Frontier Wars: Fact or Fiction? Massacre stories and the policy of separatism

Massacre stories and the policy of separatism

Henry Reynolds’ book, This Whispering in our Hearts (1998), is a history of those humanitarians and missionaries in Australia who over the past two centuries have taken the Aboriginal side and who have tried to change the behaviour of their fellow Europeans towards the indigenous people of this continent. Reynolds notes that many of his subjects have been regarded by other colonists as “self-righteous, disturbing, dangerous, obsessive or mad”. Disarmingly, he says there is some truth in this.

The Aboriginal cause often did attract outsiders, eccentrics, obsessive personalities. In some circumstances the cause itself overwhelmed its adherents as they steeled themselves in the face of disbelief, suspicion and hostility … Those zealots in the crusade came to view with horror the progress that others glorified. They came to hate their own society for its unfeeling brutality.

The bulk of his book is composed of short biographies of eight people who fell into this category: George Augustus Robinson, Lancelot Threlkeld, Louis Giustiniani and Robert Lyon in the 1830s and 40s; John Gribble and David Carley in the 1880s; and Ernest Gribble and Mary Bennett in the period from 1926 to 1934. All of them took a special interest in attempting to curb what Reynolds calls “the indiscriminate and disproportionate violence” the Aborigines have suffered. He observes that, in their time, most were seen to gratuitously assume an air of moral superiority and to consider themselves more virtuous than others. Beneath these foibles, however, lay characters that Reynolds portrays as genuinely heroic. In some cases their heroism was of the tragic kind, as their personalities were crushed and their careers ruined by the hostility of their social compatriots.

Despite the stature he gives them, Reynolds portrays his subjects in only one dimension. There is one big omission from his discussion of their role in Australian history. Most of his characters had far more ambitious motives than he gives them. Rather than simple humanitarians shocked by the violence they came across, most were players in a bigger game to define and implement colonial policy on Aborigines. They used stories about white brutality towards Aborigines because of the opportunity they provided to influence policy, in particular the policy of separatism.

The third part of this essay argues that the principal reason massacre stories have been invented and exaggerated over the past two hundred years was to justify the policy of separating Aboriginal people from the European population. There have been a range of religious, theoretical and political reasons why the individuals concerned have wanted this, but the desire for separatism is common to them all. Moreover, while some of these characters might have been personal failures, their ideas have been remarkably successful in the long run, at least in their terms. The principles they espoused in the nineteenth century came to define Aboriginal policy for most of the twentieth. Whether this has been to the benefit of Aboriginal people, however, is another thing entirely.

I will illustrate all this by discussing four of the characters from This Whispering in our Hearts: Lancelot Threlkeld, John Gribble, David Carley and Ernest Gribble.

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Lancelot Threlkeld and the idea of a protectorate

Lancelot Threlkeld appeared in Part I of this essay in connection with his inflation of the number of dead at Waterloo Creek. He was born in London and was a Methodist preacher before training with the London Missionary Society in 1814-15. He arrived in Sydney in 1824 after serving seven years in the Society Islands, now Tahiti. In 1825 he put a proposal to Governor Brisbane to establish a mission to the Aborigines. Brisbane agreed and reserved in trust ten thousand acres on Lake Macquarie. The establishment was funded by the London Missionary Society and Threlkeld moved there in 1826. However, by 1828, after ongoing financial mismanagement, the directors in London decided to abandon the mission and to dismiss Threlkeld. By 1831, he had secured a new grant of land and a salary from Governor Darling for another mission in the same district, near present-day Toronto. For the next ten years, Threlkeld administered this organization, though to a progressively declining number of Aborigines. In this period, he continued his ethnographic studies of Aboriginal culture and eventually published three books on Aboriginal language. The mission was finally closed in December 1841.

Reynolds’ discussion of Threlkeld’s career focuses almost entirely on his reports of various atrocities by whites against Aborigines. They began to appear in Threlkeld’s semi-annual reports to the London Missionary Society from the very start of his mission at Lake Macquarie. There are plenty of them, ranging from individual assaults against Aborigines in the street, to the sexual abuse of Aboriginal women, to outright warfare. For instance, in 1826, Reynolds records, Threlkeld was writing to London: “We are in a state of warfare up the country here. The blood of the blacks begins to flow.” These reports continue through to his accusations of “two or three hundred” killed at Waterloo Creek (examined in Part I) and on to a total of five hundred he says were slain in the year 1838 alone. Reynolds quotes from the annual report of that year when Threlkeld wrote:

If Government were to institute an enquiry into the conduct of some Europeans in the interior towards the blacks, A War of extirpation would be found to have long existed, in which the ripping open of bellies of the Blacks alive; — the roasting them in that state in triangularly made log fires, made for the very purpose; — the dashing of infants upon the stones; the confining of a party in a hut and letting them out singly through the door-way, to be butchered as they endeavoured to escape, together with many other atrocious acts of cruelty, which are but the sports of monsters boasting of superior intellect to that possessed by the wretched blacks!

It does not require much scepticism to detect this passage does not ring true. Bellies ripped open, blacks roasted alive, babies dashed upon stones, all speak of a story teller who deserves to be taken with a large dose of salt. However, Reynolds presents this passage, as well as the figure of the five hundred slain, at face value, as if both were reliable evidence about the state of the relations between Europeans and Aborigines in rural New South Wales at the time. What Reynolds neglects to tell his readers is that not all of Threlkeld’s contemporaries treated his reports with such credulity.

In the collection of papers, edited by Niel Gunson, where the above passage is published, there is also a letter by Threlkeld responding to Justice William Burton of the NSW Supreme Court, who had queried him about the origins of these stories. Threlkeld admitted that the atrocities he had reported in the interior, “the ripping up the bellies &c &c”, had but one source. While his son had been visiting the Gwydir River district recently, he was given this information by “Davey the black”. Unfortunately, Davey had himself since disappeared, probably with his throat cut, and was not available to verify the tale. Burton had also queried Threlkeld’s 1838 report about a purported massacre of eighty blacks by Sergeant Temple of the NSW Mounted Police and two white stockmen, who had shot them for killing cattle. Unfortunately, Threlkeld could not verify this story either, since Sergeant Temple had since died and the two stockmen “are now shy of speaking on the subject”.

Justice Burton’s questioning of Threlkeld’s claims did not arise because he was a friend of those who did violence to Aborigines. Burton was the judge who had presided over the second trial of those charged over the murders at Myall Creek, one of the few genuine massacres of the period, and had sentenced to death seven of those convicted. At the time, Threlkeld took what information he could glean about this incident and, in his reports, presented it as merely the tip of an extensive but covert colonial campaign to exterminate the Aborigines. He even used the name of the arresting officer of the Myall Creek murderers, Edward Day, as someone who confirmed his suspicions. But again, there is no document or other corroboration that Day ever did this.

