We were taken away to Moola Bulla settlement. That’s a government settlement just out of Hall’s Creek, Moola Bulla. They picked up all the half-caste kids from all over the east Kimberley area and the west Kimberley area and put them all in that settlement. The truth is there must have been about five-hundred kiddies, half-caste boys and females. They were picked up from all the cattle stations around this area, and even the towns, any half-caste kids. They didn’t care much for the full blood, only for the half breed. Anyone that had a bit of colour was put in there.
— Alfie Gerrard, interview by Bruce Shaw about events in 1937
If the Australian history profession had a practice of fact-checking even half as good as the average tabloid newspaper, the above passage would never have been published. It comes from Australians 1938, one of the bicentenary volumes produced in 1988. The eleven volumes in the series were planned, written and edited by academic historians, and designed as a showpiece of the profession. The volume Australians 1938 was edited by Bill Gammage of the University of Adelaide and Peter Spearritt of Macquarie University. Several of its chapters, including three on the Stolen Generations, derive from information collected through the Australia 1938 Oral History Project, an exercise funded by the Australian Research Grants Scheme, the Australian National University, Macquarie University and the National Library of Australia. Unfortunately, what this expensive project demonstrated most clearly was the risk of relying uncritically on oral history.
Had the editors done their job properly, they would have looked for confirmation of the more dramatic evidence, such as Alfie Gerrard’s claim above that all the half-caste children in the Kimberley, a total of 500, were rounded-up in the late 1930s and placed on Moola Bulla station. Had they taken the trouble, Gammage and Spearritt would have found that not only was it impossible for Moola Bulla to accommodate and feed that many people of any age group, but at that time, in the whole of the Kimberley district, there were not 500 half-caste children to remove. Had the editors bothered to check the standard history of Aboriginal policy in Western Australia by Peter Biskup, they would have found the total part-Aboriginal population in the Kimberley at the time — adults and children — was itself only 500. Had they consulted the more obvious primary sources, such as the 1935 report of Royal Commissioner Henry Moseley, they would have seen that Moola Bulla station then accommodated only 200 mostly full-blood Aboriginal people. Only 40 of them were children. By 1938, twelve months after the purported great round-up, the department’s annual report recorded the total number of children there had grown to just 61. The numbers in the annual reports were confirmed by the department’s annual accounts. The department knew well how many children were there because it provided the rations and school payments for each of them. In 1937 it spent £29 6 10 on ‘maintenance of half-caste children and school fees’; in 1938 it spent £38 13 6 on the same account. Moreover, there is no defence available to the editors of Australians 1938 on the grounds that Alfie Gerrard did not understand the European system of counting and hence was not wilfully misrepresenting what happened. That might have been true, but the editors did not see fit to warn their readers that his notion of what was meant by ‘500’ was unreliable. Australians 1938 was published for a European audience and the total of 500 stolen children was clearly intended by its editors to be taken at face value.
In Bringing Them Home, the Human Rights Commission based its own account of Moola Bulla on the same kind of unreliable and exaggerated oral history. It quoted testimony from two informants, both anonymous. The report did not even bother to say what years its informants were discussing. Evidence of such standard cannot prove anything, but Bringing Them Home thought it persuasive enough to reproduce.
The welfare just grabbed you where they found you. They’d take them in threes and fours, whatever. The Native Welfare blokes used to come to every station and see where our half-caste kids were. They used to drive down to Port Hedland. Our people would hide us, paint us with charcoal. I was taken to Moola Bulla.
As I noted earlier, under Neville’s regime from 1915 to 1940, he never engaged ‘native welfare blokes’ to do this kind of work. His sole travelling inspector was employed only from 1925 to 1930 but was far too busy with other duties to make more work for himself by driving about the state looking for half-caste children to remove. In other words, Aboriginal claims that in the 1930s there was some kind of mass roundup of all the half-caste children in the Kimberley to Moola Bulla or anywhere else, are pure invention.
