57 Murray Street – work in progress

I’m currently working hard on the history of the departments that governed Aboriginal people in WA from 57 Murray Street. This, you probably don’t remember, is my placement project for a uni subject. I’m finding this research really fascinating and horrific. I thought I might share a little bit of what I’ve found. It isn’t finished yet, but hopefully it is of interest. Oh, and some ‘real’ history for a change!!

Women in the Department of Aborigines Annual Reports

During the time I’m looking at; the 1920s and 1930s (but also at other times as well) whites could be convicted under the 1905 Aborigines Act for offences “against Aborigines” such as supplying liquor, harbouring a native, assault and enticing a native from employment. In the 1929 Annual Report, the offence ‘permitting a female to remain on a lugger’ was listed and noted as being a second offence. The use of the word ‘permitting’ is difficult – was she on board to work, for love or was she held against her will? That it was a second offence could support any of these and while it might seem that the woman in question was not considered responsible, she was probably the one convicted of ‘Breach of Section 40’ in the list earlier in the report.[1]

These tiny pieces of history hint at a much bigger story. Generally, information about Aboriginal women’s lives is hidden within the Annual Reports, with only scattered reference to anonymous individuals. How Aboriginal women either negotiated their lives under ‘protection’ of the department, sought to circumvent the controls they were subject to or found themselves unable to control their lives or liberty is not a story clearly evident within these official records. Most women who do appear in the Annual Reports are described in relation to their husbands or fathers. A.O. Neville (Chief Protector of Aborigines) reported in 1935 of a case in which a woman gave birth to triplets. He wrote:

The young wife, aged about eighteen years, of a full-blood native at Millstream Station in May last gave birth to triplets, but unfortunately the youngsters all died within three days. Although I have come across more than one case of twins amongst the natives, the birth of triplets was a unique event.[2]

In this exceptional example Neville provides no more information about the woman other than her age and that she was the “wife…of a full-blood native”. There is no suggestion that the impact of carrying, giving birth to then losing three babies on the woman (or her husband) was anything other than “unique”. That this example is included in the Annual Report at all makes it an incredible event and not for the reason Neville includes it.

The 1905 Act dealt expressly with the way Aboriginal women should be understood. It stated in Sections 42 and 43 that Aboriginal women were not allowed to be married without consent, to travel with Aboriginal men without assuming to be co-habiting with them or that “[e]very person other than an aboriginal who habitually lives with aborigines, and every male person other than an aboriginal who cohabits with any female aboriginal, not being his Wife, shall be guilty of an offence against this Act.”[3] Of course marriages between white men and Aboriginal women would not have been granted by the Chief Protector. In 1934 during the Moseley Royal Commission, the Women’s Service Guild of Western Australia argued during evidence that these sections must be altered so that Aboriginal women were no longer seen as “nothing more than chattels for the use or misuse of the Aboriginal male to whom she might be attached.”[4] The West Australian noted that changes to these sections of the Act had been discussed since its inception, but nothing had been happened. While this may seem on the surface to be a fairly progressive stance, the Women’s Service Guild did not argue against the continued ‘protection’ of Aboriginal people, just that women be afforded the “rights of human beings”[5], although specifically what these rights were was not reported. It is also worth noting that the Women’s Service Guild did not consider that the government’s control of Aboriginal women severely restricted their access to the “rights of human beings” as well. Neville was permitted to question Mrs May Barron Vallance, the Women’s Service Guild representative, on her whether she had considered that her views might contradict traditional practices. Vallance replied “…yes, but we feel that there could be certain tribal laws that could be done away with, gradually.”[6]

In his 1977 autobiography, Sir Paul Hasluck describes the way “close association” between Aboriginal women and white men were treated in the 1930s when he was travelling with the Moseley Royal Commission. He states that the

…social disapproval was not for the white man who might have a black woman for a night but for the ‘combo’ who lived with one – cohabited in the strict sense of the term. The occasional mating did no harm to anyone; the continuous liaison was likely to cause trouble and was contrary to the code of proper conduct either by white or black.[7]

The rather startling statement – that ‘occasional mating did no harm to anyone’ – is probably not Hasluck’s opinion, rather one that he is repeating. Either way, though, it illustrates the total eclipse of interest in or knowledge about Aboriginal women’s experience. Later, when Hasluck was in Broome hearing evidence, he describes

…a woman of light milk coffee complexion, the figure of a Juno and noble bearing, in a print dress, presented herself at the courtroom door and said she wanted to give evidence. She spoke well. Hayles, the secretary, motioned her to a seat and asked her name. She gave the Christian name Mercedes and a surname well known in those parts.

‘Occupation?’ asked Hayles, still scribbling.

‘I suppose you would call me the town whore’, said Mercedes in a matter-of-fact way.

Hayles looked up, his pen poised, and interpreted, ‘Domestic duties’. He wrote it down.[8]

The woman described that she had been educated in convents in Broome and Perth and on her return found no other employment available. She was there to argue that Aboriginal people of mixed descent should be able to “’live like whites’”.[9] Hasluck goes on to describe another witness, ‘Booty’, the owner of Lamboo Station in the East Kimberley who, when asked about his experience with ‘half castes’, said he found them “…’useful and reliable…but I may be prejudiced. I breed my own.’ Booty acknowledged his tall son Oliver, who was his overseer.”[10] Hasluck makes no further comment on this statement. It remains another example of the invisibility of Aboriginal women.

[1] Section 40 of the 1905 Act states that “any female aboriginal who, between sunset and sunrise, is found within two miles of any creek or inlet used by the boats of pearlers or other sea boats shall be guilty of an offence against this Act.”

[2] Annual Report 1935, p. 6.

[3] Aborigines Act 1905, Section 43.

[4] The West Australian, 22 March 1934, p. 7.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Hasluck (1977), op.cit., p. 219.

[8] Hasluck (1977), op.cit., p. 220.

[9] Hasluck (1997), op.cit., p. 221.

[10] Hasluck (1977), op.cit., p. 222.

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  1. […] a break from it before I could think about writing a post about it. I have talked about this work here so I won’t rehash. The National Trust now have the final report in their hands and I’m […]

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