Burton’s concerns about the sources and evidence of Threlkeld’s claims about frontier killings were well warranted. It is clear that, during his time as a missionary, Threlkeld not only invented the notion of a “state of war” and “a war of extirpation” but many other tales for which he either could not provide any credible support or in which he was actually caught lying. For instance:

  • In writing about the years 1825-26, Threlkeld said there was an export trade in Aboriginal skulls in the colony. He said a magistrate had told him he had seen forty-five skulls at Bathurst that had been collected, boiled down and packed for shipment to England. However, when prompted by an inquiry in the Christian Herald in 1854 seeking more definite data, rather than admitting he had no source, Threlkeld replied: “It is only necessary to state that investigations did take place both in the Colonial Government and the Imperial Parliament at the proper time, and that now such atrocities can only be referred to as matters of history”. No historian, however, has ever found these institutions making any such investigations.
  • In 1840, Threlkeld said a number of blacks had been murdered on a pastoral station at Beardy Plains, near Armidale, after drinking rum poisoned with prussic acid. They had “died about the place like rats”. He said the station concerned was owned by Stuart Donaldson (later the first Premier of New South Wales). Donaldson replied accusing Threlkeld of inventing “imaginary outrages”. No blacks had been found dead at Beardy Plains, Donaldson did not even own a station in the district, the man named as his overseer had never been in his employ, and Threlkeld’s purported informant was a convicted felon now in prison at Norfolk Island for life. “There is not one point either in Circumstance or fact which is otherwise than untrue connected with the report.” The letter containing this reply is published in the same collection of Threlkeld’s papers that Reynolds uses for other evidence, but he does not mention it. Nor does he mention Threlkeld’s own dissembling 1840 annual report, which conceded the prussic acid story was false. “Upon investigation, it was not substantiated.” The only “investigation” he made, of course, was to read Donaldson’s letter.

Anyone who goes through Threlkeld’s papers with an unjaundiced eye will soon realise he has a different agenda to that given him by Reynolds. For he not only tells many stories of white violence against blacks but just as many about blacks attacking other blacks. Some of the violence he reports between blacks occurs in the urban area around Newcastle; others are inter-tribal disputes over women and food in the countryside. For instance, in one month alone, May 1838, he reported that four Aboriginal youths had abducted and murdered a black girl at Lake Macquarie, and that three black women from Newcastle who had gone to the Liverpool Plains had been murdered by the Aborigines there. However, in July, when queried once more by Justice Burton, Threlkeld admitted that two of the three women in the latter case had now been found alive but one was still unaccounted for.

Threlkeld’s descriptions are so dramatic and his language so graphic that you can find his claims about settlers and Aborigines now peppered throughout many of the works on the early history of Australia, even in books written by historians who do not share the aim to blacken the subject as much as possible. For instance, in his 1977 biography of Samuel Marsden, Sandy Yarwood describes a public meeting in Sydney in 1824 where George Cox, whose stockmen had just been involved in a violent clash with Aborigines at Mudgee, told the audience “the best measure towards the Blacks would be to Shoot them all and manure the ground with them!!!” It is not until you look up the footnote at the back of the book that you find the source is not from Cox’s papers or a direct report from the gathering itself but a letter to the London Missionary Society written four months after the alleged meeting by Lancelot Threlkeld. The works of his imagination, in other words, have coloured the whole record of Aboriginal-European relations in our early colonial history.

It is clear that Threlkeld had an obsessive desire to create the impression that the colony was suffering from a general condition of lawless violence, of which Aborigines were the principal victims. Throughout his career in New South Wales, he took any rumour, no matter how unreliable its source or how vague the details, and treated it seriously. The reason why his reports are so full of these stories is also evident. He was trying to create a climate of opinion that would regard his own missionary activities as necessary not only for the spiritual wellbeing, but also for the physical security of his Aborigines. Without him, he was arguing, the blacks on his mission would be left unprotected in a cruel and brutal world.

In the early years of his mission, Threlkeld often wrote to London complaining that he needed more money to do his job properly, to keep his Aborigines safe and isolated on the property, and to prevent them succumbing to the temptations of town life. In the 1830s, when his mission became dependent on the New South Wales government, he developed a more ambitious objective. This was to emulate the man he envied most, George Augustus Robinson. Both had been born in London, in 1788 and 1791 respectively, and arrived in the Australian colonies the same year, 1824. Robinson settled in Hobart and in 1829 was appointed superintendent of a proposed government settlement for Aborigines on nearby Bruny Island. Robinson took several years to round up the natives for his settlement, by which time it had been transferred first to Gun Carriage Island then to Flinders Island in Bass Strait. The advantage of establishing a home for Aborigines on an island setting, as both Robinson and, later, Threlkeld saw it, was that it shielded them from outside influences. The Aborigines would be spared what both disdained as the low life of the urban centres, with their alcohol, sexual licence and violence. In an isolated environment, the missionaries could, at their own pace, civilise the Aborigines, make them literate and convert them to Christianity. On Flinders Island, Robinson reported that he had established a school, agriculture and markets for his flock. On Lake Macquarie, Threlkeld tried to do the same, but found it impossible.

Between 1825 and 1840, Threlkeld’s reports and letters were regularly punctuated with complaints about how readily his Aborigines were lured into white society and seduced by its lifestyle. None of this is recorded by Henry Reynolds. When he first started the mission, Threlkeld employed up to sixty blacks in clearing the land. But, without sufficient money to keep them working, even the keenest of them drifted off into town. “It is mortifying”, he protested, “to lose hopeful youths the moment they appear to become a little conversant with our manners and customs.” He reported that the Lake Macquarie tribesmen, who he had hoped would form the bulk of his charges, had all left to take up abode in nearby Newcastle and he was now only visited by the remnants. In 1827, he wrote that his plans to create an agricultural economy for them had been frustrated. “About ten acres of land is now lying felled in order to plant Corn next season on their own farm, but only two of the tribe to work at it, and at present this is also forsaken, until their drunken appetite is satisfied at Newcastle.” It was impossible, he said, for a missionary to compete with the attractions of town life.

The Aborigines have so far advanced in the scale of civilisation, as to choose employments most congenial to their own habits and tastes, in order to supply their scanty wants. In town they readily engage in fishing, shooting, boating, carrying wood and water, acting as messengers or guides, in which their services, their numbers being so few, they find full and constant employ; so much so, that now the difficulty is to find a Black when required.

He wrote this last passage in 1838. By this time, however, he had found what he thought would be the solution to the “problem” of his blacks gaining employment and assimilating into white society. In London, a Select Committee of the House of Commons on Aborigines had recommended to the Secretary of State for the Colonies, Lord Glenelg, that to prevent the cruelty, oppression and injustice it had been assured was so prevalent in Australia, he should establish in each colony a position of Protector of the Aborigines. Glenelg told his Governors that the Protector should establish Aboriginal reserves, which it would be illegal to enter or leave without permission. The reserves would protect their Aborigines from the depravities of white society and the predation of other tribes. The mainland would thus be able to create legal “islands” similar in practice to the one Robinson had set up in Bass Strait. In other words, although Threlkeld’s own missionary efforts had been a failure, the long campaign he and others like him had waged to persuade the home country that the Australian colonists were acting like murderous barbarians, had finally borne fruit.

In September 1838, Threlkeld gave evidence to the NSW Legislative Assembly’s Committee on the Aborigines Question, which was inquiring into the prospect of implementing Glenelg’s recommendation. Threlkeld said that, provided he was fully resourced by the government, a Protector could successfully create such a refuge for the Aborigines. He said the example of George Robinson in Tasmania “proves the practicability of the plan proposed by Lord Glenelg”. In his evidence, Threlkeld made a thinly veiled application for the position himself by arguing the Protector needed the very qualifications he happened to hold.

The job, though, had already been earmarked for George Robinson on the basis of the successes he claimed on Flinders Island. However, as his biographer, Vivienne Rae-Ellis, demonstrated in Black Robinson (1988), the reality of this depressed and dying community did not match the exaggerated claims of its Commandant. Robinson subsequently left Flinders Island to take a much higher salary on the mainland. He was appointed Protector of Aborigines of the Port Phillip District, which at the time was still part of New South Wales. Robinson kept the position for the next eleven years, but his protectorate was widely regarded as a failure because of what his biographer calls his inability to manage the organization and his “callous indifference” to the fate of the Aborigines he was employed to serve. It is unlikely that Threlkeld stood much of a chance of getting the job anyway. His reputation in government circles was such that in 1841 Governor Gipps terminated support for his mission and refused to sanction Threlkeld’s employment in any other capacity. Threlkeld returned to Sydney to become minister of the South Head Congregational Church.

