I am convinced from my own experience and knowledge that the short-lived grief of the parent is of little consequence compared with the future of the children. The half-caste is intellectually above the aborigine, and it is the duty of the State that they be given a chance to lead a better life than their mothers. I would not hesitate for one moment to separate any half-caste from its aboriginal mother, no matter how frantic her momentary grief might be at the time. They soon forget their offspring.
— JAMES ISDELL, TRAVELLING INSPECTOR AND ABORIGINAL PROTECTOR, 1909
This is one of the most notorious statements in the debate over the Stolen Generations. It was reproduced by the Bringing Them Home report, as well as in books by Henry Reynolds, Anna Haebich and Christine Choo, and in various other works. It is from a report by the Western Australian government’s travelling inspector and Aboriginal protector, James Isdell, of his observations in 1909 of the number of half-caste children living in the Kimberley district between Fitzroy Crossing and the coast. Of all the claims by historians about government officials who had intentions to remove children for racial reasons, Isdell is probably their best candidate.
The above quotation is an accurate expression of Isdell’s views. He certainly targeted a group defined by race, or, more accurately, by racial combination. His intention was to round-up all the half-caste children on the upper Fitzroy River, irrespective of whether or not they were well cared for. Indeed, he had surveyed the district in 1908 and drawn up a list of those he intended to remove. He said all the half-castes living inland on the Fitzroy were the offspring of Europeans, while those on the western coast of the Kimberley were ‘half-bred Asians’. He knew the Pallottine missionaries at Beagle Bay were willing to take in half-caste children. From the start of his appointment as inspector, Isdell had defined his role as ‘the rescuing of waifs and strays from the contaminating influence of native camps and training them at this Mission’. In September 1910, with the approval of Chief Protector Charles Gale, he set out on a 33 day expedition, accompanied by a police constable, and rounded up as many of these children as he could. He put them in a cart drawn by a mule he brought for the purpose. In mid-October he delivered nineteen of them to the police at Derby who shipped them on to the Beagle Bay Mission.
It is not difficult to imagine the reputation this expedition must have given the travelling inspector and his successors among the parents of half-caste Aboriginal children in the Kimberley. The word must have spread very quickly about what the government man and his police offsider were doing. There is little doubt it must have affected folk memories in the district for years, probably decades, after.
The job of the historian, however, is not only to report popular attitudes but also to look beneath them to find out what really happened. Those historians who cite Isdell as the founder of a long line of pitiless child removalists normally combine his 1909 declaration of intent with an account of his 1910 expedition and leave it at that, as though they have said enough to make an incontrovertible case. None that I know has ever listed the total number of children Isdell actually removed. The reality was that Isdell was another public servant who talked a lot but accomplished little.
He was initially employed as travelling inspector in 1907 and continued in the position until 1913 when he was retrenched. In his six years in the job he removed a grand total of 27 children — three from La Grange Bay in 1907, five from Cygnet Bay in 1908, and the nineteen from Fitzroy River in 1910. That was all. He never took any steps to remove any of the Asian-Aboriginal children he identified in the camps along the Kimberley coast.
As his infamous quotation indicates, Isdell was anything but reticent about expressing his opinions. If he had taken any more children than this, he would have almost certainly mentioned them in his various reports. However, apart from those recorded here, he never did. Moreover, among the few removals he made, some were unarguably welfare cases. Three of the Cygnet Bay children were seriously malnourished and one girl had a dangerous curvature of the spine. Two of the boys from Fitzroy River, brothers aged sixteen and fourteen years, were both crippled and nearly blind. In other cases, he did not separate children from parents. Two of the half-caste girls from Fitzroy River went with their mother. Hence, although Isdell’s statements fitted perfectly the now-familiar image of an obsessive child-stealing travelling inspector, his exploits hardly matched up.
He was not alone. What stands out from the early government records is how very few children the state actually removed, to the missions or anywhere else. In Western Australia, once the Aborigines Act of 1905 had passed, Chief Protector Prinsep despatched thirteen children to institutions in the subsequent two years. Four of them were offenders sent by order of district magistrates, the rest were waifs and orphans, including Polly, the 5-year-old sexually abused half-caste girl discussed earlier. All went to two institutions in the south, the Swan Native and Half-Caste Home in Perth and the Salvation Army Settlement at Collie. In 1908, Inspector McCarthy from Derby and Corporal Stewart from Broome between them sent eighteen children to the Beagle Bay Mission. Added to the 27 James Isdell sent to Beagle Bay, the recorded intake totals 58 children sent to missions from 1906 to 1912, an average of fewer than ten a year. Given that, all up, Beagle Bay accommodated between 130 and 147 children over the subsequent five years (see Table 9.2 below), the children placed by the state were always in a minority. However you look at it, this was hardly a record that warranted historians’ claims of a ‘dramatic increase’ or a ‘special campaign’ by the government to round up all the part-Aboriginal children in the Kimberley.