Race and Remembrance: Contesting Aboriginal Child Removal in the Inter-War Years

by Fiona Paisley

© all rights reserved

In her influential book The Australian Aboriginal as a Human Being published in 1930 activist, writer and mission educator Mary Bennett denounced the removal of Aboriginal women and girls as ‘akin to slavery’ and as contravening the League of Nations Covenant and Slavery Convention, both signed in preceding years by the federal government. 1 When her paper ‘The Aboriginal Mother in Western Australia’ was read at the 1933 annual conference of the London-based Dominion Women’s British Commonwealth League, accusations of Aboriginal slavery made London and then Australian newspaper headlines. 2 Such outspoken criticisms were denounced by Prime Minister Lyons in terms remarkably similar to present day discussions of international criticisms of Aboriginal status and conditions in Australia:

The raking up of atrocities that may have occurred in the early days of settlement in Australia and the featuring of them as an indication of the state of affairs existing today is not only unfair to the Governments of to-day, but is extremely detrimental to the good name of Australia. 3

This concern for national reputation in the eyes of the world points to the preoccupation with identity which has marked Australian culture. In their collection on memory and history, Kate Darian-Smith and Paula Hamilton note that this nationalist preoccupation with claiming a ‘past’ has predominated, both from European ways of seeing and understanding and from acts of erasure in ‘a deliberate non-recognition and a deletion of the existing Aboriginal history’. The combined effects of memory and forgetting continues to ‘haunt Australian society today’. 4

In recent years feminist historians have well established the gendered nature of such nationalist accounts, they have been arguably less ready to investigate the play of gender, sexuality and race in constituting national pasts and presents. Along with Thom Blake, Aboriginal historian Jackie Huggins finds that guilt and fear has limited the writing of raced and gendered histories in Australia. White feminist historians have yet to fully engage with anglo-women’s historical role in removal, including their sometimes abusive treatment of Aboriginal women domestic servants. 5 Acknowledging this silence/silencing, Australian feminist historian Ann Curthoys has argued that only through recognition of the complicity of feminism in Australia’s colonial and imperial past can feminist history fully engage with questions of race as well as gender and class 6

Taking the complicity of white women as members of the colonising power as my starting point, I now want to consider evidence against child removal provided by anglo-Australian women activists including Mary Bennett to the 1934 Moseley Royal Commission into Aboriginal status and conditions in Western Australia. My aim here is not to construct a recuperative account of Australian feminists’ proper attention to race relations, nor to invent a new nationalist tradition for feminism in Australia, 7 but rather to interrogate the gendered nationalist and racialist contexts within and across which a feminist politics against child removal was articulated. I argue that challenges to child removal policies by anglo-Australian women activists at this time raises critical questions about the complex amalgam of welfare humanism, cultural and racial theory and population eugenics central to White Australia’s administration of Aboriginal men, women and children and the particular relation of white women to that project.

During the inter-war years members of various women’s organisations such as Bessie Rischbieth (Women’s Service Guilds of Western Australia and the Australian Federation of Women Voters), Ada Bromham (Women’s Service Guilds and the Woman Christian Temperance Union) and Mary Montgomery Bennett campaigned in Australia and overseas for the reform of Aboriginal policy and administration including the end of child removal. In conducting a pro-Aboriginal rights campaign the anglo-Australian, middle class members of these organisations came to publicly question Australia’s past and present treatment of Aboriginal people, especially women and children, proposing a future ‘national’ responsibility to include land, citizenship, increased welfare, education and the protection of bodily, family and community rights. (As we have seen, they promoted their national reform aims successfully from London.) Thus women activists contested Australian race relations, promoting what they considered to be a ‘moral’ national response to the Aboriginal question. 8

In contrast racial policy in Australia during the 20s and 30s was structured around concerns about miscegenation and its perceived threat to racial viability: administrators argued for the biological absorption of a growing mixed-descent population while preserving for posterity declining numbers of full-descent Aborigines. The removal and institutionalisation of mixed-descent children (predominantly girls to be trained as domestic servants) was a key strategy employed towards these policy aims. Thus Aboriginal women were subjected to the trauma of child removal, undertaken by state authorities who assumed parental guardianship of their ‘illegitimate half-caste’ children. From 1911 the Western Australian Act, for example, excluded the rights of Aboriginal mothers of ‘half-caste’ children in favour of the Chief Protector, and was amended in 1936 to preclude a living parent or any relative. State guardianship over removed children was extended from 16 to 21. The Chief Protector also held financial control over the earnings of Aboriginal workers. 9