Threlkeld’s career is a close model for that of a number of the other “self-righteous, eccentric and obsessive” characters that populate Henry Reynolds’ book. No doubt Threlkeld sincerely believed many of his stories about violence towards Aborigines at the time he told them, although there is also little doubt that his conscience must have been troubled at times by some of the gruesome details and inflated numbers he could not help himself adding to his tales.

This brief biography also suggests why he wanted to believe them so badly. Firstly, he felt the very understandable desire to generate a demand for his own services. He wanted both colonial society and his London backers to see the need for his own institution, not only in spiritual but also in social terms, and thus to keep it well funded and highly regarded. The greater the brutality he discovered in the outside world, the greater the need he thought he would generate for the protective role of his mission. Secondly, a violent and intimidating environment would justify the strategy that he and other missionaries most desired: to collect the natives together under one roof, or on one island, where they could be prevented from being absorbed into white society. If they became assimilated, they would no longer need the missionary for support and guidance. All his plans for them, as well as his own social function, would thus become irrelevant. But if he could portray the mission as a haven in a heartless world, he could justify its preservation as a closed community. Overall, the strategy of portraying colonial society as a cruel and hostile place that sought to destroy the Aborigines meant the missionary could create a heady vision of himself as their physical protector, their secular saviour and their spiritual redeemer.

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John Gribble and the “Moravian principle”

In 1971, a scandal erupted in the national news media over Palm Island. It was a reserve for Aborigines on the Great Barrier Reef in far north Queensland, a region then being advertised to white tourists as a holiday paradise. Yet Palm Island was reported to be a tropical nightmare, run like a concentration camp. Most of its Aboriginal inmates were not convicted criminals yet they were treated like prisoners. They were forbidden to leave the island unless under supervision. Anyone who absconded was captured by the police and brought back. Relatives and friends needed permission to visit. The authorities controlled much of the personal lives of the Aborigines there. Young people could only marry with the consent of the superintendent. Palm Island seemed to breach every known principle of human rights and freedom. It was far worse than anything the American Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s had exposed about the treatment of blacks in the USA. The Sydney Morning Herald called it “An island named ‘Despair’ “. The Federal Labor Party’s Aboriginal Affairs Committee called it “an Alcatraz”. At the time, if you wanted to point to the worst example of legalised white racism in Australia, this was it.

The Aboriginal activists who raised the issue and the journalists who supported their campaign blamed the Queensland government. The state was then run by a gerrymandered Country-Liberal Party administration headed by the Premier, Jo Bjelke-Petersen, who for the next 20 years would be the public face of right-wing reaction in Australia. However, Palm Island had been run along exactly the same lines by the Labor Party that governed Queensland continuously from World War I until the mid-1950s. Both sides of Parliament had long supported the laws that enforced this authoritarian regime. In fact, the legislation concerned, the Aboriginal and Half-Caste Protection Act, was originally passed in 1897 and remained largely in force until 1973 when the much-demonised Bjelke-Petersen became the first to substantially amend it and set the island’s inmates free.

The legislation that created Palm Island was not confined to Queensland. In The Destruction of Aboriginal Society, Charles Rowley shows how the 1897 Act became the model for the basic legislation of Western Australia in 1905, South Australia in 1910-11, and Commonwealth administration of the Northern Territory in 1911. It dominated Aboriginal policy in this country for most of the twentieth century.

The Queensland Act prescribed that Aborigines were to be confined to reserves and excluded from towns and places where alcohol was available. As compensation for their loss of freedom, they were to be given housing, rations, clothing and medical aid and were to be employed on the reserves raising tropical and sub-tropical crops and stock. Rowley describes the regime as follows.

Queensland now set a new example, by defining in rigid racial terms those who were to be the main concern of the Act — to be directed where to live, to be ‘drafted’ there where necessary; to be limited to the life of the institution at the will of the official … There were to be superintendents in charge of reserves, and Protectors of Aborigines off them. Reserves were to be controlled under regulations. Aborigines, by administrative direction and without appeal, could be ‘removed to’ and kept ‘within’ the reserve boundaries unless they were lawfully employed or married to white men.

Palm Island was actually one of the last reserves established in Queensland under this Act. It was set-up in 1918 because the administrators eventually decided they needed a place of secondary incarceration. Aborigines who proved recalcitrant and who refused to be confined to their own reserves were shipped to the island where they joined a similarly estranged community. Others sent there were the unmarried mothers of half-caste children and criminals recently released from prison. Because it was an island, 65 kilometres from Townsville, escape was very difficult.

Rowley points out that, in terms of Aboriginal policy, Palm Island was in “a direct line of tradition” from Gun Carriage Island in Tasmania, the settlement briefly established by George Robinson before he herded the last of the full-blooded Tasmanian Aborigines to their reserve on Flinders Island in the 1830s. The principal difference was that, by the end of the century, the area covered by Aboriginal reserves and the numbers confined to them were both much vaster. The idea of a state-funded Aboriginal Protectorate of the kind that Lancelot Threlkeld had so coveted had become a reality. The Australia-wide system of reserves that lasted until the 1970s was Flinders Island writ large.

But Threlkeld and Robinson are two of the heroes of Henry Reynolds’ This Whispering in our Hearts. How could two men that Reynolds so admires be linked to such a repressive, racist regime as Palm Island? The truth is that both Palm Island and all the other reserves that followed the 1897 Queensland legislation were the logical consequence of the ideas Threlkeld and Robinson shared. Moreover, two more of the subjects of Reynolds’ book, Rev. John and Rev. Ernest Gribble, both figured in the immediate developments that produced the 1897 Act, while the latter had an important role in the actual operation of the Palm Island reserve from 1931 to 1957. Reynolds, however, does not mention any of this. He treats the Gribbles simply as whistle blowers about violence towards Aborigines and fails to discuss their role in the history of Aboriginal policy. To explain what was really going on, I will trace the connections between the religious ideas of Christian missions, the development of the policy of Aboriginal separatism and the invention of massacre stories.

In 1838, when Lancelot Threlkeld gave his evidence to the NSW Legislative Council’s Committee on the Aborigines Question, he said of the proposed Protectorate: “I am of opinion, that it would be much more beneficial, if an establishment could be formed on the Moravian principle.” He was referring to the fact that the missionaries of the Moravian Church had developed what many clergy of the day regarded as the best model of how to conduct a mission to the native peoples of Australia and the islands of the Pacific Ocean. The Moravians were a sect formed in Bohemia in the early eighteenth century as part of the movement for the revival of German Protestantism called Pietism. They soon became missionaries to the slaves and the Indians of North America and by mid-century a Moravian Church had been firmly established in the New World. In the early nineteenth century, Moravian missionaries from both America and Germany established themselves in the Pacific islands. They also strongly influenced the members of the Evangelical movement who dominated the Anglican, Presbyterian and Methodist Churches in the new British colony of New South Wales This was largely because of their reputation for being so successful throughout the Polynesian, Micronesian and Melanesian islands, where they had quickly converted chiefs and whole populations to Christianity.

