Aboriginal Administration during the First World War

The presence or lack ofemployment for Aboriginal people shaped their ability to assert some level of independence from missions, or from government agencies charged with their ‘protection.’ The significance of this dynamic was heightened by the fact that the First World War coincided with a period of increasing control by state governments over Aboriginal peoples. This coincidence was particularly evident in Victoria, where the Aborigines Act of 1915, followed by a series of regulations in 1916, expanded the coercive powers of the Board for Protection of Aborigines. Richard Broome has noted the irony of this coincidence: “as Aboriginal servicemen fought for ‘freedom from tyranny’ at Gallipoli and then in France, the board increasingly controlled the lives of their families back home.”46 A key aspect of the board’s policy was its “concentration” plan, which entailed the closure of all Aboriginal reserves except Lake Tyers in Gippsland. The genesis of this policy was the 1886 Aborigines Act, which initiated a gradual process of evicting so- called ‘half-caste’ Aboriginal people from government reserves, but the plan was accelerated during the war. A similar situation existed in New South Wales following the Aborigines Protection (Amendment) Act in 1918, which authorised the Aborigines Protection Board to remove Aboriginal people of “lighter caste” from government reserves.47 These policies were not purely coincidental to the war, as the closure of reserves (or at least a reduction in their size) was explicitly linked with making land available for returned soldier settlement schemes.48 It was a policy approach that had strong parallels with other British settler dominions, notably Canada.49

The hardening of Aboriginal policy during the First World War was evident in other ways. A particularly potent issue was the removal of Aboriginal children. In New South Wales, for example, station managers and police were granted summary powers in 1915 to remove Aboriginal children, the Protection Board having complained that it was often hard to prove “neglect” in the courts.50 Some of those removed under these new powers were the children of Aboriginal soldiers serving overseas.51 In South Australia, child removal policies were also advanced during the war. In March 1913 Matthew Kropinyeri had given evidence to a Royal Commission, which considered a proposed apprenticeship scheme for Aboriginal boys and girls. He cautiously endorsed the idea but insisted that any such scheme should allow contact between the children and their parents: “our people would gladly embrace the opportunity of betterment for our children; but to be subjected to complete alienation from our children is to say the least an unequalled act of injustice.”52 The Chief Protector, William Garnet South, subsequently turned his attention to children at the Point Pearce and Point McLeay missions, which were now under his direct control. He proposed in 1918 that children should be transferred to a central school near Adelaide at age seven and later placed in indentured service. His plan was enshrined in legislation in 1923 and met with immediate opposition, including a delegation to parliament led by Edward Kropinyeri (Matthew’s brother). The first removal under the scheme—the infant daughter of a young mother, Priscilla Karpany—ignited a public controversy, especially as Priscilla’s brothers, George and William, had served in the AIF. Bowing to public pressure, the new Chief Protector, Francis Garnett, recommended the Act be suspended, but child removals continued under earlier legislation.53

The First World War also coincided with increasing government intervention in more remote Aboriginal communities. In 1911 the Commonwealth Government had taken control of the Northern Territory from South Australia, resulting in more rigid control ofAboriginal people’s lives.54 A more interventionist approach was evident in the creation of two new Aboriginal institutions on the eve of the war—the Kahlin compound in Darwin and the Bungalow in Alice Springs—which focused especially on ‘half-caste’ Aboriginal children. Wartime conditions also shaped the policy ideas of the new administration. As previously noted, the Chief Inspector of Aborigines, J.T. Beckett, believed a military life promised an honourable future for Aboriginal men.55 In 1915 he also spruiked his plan to mobilise Aboriginal labour, placing people “in useful and protective avocations”; he proposed that boys might breed and train horses for war purposes while Aboriginal girls might form “a fine mobile Red Cross Corps.”56

In Western Australia, the war coincided with the establishment of the Carrolup and Moore River native settlements (1915 and 1918), motivated in part by concerns of white Western Australians at the rising population of Aboriginal people on the fringes of rural towns. In 1919 the Chief Protector, A.O. Neville, confidently described the new system as an interesting “sociological experiment” with substantial benefits for Aboriginal people.57 These institutions would become synonymous with the ‘Stolen Generations’ of Aboriginal children.

In Queensland, a significant aspect of the Chief Protector’s wartime administration was the notorious use of trust accounts to quarantine both Aboriginal wages and the entitlements of Aboriginal servicemen.58 In

1917 the Aborigines department had moved to “extend its protection” to the dependants of Aboriginal servicemen “by controlling [their] military allotments.”59 Bleakley strongly asserted the benevolent intentions of this scheme, but Esme Fisher, whose husband Frank served in the 11th Light Horse Regiment, did not share his view. She had complained about limited access to her husband’s military pay: “I used to draw at the Murgon Post Office, and Mr Bleakley has taken it to Brisbane without my consent.”60

Aboriginal women in Victoria were subject to similar interference. In

1918 the Board for Protection of Aborigines requested that the Department of Defence quarantine the military allotments of serving Aboriginal soldiers to prevent alleged misuse by the soldiers’ dependants. While William Rawlings was displaying commendable bravery on the Western Front, the payment of his military allotment to his mother Bessie was suspended, prompting the local Guardian of Aborigines to complain that Bessie “never spends one shilling foolishly.” Bessie herself wrote that “what little rations I get from the Board is not the worth of my dear only son’s life of which he has gone to give up for king & freedom.” The Board subsequently recommended Bessie’s payments be restored, but the requirement that she justify the use of her son’s military pay was surely unique to Aboriginal people.61 William Rawlings won the Military Medal for bravery on 28-29 July 1918, and was killed in action at Vauvillers on 9 August (Fig. 9.2).62

Private William Reginald Rawlings, ca.1916. (AWM P01695.001.)

Fig. 9.2 Private William Reginald Rawlings, ca.1916. (AWM P01695.001.)

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