Such so-called protective legislation amounted to persecution by the systematic separation and isolation of Aboriginal girls and young women, and sought to eradicate ‘half-castes’ through the control of Aboriginal women’s reproductive lives. 10 Western Australian Chief Protector A.O. Neville was a proponent of biological assimilationism, arguing for the ‘breeding out of colour’. Under Neville’s authority mixed-descent Aborigines were to be isolated from full-descent Aborigines, and marriages were to be restricted to those of ‘compatible’ racial make-up through the protective institutionalisation of Aboriginal women and children on government institutions such as Moore River Settlement. 11 These policy aims came under question during the 1934 Royal Commission appointed to ‘Investigate, Report, and Advise upon Matters in Relation to the Conditions and Treatment of Aborigines’ led by Perth stipendiary police magistrate, Henry Doyle Moseley. His brief included recent press accusations of concerning the ill-treatment of Aboriginal people. 12 What follows concerning the question of Aboriginal child removal is taken from unpublished transcripts of evidence to the inquiry.

In her testimony to the inquiry Mary Bennett asserted that Aboriginality and maternal power were closely linked; the survival of one depended upon the other. She singled out the mother-daughter bond as particularly important to racial and cultural survival and the successful entry or self-regulated assimilation of Aboriginal women into non-Aboriginal society:

What Australia’s aboriginal half-caste daughters need is their own mothers who love them, and their own homes among their own people, and teaching, until such time as they shall have attained legal and economic and political freedom, and meet white people on terms of equality. 13

The caring family with the mother-daughter dyad at its centre rather than the ‘patriarchal’ parenting offered by an interventionist administration) was, she argued, the greatest encouragement to all forms of ‘uplift’: ‘[d]epartmentalism is no substitute for mother love’. 14 Government policy merely exacerbated the destructive effects of dispossession by the ‘official smashing of family life’ 15 — the removal of Aboriginal children from their homes, families and communities and their wardship under the Chief Protector himself. In Bennett’s opinion the disastrous outcomes of this policy were manifold. For those girls who had been removed, both employment and unemployment placed them ‘in the greatest peril’. 16 Government policies of sending them into white homes as domestic servants left them ‘to earn their living in great loneliness in an alien community’ 17 where ‘unnecessary crimes and tragedies’ 18 ensued. Her conceptualisation of the ‘Aboriginal or half-caste woman’ protected by her family and community was in stark contrast to the ever-single available lubra of contemporary frontier discourse and of the racist polices of absorption promoted by Neville.

The removal of Aboriginal children was a practice that Bennett had long argued was ‘violating the family sentiment on which their whole culture is founded’ and resulted in long-term psychological and emotional damage. 19 Throughout these years, she maintained that far from causing Aboriginal women little anguish (a common belief) child removal psychologically and emotionally damaged both mother and child:

The mothers are utterly wrapped up in their children. Their human relationships are the only things that they can have (sometimes) when white need permits and even these the grinding tyranny and feudal system of the Department seeks to take. 20

The ongoing removal of ‘half-caste’ children particularly affected young Aboriginal women who lived in constant fear of discovery.

Bennett defended leaving ‘half-caste’ children in camps (which she hoped would become village settlements) because their removal would only lead to ‘promiscuous relationships with white people, so that they belong to no one and have no family ties’. 21 She recommended a change in attitude to the treatment of ‘half-caste’ girls under the control of the Department because a cycle of despair faced the many Aboriginal and ‘half-caste’ women and their children either in flight from authorities, or detained in the Department’s infamous Moore River Settlement. According to Bennett her Aboriginal informants described the Government’s Moore River Settlement as a ‘prison farm’. She provided detailed accounts of starvation, of summary beatings and prison conditions, accusations also made in the testimony of Aboriginal witnesses themselves. 22

Equally determined to defend the Aboriginal mother and child against state intervention Ada Bromham testified that Aboriginal women she knew were working but lost their earnings to pay for the support of their children, even though ‘[u]nder the law the mother has no right over the child.’ Bromham pointed out that the Chief Protector’s powers of guardianship over all Aboriginal children overrode maternal rights: ‘[i]t is becoming more or less the practice to take children away rather than to try and obtain maintenance from fathers’. Noting that the sexual availability of Aboriginal women was ‘useful’ to maintaining the frontier sexual economy, she added: ‘[t]here is a feeling that the aboriginal woman has been more or less useful and that those administering the Act consider there is not much harm in the system that has grown up.’ 23

