UPDATE JULY 10 2019: Today’s announcement that the Queensland government will pay $190 million in stolen wages to about 10,000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who had their pay given to the state under historical Protection Acts, brings a long running legal battle to a close. While the settlement (less than half what some historians say is owed) addresses one element of the act, there is much that simple cannot be redressed . The act controlled the minutest aspects of Indigenous Australians’ lives: where they could live, where they could travel and who they could marry. As much as wages, lives were stolen. The following piece, from 2017, explores this through the eyes of one who experienced it.

Roy Savo was born in Mapoon, in far north Queensland, a few hours south of Punsand Bay where the arrow head pointing at Papua New Guinea chips off into the Torres Strait islands. Both of his parents worked on the Mapoon mission, a perpetually underfunded Presbyterian mission whose industrial school became the destination for scores of children stolen from the surrounding peoples — including the Mpakwithi, Taepithiggi, Thaynhakwith, Warrangku, Wimarangga and Yupungathi peoples. They were converted to Christianity and put to work. By the time Savo was born, in June 1939, Mapoon’s various attempts at self-sufficiency were floundering, and the place could only survive thanks to “compulsory financial contributions” deducted from the wages of domestic staff and stockmen. 

From the age of 14, Savo was taken to Bramwell Station to work. Speaking to Crikey, he describes his employer there, Ron Heinman, as “the best boss” as well as “the end of the good bosses”. He worked happily for two years — “cattle work, mustering, rounding and all that” — before droving down from Mitchell River to Charters Towers, and eventually being sent to work at Wurung Station.

“You just went where they sent you, you didn’t have any control over your life,” Savo said. “Your life wasn’t yours.” 

Wurung was very different to Bramwell, where Savo said he was treated as an equal. In addition to physically punishing work and long hours, Savo and the other Indigenous workers on the station were treated “like second class citizens”.  

“We were not allowed to sit with the white stockmen for tea,” he said.

The Aboriginals Preservation and Protection Act was struck the same year Savo was born, and like previous “protection acts” in Queensland (and equivalent acts in other states), it ensured that no Indigenous person under it (roughly half the Indigenous population in the state) could decide the reality of their own life.  Where they worked, who they could marry, where they could travel — these were all determined by the state.

Dr Ros Kidd, who has written scores of articles and several books on work done under protection acts, describes it as a “conscripted workforce”. 

“If people were taken under government control could be sent out to work , they had no rights to decide what work they would do, what payment they received, or how long they were there,” she told Crikey. ” If you deserted from work — if you were mistreated or just wanted to see your family — they would bring you back in chains. You were always under threat of being sent to Palm Island, where you may never see your family again. 

“If you have no control over your labour, your pay or how long you are engaged, that’s pretty much conscription,” Kidd said. “I think Apartheid is a very close parallel.” 

Savo goes further.

“We were slaves, in a sense,” he said. “We had no say over our lives, we were teenagers getting up at 4am and working till 9 at night some days. And they just call you ‘ boy’. No one ever called me Roy.” 

Significantly, protection acts also controlled Indigenous workers’ wages and savings. Their wages were usually paid into a trust that they couldn’t access. Very often, this money was never accessed by who had earned it.

“We never saw any money from it, because we didn’t know anything about money, ” he said. “You got your breakfast, lunch and dinner, and that was it.” 

Kidd said it was widely understood (and recorded) among the rural protectors that, year after year, many stations in Queensland would not have been able to function without this cheap Indigenous labour, enforced on pain of potential incarceration. Savo said there was no question that he could just ask for his wages. 

“You weren’t allowed to ask questions. You didn’t say anything, unless you were asked,” he said. “Today people wouldn’t believe what happened to us — we were slaves, basically a step up from being an animal. But it really happened.”

Savo applied to be exempted from the Protection Act in 1961. Sometime in 1962, his wish was granted. He took up work in the railways of far north Queensland. In November of the next year, the Mapoon mission was closed. The population who had been forcibly placed there years before were now obstructing a potentially significant Bauxite mine, and so had to be forcibly removed.

A handful of Mapoon residents and their children, named in a “removal order” initiated by the director of Native Affairs, were sent north to New Mapoon on the Cape York Peninsula. Behind them, their homes burned.

Peter Fray

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