When he addressed the 1937 Canberra conference, A. O. Neville commended the principles of the Western Australian government’s Native Administration Act of 1936. He claimed this Act had overcome a number of the difficulties he faced in his position as Chief Protector, especially through the greater precision of its definitions. In the south-west, where lived 5000 of the state’s 29,000 Aboriginal population, very few had remained of full descent in the century since colonization. In the north and north-west, however, most of the rest were full-bloods living either on missions, government stations and pastoral stations, or around the larger regional towns of the North-West and Kimberley districts. A significant minority still inhabited the unsettled desert country, existing as traditional hunter-gatherers.
As Chief Protector, Neville had long experienced legal difficulties in defining the boundaries of his responsibilities. Before 1936, the term ‘half-caste’ was loosely used by both politicians and public servants to mean people of part-Aboriginal descent, even if that part was only one-quarter or one-eighth. The definition depended largely on whether people looked like Aborigines but also if they associated most of the time with other Aborigines. However, in the 1920s some magistrates had begun to exempt half-castes and others of part descent from the onerous provisions of the Aborigines Act. For some years after, Neville lobbied his various Ministers to clarify his powers and, he hoped, give him authority over all people of part descent. The 1936 Act clarified the issue by abolishing previous legal categories and substituting the term ‘native’. In doing so, however, it effectively narrowed its definitions. Explicitly or implicitly, it defined ‘natives’ as follows:
· those who were of full descent,
· those of half descent,
· those of one-quarter descent, or ‘quadroons’, but only if they were under 21 years old and associated mainly with natives, and
· others of part descent who applied to be classed as natives under the Act (a very small group, mainly part-Aboriginal spouses).
On the other hand, those who were not now defined as natives included:
· people of one-quarter descent over 21 years of age,
· quarter-caste children under 21 who did not associate with natives, and
· all people of lesser degrees of descent living outside Aboriginal camps or settlements.
In short, the term ‘natives’ now applied only to full-bloods, half-castes, their quarter-caste children under 21, and others who applied to be classed as natives.
By excluding most people of one-quarter descent and less, the Act reduced the proportion of the part-Aboriginal population that came under Neville’s control but, at the same time, gave him greater authority over those who remained. The Act made the Chief Protector, or Commissioner of Native Affairs as he was renamed, the legal guardian of every ‘native’ child until they were 21 years old, an increase from the previous sixteen years of age. He could determine where natives lived and controlled the permit system that allowed them employment.
Above all, the Commissioner now controlled the marriage and sex lives of natives. The Act itself made it unlawful for anyone who was not a native (in effect, a white person or a quarter-caste person over 21) to cohabit with or have sex with a native, unless they were married to them. The Commissioner was responsible for making complaints under this section. The Commissioner could now approve or disapprove any marriages of natives, and he could override the wishes of the couple themselves, their parents or kin. Applications had to be in writing and he could reject them if he thought the marriage contravened tribal custom, if he found the age disparity too great, if one of the parties suffered a communicable or hereditary disease, or (the catchall clause) if ‘there are any other circumstances which render it advisable that the marriage should not take place’.
However, despite the ambitions Neville may have harboured, and despite the apparent power the new Act gave him, it did not deliver him a policy that could be seriously used to breed out the colour. In reality, both the policy and his use of it were poorly conceived, unenforceable and virtually guaranteed to produce the opposite result than intended. There were five intractable problems.
1. The new policy left the great majority of Western Australian Aborigines untouched. Although the 1936 Act gave Neville wide powers to approve or disapprove of marriages between natives, the parliament never intended, nor did he ever countenance the idea, of using his authority to try to breed out the colour of the state’s full-blood Aborigines. Since the passing of the 1905 Aborigines Act, Western Australia had legislated to keep its full-blood populations in isolation from white society. Although this was not feasible for all full-bloods, many of whom lived and worked on pastoral stations, the 1905 Act still prohibited sexual cohabitation between white people and all full-blood Aborigines. In this, Western Australia followed the example established first in 1897 in Queensland and subsequently in the Northern Territory. The 1936 Act, which was technically an amendment of the 1905 Act, tightened the rules and stiffened the penalties for white people entering Western Australian reserves without permission or attempting to entice Aborigines to leave them. It modified the definitions of illicit sex to make prosecutions more likely and it increased the penalty for this offence to a £100 fine or a two-year term in prison.
As noted above, in the 1930s more than 80 per cent of the state’s 29,000 Aborigines were of full descent — about 15,000 of them having contact with whites on missions, government stations, pastoral stations and fringe camps around the larger towns of the north and north-west, plus another 10,000 (a rough estimate by the department) living traditional lives in the bush, beyond the limits of white settlement. None of these people were targeted by Neville’s proposals for the absorption of part-Aborigines. Indeed, the greater penalties under the new Act for trespass and illicit contacts on reserves only served to further the isolation of the majority of the full-blood population. This was why the wording of Neville’s motion to the 1937 Canberra conference insisted that ‘the destiny of the natives of Aboriginal origin, but not of the full blood, lies in their ultimate absorption by the people of the Commonwealth.’
