Black against White [27 June 1936]

[Editor: A report on a lecture given by the Chief Protector of Aborigines, Auber Octavius Neville. Published in The West Australian, 27 June 1936.]

Black against White

History of Aborigines.

Address by Chief Protector.

An interesting survey of the relations between the aborigines and white settlers in Western Australia since the first settlement was given last night by the Chief Protector of Aborigines (Mr. A. O. Neville) in a paper read at a meeting of the Western Australian Historical Society in the Karrakatta Club Hall.

When the first settlers arrived in Australia there were about 300,000 aborigines scattered about the continent, he said. Western Australia contained about 55,000. For 50 years and more the blacks outnumbered the whites and, had their tribal organisation permitted concerted action, their opposition would have been a serious bar to development. In the valleys of the South-West alone there were 13,000 untutored savages surrounding the small group of whites who landed from the Parmelia in 1829. Governor Stirling issued a proclamation regarding the treatment of natives on June 18, 1829. This stated inter alia that the protection of law belonged to all people in the territory and threatened prosecution to all who dealt unlawfully with the natives. The aborigines, however, proved friendly enough. From the beginning they assisted exploring parties and this happy relationship continued until about 1830.

Gradually, however, the aborigines came to depend upon the white man’s food and began to beg, Mr. Neville said. Following the advice of the authorities, settlers withheld their charity and the natives became cunning thieves, acquiring a taste for beef and mutton. Early in November, 1830, the first black was shot. Natives were detected robbing a house. They hurried into the bush with their plunder and the Colonial Secretary (Mr. Peter Brown) accompanied by Mr. G. F. Moore and a few soldiers pursued and overtook them. In the ensuing conflict one native was killed, three wounded and seven taken prisoners. The prisoners were released and it was hoped that the sharp lesson would serve as a warning. The natives’ first murder of a white man appears to have been that of a man named McKenzie on the Murray River. A second murder occurred in 1830. A man named Smedley detected a native stealing potatoes from a garden on the banks of Melville Water. He shot him. Shortly afterwards a party of natives surrounded the house and murdered a servant named Entwistle. He was killed on his doorstep before the eyes of his two small sons, who rushed into the house and hid underneath the bed, thus escaping the notice of the natives.

The conflict grows.

Relations between the two races had now become a problem, Mr. Neville continued. The natives themselves began to realise they were being dispossessed. Their group waters were taken over by the white man, their spirit places desecrated and their totem foods destroyed. They could not join other groups outside tribal boundaries and they had enemies of their own colour all around them. Their laws broken down, unlawful matings occurred followed by inevitable retribution and the decimation of the race began in earnest, not so much because of the evil deeds of the white man but simply because of his presence and his gradual acquisition of the former happy hunting grounds of the natives. The outrages which did occur were mostly attributable to well-known individual natives and not to groups.

It was the custom at this time to send two soldiers to every isolated settler but later the soldiers were withdrawn. The settlers themselves were becoming suspicious and looking for methods to oppose the natives. About the middle of 1832 a police force was established, with several aboriginal members, for controlling, managing and civilising the natives. Captain Ellis, a retired officer of the 14th Regiment, was appointed superintendent. Shortly afterwards rationing stations were established at Mt. Eliza, the Murray, Augusta, King George’s Sound and at the Upper Swan, and a daily wheat allowance was made.

Attacks on settlers continued and more than once determined bands attacked one or other of the military posts, hurling their spears through the windows and showing considerable daring and disregard of the soldiers’ firearms, Mr. Neville continued. In June, 1832, a meeting was held at Guildford and resolutions passed expressed the opinion that the Colony would have to be abandoned if steps were not taken to protect property. On the whole white women enjoyed comparative immunity from the natives and while depredations were being committed in some quarters in other parts natives continued peaceful. The “Wallace” of the West Australian aborigines was a man named Yagan, an intelligent, sagacious and brave leader, but often insolent and violent. After he had been concerned in a murder a price was set on his head, dead or alive. Another notorious native, Midgegooroo, was captured and executed. During this time many natives were shot by parties of whites hunting for Yagan. Throughout these troubles the native code was a life for a life. The Government, however, re-issued the 1829 proclamation protecting them. Eventually, the notorious Yagan was treacherously killed by two lads, one of whom lost his life in the affray. For a while depredations were discontinued but when they started again the culmination was the series of incidents which led up to the Battle of Pinjarra.

Battle of Pinjarra.

The position had now become really serious. The Home Government, through the Governor, issued many contradictory notices which were not helpful to the people on the spot. Eventually, in October 1834, Captain Ellis decided to take a body of police to the Murray to apprehend certain native murderers. An affray known as the Battle of Pinjarra, occurred at a ford in the Murray River and about 30 natives were killed. Captain Ellis was wounded and died shortly afterwards. To avoid a repetition Sir James Stirling formulated a plan for civilising the natives. A home under Mr. F. Armstrong, a settler who understood the native language, was instituted at the foot of Mt. Eliza on Mount’s Bay-road. The intention was to afford protection to all natives and to provide and supply medical aid and food.

Pacification near Perth, however, was followed by trouble in the York district where it was openly stated that settlement would have to be abandoned. Stern measures were taken and by 1838 they were beginning to have some effect. A native prison was set up on Rottnest in 1839. Missionary efforts had also started, but were not at first successful. The Home Government now took definite steps to grapple with the native problem. Paid district protectors were appointed and the number of native constables increased.

Relations between the natives and whites improved greatly during the next decade, Mr. Neville continued. The Rottnest prison, which continued until 1905 or 1906, proved a useful institution and natives who served there did not offend again. Hitherto they had lain low for a while after committing a crime and then reappeared without suffering punishment. Systematic enforcement of the law soon taught them to be more circumspect. A third factor in the better relations was the increasing influence of religious denominations, the establishment of native schools and missionary activities. The Wesleyans were the most successful in these early missionary efforts and they had established a native school in Perth by 1841. The Church of England founded schools at Perth, Fremantle and Guildford. Tragedies however had not ceased. In the forties the murder of Mr. George Layman led Colonel Molloy and his soldiers to exact bitter revenge. In 1846 the Roman Catholic Church undertook missionary work and New Norcia was founded.

In his concluding remarks Mr. Neville briefly related the provisions made in the North-West. He said that if ever there was a time when allegations of slavery might with some justice been levelled against the colonists it was during the period in which blacks supplied labour in the pearling industry, but this passed with the introduction of modern diving dress, and the importation of Asiatics. The incidents of the ’eighties led the Government to appoint a Commission to inquire into the treatment of natives and later the “first real protective measure framed in the interests of the natives since the foundation of the Colony” was passed. This Act constituted a board which acted for ten years when it was superseded by a Government Department.

The West Australian (Perth, WA), 27 June 1936, p. 19

Editor’s notes:
inter alia = [Latin] “among other things”

Rottnest = Rottnest Island, an island off the south-west coast of Western Australia

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