German Pietism was one of the less dogmatic forms of Protestantism, so it was suited to meeting the heathen on his own cultural ground. It was based less on a catechism of fixed belief and more on mystical, personal submersion in feelings. Pietists also disdained the temptations and pleasures of the material world, especially amusements such as the theatre, dancing and games. The everyday, material world was full of evil and corruption from which one could only be led by the Grace of God. This was best achieved in the environment of a small, self-sufficient community in which civic and church life were integrated in a theocratic society. In New South Wales, these views coincided with those of British Evangelical Protestantism, which shared part of the outlook of Pietism. As a result, the Australian churches helped the Moravians establish themselves in the colony. The influential Presbyterian clergyman and politician, John Dunmore Lang, sponsored the Germans to set up their first mission at Moreton Bay. In 1858, two more Moravian missions were established in the Western District of Victoria.

Pietism predicted a wicked world, so it was to be expected that, when its adherents first looked at the Australian colonies, this was what they found. They were especially concerned to preserve Aborigines from the corruption of white society and to enclose them within a community protected from its influence. The Wesleyan Methodists were the most Pietistic of Australia’s Evangelicals and, when they were setting up their first mission to the Aborigines at Bateman’s Bay in 1827, one preacher urged: “Let the Mission be established at a place where the Blacks are not in communication with the Whites, and my soul for any man’s but his Mission will prosper.” In his history, Evangelical Christianity in Australia (1996), Stuart Piggin writes:

Missionaries had come to see by bitter experience that the greatest handicap to the success of their endeavours was the pernicious influence of the degrading habits of their unconverted fellow whites. The inculcation of proper moral values and manners appropriate to civilisation necessitated that Aboriginal people come into contact only with the best models of Christian civilisation.

So the missionary ideal for the Aborigines became a closed religious community, which grew its own food and was largely self-sufficient and, above all, was free of contamination from white society. Assimilation was the road to damnation. Missionaries interpreted any contact between blacks and whites through the lens of this theological prism. As I noted above, this model had proved very successful in the self-contained native communities of the Pacific islands. On the Australian continent, however, where there were few natural geographic barriers between indigenes and colonists, it faced much more difficult prospects.

In 1885, the Moravian missionary, F. A. Hagenauer, visited north Queensland and urged the need for missions to the Aborigines there. By the early 1890s, four missions had been established: two by the Lutheran Church to the north and south of Cooktown; one by the Moravians on behalf of the Presbyterian Church at Mapoon on the west coast of Cape York; and one by the Church of England, also with Moravian help, on Cape Grafton. The last was a mission to the Aborigines of the district around Cairns and the Murray Prior Ranges, in the hinterland of Cape Grafton. It was named the Yarrabah Mission. Its founder was the Reverend John Gribble, who is one of the subjects of This Whispering in Our Hearts.

Gribble grew up in Geelong. He became a Methodist minister in 1876 and then joined the Congregational Union of Victoria. As a young man he preached at several missions along the Murray and Murrumbidgee Rivers and in 1879-80 he and his wife built and established their own institution, the Warangesdah Aboriginal Mission at Darlington Point. In 1883, the Bishop of Goulburn made him an Anglican priest. Although his financial mismanagement of Warangesdah led to a government inquiry, the Bishop of Perth in 1884 invited him to work in Western Australia. In 1885 he opened an Anglican mission at Carnarvon on the Gascoyne River in the colony’s north west.

His Western Australian venture, however, was a disaster. Within a matter of months, Gribble had made implacable enemies of the entire settlement on the Gascoyne, the Perth Committee of the Board of Missions, the editors of the West Australian, the Anglican Archdeacon, the Bishop of Perth, as well as the Governor of the colony and his wife. By mid-1886, he was back in New South Wales publicly denouncing all of the above. That year he published a pamphlet, Dark Deeds in a Sunny Land, which outlined his grievances. Henry Reynolds bases most of his story about Gribble on the information in this pamphlet, which Reynolds sees as a courageous exposure of violence, exploitation, murder and sexual abuse of Aborigines in Western Australia. By speaking out bravely, Reynolds argues, Gribble earned the enmity of the entire colony, at great cost to his reputation and his health.

However, a perusal of Dark Deeds shows the majority of the deeds Gribble records were done not to the Aborigines but to himself. He lists the following abuses he suffered.

  • Within three months of his arrival at Carnarvon, the townspeople had sent two petitions to the Bishop of Perth requesting his removal.
  • Two public meetings were held in the township “at which my person and work were thoroughly denounced” and a large placard was posted in the main street saying “Down with Gribble and all his supporters”.
  • The town imposed a boycott on him, refusing to provide either his family with food or his mission with building supplies.
  • On the ship taking him from Carnarvon to Perth, other passengers tried to assault him and then “laid siege” to him in his cabin for the rest of the journey.
  • After Gribble published two articles in the Perth newspapers The Daily News and The Inquirer about abuses to Aborigines, the Board of Missions in Perth passed a resolution expressing its “deep regret” and “the unqualified condemnation of this committee”.
  • At a vice-regal lunch on Rottnest Island, he insulted the wife of the Governor, Sir Napier Broome, by belittling her pet project, the construction of Perth’s Anglican Cathedral.
  • He later complained to the Governor about the slow pace of the prosecution of those responsible for his shipboard assault. He warned that if the Governor did not act on the matter, he would report him to his superiors in England. When the Governor complained about him to the church, Gribble carried out his threat and sent a formal protest to the Secretary of State for the Colonies about the Governor’s failure to deliver him justice.
  • In a debate on “Libellous Statements Published by the Rev. J. B. Gribble” in the Western Australian Legislative Council, he was denounced as a man who “never lost an occasion to malign them, and to tell the most atrocious lies about them — lies, which, if there was any foundation for them, would hold up the people of Western Australia, and deservedly, to the execration of the civilised world”.
  • The editors of the West Australian, accused the missionary of being a “lying, canting humbug”. When he sued the newspaper for defamation, the judge found Gribble had showed a “wilful disregard for the truth”. He lost the case and was ordered to pay costs.
  • Gribble promptly left Western Australia. He was smuggled aboard a steamer in Fremantle and hid in his cabin for five nights until clear of the jurisdiction of the colony. He escaped without paying the costs of his 20-day suit for defamation.

What were the reasons for such pervasive persecution of a lone missionary? Reynolds records but does not fully explain the animosity, putting it down to the way Gribble’s press criticisms threatened the moral standing and economic interests of the frontier settlers. But if you read Dark Deeds, which reproduces his two newspaper articles, it is not difficult to understand. The principal charges he made were about the functioning of what he called “the native labour system”. He concluded that the Western Australians had introduced a system of de facto slavery. Dark Deeds took up the theme with gusto. It compared the African and American slave trade to the conditions of Aborigines in the north west of the colony.

Capture, chains, long marches, whipping, exhaustion, death on the roadside, or if surviving all these, a far more terrible fate in the shape of a living death! Packed like herrings in the slave-dhow; sold like brutes of the field to the highest bidder, on some foreign shore, and then dark, dark, finale, a life, longer or shorter, according to the powers of endurance ? of what? Heaven only knows! Deeds of darkness have been committed not only in Africa and America in connection with the slave trade … But that Australia itself, professedly the new home of liberty and light, should also have become the theatre of the dark deeds of oppression and cruelty … in itself constitutes the foulest blot that could possibly rest upon the escutcheon of Australia’s fame.