And in her evidence to the inquiry Bessie Rischbieth called for a Commonwealth investigation into the ‘present alleged practice of taking children of a certain age to the Government mission stations and thus depriving their parents of the custody of their children’. She argued that if deemed ‘neglected’ (by which they were often removed by authorities) Aboriginal children should be subject to adoption as was the case with white children. However, she explained, ‘In most instances I should prefer to see the children left with their parents … (T)he system should be improved in order that [Aboriginal parents] might keep their children’. The state had a duty to support motherhood, including Aboriginal mothers whose economic conditions might otherwise make it impossible for them to adequately care for their children. 24

In their evidence to the Royal Commission the majority of activist women expressed no doubt as to the dreadful emotional pain suffered in silence by fearful Aboriginal children and mothers and to their reliance upon the (white, enfranchised English speaking, middle-class) women’s voice to give expression to their anguish. Because of Aboriginal women’s exclusion from enfranchised political identity, women activists claimed for themselves a crucial role in shaping Australia’s future Aboriginal policy. 25 The Women’s Service Guilds journal The Dawn claimed in 1927, ‘[i]t must be remembered that the [A]borigines are an inarticulate race, unable to voice their own wrongs, hence the more reason that others must do it for them’. 26 Used to acting in the name of ‘women’, they understood their duty as ‘women of Australia’ to include demands for Aboriginal land rights, citizenship, education, employment and family life.

Central to that political duty was a critique of white masculinity. The prostitution of Aboriginal women and the denial of their offspring revealed the white man as ‘unnatural’, callous and lacking in compassion. Insisting on cross-class responsibility Bennett argued that ‘wealthy squatters, station-managers and others’, the father of ‘half-caste’ children, showed no responsibility to any woman, ‘black or white’. They betrayed both individual Aboriginal women and white womankind by their immoral often adulterous behaviour. They were happier to retain their unclaimed children as ‘serfs’ or station workers rather than fulfil their parental duty to teach them to become ‘self-supporting, self-respecting Australian citizens’, a potential Bennett told the Moseley Royal Commission she had witnessed as the teacher of ‘half-caste’ children: ‘cleverer, finer, more affectionate, responsive children cannot be found anywhere.’ 27

Appalled by what they considered to be the devastating consequences of the removal of Aboriginal children, women activists insisted that mother and child must be kept together at all costs. Local, community-based, self-sufficient reserves would offer safe areas for women to bring up their children within Christian marriage. Yet even those Aboriginal women who married on missions and entered the workplace as ‘happy, self-respecting young couples’ under the protection of their husbands and Christian law were faced with ‘risks and dangers … we would not tolerate if our own daughters were the ones who had to face them’. 28 In thus positioning the Aboriginal woman as ‘our’ daughter, activist women such as Bennett confronted the paternalism of the Board in a reversal of its own terms — it was not by imagining ‘other’ daughters but their own that white men might be persuaded to stop their abuse.

Women activists envisaged a future national policy which would endeavour to respect Aboriginal women as mothers and uphold their rights to family life. They linked femininity with assimilation into society by promoting citizenship for Aboriginal women in terms of universal family and motherhood rights — those of choice of husband, the economic viability of the family unit and recognition of the fundamental mother/child bond which they argued was central to Aboriginal society as it was to their own. As independent and elite women, many of whom regularly travelled overseas, they pursued professional careers for themselves. In contrast they mobilised an idealised version of working-class family life for Aboriginal people in which Aboriginal women would along with Aboriginal men negotiate economic and social assimilation for themselves and their children.

White activist women’s concern for the familial and bodily rights of Aboriginal women arose from their analysis of the exploitation and abuse that they found characterised Aboriginal women’s sexual relationships with white men. Although both maternalistic and patronising, these women activists’ investment in ‘uplifted’ Aboriginal family life was an attempt to counter the overwhelming obstacles they saw denying the rights of Aboriginal people to family, home and paid work. Arguably their pro-family campaign countered contemporary representations of Aboriginal women as dissolute and immoral, not married under white law and therefore sexually available to all white men. Bennett found that frontier conditions across the whole continent were dangerous for Aboriginal women because of the activities of ‘average ordinary’ itinerant white men. 29

