Reading 3: Jack McPhee & Edward Eyre
The ramifications of the choice about seeking exemption status are well described by Jack McPhee, who speaks of the period in Western Australia between 1939 and 1941. The doctrine at the time was 'integration' rather than 'assimilation', but the principles as they applied to the seeking of exemption were to remain very much the same until the 1970s. Jack spoke of his experience as follows:
I went into Nullagine town to see if I could hunt up a different kind
of work (from prospecting) and while I was there I got into trouble
with the Aborigines Department again. The policeman said to me, 'You'
McPhee, aren't you?'
'I've had a report that you own land and stock.'
'Do you have any rights?'
'Are you exempt from the Native Affairs Act?'
'I don't think so, I don't think so'
'Have you ever been given an Exemption Certificate ?'
'Well Jack, that means you've got no rights according to the laws of this country. Because you're a native it' s illegal for you to own land or stock. You can only own those things if you're made exempt by the government. You see, if you' re granted an exemption certificate, it puts you on the same level as a whiteman. It means you can do these things and not get into trouble. I think you'd better put in for it, you strike me as the kind of bloke who wants to get on in the world, and you won't without it.'
The policeman then went on to explain to me that having an exemption might also make a difference to the wages I was paid ill ended up working for someone. You see in those days people could pay blackmen whatever they liked and get away with it. Some were never paid at all. It was either cheap labour or free labour in those days. I told the policeman I would have to think about it as I couldn't see why it was necessary. Why did I need an Exemption Certificate just because I was a different colour? It made no sense to me at all. You could tell it was the government' s idea, they were always thinking of things that didn't make any sense.
While I was in Nullagine I heard a rumour about a thing you could apply for called Maternity Allowance. I thought I might be able to apply for it for Susie for our last child. I made some enquiries and was told that I would have a much better chance of getting it if l had an Exemption Certificate.
It seemed I couldn't get away from that bloody certificate, so in the end I decided to write away to Mr Neville (the Protector of Aborigines) and offered to buy one from him.
Neville then wrote to me ... and said before he could grant me an Exemption I had to meet certain requirements. He advised me to go to Nullagine and see the policeman there...
I went and saw Mick Liddlelow, who was the policeman in Nullagine, and he was very helpful. He told me that if my Exemption was granted I had to promise not to do certain things. I wasn't allowed to associate with the ngayarda banjutha Aborigines, I wasn't allowed to live in a native camp, I wasn't even allowed to take part in a corroboree, I wasn't even allowed to associate with any Aboriginal people who didn't have an exemption. In return, the government would allow me to have drinking rights, as long as I showed my exemption if l was asked for it. I would be allowed to sell stock and land, and I would be on the same standard as a whiteman ... if I broke any of my promises I could easily lose my Exemption, in which case I would become a native again.
Out of all those things what really got me was the bit about corroborees. I had such fond memories of dancing with no clothes on, of being decorated, of hearing the women and men singing. I couldn't see anything wrong with that at all. It meant I had to give away all that my mother belonged to. I felt upset about that. I didn't think I should have to make the choice, but I agreed to it all because I wanted something better for my family, and at the time that seemed the only way to get it...
While we were at Cooke' s Creek a policeman was sent out to check on our living conditions. Somehow Neville had got word that I was associating with Aborigines. To tell you the truth, I had been. I often had other Mulbas around my camp. They'd call in, stay a few days and leave. Some of them were my friends and relations and I was just being friendly like anyone would. Luckily they'd all gone when the policeman came out...[the policeman reported that the living conditions were all right but he mentioned that Jack and an Aboriginal man (whose exemption certificate turned out to have been cancelled) were in a business partnership]... This got me into more trouble because Neville sent me a letter saying that I shouldn't associate with Clancy ... [or] share a business with him. Clancy was like a brother to me, I found that very hard to take. Neville said that unless Clancy and I split up he would cancel my Exemption...
When war was declared I tried to join up but they wouldn't take me because I only had one good eye, so I tried to support the fund raising as much as I could... there were some very good people in Nullagine at the time and they didn't draw a distinction with us being Aboriginal or anything like that. They classed us like them, they didn't class us as bush blackfellas.
It was a good time for me and I enjoyed it, but I still felt torn between the white people and the Mulbas. I knew that if I let on to the white people that my heart was really with the Mulbas, I'd be falling out with them. It was very hard to be a blackman and a whiteman. It seemed you had to choose one way or the other, no-one would let you be both. The problem was, if you chose to be a Mulba you and your family never had any rights at all and you could kiss any hopes of getting on goodbye. Yet if you chose to be a whiteman, you had rights, but you couldn't mix with everyone. It was very, very hard.5
Royal Commission in Aboriginal Deaths in Custody
Australian government Publishing Service Canberra 1991
Full report available on the web.