Gribble listed all the famous abolitionists of history — Wilberforce, Brougham, Foxwell Buxton, Woolman, Lincoln, Harriet Beecher Stowe — and clearly imagined himself standing in their shoes. Melodramatic and megalomaniacal as this obviously was, it was a particularly offensive charge to make in Western Australia at the time. The transportation of convicts from Britain had been ended by colonial protests only 17 years earlier in 1868, and there were many people who still remembered the great debate over slavery in the American Civil War twenty years before. As a colony that was both relatively new and geographically isolated, its inhabitants were especially sensitive to outside opinion. What made this worse was that the evidence behind Gribble’s charges was so insubstantial.

On the pastoral stations of the Gascoyne River, he had observed, the Aborigines were employed as shepherds, shearers and drovers. Despite the fact that the Masters and Servants Act said that a certificate of discharge must be given at the close of their term of engagement, the station owners ignored this, he claimed. The police had the power to return to his employer any native who absconded before his time had expired. However, the wife of “a certain settler” had told him that the Aborigines could not read and so did not know when their period of employment had expired. So the natives were employed “as long as their owners liked”. This, Gribble concluded, was a shocking abuse: “verily that a species of slavery does exist in this part of the Queen’s dominions”.

He thought the labour laws were also being broken in the clothing provided to Aboriginal employees. Gribble admitted that the natives he saw were “sufficiently fed” but “as regards clothing, what I saw in some instances did not give me the impression that the clothing conditions of the legal agreement had been fulfilled on the part of the owners”. He was also concerned about the age and sex of some of the Aboriginal employees.

Many of these native shepherds are mere girls. Doubtless some of these females are voluntary servants; but I got to know of one case in which the poor creature was not, and because she ran away she was in the ‘black book’ of her owner.

He objected to the practice of teamsters employing women and girls as offsiders because he suspected that they were being used for “immoral purposes”. He said he had other evidence that amounted to shocking abuse. However, would not say what it was.

I have in my possession facts which are so exceedingly repulsive in their character as to be unfit for the columns of a family newspaper. I ask every right-thinking person whether such a feature of bondservice is not shocking to contemplate, especially when professed Christian men are connected therewith? Assignment of native females against their will for purposes of immorality is a sign of slavery.

In Dark Deeds, Gribble also reproduced a long statement by a man named David Carly. Most of this is a discussion of the labour conditions of the pearling industry at Nickol Bay, near Roebourne, on the north-west coast of the colony. Carly claimed that natives were recruited for the industry under a system of kidnapping and slavery. The Aborigines were kidnapped in the interior and then sold to the pearl ships, which forced them to work as divers. He said the police knew of these practices and took bribes to cover them up. Many of those kidnapped, he claimed, were children. Some colonists even branded their Aboriginal employees, he said. “I have several times seen branded natives.” Carly’s statement also contains a list of various assaults, violent murders, deaths from poisoned flour and massacres, and of Aborigines killed by “alligators and sharks while engaged in their dangerous employment”. Most of this is reported with only the vaguest of dates and places, and sometimes with no specific details at all. For example:

I have seen many natives shot in the back for no other cause than that of running away from their cruel slave masters … I have seen hundreds of children brought into Cossack who have been torn away from their mothers, and yet it is said that where the British flag flies slavery cannot exist … I have seen numbers of natives brought in from the interior, and some of them had never before seen the face of a white man, and they were compelled to put their hand to a pen and make a cross which they never could understand, and having done this they were then slaves for life.

There are later claims by Gribble that have even less credibility than those of Carly. After he had been forced out of Western Australia, Gribble told the Daily Telegraph, Sydney, that “white masters of the slaves” gave orders that any children born of sexual relations between Aboriginal women and white men were to be killed. The bodies, he claimed, were then eaten by the Aborigines. He told the Sydney Morning Herald (13 July 1886) about the terrible conditions on Rottnest Island, although he did not confide that he had only been there once, to have lunch with the Governor. Rottnest contained a prison for Aboriginal offenders, who, Gribble said, were in “a dreadful state, and dying off at the rate of from 10 to 20 in a week, pigs devouring the unburied bodies”.

Henry Reynolds does not repeat the last of these claims but he does record the one prior to it. He also reproduces most of the statement by Carly (or Carley as he spells it). Reynolds takes this entirely at face value. He reports that in 1886 Gribble and Carly wanted the Imperial government to be acquainted with events in the colony. They sent the information contained in Dark Deeds to both the Secretary of State for the Colonies and the Aborigines Protection Society in London. Reynolds does not imagine that these bodies might have thought there was anything suspect about the charges. Of Carly’s handwritten notes, Reynolds writes:

The gentlemen-reformers of the Protection Society must have immediately realised that their informant from Perth was a man of little education and humble origins. But the moral conviction shone through.

The Governor of the Western Australian colony, however, was less impressed by Carly’s morals. When questioned about his claims by the Colonial Office, the Governor replied by producing Carly’s criminal record. He was an ex-convict with a long list of convictions. When he was in the north-west the police also accused him of being a thief, a receiver of stolen goods, a cohabiter with underage Aboriginal girls, and a sly grog dealer to the natives. He was a “very disreputable person” whose claims, Governor Broome said, were “simply preposterous nonsense”.

Apart from the most fantastic of the details recorded here, such as white slavers ordering Aborigines to eat half-caste babies, and pigs devouring unburied bodies at a place where the Governor entertained luncheon guests, the nub of Gribble’s complaints were about Aboriginal employment in the pastoral and pearling industries and of Aboriginal women taking up with white men. In other words, the thing that most disturbed Gribble’s obviously troubled mind was Aboriginal assimilation into white society. Given that the sources of his information were so insubstantial, it is clear that when he arrived on the Gascoyne he was determined to unearth and elaborate any evidence he could to denounce assimilation. His obsessions were plainly derived from a preconditioned aversion to any social intercourse between the two races. As I suggested above, this can be explained by the prevailing Evangelical religious milieu in which he operated. Pietist theory predicted white society would corrupt the Aborigines and so this determined how Gribble perceived the world around him.

Despite the reputation he earned during his twelve turbulent months in Western Australia, when he returned east Gribble was somehow able to rebuild his career within the church. Over the next six years he opened another mission for Aborigines on the Darling River, was rector at Temora and then rector at Batlow. In 1892 he went to far north Queensland to open Yarrabah Mission. This is the point where Henry Reynolds ends Gribble’s story. He contracted malaria at Yarrabah and returned to Sydney where he died in 1893, aged 46, a misunderstood, tragic figure, but one who had earned the epitaph on his tombstone at Waverley Cemetery, “Blackfellows’ Friend”.

Gribble’s career, however, deserves more historical recognition than this. His last venture, the Yarrabah Mission, is an important link in the development of the policy of Aboriginal separatism that came to prevail in the twentieth century. As I noted above, Yarrabah was an Anglican mission established with the help of the Moravian Church to minister to the Aborigines of the Cape Grafton district around Cairns. It was also assisted by Archibald Meston, the advisor to Sir Horace Tozer, the minister responsible for Aboriginal affairs in the Queensland government throughout the 1890s. Meston chose the site for the Yarrabah Mission and, as his later writings attest, he derived many of his ideas from Gribble and the prevailing Moravian theories about what to do about the Aborigines.

Meston was a former Queensland journalist whose early career had been on newspapers in Ipswich and Brisbane. In 1881, he was editor of the Townsville Herald but the paper went broke and he became insolvent. He then gained employment with the Queensland government, exploring previously uncharted territory in the colony and writing reports about its flora and fauna. In 1889 he reported on the Bellenden Ker Ranges and added some brief remarks about the Aborigines who still lived in the bush there. In 1894, Tozer asked him to prepare a more substantial report on the colony’s Aborigines and to advise him on policy. Meston subsequently travelled throughout the Cape York Peninsula, talking to the four missions recently established there and making contact, he claimed, with about 2,000 Aborigines. Charles Rowley calls his report, which was delivered in 1896, epoch-making. It “proved the most decisive in the Queensland history of Aboriginal affairs; it formed the basis of the Queensland legislation from 1897 almost to the present time [1970], and was the foundation of policy”. As I noted above, it came to dominate Aboriginal policy in most of Australia for the first two-thirds of the twentieth century.

