Aboriginal soldiers: rewarded with racism and discrimination

The Anzac legend will be pushed ad nauseam this year and the next in the 100th anniversary of WWI and Gallipoli. In early January, Sydney’s Daily Telegraph campaigned against British commemorations of WWI which “downplay” Australia’s role fighting for the British Empire.

It even devoted an editorial to Britain’s “snub” of the way “Australians and New Zealanders fought for British freedom and liberty.”

But the supposed freedom and liberty fought for in both world wars was never extended to Aboriginal soldiers who sacrificed for Australia’s rulers.

Aboriginal people were barred from enlisting in WWI, with all men who were not “substantially of European origin or descent” excluded.

But some Aboriginal people did sneak through, either because they were deemed “white enough” or because of the desperation to recruit flesh for the slaughter.

There was a “relaxation” of the regulations in May 1917 as the army struggled to reach recruitment targets, allowing the enlistment of Aboriginal men with one European parent.

At least 400 Aboriginal are known to have enlisted. The real figure is likely higher as race was often not recorded. Three Aboriginal soldiers received awards for bravery—Corporal Albert Knight, William Rawlings and Harry Thorpe. Only Knight made it home. Military historian John Moremon estimates a third of the Aboriginal soldiers sent to the battlefields of WWI were killed.

It is estimated 3000 Aboriginal soldiers joined the armed forces in WWII. Special indigenous regiments were raised in places like the Torres Strait—but unlike soldiers in the regular army, they received only about half the pay.

Racism on return

When Aboriginal soldiers returned from both wars, they continued to face racism and discrimination. They were denied citizenship and were not even counted as human in the census until 1971. Aboriginal people faced demeaning controls on their behaviour under the Protection Acts, with their wages and movement controlled by Protection Boards.

Even after WWII they had a limited right to vote. In NSW, Victoria and SA Aboriginal people could vote in State elections only. But in Queensland, WA and NT this was not allowed. Aboriginal soldiers were refused service in pubs due to segregation.

Many soldiers were granted farmland under soldiers’ settlement schemes after both world wars. But all but a tiny handful of Aboriginal soldiers were denied land. In NSW, only one Aboriginal veteran was successful in gaining a settlement lot after WWI.

To add to the indignity, Aboriginal people were often moved off reserve land where they lived to free up land for the returning soldiers. Following WWII Aboriginal reserve lands including those at Lake Condah and Corranderk were parcelled up and handed to returned white soldiers.

Nineteen Aboriginal people from Lake Condah, in two generations, had served. They included Herbert Staley Lovett, a veteran of both wars. His request for some of the land at Lake Condah after WWII was refused and most of the families there were uprooted and arbitrarily transported to Lake Tyers in Gippsland, 600 kilometres to the east.

Even Reg Saunders, the first Aboriginal solider to rise from private to be a commissioned officer, was denied land in the Western Districts of Victoria by the Soldier Settlement Scheme after WWII.

The racist treatment of Aboriginal soldiers after WWI led to debate amongst Aboriginal activists about whether they should volunteer to serve again in WWII.

The Aborigines Progressive Association led by Bill Ferguson, Pearl Gibbs, and Jack Patten, convened the first national conference of Aboriginal people and dedicated a Day of Mourning for Invasion Day 1938, calling for full Aboriginal citizenship. William Cooper from the Aboriginal Advancement League in Victoria was also involved.

Jack Patten enlisted in the military when WWII started, hoping that if Aboriginal people fought for the nation it would help them win citizenship. But Cooper argued against Aboriginal people serving until they were given full citizenship rights. Bill Ferguson demanded the release of Aboriginal servicemen from the Army in 1944 when the Federal Arbitration Court denied Aboriginal pastoral and agricultural workers award wages.

In 1919, the Queensland Chief Protector of Aborigines had fixed a minimum wage for Aboriginal pastoral workers at about two-thirds of Queensland’s pastoral award.

Today there is an effort to incorporate Aboriginal soldiers into Anzac day marches and commemorations. But there is still no recognition for the Aboriginal people who fought the first war in this country—the frontier battles against the British colonisers and settlers who stole their land. Australia’s rulers still refuse to admit that their invasion of this continent had nothing to do with democracy or freedom—but was based on theft and slaughter for profits.

By Tom Orsag


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