The historian Anna Haebich is equally unreliable about this settlement. In her book Broken Circles she claimed: ‘Children continued to be sent from the east Kimberley to Forrest River Mission until 1930 when Moola Bulla was declared an institution for ‘half-caste’ children.’ In fact, throughout its existence, Moola Bulla’s inhabitants were predominantly full-blood adult Aborigines. In his 1938 report, the manager of the station, A. T. Woodland, said it accommodated an average of 189 people per month, most were adults and only 48 were ‘other than full-bloods’. The only place on the settlement where half-caste children were in a majority was the school.
Located near Halls Creek in the East Kimberley district, Moola Bulla was created by the Western Australian government in 1910 when it resumed 28 pastoral leases to create a one-million acre cattle station. Urged on by a lobby of local pastoralists, the government hoped that by providing a site where Aborigines could be given freshly slaughtered meat, they would cease their random spearing of the pastoralists’ cattle. The plan worked. Cattle killing declined dramatically. The government paid for the station by what it saved from the former policy of capturing, prosecuting and jailing offenders. The purpose of the station was not the assimilation of the local Aborigines. Nonetheless, the government hoped it would develop into a self-supporting institution that employed Aborigines to raise cattle and sheep. The local Aborigines were free to come and go as they chose, but most showed they were not interested in this form of employment, treating Moola Bulla as a seasonal feeding station rather than somewhere to settle down and work.
However, after 1929 when the wife of the European storekeeper began teaching the children in her spare time, a demand from Aboriginal parents for more education led the government to set up a school there. ‘The children are eager to learn,’ Neville reported, ‘and the pastoralists have shown their interest in the scheme by encouraging others from the surrounding districts to attend.’ Two other similar but smaller government stations were established in the Kimberley at Munja, on the coast at Walcott Inlet, and at Violet Valley, near Turkey Creek in the East Kimberley, but neither of the latter two settlements had a school.
Moola Bulla does not deserve the reputation it has been given in the historical literature. It operated as an Aboriginal station from 1910 to 1955 and, because it solved the cattle-killing problem, was one of the very few successes of the policy initiatives of that era. Not only was there was no compulsion for Aborigines to stay there, but their children were not confined in any way. Bringing Them Home misleads its readers yet again by saying of all these government settlements: ‘The parents rightly feared that their children would be placed in segregated dormitories if the family moved to a settlement.’ Neither Moola Bulla, nor Munja, nor Violet Valley had dormitories for children in this period. Moola Bulla got dormitories for boys and girls only after Neville retired in 1940. Until then, the only dormitory on a government settlement was at Moore River.
The one possible charge of racial inequity that could be brought against this institution was that the Moola Bulla school discriminated in favour of half-caste children. By 1934, some 40 children attended the school, and this remained the average number for the decade. About one quarter of children were full-bloods, but three-quarters were half-castes. This was in a territory where half-castes constituted a small minority, about 3 per cent of the total Aboriginal population of 15,000. The Moseley Royal Commission, which held hearings at Moola Bulla in June 1934, said the school’s main aim was to educate the half-caste children. Moseley’s report described this initiative as a progressive move for the region. ‘[U]nlike the private properties, Moola Bulla takes an interest in the elementary education of half-caste children, and that in listening to the manager one hears perhaps more of the training of the native than one would hear from the management of a private property.’
However, the elementary education provided was not followed up with vocational training because the station had no technical facilities. Moseley said it would never become a properly equipped settlement until these were provided. The station’s greatest failing, he thought, was that it offered its half-castes too little chance of social mobility: ‘It is right, above all, that the half-caste child should be given the greatest opportunity of fitting himself or herself for a higher station of life than that provided in a native camp: so far no means are apparent of enabling this to be done.’