Such contestations of Aboriginal policy during the inter-war years give testimony to the complex reverberations of memory and forgetting that have shaped and continue to shape Australian history. The ‘forgetting of the past in the present’, according to Chris Healy, effects a ‘silencing’ of ‘encounters between black and white’30 , encounters that I understand here as present within anglo-Australians’ defence of varying versions of assimilationism. Historical memory plays a significant role in present-day politicians’ legitimisation of a return to an unapologetically assimilationist line. Insisting upon a homogenous past which unites ‘us all’, the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, Senator Heron, has compared Aboriginal child removal to leaving home for boarding school, a practice long considered good for the (white, upper class, anglo-Australian) child and if damaging in hindsight certainly not worthy of compensation. His message is that while we may find such separations cruel, they were carried out by well-meaning individuals often struggling in the face of a child’s or a mother’s pain, but who toughened their hearts believing their actions were in the best interests of the child. Through their assertions of a united nation, Aboriginal people are to be denied a distinct historical, cultural and social relationship to the colonial nation-state.

As attested to in the recent national inquiry into the removal of Aboriginal children from their families, however, child removal has had a profoundly traumatic impact upon Aboriginal individuals and groups and communities across generations. 31 This legacy continues to confront non-Aboriginal Australians with their tenuous identity as settler-colonials. For his part, Prime Minister John Howard admonishes historians to focus upon working and middle class Australia’s past of ‘settlers’ and migrants as the makers of real national history. Dwelling upon the ‘regrettable’ past of racialist policies amounts to ‘obsessive and consuming national guilt and shame’; it is a ‘”black armband” view of our past’ which seeks to obscure the ‘balance sheet of our history’, ‘heroic achievement’ of its immigrant men and their helpmeets, immigrant women. 32

Where then does this leave Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal contestations of Aboriginal policy such as child removal. How might it be possible to retrieve a sense of contestation over Aboriginal policy and administration without conversely being accused of writing recuperative, non-racist history? The campaigning of Aboriginal organisations and humanitarian groups was considerable during the 1920s increasing into the 1930s. As Howard’s repudiation indicates, concern has largely focussed on the motivation of men (and to a lesser extent women) officials, missionaries and others who formulated policy and/or participated in its administration. Were they cruel racists or merely misled by the racial theory of their day? I argue that the inter-war contestations of policies of assimilation and authorities’ counter-defence disturbs any easy either/or reading of these non-Aboriginal men and women. Writing their history does not seek to assimilate their actions into a homogenous nationalist account of the past; rather I would argue that it offers an opportunity to recognise the complex and often contradictory political history of non-Aboriginal Australian women’s and men’s responses to indigenous rights in Australia.

Fiona Paisley lectures at the Centre for Women’s Studies at the ANU. She has published a number of articles on women’s pro-indigenous activism during the inter-war years and is currently writing a book on the subject.