Meston had foreshadowed his attitudes in his remarks on the Bellenden Ker tribes. He reproduced the missionaries’ argument that contact between blacks and whites was a disaster. The whites were “unscrupulous and deliberate” murderers. “Wholesale murder is yearly done by civilised men solely for the sake of gain.” For every killing of a white man in the ranges, there had been fifty blacks killed. Charles Rowley reproduces this fifty-to-one ratio as if it were a reliable indicator. However, anyone who looks up Meston’s 1889 report, which was published by the Queensland Department of Agriculture, will find it impossible to work out how he could have arrived at such a figure. Meston did not know enough to hazard a guess at the total population of blacks in the ranges, let alone whether their numbers were declining. He provided no anecdotal evidence of even one Aborigine being killed by a European in the area. He provided no information of how his fifty-to-one ratio had been calculated, or by whom. He simply plucked it out of the air. It is one more example in the long tradition of the fabrication of data about these matters. Yet in his 1896 report, Meston could confidently report that violence towards Aborigines was such that the complete segregation of the two races was absolutely necessary.

To keep our aboriginals away from contact with the whites, or that section with which they unfortunately mingle, is the most beneficial act of friendship within our power to bestow. It is also the only possible method of saving at least part of the race from extinction.

There should be “total exclusion” of Aborigines of all ages from townships, the 1896 report said, except for those blacks already in “regular employment”. Since seasonal or itinerant work was not “regular”, this decree thereby excluded Aborigines from work on the sugar fields of the entire Queensland coast. Those permanently employed should be registered and their conditions regulated. There should be “absolute prohibition” of all Aboriginal labour on fishing boats seeking pearl shell, bêche-de-mer and tortoise shell. Meston claimed opium dross — the ash left from smoking — was widely used as an incentive to tie Aboriginal workers to an enterprise. Anyone found selling alcohol or opium to Aborigines should be imprisoned. Both half-caste and full-blooded Aborigines were to be legally prohibited from consuming alcohol or opium. Reserves should be created in the south, centre and north of the colony, into which Aborigines could be gathered to set up permanent homes. The reserves should be “as far as possible, if not altogether, self-supporting”. They should be kept isolated from other settlements, with a “total exclusion of whites”, just as in Canada and America.

This was a secular version of the missionaries’ agenda to a tee. The previous year, Meston had made his principal recommendations in a draft report, which was largely a history of missionary policies in Australia, from George Robinson and Lancelot Threlkeld onwards. Meston accepted the complete missionary agenda of separatism, with one exception. He said the missions should be centres for the distribution of rations, but they should be excluded from controlling the new system of reserves, which would be under state direction. The state would appoint a Chief Protector and an Assistant Protector, with the police acting as their agents outside the reserves. Meston’s view, and the consensus in Parliament, was that the missions lacked the resources and the legal power to do a proper job of Aboriginal protection. In the debates over the 1897 Act that put Meston’s reports into practice, nobody asked the Aborigines if this was a system they wanted. The government did not, however, anticipate any problems from the objects of its attention. It said it would make the reserves so attractive that the inmates would never want to leave.
In the meantime, Archibald Meston had put his financial problems far behind him. The Act received assent in December 1897 and in January 1898 Meston was himself appointed Protector of Aboriginals for Southern Queensland. His territory was later expanded to include central Queensland as well.

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The sexual torment of Ernest Gribble

When John Gribble died in 1893 he left the running of Yarrabah Mission to his eldest son, Ernest, who remained in charge of it from 1894 until 1909. Ernest Gribble then emulated his father’s travels across the continent by taking charge of the Forrest River Mission in the Kimberley, of which he was head from 1914 until 1927. As Part I of this essay recorded, Ernest Gribble suffered a complete mental breakdown in mid-1927 at the same time as the two police he had accused of the Forrest River Massacres were acquitted. However, he had also had an earlier breakdown at Yarrabah in 1909 when he was hospitalised for several weeks.

This earlier collapse is passed over without much comment in This Whispering in Our Hearts. Yet it led to Ernest Gribble’s departure from Yarrabah under dramatic circumstances. He was dismissed as head of the mission for serious sexual misconduct. He was even forbidden by the Anglican Bishop of North Queensland, George Frodsham, to return to the mission to retrieve his personal belongings. The incoming Primate of Australia, John Wright, was so outraged at Gribble’s behaviour that he banned him from ever being employed in North Queensland. None of this information, however, is relayed by Henry Reynolds to his readers, even though it was disclosed in a PhD thesis by Christine Halse, which is on his list of recommended reading. All Reynolds says about the events of 1909 is: “An affair with an Aboriginal woman at Yarrabah left him deeply troubled and at war with himself.”

In fact, it was more than an affair. Gribble fathered a child by the Aboriginal matron of the Yarrabah Boys’ Home, Janie Brown. The baby, named Noela, was born on 15 September 1908. At the time, Gribble was married, although his wife lived at the mission only intermittently. He was Janie Brown’s employer, mission superintendent and spiritual guide. In other words, the affair was a betrayal of his responsibilities to the church, to his Aboriginal charges and to all the moral principles he espoused. He would certainly have been at war with himself because, up to this time, he had preached a stern moral code that denounced not only fornication and adultery but, in particular, inter-racial sexual relations. He regarded traditional Aboriginal sexual behaviour as one of the chief reasons why they had to be segregated from the European population. The Aborigines’ licentious attitudes meant that contact with whites would soon produce half-castes who, he argued, were “racially inferior”.

Gribble’s patent hypocrisy alienated his Aboriginal congregation. He tried desperately to discipline them into silence but he lost both their respect and his authority over them. The management of the mission degenerated into chaos. Gribble finally collapsed. Bishop Frodsham then decided to visit the institution, where the disillusioned parishioners told him the secret. Frodsham, however, was not told there were two more sexual indiscretions by the Gribble family. In 1898, Gribble’s younger brother Bert had made pregnant a fifteen-year-old Aboriginal girl, Jinny Katchewan. Her family claimed she was raped. When she was four months into term, Bert Gribble found a job elsewhere and left Yarrabah. Although Ernest Gribble was superintendent of the mission he took no action. In 1906, his sister Ethel had an affair with a Fraser Island Aboriginal, Fred Wondunna, and became pregnant to him. Her brother tried to use his position to get her twelve month’s leave from the Australian Board of Missions to cover up both the affair and the pregnancy.

The scene at Yarrabah, with missionaries denouncing inter-racial sex in the daytime but succumbing to the power of Eros during the steamy tropic nights, is like something out of a novel by Somerset Maugham. It was a product of the intense social relationships fostered by the mission model itself. Under the aim of creating a well-disciplined, closed community, the missionaries imposed an all-encompassing authoritarian regime. Through various forms of compulsion and inducements, especially the offer or withdrawal of rations, parents handed over their children to the mission at ages five or six. In his book Governing Savages (1990) Andrew Markus records the regimen at Yarrabah, observing that most mission settlements at the time adopted much the same model. The children slept in separate dormitories for boys and girls and were locked in from sunset to sunrise. During the day they received religious instruction and were taught to read and write. Contact with parents was limited to Sundays, and then under missionary supervision. For the rest of the week, the older children looked after the younger. The girls remained in their dormitories until they married. When they came of age, courtship was strictly supervised with matches made by the superintendent. Tribal, clan and family marriage preferences for the children were disregarded. The mission took control of their lives.