The famous explorer Edward Eyre set out to explain why
Aborigines attacked frontier settlers. He gave seven reasons.
EJ. Eyre, Journals of Expeditions of discovery etc.,
2 vol., London, 1845, 1, PP.167-72.
First, That our being in their country at all is, so far as their ideas of right and wrong are concerned, altogether an act of intrusion and aggression.
Secondly, That for a very long time they cannot comprehend our motives for coming amongst them, or our object in remaining, and may very naturally imagine that it can only be for the purpose of dispossessing them.
Thirdly, That our presence and settlement, in any particular locality, do, in point of fact, actually dispossess the aboriginal inhabitants.
Fourthly, That the localities selected by Europeans, as best adapted for the purposes of cultivation, or of grazing, are those that would usually be equally valued above others, by the natives themselves, as places of resort, or districts in which they could most easily procure their food. This would especially be the case in those parts of the country where water was scarce, as the European always locates himself close to this grand necessary of life. The injustice, therefore, of the white man's intrusion upon the territory of the aboriginal inhabitant, is aggravated greatly by his always occupying the best and most valuable portion of it.
That as we ourselves have laws, customs, or prejudices, to which we attach considerable importance, and the infringement of which
we consider either criminal or offensive, so have the natives theirs,
equally, perhaps, dear to them, but which, from our ignorance or heedlessness, we may be continually violating, and can we wonder that they
sometimes exact the penalty of infraction? do not we do the same? or is ignorance a more valid excuse for civilized man than the savage?
What are the relations usually subsisting between the Aborigines and settlers, locating in the more distant, and less populous
parts of the country: those who have placed themselves upon the outskirts
of civilization, and who, as they are in some measure beyond
the protection of the laws, are also free from their restraints? A settler
going to occupy a new station, removes, perhaps, beyond all other Europeans,
taking with him his flocks, and his herds, and his men, and locates himself
wherever he finds water, and a country adapted for his purposes. At
the first, possibly, he may see none of the inhabitants of the country
that he has thus unceremoniously taken possession of; naturally alarmed
at the inexplicable appearance, and daring intrusion of strangers,
they keep aloof, hoping, perhaps, but vainly, that the intruders may soon
retire. Days, weeks, or months pass away, and they see them still remaining. Compelled at last, it may be by enemies without, by the want
of water in the remoter districts, by the desire to procure certain kinds
of food, which are peculiar to certain localities, and at particular
seasons of the year, or perhaps by a wish to revisit their country and their
return once more, cautiously and fearfully approaching what is their own-the spot perhaps where they were born, the patrimony that has descended to them through many generations;-and what is the reception that is given them upon their own lands? often they are met by repulsion, and sometimes by violence, and are compelled to retire again to strange and unsuitable localities. Passing over the fearful scenes of horror and bloodshed, that have but too frequently been perpetrated in all the Australian colonies upon the natives in the remoter districts, by the most desperate and abandoned of our countrymen; and overlooking, also, the recklessness that too generally pervades the shepherds and stock-keepers of the interior, with regard to the coloured races, a recklessness that leads them to think as little of firing at a black, as at a
bird, and which makes the number they have killed or the atrocities that have attended the deeds, a matter for a tale, a jest or boast at their pothouse revelries; overlooking these, let us suppose that the settler is actuated by no bad intentions, and that he is sincerely anxious to avoid any collision with the natives, or not to do them any injury, yet under these even comparatively favourable circumstances, what frequently is the result? The settler finds himself almost alone in the wilds, with but few men around him, and these, principally occupied in attending to stock, are dispersed over a considerable extent of country; he finds himself cut off from assistance, or resources of any kind, whilst he has heard fearful accounts of the ferocity, or the treachery of the savage; he therefore comes to the conclusion, that it will be less trouble, and annoyance, and risk, to keep the natives away from his station altogether; and as soon as they make their appearance, they are roughly waved away from their own possessions: should they hesitate, or appear unwilling to depart, threats are made use of, weapons perhaps produced, and a show, at least, is made of an offensive character, even if no stronger measures be resorted to. What must be the natural impression produced upon the mind of the natives by treatment like this? Can it engender feelings otherwise than of a hostile and vindictive kind; or can we wonder that he should take the first opportunity of venting those feelings upon his aggressor?
