According to Peter Read, the Aboriginal stations and reserves represented viable cultural choices, freely entered into by Aboriginal people, who preferred them to the town and suburban lifestyles of white people. He writes as if the way of life of the people in these locations was Aboriginal culture. Read says the white officials should have recognized the value of this culture and should have respected Aboriginal wishes to live in their own way. White people, however, were too blinded by prejudice to see:
The whites were so convinced of the rightness of their own way of life that they excluded all the others. So deep was the idea of the worthlessness of Aboriginal society in New South Wales that hardly anybody, from the highest level of administration to the lowest, got past the old irrelevancies that they respected or were friendly with certain Aborigines. What was required was an appreciation of Aboriginal lifeways in their own right, not as lived by particular individuals. Most of the officials did not arrive at the starting point, that is, the recognition of the existence of New South Wales Aboriginal culture, let alone take the second step, which was to acknowledge its validity.
The Link-Up submission to the Human Rights Commission’s 1996–97 inquiry took this case one step further. It argued that in seeking to close down the reserves and stations, it sought to eliminate Aborigines as a distinct people. ‘The aim of the Aborigines Protection/Welfare Board (APB, AWB or Board), enabled by the New South Wales legislature, was genocide: according to official records it sought the elimination of our people as a people from New South Wales.’ Link-Up made the same accusation against laws passed by the New South Wales government in 1915: ‘These lawmakers aimed towards a vision of the future when “there will be no occasion for these camps or reserves”, because there would be no Aboriginal population as a culturally distinct group.’ This organization’s submission, largely researched and written by Read, also reproduced part of a New South Wales parliamentary debate in 1912 which quoted from a deputation to the Chief Secretary by the Aborigines Protection Board. The deputation said: ‘The whole object of the board was to put things into train on lines that would eventually lead to the camps being depleted of their population, and finally the closing of the reserves and camps altogether.’ Link-Up interpreted this as a blueprint for genocide:
Understanding the word ‘camp’ is crucial here. The word really referred to groups of Aboriginals living together. It referred to our extended families where young and old shared their lives and where the older people taught the younger ones their culture and their heritage. It referred to our communities where we lived as a people differently from the way the European invaders lived. It was our integrity as a separate and distinct people which was symbolized by the ‘camps’ and which the Board sought to ‘deplete of population’ and ‘close altogether’.
This is not true. The camps, or stations and reserves, did not represent or symbolize or in any other way encompass the Aboriginal people in their entirety. They housed a distinct minority of welfare dependent people. The board and the members of the New South Wales parliament were well aware that the camps only ever housed that minority. Every year, their annual reports published figures which clearly distinguished between those living in these places and the majority of the Aboriginal population. The board’s desire to close down the stations and camps never meant dispersing all the Aboriginal people or putting any end to Aborigines as ‘a separate and distinct people’. Instead, it wanted to stop funding a culture which, despite the board’s best efforts to suppress it, had emerged on its own reserves and stations. The board regarded this culture as indolent, unhealthy, violent and immoral. Its policies did not target the majority of indigenous people who lived elsewhere. It confined its attention to the camp life it had created itself. Here is a selection of its statements on this issue between 1907 and 1924:
1907: One of the most important questions the Board have to face is that of a large number of half-caste and other children (some of whom are almost white) at the various stations and camps. Under present conditions, though much has been done for some of them as regards primary education, and also (on the Board’s stations) training the girls for domestic duties, they are, to a large extent, growing up in idleness, and under the influence of ill-regulated parents.
1910: For years past, it has been recognized that the various aborigines reserves throughout the state, — and indeed the Board’s stations, — are far from being suitable places in which to bring up young children.
1912: The whole object of the board was to put things into train on lines that would eventually lead to the camps being depleted of their population, and finally the closing of the reserves and camps altogether. The camps and reserves should be made to work out their own salvation and thus a continually increasing charge upon the state would disappear, and a grave scandal and responsibility on the Government cease. But this could never be achieved until the children were removed from the low surroundings of the camps, and placed in a position where they would be sought after for healthy occupations. In that way the children would be saved and the camps abolished. The taking of the children would, of course, be limited to the camps alone.