Often enough, though, Markus says that there were mission Aborigines who sought to defy this authority. These were most often boys raised in the dormitories who, when they became young men, felt compelled to rebel. When this happened, the missionaries came under more intense psychological pressure. Ernest Gribble was known as a man of fierce temper, with no tolerance for anyone thwarting his will. He presided over his own court and personally flogged with a stockwhip those he judged as miscreants. The passion, guilt and anguish involved in trying to resolve all these contradictory impulses goes a long way to explain not only the mental breakdown suffered by Gribble in 1909 but also his behaviour thereafter.

In Massacre Myth, the book exposing the falsity of the claims about the 1926 Forrest River Massacres, Rod Moran says that after 1914, when he arrived to head the mission in the Kimberley, Gribble became sexually involved with more of his charges there as well. He made advances to one of the mission nurses, Sister Violet Claridge, and had a sexual relationship with an Aboriginal woman named Dinah. In a confidential report on the institution to the Australian Board of Missions, the anthropologist, A. P. Elkin, said that in the nearby town of Wyndham the mission was known as “Gribble’s stud farm”. In the memoirs he wrote in his old age, one of the police officers charged with the massacres, Constable James St Jack, said that when he arrived in Wyndham in 1925, he was told Gribble and his son John “ran the Mission as a harem”. Moran argues that the psychological pressures deriving from the conflict between his public role as a man of righteous authority and his private sexual torment overwhelmed Gribble.

Moreover, the legacy of his father’s experiences and forced exile from Western Australia also weighed heavily on him, distorting his perception and judgement. In 1925, Ernest Gribble’s son John wrote to the Australian Board of Missions about his father’s erratic behaviour, reporting that on several recent occasions he had threatened suicide. In June that year, the Anglican Bishop of North-West Australia, Gerard Trower, believed Gribble to be mentally unbalanced and withdrew his missionary licence, putting him on notice of his dismissal two years later. “By June 1926,” Moran argues, “Gribble’s mind seems to have disintegrated completely and his grip on reality was tenuous.”

In short, at the very time when Gribble insisted that he had found evidence of what he took to be a series of large-scale massacres on the reserve of his own mission, he was hovering between delusion and insanity. No one in authority should have taken him seriously.

The man, however, had a remarkable resilience. By 1931, he had recovered sufficiently to gain employment with the church once more and to resume his mission to the natives. He returned to North Queensland where, because of his qualifications and experience, he was appointed chaplain of the Palm Island Aboriginal Settlement. For the next 26 years, he worked with a succession of secular superintendents of Palm Island to entrench the penal regime that so offended public opinion when it was finally exposed in 1971. In other words, the longest-serving official on Palm Island, the one constant figure who did more than anyone else to make it a site of such overbearing racism, was Rev. Ernest Gribble. In his homage to Gribble’s career in This Whispering in Our Hearts, Henry Reynolds fails to even mention in passing that he spent more than a quarter of his life on Palm Island.

Gribble ministered to the inmates of Palm Island from 1931 until his death at the age of 88 in 1957. In January that year he was awarded the Order of the British Empire for his services to Aborigines.

A. P. Elkin and the anthropologists’ solution

In 1928, Australia’s best-known anthropologist of the twentieth century, Professor A. P. Elkin, did a small job for the Australian Board of Missions. He went to the Kimberley to inspect the troubled mission at Forrest River. Elkin prepared a confidential report that said the institution’s management had long been despotic and directionless. In 1946, Elkin again went to the mission to report on its condition. After nearly twenty years, he found, things had gone from bad to worse.

The young men of 1928 are still lining up daily to be allotted their tasks, having become specialists in nothing, having no sense of independence, having no money or other exchange-economy through which to express themselves in satisfying physical and mental needs. And all they can look forward to is a parasitic old age, probably out in the camp. I think especially of those fine young men who helped me in 1928, and went with me wherever I went. They were bright fellows, physically and mentally. But now, when they should be in their prime, as leaders of social groups, they are leading an aimless existence; unpaid workers on a Mission which, outwardly at least, gets nowhere … We must confess that the efforts, and not only the results, of 30-odd years of mission at Forrest River have been negative.

This passage is quoted by Andrew Markus in Governing Savages, a book that shows this outcome was typical of the many attempts by missionaries to create the kind of closed community that had been their ideal model for Aboriginal policy in this country since the early nineteenth century.

The Aboriginal reserves that subsumed and replaced the missions in the twentieth century, usually on exactly the same location, have long been secular versions of the same depressing scene. Although they are now euphemistically labelled “remote communities”, the relics of the system of missions-cum-reserves are the very places that today record the most appalling statistics of the quality of life of Aboriginal people. They are the places where this country records its shocking incidence of Aboriginal morbidity and infant mortality, which leave indigenous people with an average life span twenty years shorter than other Australians. The long policy of the separation of Aboriginal people from the European population has been an utter and abject failure.

Yet there are still many people who want to persist with the idea. Even Elkin, one of the most distinguished and civilised scholars this country has produced, could look the results of this failure directly in the face and still recommend more of the same. Just after the passage above, he wrote that the reason for this failure was its denial of Aboriginal culture. The missionaries took from the Aborigines their language, their traditional religion and their way of life. The solution was to restore this culture. This is the critique that has come to dominate Aboriginal policy today. Restore the Aboriginal way of life, put them back in their traditional country, and all will be well. This solution, of course, still presumes the separation of Aboriginal people from the rest of the population. It also presumes that the remote communities are located on traditional tribal land. As their history demonstrates, however, most missions and reserves brought together many different tribes from widely separated areas, with few of them owing any allegiance to, or having any cultural sites on, the land where these segregated outposts were located. In many of these remote community sites in Australia, the only “traditional owners” are the church and the state.

Although some modern academics claim Elkin’s critique of the protectorate system provided part of the intellectual framework for government assimilation policies of the 1960s, it is his argument for the cultural restoration of the Aboriginal lifestyle that has had most influence on policy today. It has been taken up with growing enthusiasm in the last two decades. It is modern anthropology’s principal contribution to the debate over Aboriginal policy. There is no doubt Elkin was a man who had the welfare of Aboriginal people first in mind. But it is also true that the approach he favoured coincided with his academic interests as a professional anthropologist. While Aboriginal culture stayed intact, it could remain an object of anthropological investigation, unlike that of many other indigenous cultures that have been transformed by modernisation. Elkin’s solution did not regard Aboriginal people as normal human beings with the potential to become fully enmeshed with the rest of modern society. It wanted to preserve Aboriginal culture in a separate zone of time and space — the equivalent of an anthropological zoo. The main beneficiaries of this have not been Aboriginal people whose quality of life in these remote communities has long been a national disgrace. Instead, the continuation of this whole process has been primarily for the edification of its white observers and its white political benefactors.

In the 1970s this concept was joined by another, more political argument that originated in the United States. This was the notion of “black power”, which claimed that policies for the assimilation or the integration of non-white people into white society were racist. The Marxist guru of the 1960s, Herbert Marcuse, and his followers argued that just as capitalism co-opted the working class into accepting capitalist ideology, so whites wanted to co-opt blacks into a form of integration that would betray black interests and suppress black culture. The attitudes of the American black power movement produced similar sentiments among Aboriginal activists in this country. To their discredit, many historians in Australia swallowed this political agenda whole. They made their own contribution to it by manufacturing stories about the widespread killing of Aborigines in our past in order to shore up its separatist assumptions.

