Anna Haebich has argued that behind the missionaries’ professed concerns about the sexual vulnerability of Aboriginal girls lay their real intentions: to collect sufficient adherents to make their missions a success:
after all, they had travelled far to work with the people and were personally committed to spreading their message and rescuing children for a ‘life with Christ’. Father Walter of Beagle Bay told the Roth Royal Commission: ‘The children, both half-caste and black should be removed from the centres of vice such as Broome and other places and brought to this or any other institution which is working in the interests of the blacks.’ Missionaries needed a flock of young children — they were the ‘putty’ for creating a strong Christian community — and the government subsidies they brought with them. To this end they actively encouraged families and pressured the government to send in ‘half-caste’ children to their care.
It is true, of course, that the overseas missionaries wanted to fulfil the Christian ideals that brought them to Australia but their concerns about ‘centres of vice such as Broome’ were anything but pretexts for religious objectives. Once they learnt of the prevalence of child sexual abuse, the missionaries became especially concerned to remove children from such an environment. Both the missionaries and the travelling inspectors knew they were rescuing children, especially girls, from a regimen of forcible sex with adults.
Eventually, the most powerful spokesperson on this question was the Anglican lay missionary, Mary Bennett. She identified and united a number of issues about child sexuality, the morbidity and mortality that accompanied it, and the violence within traditional society towards both women and girls that derived from their ownership by husbands and fathers. Bennett gained experience of these conditions in the 1930s as a teacher at the missions at Forrest River in the Kimberley, Gnowangerup in the south-west and Mount Margaret near Laverton on the state’s eastern goldfields. This woman has become one of the better known characters in the history of Aboriginal affairs, largely for her public criticisms of Chief Protector A. O. Neville.
Bennett was the daughter of a pastoralist and grew up on the family property in north-west Queensland. She spent her married life in England where she became involved in the Anti-Slavery and Aborigines’ Protection Society. She also joined the feminist organization, the St Joan’s Social and Political Alliance, which campaigned against the slave-like status of indigenous women in the British Empire, especially India. Both organizations successfully lobbied the League of Nations to establish covenants on the ‘sacred trust of civilization’ for the protection and governance of the world’s native races. Widowed in 1927, Bennett began writing for newspapers such as the Manchester Guardian on ‘the Australian Aboriginal problem’. She gained a reputation as ‘a champion of the blacks’. In 1930, she published her book, The Australian Aboriginal as a Human Being, which demanded Australia conform to the new international standards. That year, aged 50, she returned to Australia to further the cause and to deploy the tactics and arguments she had learned in England. Basing herself in Western Australia, she offered her services to local missions and to the feminist political lobby, the Women’s Service Guild.
In 1934 Bennett’s scathing denunciations of Neville’s regime in both the Australian and English press led the Western Australian government to establish the Royal Commission headed by Henry Moseley. She became the commission’s star witness. One of the few reprieves from the depressing content of the inquiry’s 1800 pages of transcripts is provided by her exchanges in March 1934 with Neville himself. She stood up to his questions gamely, reminding him both of his duties under British law and of the inherent rights of Aboriginal women. For the latter, she has generated a recent controversy among academic feminists. Bennett’s feminism, however, was not only directed at the insensitivities and failures of Neville’s department but even more at the sexual oppression of women and children she found rampant within traditional Aboriginal society.
Bennett spoke for many Christian missionaries when she deplored the marriage customs that made polygamy the norm and which betrothed very young girls to old Aboriginal men, making them their property. She told the commission:
The desert tribes of Western Australia are known above the others for having worked out the most complete rules for maintaining the supremacy of a patriarchal oligarchy by compelling the women and young people to accept the property status, which is just slavery, property in human flesh. The old men polygamists assign the female children at birth amongst themselves, and every female child, be she full-blood aboriginal or be she half-white, is the property of some old polygamist. One result in a settled district that I know is that there are at least fifty young men unmarried, and with no prospect of marrying for many years, and then they will have to marry girls who are hardly more than children, whereas if polygamy was stopped in the settled districts, they could have young women for their wives now.
Bennett was disturbed by the consequences of Aboriginal girls being married while they were still children. Because they were so physically immature, those who became pregnant almost always gave birth to babies that were either stillborn or who died soon after. She said:
Child-marriage, which frequently has harmful consequences to the poor little mothers, and to the children as well: It is traditional that the first baby does not live, but I am unable to say whether it is killed. Narteen’s first baby, which was born at the mission when she was 16, is a beautiful child, but there was general incredulity at the camp that it could have been born alive, and it was illuminating to hear the comments about the first baby never surviving … when there is a lot of trouble, the natives will call in the witch doctor, and in the first confinement there is nearly always a lot of trouble. When the witch doctor is called in, the result nearly always is a dead baby. The great need which would quickly effect reform is a sound public opinion founded on the Christian teaching of the intrinsic value of every human being.