Notes and References

1. Mary Montgomery Bennett, The Australian Aboriginal as a Human Being, Alston Rivers, London, 1930, for example, p. 122.
2. British Commonwealth League Conference Report, 1933, pp.44-45, Fawcett Library; The Mail (London), 17 June 1933, p.2; Sydney Morning Herald, 18 June 1933,p.1.
3. Sydney Morning Herald, 20 July 1933, quoted in Governing Savages by Andrew Markus, Allen and Unwin, Sydney, pp.141-142.
4. Kate Darian-Smith and Paula Hamilton, Memory and History in Twentieth Century Australia, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1994, pp. 2-3.
5. Jackie Huggins and Thom Blake, ‘Protection or Persecution? Gender Relations in the Era of Racial Segregation’, in Gender Relations in Australia: Domination or Negotiation, eds Kay Saunders and Raymond Evans, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1992, pp.42-58.
6. Ann Curthoys, ‘Identity Crisis: Colonialism, Nation, and Gender in Australian History’, Gender and History, vol. 5, no. 2 (Summer 1993, p.172; work which begins this project includes that by Marilyn Lake, Catriona Elder and myself. See for example, Lake, ‘Between Old World “Barbarism” and Stone Age “Primitivism”: The Double Difference of the White Australian Feminist’, in Australian Women: Contemporary Feminist Thought, eds Norma Grieve and Ailsa Burns, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1994, pp.80-91; Fiona Paisley, ‘No Back Streets in the Bush: 1920s and 1930s Pro-Aboriginal White Women’s Activism and the Trans-Australia Railway’, Australian Feminist Studies, vol. 12, no. 25 (April 1997), pp. 119-138; Catriona Elder, “It was hard for us to marry Aboriginal”: Some Meanings of Singleness for Aboriginal Women in Australia in the 1930s’, Lilith, no. 8 (Summer 1993), pp.151-173.
7. Here I am drawing on Eric Hobsbawm’s notion of ‘invented traditions’ through which collective memory is authorised. See Hobsbawm, ‘Introduction: Invented Traditions’ in The Invention of Tradition, eds Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1983, pp.1-14.
8. See Paisley, Ideas Have Wings: White Women Challenge Aboriginal Policy, 1920-1937, PhD, La Trobe University, 1995.
9. Western Australian Aborigines Act Amendment Act, 1911, no. 42, Statutes of Western Australia, Government Printer, Perth; Western Australian Act to Amend the Aborigines’ Act, 1936, Statutes of Western Australia, Government Printer, Perth, no. 43, section 7.
10. Patricia Jacobs, ‘Science and Veiled Assumptions: Miscegenation in W.A. 1930-1937’, Australian Aboriginal Studies, no. 2 (1986), pp.15-23.
11. Anna Haebich, For Their Own Good: Aborigines and Government in the Southwest of Western Australia, 1900-1914, University of Western Australia, Perth, 1988.
12. Western Australian Votes and Proceedings, vol. 1, 1935, pp.1-24. As I show in my thesis, government officials had collected a large file of such press clippings. Mary Bennett required her own file. Paisley, ‘Ideas Have Wings: White Women Challenge Aboriginal Policy, 1920-1937’, PhD, La Trobe, 1995, pp. 274-280.
13. ‘Report of the Royal Commission Appointed to Investigate, Report, and Advise on Matters in Relation to the Condition and Treatment of Aborigines, 1934, Transcripts of Evidence, State Archives of Western Australia, AN 537, Acc. 2922 [hereafter MRTE], p. 341.
14. ibid, p.229.
15. ibid.
16. ibid, p.223.
17. ibid, p.269.
18. ibid, p.223.
19. The Dawn, (Journal of the Women’s Service Guilds of Western Australia) 20 January 1932, p.1.
20. Bennett to anthropologist Olive Pink, Olive Pink Papers, Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies, 2368/A3, 223, A3b; B1F(a) (2), 4.
21. MRTE, p.301.
22. See their evidence, MRTE, pp.464-466, and Neville’s accusations of Bennett’s undue influence upon them, pp.644-645.
23. MRTE, p.557.
24. MRTE, pp.539-540.
25. Antoinette has described the mobilisation of ‘the Indian woman’ in presuffrage British feminism. See Burton, Burdens of History: British Feminists, Indian Women, and Imperial Culture, 1865-1915 University of California Press, London, 1994.
26. The Dawn, 19 July 1927, p.14. They also promoted themselves as ‘world women’. See Paisley, ‘Citizens of Their World: Australian Feminism and Indigenous Rights in the International Context, 1920s and 1930s’, Feminist Review, forthcoming 1997.
27. MRTE, p. 222.
28. ibid, p.223.
29. Daily News (Sydney), 13 December 1933, clipping, ‘Allegations by Mrs. M. M. Bennett’, State Archives of Western Australia, DNW AN 1/7, Acc. 993, 166/1932.
Whatever the basis of such relationships, policies of child removal continued throughout these years; Aboriginal women and men who gave evidence to the 1934 Royal Commission were intent upon ending the incarceration of their relations at Moore River. Other Aboriginal women who submitted written evidence to the inquiry demanded their total exemption from Aboriginal legislation which they argued would reduce abuses of power by white men protectors. A group describing itself as the ‘Half-caste women of Broome’ sent a closely typed, three page petition to Moseley outlining their own set of reform aims for Aboriginal policy comparable to those advanced by white women activists. They demanded work and family independence, autonomy in the choice of marriage partner, education for their children, funding for welfare in their community and security for their families from the threat of removal. Although acknowledging the value of white women advisors these petitioners ultimately called for the end to state power over their lives. See document 2.9, ‘Make us happy subjects of this our country’, Freedom Bound II: Documents on Women in Modern Australia, editors Katie Holmes and Marilyn Lake, Allen and Unwin, Sydney, 1995, pp.59-62.
30. Chris Healy, In the Ruins of Colonialism: History as Social Memory, Cambridge University Press, Melbourne, 1997, pp.44-45.
31. Bringing Them Home: Report of the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from their Families, Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, Sterling Press, 1997.
32. The Australian, 19 November 1996, p.14.

Bringing them back home: a report on stolen Aboriginal children by the Australian Legal Institute online

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