1914: In referring to the camp life of these aboriginals I ought to say that the intention of the Aborigines Protection Board, as the Vice-President of the Executive Council has said, ever since it was established, was almost entirely to absorb these half-castes and quadroons into the general community. There is no reason why a half-caste or quadroon lad should be kept in a public institution in a state of tutelage when he ought to be working as an ordinary citizen in the community.
1920–21: A continuation of this policy of disassociating the children from camp life must eventually solve the aboriginal problem.
Orthodox historians quote statements like these as if the genocidal intention is clear and enough has been said. But, as the board saw it, the ‘Aboriginal problem’ it faced was not the Aboriginal people as a race but the distinct lifestyle produced on these camps.
Peter Read alleged the aim of the Aborigines Protection Board was to eliminate Aboriginal culture by preventing its transmission from one generation to the next, by ‘the separation of the teaching generation from the learning generation’. In the Link-Up submission, he writes: ‘The board sought to take children as young as possible in order to cut the intergenerational bonds that reproduced Aboriginal culture and communities.’ However, neither the board nor anyone else at the time thought they were dealing with a version of traditional Aboriginal culture and religion. That all belonged to the distant past.
By the 1900s traditional tribal law, ceremonies and rituals were no longer preserved in the Aboriginal communities of New South Wales. The few cultural beliefs and practices remembered by Aboriginal elders were not passed on to the younger generation.
Rather than engaging in some conspiracy to eliminate traditional culture, the Aborigines Protection Board was anxious to preserve any remnants it could find. In 1893, when reports came in of a group of 30 Aborigines designated the ‘last wild tribe’ of New South Wales located in the south-west corner of the colony near Lake Victoria, the board immediately set aside a reserve for its members. The same year, when 98 Aborigines attended a ‘bora’ or traditional initiation ceremony for boys near Warren, and the Barwon River tribes gathered for similar rites at Goondabluie on the Queensland border, the board sent rations for the aged men, women and children. In 1894, the Goondabluie bora ceremony was repeated, only this time it attracted 203 Aborigines for the initiation of 20 youths. The board again sent rations while the ceremonies were underway. However, this was the last mention in the board’s reports of the practice of the ceremonies of traditional culture. In 1904, the manager of Brungle Aboriginal station reported:
During the year the old King (John Nelson) died. It is sad that very little notice was taken of his decease, and that the old customs of the race are fast disappearing, the habits and customs of the white people taking their place.
By this time, the only people seriously interested in traditional culture were white anthropologists. For his major work published in 1904, The Native Tribes of South-east Australia, Alfred William Howitt collected and recorded the last vestiges of traditional culture in visits he made to missions and stations before 1889. ‘Since then,’ he wrote, ‘the native tribes have more or less died, and in the older settlements of South-East Australia the tribal remnants have now almost lost the knowledge of the beliefs and customs of their fathers.’
Instead, the Aborigines in the camps inhabited something quite different. At best, it was a combination of old family loyalties and the missionary ideal of small, patriarchal religious communities governed by a daily timetable decreeing the hours for meals, work, school and religious worship. At worst, it was a violent, chaotic, binge-drinking, sexually promiscuous, heavy-gambling lifestyle little different to the worst remote communities in central and northern Australia today,
One way to examine the culture of these camps is through the perceptions of the Aborigines Protection Board. This approach is obviously limited, since it omits the perspective of the Aborigines, but it is nonetheless imperative if we are to understand why the board acted as it did. By the early 1900s, the board had come to the conclusion that, even though it was originally responsible for creating these camps by providing the sites and the rations that drew people to them, the predominance of low-life culture meant most of them were now unfit for children to grow up in. Their three most serious problems were alcoholism, indolence and sexual abuse.