Bennett was not the only white woman to raise concerns about these practices. When Daisy Bates visited Beagle Bay in 1900 she witnessed the same thing:
Northern girls marry earlier than their Southern sisters, and sometimes they begin to bear children when very young. In these cases the labour is both prolonged and severe, and many a young mother, who in our civilized countries would scarcely be thought out of childhood, has endured days of agonizing labour only to succumb in the end. Baby and mother are then buried together whether the baby be dead or alive.
One of the tribal rituals to which Mary Bennett most strongly objected was that of the incision of girls’ genitalia at puberty. She did not describe in detail exactly how invasive this exercise was, but she made it clear that girls were terrified at the prospect, and that some older Aboriginal women recalled it as one of the great traumas of their lives.
The practice to which I refer is that of intercision of the girls at the age of puberty. The vagina is cut with glass by the old men, and that involves a great deal of suffering … Girls are made to suffer incision at puberty at the hands of one of the old men, but if they get wind of it they come to the mission till the danger is passed. Dooa escaped by coming to the mission; Yougada did not escape. I remember hearing my old aboriginal nurse speak with horror of the suffering which she had been made to undergo.
Bennett was also appalled at the degree of violence Aboriginal men routinely directed at their wives. She argued that this was a product of the polygamous social system.
Polygamy is the cause of nearly every fight between natives. A man takes another wife; sooner or later the first wife has reason to be jealous of the new wife, and a fight ensues between them. Old Wodja of the Koolahr tribe at Forrest River brought me his new wife one morning after a terrible beating from his first wife, and I spent days nursing her back to life after the most terrible shock and battering. A great number of examples of suffering and injuries can be given. If the husband takes part in the fight, he sides with the new wife and the first wife gets an unmerciful beating. It is not usual for her relatives to interfere, for she is his property to do what he likes with, but sometimes family affection is too strong and there is a spear fight between the men. If one should chance to be killed, it starts a vendetta which is endless … An unfaithful wife may be put to death, and her husband is held to be justified in killing her, though he may have five other wives, and may have neglected or deserted her, or sold her to white men. Mary Ann, killed at Laverton, had been sold to white men many times by her husband, Moonggie, but when she failed to return at his command, his brother Bung-arra in his absence, righteously according to native law, speared her to death. The brother was imprisoned for seven years, but nothing was done to improve the position of native women or give them the protection of our laws.
It should be noted that Bennett was not building a case that offered any support for Neville removing children from Aboriginal families, a practice she deplored, or for his ideas about breeding out the colour. She thought it wrong to remove any children to distant settlements, such as Moore River, because they would not grow up in their own country and it was impossible for bush Aborigines to visit them there. At Mount Margaret, when poor seasons reduced the food available to the desert Aborigines, the mission encouraged parents to leave their children to be accommodated in dormitories or ‘homes’ constructed for the purpose. The mission superintendent’s wife, Mysie Schenk, described the policy.
Mount Margaret policy was that children should stay in the homes only with the willing cooperation of the parents; that it was better for children to stay in their own country where parents had daily contact with them to nurse, cuddle and talk to them, and where they knew that they were being fed properly.
Nor could Bennett be accused of a racist disdain for all Aboriginal men or for all Aboriginal customs. At one stage in Bennett’s interrogation by Neville, the following exchange took place:
You referred to half-caste children being taken from their mothers. Do you think it is better to let them stay in the bush and mate with full-bloods? — That is better than to start promiscuous relationship with white people, so that they belong to no one and have no family ties. I do not think there is anything revolting in a half-caste girl marrying a full-blooded aboriginal. If they are in love with each other, I see nothing against it. Some of the men are fine fellows.
Nor was Bennett impressed by the attitudes of the local pastoralists in the Kimberley and the state’s eastern desert regions where she had worked. She regarded the pastoralists and Neville’s department as united in support of everything she criticized about the status of women and children under customary law. Indeed, she argued that the spread of the pastoral industry had simply provided an additional means through which Aboriginal child-brides could be sexually exploited by their husbands.
The squatters say, ‘Don’t interfere with native customs’, but … the native customs which the squatters choose to support are comprised in the property status of women and young people under the patriarchal system, which the squatters have commercialized, bartering with the old native men for the old men’s surplus property in wives, and for the unpaid labour of the young men. The old men need never starve while they can trade their supernumerary girl wives and the unpaid labour of the young men to the white men for flour and tobacco. Squatters always tell me that the girls come to them unsought, but this is not always true. The girl often does protest against being sent to a white man, in spite of hunger and in spite of incurring beatings and threats from her aged native owner; but whether she struggles against the degradation to which she is forced, or whether she loses heart and gives up, eventually, in nine cases out of ten, despair and disease destroy soul and body.