In Western Australia, the authorities were disturbed not only by the age at which Aboriginal children were being led into sexual relations but the diseases they thereby contracted. This was a major issue brought before the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Conditions in Western Australia in 1904 conducted by Walter Roth. It informed Aboriginal policy for decades after. Evidence to the commission revealed the Kimberley district was the site of major outbreaks of sexually-transmitted disease that had a fatal impact on the local Aboriginal population.
Richard Wace, the district magistrate and resident medical officer at Derby told the Roth commission of 14- and 15-year-old girls ‘who have only just arrived at maturity and in perfect health’ being sent by their tribes as prostitutes to the lugger crews of the pearling industry and returning with venereal disease. ‘One of the main reasons of the dying out of the black race is the fact that, through prostitution, the women become infertile.’ Constable Bertram Fletcher of La Grange Bay, south of Broome, who described his duties as ‘protecting the natives and keeping immorality down’, told the Roth commission that of the 400 Aborigines within his patrol, one quarter of them had venereal disease, all contracted from the pearling boats. Of one group of 30 badly infected Aborigines, seventeen or eighteen of them, mostly young women, had recently died. Graham Blick, the district medical officer at Broome, was concerned that Aboriginal boys as young as ten and twelve were being indentured onto pearling boats. Commissioner Roth reported the ‘greater evil’ was that the Malay crews introduced to the local tribes ‘a certain vice peculiar to the Mahometan’, a thinly veiled reference to homosexual pederasty of the lugger boys.
Almost everyone who reported on Aboriginal affairs from the Kimberley told how widespread prostitution had become. In another of his reports on the trade at La Grange Bay in 1904, postmaster Tuckett described the graphic scene at Cowan Creek, where pearling boats regularly moored:
Scores of natives young and old gins intermingled with Asiatics around the boats — on the sandhills many elaborate beds were spread out where … many Asiatics slept with native women last night and waiting ready for repetition tonight. A white man caused a tremendous scatter probably being taken for a policeman. He estimates over 50 natives principally gins were camped ashore with Asiatics. There is not the slightest doubt same state of affairs existed at all other creeks last night and will doubtless take place again tonight unless constable succeeds in making a raid at one of the creeks.
Scenes of this kind existed along the Kimberley coast from the late nineteenth century and remained an endemic feature of the pearling industry until its decline in the 1920s. Tuckett, like almost all the government’s early local protectors and travelling inspectors, linked prostitution to the spread of disease.
Of course, the main disease — Venerral — is ever on the increase and must continue too do so as long as the present immorality between Asiatics and Natives exist and this is really the most important question there is to grapple with … the time has arrived for some stringent action to be taken.
It was for this reason that Western Australia’s Aborigines Act of 1905 specifically included two clauses designed to prevent Aboriginal women and girls from contact with the pearling fleet:
40. 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.
41. Any aboriginal who, being the parent or having custody of any female child apparently under the age of sixteen years, allows that child to be 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.
Although the policing of prostitution on the Kimberley coast proved beyond the resources of the government, the concerns of these officials were not misplaced. At the time, the greatest threat to the lives of the Aborigines of the Kimberley and North-West districts were infectious diseases that originated in Asia and to which they had little immunity. Spread by contacts between Asian pearlers and trepang fishermen and the Kimberley and North-West tribes, these diseases devastated the indigenous population. The worst was smallpox. In 1866 Malay trepang fishermen brought smallpox that infected the tribes in the vicinity of Beagle Bay and Camden Harbour in the Kimberley. The disease quickly became an epidemic and spread south to Roebuck Bay and the Pilbara. By 1869–70 it had reached Geraldton in the south and East Pilbara inland. Several tribes lost more than half their populations. Other virulent diseases known at the time to have been brought by Asian seamen and goldminers were hookworm and leprosy. Serious outbreaks of both infections were widely reported among northern Aborigines in the decade 1910–20. As a result, the government established leprosariums at Broome, Derby and Roebourne in Western Australia and on islands offshore Darwin and the Kimberley coast.
From the Roth inquiry and the 1905 legislation onwards, the biggest single issue in Aboriginal policy in Western Australia from the point of view of departmental activity was health policy. It remained a central concern for the next several decades and, more than any other expenditure item, dominated A. O. Neville’s long tenure as Chief Protector.
Even James Isdell, who, as discussed below, has become the most notorious of the state’s child-removing travelling inspectors, wrote at greater length in his reports under the subheading ‘Immorality and Disease’ than he did about the removal of half-caste children. In 1909 he reported that since the 1905 Aborigines Act had banned cohabitation between white men and Aboriginal women, that practice had become rare. However, sexual relations between Aboriginal women and the Asian crewmen of pearling luggers still remained the ‘worst feature’ of the Kimberley coast. Isdell was reporting on the incidence of venereal disease he found on his tour of the West Kimberley district where up to 15 per cent of the population was infected. In other words, the travelling inspector’s role as a local protector of the Aborigines contained a legitimate concern about the incidence and spread of sexually transmitted disease.
Indeed, reading the annual reports that survive from Neville’s administration, one is struck by how much space they devoted to health care, native hospitals and leprosariums, and how little to removing children. For example, in both 1928 and 1935, Neville’s annual reports each devoted more than two pages or 240 lines of text to Aboriginal health compared to eight lines and six lines, respectively, to removals of both children and adults. The longest sections of his annual report were never about the removal of children. Public health policy was always the greater motivator of government concern. It is very difficult to reconcile this with the purported objective of eliminating the Aboriginal race.