But let us go even a little further, and suppose the case of
a settler, who, actuated by no selfish motives, and blinded by no fears,
does not discourage or repel the natives upon their first approach;
suppose that he treats them with kindness and consideration (and there are
happily many such settlers in Australia), what recompense can he make them
for the injury he has done, by dispossessing them of their lands,
by occupying their waters, and by depriving them of their supply of food?
He neither does nor can replace the loss. They are sometimes allowed,
it is true, to frequent again the localities they once called their own,
but these are now shorn of the attractions which they formerly possessed-they
are no longer of any value to them-and where are they to procure
the food that ~the wild animals once supplied them with so abundantly? In
the place of the kangaroo, the emu, and the wallabie, they now see only
the flocks and herds of the strangers, and nothing is left to them but
the prospect of dreary banishment, or a life of misery and privation. Can
it then be a matter of wonder, that under such circumstances as these,
and whilst those who dispossessed them, are revelling in plenty near
them, they should
sometimes be tempted to appropriate a portion of the superabundance they see around them, and rob those who had first robbed them? The only wonder is, that such acts of reprisal are so seldom committed. Where is the European nation, that thus situated, and finding themselves, as is often the case with the natives, numerically and physically stronger than their oppressors, would be guilty of so little retaliation, of so few excesses? The eye of compassion, or of philanthropy, will easily discover the anomalous and unfavourable position of the Aborigines of our colonies, when brought into contact with the European settlers. They are strangers in their own land, and possess no longer the usual means of procuring their daily subsistence; hungry, and famished, they wander about begging among the scattered stations, where they are treated with
a familiarity by the men living at them, which makes them become familiar in turn, until, at last, getting impatient and troublesome, they are roughly repulsed, and feelings of resentment and revenge are kindled.
This, I am persuaded, is the cause and origin of many of the affrays with the natives, which are apparently inexplicable to us. Nor ought we to wonder, that a slight insult, or a trifling injury, should sometimes hurry them to an act apparently not warranted by the provocation. Who can tell how long their feelings had been rankling in their bosoms; how long, or how much they had borne; a single drop will make the cup run over, when filled up to the brim; a single spark will ignite the mine, that, by its explosion, will scatter destruction around it; and may not one foolish indiscretion, one thoughtless act of contumely or wrong, arouse to vengeance the passions that have long been burning, though concealed? With the same dispositions and tempers as ourselves, they are subject to the same impulses and infirmities. Little accustomed to restrain their feelings, it is natural, that when goaded beyond endurance, the effect should be violent, and fatal to those who roused them;-the smothered fire but bursts out the stronger from having been pent up; and the rankling passions are but fanned into wilder fury, from having been repressed.
There are also other considerations to be taking into the account, when we form our opinion of the character and conduct
of the natives, to which we do not frequently allow their due weight
and importance, but which will fully account for aggressions
having been committed by natives upon unoffending individuals, and even
sometimes upon those who have treated them kindly. First, that the
native considers it a virtue to revenge an injury. Secondly, if he cannot
revenge it upon the actual individual who injured him, he thinks that the offence
is equally expiated if he can do so upon any other of the same race;
he does not look upon it as the offence of an individual, but as an
act of war on the part of the nation, and he takes the first opportunity of
making a reprisal upon anyone of the enemy who may happen to fall in his way;
no matter whether that person injured him or not, or whether he knew
of the offence having been committed, or the war declared. And
is not the custom of civilized powers very similar to this? Admitting
that civilization, and refinement, have modified the horrors
of such a system, the principle is still the same. This is the principle that
invariably guides the native in his relations with other native tribes around
him, and it is generally the same that he acts upon in his intercourse
with us. Shall we then arrogate to ourselves the sole power of acting
unjustly, or of judging of what is expedient? And are we to make no allowance
for the standard of right by which the native is guided in the system
of policy he may adopt? Weighing candidly, then, the points to which
reference has been made, can we wonder, that in the outskirts of the colony,
where the intercourse between the native and the European has been
but limited, and where that intercourse has, perhaps, only generated
a mutual distrust; where the objects, the intentions, or the motives
of the white man, can neither be known nor understood, and where the
natural inference from his acts cannot be favourable, can we wonder,
that under such circumstances, and acting from the impression of some
wrong, real or imagined, or goaded on by hunger, which the white man's
presence prevents him from appeasing, the native should sometimes
be tempted to acts of violence or robbery? He is only doing what his
habits and ideas have taught him to think commendable. He is doing what men
in a more civilized state would have done under the same circumstances,
what they daily do under the sanction of the law of nations-a
law that provides not for the safety, privileges, and protection
of the Aborigines, and owners of the soil, but which merely lays down rules
for the direction of the privileged robber in the distribution of
the booty of any newly discovered country.