever on the proceeds of tucker received fortnightly in the creeks, where from 20 to 40 boats come in for food and water. 443
  • Anglican lay missionary Mary Bennett in 1934 testified:

    “The practice to which I refer is that of intercision of the girls at the age of puberty. The vagina is cut with glass by the old men, and that involves a great deal of suffering … If they (the girls) get wind of it they come to the mission till the danger is passed … I remember my old aboriginal nurse speak with horror of the suffering which she had been made to undergo.” 464

  • In 1929 at Drysdale River, Pallotine monks were still appalled by families prostituting their daughters. One couple had been trafficking with their young daughter ‘in a big way’; she “must go wherever the father calls her. If only we had Sisters [nuns], she and the other girls could be saved from this life of perdition!” 444
  • A constable at La Grange Bay reported that a quarter of 400 Aborigines in his remit had venereal disease caught from Asian lugger crews, and of one group of 30, 17-18 had died – mainly young women. 445
  • Boys of 10-12 were being lured or forced onto Malay pearling boats for sexual use. 445
  • In one graphic account, postmaster Tuckett reported in 1904 that at Cowan Creek mooring grounds, more than 50 Aboriginal females were mating with Asian crews on elaborate beds in the sand hills. He complained this was just one of many such mooring grounds, and VD was rampant. 445-6 

The Protectors, far from being obsessed with ‘stealing’ children, were in fact obsessed for decades with the health crises. For example, annual reports in 1928 and 1935 spent 30-40 times as much space on health as on removals. 448

Windschuttle comments dryly: “It is very difficult to reconcile this with the purported objective of eliminating the Aboriginal race.” 448 

The mission stations rather than the state government took the lead in rescuing young girls from sexual squalor and early death.

The dormitories for girls were part of this exercise. Historian Christine Choo wrote of how the dormitories split children from their families and eroded their knowledge of traditional life. 466

In fact, the dormitory system made it easier to educate children, improve their often-appalling hygiene, and protect them from abusers. In fact, the children’s relatives typically lived on the mission as well, separately. During the day families had the ability to intermingle. 473

The risk of predators at night was serious. Young Aboriginal men were deprived of wives by the polygamous old men. Sometimes they even broke into the girls’ dormitory at night. Old men, annoyed at being deprived of so many girls, sometimes coerced the mothers into bringing girls back to the camp. 474-5

Historians sneer at missionaries for trying to enforce their ideas of gentility onto the children, including modesty, cleanliness and individuality; it was cultural arrogance and maybe even cultural genocide. 476

For a start, missionaries had no power whatsoever to force Aborigines to come to their missions and stay there (apart from a few neglected half-castes, officially sent).

Some missions tolerated repugnant practices among full-blood groups, even child brides, mutilations, sorcery and ‘payback’ killings. Other missions defied the traditions.

But the common thread was for missions to collect half-caste, orphaned, fringe-dwelling and destitute children, involving less connection and conflict with tribal ways.

An unfortunate side-effect of mission life was creating a hand-out mentality, or as Windschuttle puts it more tactfully, ‘a culture of dependence’. Few missions succeeded with vegetable farming (although food supplies were scarce indeed), and able-bodied males were happy to laze around.

Windschuttle quotes a poignant report from Hermannsburg Mission in 1935. It described how mothers with small children were allotted goats for milk, but wouldn’t look after the goats. Men had to muster them into a corral three kilometres away. But the mothers would rather see their babies go without milk than walk across. 477

On the other hand, missions had great success in selecting the brightest kids and setting them on the path to advancement. These one-time mission kids and their offspring are now heavily represented in academia, politics and the arts. 477

For all that, don’t imagine the WA missions either saved or harmed great numbers of children. Windschuttle’s usual meticulous count found that in 1932, the total in WA’s ten missions was just under 400, in a state with more than 20,000 Aborigines. The biggest mission, at Beagle Bay, had the equivalent of three classrooms-full. p459

Windschuttle concludes that the missions in WA did a far better job than the state officials did.

The missions educated children to a good primary standard, and rescued many females from horrific sexual fates. They lifted health standards and saved Aborigines from dysentery and other hygiene-related diseases.

“The notion that to accomplish these ends they contributed to the Stolen Generations is manifestly untrue, and the historians who make such a claim should not be believed,” Windschuttle says. 478

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

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