In 1924, the only pre-war mission specifically devoted to half-castes in the Northern Territory was established. By this time, the Roper River Mission included 34 part-Aboriginal people among its inhabitants. Some 15 were males and 19 were females, of whom 16 were children still at school. The missionaries decided to move them all to an experimental colony for half-castes on Groote Eylandt in the Gulf of Carpentaria. The island had an existing Aboriginal full-blood population of about 200, but the new arrivals were kept physically segregated from them. When J. W. Bleakley visited the colony in 1928 he was sceptical about its rationale:
The wisdom of its selection as a purely half-caste home, however, is open to some question. The missionaries give as their reason for its choice that, when on the mainland at Roper River, considerable trouble was experienced through attempts on the part of whites to induce the girls to run away.
At the time, the central policy debate was whether half-castes would be better off by being treated like full-bloods and kept segregated from the white population, or alternatively, as the then Chief Protector Cecil Cook wanted, integrated within the white population. The missionaries on Groote Eylandt proposed a third alternative that Bleakley felt obliged to comment upon. In his report to the Prime Minister, he condemned it with faint praise:
The aim of the mission is to give these half-castes vocational training, encourage them to marry among themselves, and then, if they wish, go to employment on stations as married couples or remain on the reserve and maintain themselves by farming small plots. At present there is an excess of females, and, unless more males can be collected, the problem of the future of some of these girls will have to be faced.
The mission’s present policy, of segregating the half-castes from both white and black and confining them to marriage amongst themselves, is not regarded as the correct one, nor likely to be successful, for reasons already outlined in the general report. The institution at Groote Eylandt is, however, an interesting experiment and, provided the wider policy as regards the future of the trainees is recognized, might well be given a fair trial.
Bleakley’s comments not only undermined government support for this experiment but also for the preferred alternative of Cecil Cook. In his ‘reasons already outlined in the general report’, Bleakley rejected the notion of government support for any segregated half-caste colony and defended the position that his own investigations had confirmed. Half-caste people should not have their marriage partners prescribed for them, on the one hand, by traditional culture where the girls would become the property of the old men of the local tribe and the boys would have to wait until middle age to have any wives at all, or, on the other hand, by making girls subject to the dictates of the government bureaucracy and married off to white men. Instead, Bleakley argued that half-caste people should make their own choices. His own research told him where their preferences lay:
Inquiries from all classes of persons with experience of dealing with aboriginal half-castes, such as station owners, missionaries, police &c., only confirm my own opinion that, without appreciable exception, the half-caste of 50 per cent or more aboriginal blood, no matter how carefully brought up and educated, will drift back to the aboriginal, where naturally he finds the atmosphere most congenial to him. Educated Aboriginals and half-castes, who have married back amongst the full bloods on missions and settlements, when questioned, were emphatic in the opinion that these people were happier amongst their own race.
As I recorded in Chapter Seven, Bleakley’s position was largely accepted by the Commonwealth government. It defined policy in northern Australia for the next decade. It was adopted in 1934 by J. W. Perkins, the Minister for the Interior in the Lyons government, and confirmed in the House of Representatives. It was a position directly at odds with the claims of all those historians, plus the archivists, political activists, film and television producers who followed them, who have pretended that half-caste girls were removed from their parents to be married off to white men. The publication of Bleakley report as a parliamentary paper ensured that, at the time, the issue was debated openly and comprehensively, especially in the metropolitan newspapers of Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane. The only two officials who supported the notion of marrying half-caste women to non-Aborigines, A. O. Neville and Cecil Cook, lost the argument. They were never given either the permission or the resources to put the notion into practice. The historians who claim otherwise are not only demonstrably wrong but have produced one of the great furphies of Australian history.