After the passing of the 1936 Native Administration Act, Neville appears to have had more ambitious plans for half-caste children at the site. In his two subsequent annual reports, he spoke of their rapidly increasing numbers. In 1938 he said he soon expected its 61 children to grow to 100, ‘due to the compulsory accommodation there of increasing numbers of half-caste children’. However, nothing came of his plan. The school was closed down in 1938 for want of teachers and only re-opened a year later when Neville finally recruited a married couple of Presbyterian missionaries. The dormitory that opened in 1940 was short-lived. The onset of World War II and the subsequent shortage of labour in the north attracted many residents away from the settlement and into employment. In 1943 the school was closed down once more and the remaining ‘unattached’ children relocated to the Beagle Bay Mission. In 1948, a state government report condemned the settlement as a place unfit for either welfare or education:
To refer to Moola Bulla as a native institution in its present run-down state would be palpably absurd … The lack of institutional buildings is as extraordinary as it is regrettable, not even a school-room or a dining room existing.
The most that could be said about the Western Australian authorities’ ambitions for half-caste children over this period was that they wanted them to have the chance to join the modern world, as long at it did not cost much. As a young journalist, Paul Hasluck accompanied the Moseley Royal Commission when it held hearings in the north of the state. Hasluck described the contemporary approach to half-caste children as an informal, hit-or-miss affair, aimed principally at giving the individual child a better chance in life. By this time, most half-castes in the north were born to half-caste couples themselves who worked for wages on pastoral stations (not government stations), who lived in their own houses and who made their own provisions for their children’s education at local public or convent schools. At the other extreme was the half-caste born in a bush camp to an Aboriginal mother and an unknown white father. Only the latter were the targets of the state’s welfare system. Hasluck wrote:
When such a child was born the chances were that not much notice would be taken of it at first. Generally, however, when the child had grown up to seven or ten years of age and had become noticeable because of its lighter colour a station manager or someone else in authority would begin to feel some concern and might draw the attention of the local police constable or Protector to the boy or girl on one of his visits. Then, after some correspondence to and from the Chief Protector in Perth, an instruction might be given to the constable to move the child to a government settlement or a mission. Sometimes, particularly if the half-caste was a boy, no-one bothered and he stayed in the camp and grew up a blackfellow.
Official policy was not clearly discernible but seemed to be to lift the half-caste children out of ‘the black’s camp’ with the idea of ‘giving them a chance’. I estimated the total of half-caste children in the Kimberleys as 327, of whom 188 were of school age and out of those 152 were enrolled in schools on settlements, missions and in the towns. To that extent the half-caste child was being ‘given a chance’.
This account is far more credible, and demonstrates a far-greater sensitivity to local conditions, than the portrait in Bringing Them Home. As Hasluck emphasized, the numbers who got the chance to go to schools at government stations, missions and towns was very small. To remind readers just how crude in comparison is the analysis of the Human Rights Commission, let me quote its version of the purportedly single-minded bureaucratic process in operation on government settlements like Moola Bulla.
Neville saw the settlements as a means of integrating children of mixed descent into the non-indigenous society. They were to be physically separated from their families on the settlements, receive a European education, be trained in domestic and stock work and then sent out to approved work situations. Between jobs they would return to the settlements. Neville theorized that this process would lead to their acceptance by non-indigenous people and their own loss of identification as Indigenous people.
The confidence of this passage was quite misplaced. It uncritically accepted that whatever Neville planned, he could make happen. In contrast, Hasluck observed that sending half-caste children to elementary school on a government station or mission altered the real life chances of very few. Rather than being removed to Perth to lead some radically different ‘non-indigenous’ life, most of the half-castes in the north remained in the pastoral industry, living and working close to where they were born. It was hard to generalize about them, Hasluck said, but
there were half-caste stockmen and other station workers employed and living on the same terms as whites, some other half-caste stockmen employed on the same terms and conditions as Aborigines, and, here and there, semi-civilized mission-trained half-castes who had ‘gone back to the bush’ and who did not seem acceptable to either white or black.
In other words, ‘giving a chance’ to the small number of half-caste children in the northern pastoral industry could never have amounted to the kind of ‘massive exercise of social engineering’ that Bringing Them Home and academic historians have imagined. The elementary schooling provided by the government taught them to read, write and count, but not much more. At most, it gave some the ability to get the slightly better class of jobs offered on pastoral stations. It is impossible to seriously portray Moola Bulla or the other two government stations in the north as sites for the destruction of Aboriginal identity.