The Protectors: a journey through whitefella past
Allen & Unwin
For much of John Howard’s reign as Prime Minister debate on Australian history took a polarised view: the Black Armband History versus the White Revisionist’s History. The culmination of which was John Howard’s refusal to apologise to the Stolen Generation. With Kevin Rudd’s 2008 apology, and the bi-partisan support for it, it seemed that that debate had ended, that a compromise had been achieved. But has it? In his book The Protectors: a journey through whitefella past, Stephen Gray addresses this question by asking what are we apologising about?
Starting with the apology and working backwards, Gray looks at the lives of some of the protectorates and patrol officers in the NT, the people involved in implementing the policy. Through showing their lives he asks readers to imagine what the apology would mean to them? What it means to be acting out in best intentions? An approach he himself takes: ‘the reason why the “Aboriginal problem” has always been so utterly intractable in Australian political life is that it is truly foundational. It goes back to our beginnings – the original smear, or sin, of colonisation, from which everything else flows … It was from that original moment which established political relations as they have been ever since – White Australians with the power, Aboriginal people without.’
And so, after preliminary discussions, we begin with Harriet Douglas arriving in 1870 as a sixteen-year-old girl with her Dad, Captain Douglas, the new governor of the town of Darwin. We learn of the early years of Darwin, with its oppressive heat and drinking, with its Chinese and Aboriginal labour. We learn of Harriet’s defence later in life of the methods used by those opening the frontier. We learn of the language that was used – euphemisms for killing, massacre, rape and so on. The twisted poetry, like that of Constable William Wilshire: ‘Martini Henry carbines…talking English in the silent majesty of those great eternal rocks.’
Readers witness Baldwin Spencer as he arrives in Darwin in 1912 as the second Chief Protectorate of the Northern Territory. His role meant that he controlled the ‘movement of the natives and their employment by settlers’. It was a role in which Spencer did more to protect those in urban areas then those living in the bush, those still living traditionally. Spencer, influenced by Social Darwinism, came to form the opinion that full-blooded Aboriginal people would eventually die out. As Gray points out, there’s no proof that Spencer did anything to actively pursue that genocidal logic; but he held those beliefs.
It’s a belief carried through to Doctor Cecil Cook, one-time Chief Protector of the NT, and often referred to as the most hated man in the Territory. At the 1937 conference of chief protectors, he expounded on the notion of ‘breeding out the colour’. Yet, at the same time, introduced the policy of exemption which meant Aboriginal people could be free to live like the white man. He also created the Aboriginal Benefit Funds, a form of workers compensation – while holding thoroughly abhorrent racists views. As one Darwin Stolen Generation remarked, he was an enigma. To Gray, Cook comes across as a man whose good intentions had evil consequences.
Which brings us to the crux of the book: the notion of good intentions, a somewhat lame excuse but the grounds in which many people – from the Missionaries to the Chief Protectorates and Patrol Officer of the 1940s, 50s and 60s – use when reflecting back on those days. As Gray shows in interviews with people like Patrol Officer Colin Macleod, in the legal testimonies in the two Stolen Generation cases, there is a truth to what they believe that cannot be ignored. Even in Hasluck assimilation, the idea began as a policy whereby people weren’t treated on race but rather on welfare situation (a policy approach that is still apparent today). It was a policy that was based around some notion of equality, but was as clumsy, messy and as far removed as the day-to-day realities of its implementation were.
And herein lies a problem. As Gray admits, in understanding the motivation of perpetrators (i.e. the protectors and patrol officers) you risk forgiving them and therefore undermining the impact of their policy. It’s a risk that Gray deems worthwhile – and he is right. In order to truly understand where we are heading as a nation in relation to Aboriginal issues we need to stop merely blaming one side or the other; rather, we need a more nuanced approach. An approach in which we see and recognise the truth of those who witnessed and experienced that period.
It doesn’t mean that we do not criticise the policy. There is much criticism in Gray’s book of the policies of that past and he states numerous times his feeling on the worth and value of the apology. But he argues that we learn from them and take it on board. Gray concludes, in the second last chapter of the book: ‘the truth is, I believe, that on the question of our treatment of Aboriginal people we are still largely silent. We did, for a while, make space in our public discourse for the voices of Aboriginal people, who have told us at length what was done to them and what they have had to suffer in its wake. We heard them a little, but then we could not bear to hear any more- the whole thing was too shameful and unpleasant- and so we have turned away. We might be more opening to hearing these stories if we were more willing to open our own cupboards and acknowledge our own stories, and all that they imply.’
Perhaps this is the new history path we need to head down