This combination of arguments from anthropologists and political radicals is the heady mix that provides the framework for most thinking about Aboriginal policy in this country today. As I argued in Quadrant in September, the most influential activists have now pushed these ideas to their logical conclusion. They want them to be enacted within an Aboriginal state, governed by Aboriginal culture and laws, where the residents can re-create a pre-industrial, pre-capitalist lifestyle — as if it were somehow possible, let alone desirable, to keep the modern world at bay. Although this ideal is dressed up in the romantic garb of indigenous rights, cultural regeneration, radical environmentalism and the politics of the international “first peoples” movement, it is, in reality, just another version of separatism. In fact, its political ideal — a culturally introspective, theocratic community that regards the wider world as a corrupting force — still contains the central elements of the Protestant missionary theology from which it originally derives. If some future Australian government ever decided to go along with these demands and grant Aboriginal “self-determination” in northern Australia, the most likely long-term outcome would be little different to the conditions Elkin observed at Forrest River in 1946. It would be a modern version of the dismal little community George Robinson created on Flinders Island in the 1830s.

There are four main lessons that emerge from the short history of separatist policy recorded in this essay.

  • First, the mass killing of Aborigines was neither as widespread nor as common a feature of the expanding pastoral frontier in the nineteenth and early twentieth century as historians have claimed. Massacres were not a defining characteristic of the foundation of modern Australian society. Instead, massacre stories, then and now, were often invented as ideological supports for the policy of separatism.
  • Second, those Europeans who have been the most active in urging separatist policies were usually defining a role for themselves in the separatist organizations they proposed. The very people that historians like Henry Reynolds have represented as the saviours of the Aborigines were generating employment for themselves and furthering their careers.
  • Third, the reserves, protectorates and self-governing communities these people have proposed, in which Aborigines and their culture would be kept apart from the modern world, are policies designed primarily for the edification of white religious and academic observers and white political activists.
  • Fourth, those proposing these schemes have long been implacable opponents of assimilation. Today, their successors invariably denounce assimilation as racist, despite the fact that there is plenty of demographic evidence to suggest that a clear majority of Aboriginal people today have made their own, private decision to merge with the rest of the Australian population.

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The history of assimilation

One of the great gaps in the history of this country is the story of Aboriginal-European assimilation. As I have noted in earlier sections of this essay, one can pick up traces of the phenomenon in the complaints of separatists like Lancelot Threlkeld, John Gribble and Archibald Meston when they saw Aborigines being employed by whites in the Hunter Valley, on the Gascoyne River and on the coast of North Queensland. There is a sizeable body of modern work in the field of labour history but much of it is premised on the Marxist notion that employment equals exploitation. There are also plenty of biographies and other case studies of Aborigines who have been successful in politics, the arts, sport and community services. But there are very few generalised studies of the many ordinary people of Aboriginal descent who have made their lives and brought up their families in the mainstream of Australian society in the city suburbs and large country towns. Instead, most historians have focussed almost entirely on the problems Aborigines faced because of their dispossession from their tribal lands and have overlooked, indeed they have not wanted to know about, the opportunities this same process opened up for them.

As a principle of government policy, assimilation enjoyed a brief period of favour in the 1960s under the Commonwealth Government administration of Paul Hasluck. At the same time, it was a popular cause, especially among those young people who did not share the racial prejudice of their elders. In the Sixties, black activists and white student radicals toured the countryside, emulating the American civil rights movement in denouncing segregation, whether it was in the workforce, hotels or municipal swimming pools, and demanding integration. However, in the following decade, intellectual and political circles swept aside the concept of integration on the grounds that it was racist and that black power and black autonomy were the only ways to go.

Nonetheless, the social reality is that, since that time, assimilation has continued apace. The 1996 Census revealed just how far it has come. In 1996, some 72.6 per cent of the total indigenous population of 386,049 lived in what the Census defined as “major urban” or “other urban” centres. In the 36 regions into which Australia is divided for ATSIC elections, almost half (48 per cent) of the indigenous population lived in the nine most urbanised of them — Sydney, Brisbane, Adelaide, Perth, Hobart, Darwin, Townsville, Cairns and Coffs Harbour. Moreover, in these urban areas, very few Aborigines live in exclusively Aboriginal communities or ghettoes. Most are now spread throughout the suburbs. In Sydney in 1996, for instance, there were 236 people living in the Eveleigh Street, Redfern, community, while there were 1,956 in Liverpool, 1,292 in Fairfield, 1,120 in Parramatta, 1,094 in Marrickville and 1,018 in Bankstown. There are more Aborigines living in the suburbs of Sydney (34,286) than in the whole state of Western Australia outside Perth (32,701). The greatest ratio of Aborigines to whites still occurs in the Northern Territory where 27 per cent of the population is indigenous but, even here, the total Aboriginal population outside of Darwin is 37,370, that is, barely more than the Sydney suburbs. Moreover, the fastest growth of Aboriginal population has occurred in metropolitan and large urban centres where between 1991 and 1996 it averaged 50 per cent, compared to only 13 per cent in rural areas, meaning that the pattern of 1996 is only likely to intensify in the future.

This geographical distribution is confirmed by both the social and cultural statistics. In 1996, in 69.5 per cent of Aboriginal households, one of the adults was married to or cohabiting with a non-Aboriginal person. When asked about their religion, 71.5 per cent of Aborigines professed Christianity. Of the total indigenous population, adherents of traditional Aboriginal religion accounted for only 2.06 per cent, that is, a total of only 7,952 individuals. The beliefs of these 7,952 people are the basis upon which the current romantic political movement for the restitution of Aboriginal culture has been constructed, despite the fact that 98 per cent of Aborigines do not share them. In short, despite the efforts of our intellectual elites, the great majority of Aborigines have already voted with their feet. Most have demonstrated they are not interested in the goals defined for them by anthropologists, historians, clergymen, politicians, judges, journalists and rock stars. Instead of land rights, customary law and traditional culture, most of them simply want to live like the rest of us. The assimilation of the great majority of the Aboriginal population is an accomplished fact. This is a social development that still awaits its historian.

* * *

I will finish with a postscript. There is one major, related issue that I have not attempted to discuss in this essay. This is the decline of the Aboriginal population in the nineteenth century, a decline that was not apparently reversed until well into the twentieth century. The traditional answer to this question has attributed it to a combination of violence and disease. Anyone persuaded by the arguments offered here might now conclude that we should simply put most of it down to disease. However, in reading for this essay, I came across many references to this phenomenon and in almost every case they were made by the same people who were prepared to beat up the facts about Aboriginal massacres. In particular, the idea that Aborigines were “a doomed race” was exploited most by those advocating the establishment of missions and reserves. Moreover, these were often authors who had been influential in estimating the size of the Aboriginal population in various regions before contact with whites. George Robinson was responsible for the early estimates of the number of Aborigines in Tasmania and Victoria; Lancelot Threlkeld produced the statistics for the Aboriginal population of New South Wales in the 1830s; Archibald Meston provided figures for nineteenth century Queensland. It is apparent, however, that many of these estimates intentionally exaggerated the pre-contact population in order to show how great had been the decline. The same writers also regarded the emergence of people with both European and Aboriginal parentage as confirmation of the “doomed race” thesis, even though it is plainly evidence of the merger of the Aboriginal population into the European and, at the same time, of the European population into the Aboriginal. These are further issues that a proper history of the relations between black and white people on this continent should address. A proper history of the subject, however, has yet to be written.

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