Defending Country – Indigenous service
Friday 10 May, 2019
Defending Country – Indigenous service – Excerpts from WARTIME Issue 76.
“I would have fought the war my forefathers fought because I think we were right. We were fighting for survival and that has always been a justification for war.”
Indigenous people have fought for country and for nation, from frontier wars to world wars. Aboriginal servicemen and servicewomen serving in the Australian Military forces have often spoken of being part of a long standing, continuous warrior tradition that embodies deep respect for their forebears who fought for their traditional lands.
Against the Act
While Australia was clamouring for recruits to fight for the Empire, there was one group of able-bodied men whose services were not required. Despite this, around 1,000 Aboriginal men volunteered to serve in the First World War, the majority of whom were accepted into the AIF. Observance of the Defence Act 1903 and its 1909 amendment (which allowed only men substantially of European origin to serve their country) was one identifiable reason for the refusal of Aboriginal volunteers. However, the large number who managed to join up demonstrates the pragmatism of recruiters. In 1917 a change in regulations, but significantly not in the Act itself, enabled men with one white parent to enlist in certain circumstances. This was followed by a spike in enlistments, although Aboriginal enlistment, like general enlistment was irreversibly declining.
Race and Service
The Australian home front was one where citizens were carefully distinguished and denied rights based on their race. Matters of race were central to Indigenous men’s attempts to enlist for military service. The Australian Imperial Force (AIF) was influenced by the “white Australia’ policy and remained determined to keep the military force white.
“Why did I go to war? Well, Australia is more my country than yours. I just wanted to fight for it, so away I went with my cobbers…. Australia is God’s country, isn’t it, and don’t let anyone tell you it isn’t.” Aboriginal man, Private Leslie to the Sydney Daily Telegraph.
So why did Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander men volunteer to fight for a country that clearly viewed them as second-class citizens on the basis of their race?
Aboriginal family members have discussed the motivations behind their fathers’ and grandfathers’ decisions to enlist. Ray Minniecon discusses the service of his grandfathers. “My grandfather was in World War I. He was in the 11th Light Horse, which is a Queensland regiment… it had a lot of black fellas in it, actually. My other grandfather was in there too, and his name was John Geary. I think they were looking for an opportunity to make some money, have a bit of excitement, perhaps get away from the poverty and the situations they were involved in at the time…You had to say you were brought up by a white man in order to get enlisted.”
This suggests that Indigenous men probably signed up for the same reasons as other young men: for travel and adventure, the offer of a regular wage, benefits and because their brothers and mates had signed up, however their enlistment was dependent on attestations that they were assimilated into white Australia.
Many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander men hope that military service would allow them access to other aspects of citizenship and to rights that were regularly curtailed by the various Protection Acts in place across the country. Oppressive regulatory and bureaucratic regimes governed the lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. However, returning home after service meant a return to living under extensive state control.
Back to being black
For Indigenous men who enlisted with the ambition that it would afford better recognition of their rights were sorely disappointed. A Cherbourg man in Queensland wrote in 1935:
There were three of us went to the great war out of my family – one was killed. I always thought that fighting for our King and country would make me a naturalised British subject and a man with freedom in the country but… they place me under the act and put me on a settlement like a dog. It seems as if the chief protector things that a returned soldier doesn’t want justice.
Many black diggers did not receive the entitlements afforded to other returned soldiers, and soldier settlement schemes resulted in the removal of Aboriginal people from their land.
For all that is disturbing in history, Aboriginal family members remain extremely proud of the legacies of their fathers and grandfathers who served. It is these Indigenous men that we must honour, alongside other soldiers, for serving our country.