Neville had always been a firm supporter of the policy he inherited on full-blood people. Earlier in his career as Chief Protector, he had overseen the expansion of Western Australia’s Aboriginal reserves to no less than twenty million acres in the Kimberley and Central Australia where people of full descent could continue traditional lives. Throughout the 1920s he pressed the government to make the reserves inviolable from mineral exploration and pastoral expansion. Those academics who now write about Neville as if his intention was to end the Aboriginal race in its entirety neglect to remind their readers of these facts. To do so, of course, would question the credibility of their accusation of his intention to commit genocide.
Some commentators try to rescue their position by claiming that Neville expected the full-blood population to die out anyway, because it was a ‘doomed race’. Hence he only needed to concentrate his active attention on part-Aborigines. But as I show later in this chapter, that was not the demographic reality in Western Australia at the time, and Neville himself did not subscribe to such a belief.
2. The Commissioner had no authority over quarter-caste Aborigines or those of lighter caste. Because the Act exempted most people of quarter-caste descent from the definition of ‘native’, it prohibited them from associating with half-castes or full-blood Aborigines. While this was intended to prevent quarter-castes from marrying and having the children of full-bloods or half-castes, it also had the consequence of preventing the Commissioner from ensuring those of quarter-caste actually bred out the colour by marrying people of lighter hue. If most quarter-caste people preferred to mate with other quarter-castes, as they were wont to do, they would preserve their proportion of Aboriginal descent intact. If breeding out the colour had been taken seriously as policy, both the government and the Commissioner would have ensured he had the power to control quarter-caste marriages too. The fact that this authority was specifically excluded by the Act was revealing about how far the parliament supported its Commissioner’s plans.
3. The scheme was premised on the behaviour of one sex only. Neville only entertained the presumption of part-Aboriginal women marrying white men. If he really sought to breed out Aboriginality, he should have considered the mathematics of the proposal. Only 50 per cent of the target population were part of his experiment. But the success of such a plan also necessitated part-Aboriginal men marrying white women. This, however, was an unlikely prospect in the Western Australia of his time, where there had always been a chronic shortage of available white women in rural districts and where part-Aboriginal men on the lowest rungs of the socio-economic hierarchy were the least likely to woo them. This rendered Neville’s project unworkable. For every part-Aboriginal woman who lightened the skin colour of her children by marrying a white man, there would have been one part-Aboriginal man driven back into the half-caste or full-blood community in search of a mate.
Moreover, Neville never faced up to the fact that many part-Aboriginal women had tastes of their own that did not fit his plans. He could only approve, not compel marriages. What if his part-Aboriginal women were attracted not to pale-skinned husbands but to men of a darker hue? If the women did not fancy his match-making, there was nothing he could do. Peter Biskup summarized the inevitable outcome:
So the coloured people turned back to their own; marriages between part-aborigines and full-bloods increased; instead of being bred out, colour was being bred in.
4. The 1936 Act’s prohibitions on inter-racial sex worked against the scheme. The 1936 Act installed a powerful inhibitor to inter-racial sexual relations, thereby decreasing the likelihood that half-caste-Aboriginal women could maintain relationships with white men. By increasing the penalties for unmarried sex between natives and non-natives, the Act removed one of main inducements a half-caste Aboriginal woman formerly had to persuade a white man to marry her: because she was pregnant to him. After 1936, such a revelation would have consigned her white lover to prison and so, before the baby was born, he had a powerful incentive to decamp, thereby guaranteeing his offspring would not be reared in an assimilated family.
Neville told the 1937 conference that he was determined to protect the virtue of the girls his department sent into domestic service. So much so, that within a year of the new Act becoming law, about twelve white men had been prosecuted for having sex with half-caste girls. It did not occur to him that the reputation the new law would gain from such prosecutions would obstruct the very outcome he sought.
5. The Commissioner had no effective control over most Aborigines in the state. Neville himself was forced to admit to his peers at the Canberra conference that he could not control marriage practices on his state’s missions. He could try to control events at the little Moore River Settlement north of Perth but not in the squalid camps of fringe dwellers that attached themselves to most sizeable towns in the state in the 1920s and 1930s, nor on the eleven mission stations that served the remote regions of Western Australia. On the latter, the missionaries pursued their own goals, with open disregard for the policies of his department. To conference delegates, Neville confessed the gap between his plans and what actually happened in the field:
Under this law [the 1936 Act] no half-caste need be allowed to marry a full-blooded aboriginal if it is possible to avoid it, but the missions do not always take steps to prevent this from occurring; they allow the half-castes under their control to marry anybody.
Neville had to live with the reality that the missions did the opposite to what he wanted, not only about marriage but in most other aspects of administration. While Neville favoured assimilation, the missions pursued segregation:
At the mission stations, the natives are encouraged to multiply by marriage, with a consequent increase of population. The missions are thus able to claim that they are doing valuable work for the natives. Undoubtedly they are doing good work, but they keep an increasing number of natives on their properties, whereas the departmental institutions, whilst approving marriages, encourage the natives to mix with the general community, and earn their own living which, I am glad to say, they are doing.
Even on more closely supervised terrain in the south of the state, Neville could not control the sexual behaviour of his charges. He could prevent them marrying but not from having illicit sex with those they preferred. The only place where he had any real opportunity to cordon off the sexes was among the inhabitants of the state’s then sole government-funded residential community, the Moore River Native Settlement. Neville tried to prevent the half-caste girls in the dormitories of his training ‘compound’ from socializing with the half-caste young men at the adjacent ‘camp’. The Royal Commissioner Henry Moseley found on a visit in 1934 that things were not going to plan.
There are no means of keeping the inmates in the dormitories at night. The doors are locked, but latticed walls are easily broken and many cases are on record of the girls visiting the camp, a few hundred yards from the compound, after they are placed in the dormitories for the night … At the present time all the inmates of the compound go to the football ground adjacent to the camp and, although under the supervision of the white assistant, no doubt many opportunities are afforded for arranging clandestine meetings and, as I have said, the girls find no difficulty in the way of keeping their appointments. In addition, although the Superintendent told me that no camp people are allowed in the compound after dark, this must be in theory only, for I myself saw on the night I was at Moore River many of the camp inmates, if not all of them, at a concert and dance held in the compound dining room.
It was obvious that several of the delegates from other states attending the 1937 conference regarded Neville’s scheme with disdain. Some politely concealed their disapproval behind pointed questions. At one stage, the Chief Protector of South Australia interrupted Neville’s tedious reading aloud of verbatim text from the Western Australian legislation to make an observation that failed to elicit a straight answer:
Mr McLean. — Even after five or six generations, the progeny of the continued marriages of half-castes will still be half-castes.
Mr Neville. — Yes. But there is provision to exempt them from the act. All cases are judged on their merit. [returning to the Act] The provision covering such cases is as follows …
Similarly, a sceptical delegate from New South Wales, Dr E. S. Morris, asked Neville what percentage of the quarter-caste children at the Moore River Settlement married whites when they grew up. Neville replied lamely: ‘There has not yet been time for them to grow up.’
While Robert Manne and his colleagues would rather deploy loaded terminology like ‘scientific racism’ and ‘genocidal thought’ than describe this half-baked proposal in full, let alone admit its elementary unworkability, previous Western Australian historians had taken it far less seriously. In 1973, Peter Biskup had declared it ‘an unequivocal failure’ for at least three reasons: first, its definitions of ‘natives’ and its punitive approach to sexual liaisons worked directly against its ostensible aims; second, the economic depression that dogged the 1930s inhibited the prospect of economic assimilation; and third, popular racial prejudice still frowned upon mixed marriages. Hence the policy was ‘quietly dropped’. Biskup observed:
Interbreeding of races is normally one of the incidents of culture contact, and ‘amalgamation’ one of the indices, perhaps the ultimate index, of the extent of cultural fusion. But it is almost invariably an outcome rather than the cause of assimilation. Western Australian advocates of interbreeding were putting the sexual cart before the cultural horse.
Recalling the 1930s, Paul Hasluck said the proposal was far too unpopular to have been politically acceptable. Discussing the ideas of the Perth physician, Dr Cyril Bryan, one of the few local enthusiasts for the scheme, Hasluck wrote that such views were ‘unacceptable to most people’ at the time.
Pragmatically I had some doubts whether people of either race would embrace his ideas as a set policy even if some of them continued to embrace each other physically. To advance miscegenation as a deliberate purpose of government and to campaign for it as the solution of a social problem was politically a certain loser.
In her 1988 history of Aboriginal policy in the south-west, Anna Haebich reported that Neville retired in 1940, just three and a half years after the Canberra conference, his plans unfulfilled:
The Act itself contained major flaws which hindered its effective implementation. The broader definition of ‘native’ together with the provisions limiting interaction of any kind between white and black served to harden rather than to break down ‘caste barriers’. This guaranteed the continued exclusion of virtually all persons of Aboriginal descent from the wider community rather than their assimilation.
Haebich wrote this in 1988 in For Their Own Good, a study of Aboriginal policy in the south-west of Western Australia. It was a fair assessment. However, by 2000, when she wrote Broken Circles, a study of child removal policies throughout Australia that capitalized on the public attention generated by the Bringing Them Home report, she took a line more in tune with the times. Haebich downplayed the unworkability of Neville’s scheme and only discussed what the Western Australian commissioner could do with Aborigines in theory, not what he was actually unable to do with them in practice.