Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Alice Springs’ first Aboriginal hospital – or concentration camp?

The documented history of Alice Springs’ town camps is patchy as to places and dates, and yet historically sweet, if not downright rich with the recurrent heavy-handed gestures of whitefellas.  Like an epidemiology, there appears to be a pattern, but it will take an expert more than me to translate it to text with some justice. 

The town camps recrudesce with perplexing (to most outsiders, but to me, pleasing) inevitability, but rarely if ever simply so, as in re-forming in the same place after an x-year hiatus.  Indeed, “the same place” – any place, for that matter – is one of the elements that just floats in the town-camp pattern, resisting isolation as a single empirical datum.  Time likewise appears malleable here, surprisingly so – while the camps are, of course, intrinsically mobile “places”, the two I want to reconstruct in words here have been of a reasonable permanence, if not also of bi-cultural historical importance.  Plus, we are not talking ancient history, nor beyond the black stump – 1927 to 1960 is my ballpark date range, and the locations are all well within present-day suburban Alice Springs.

In case it’s not clear, I’m framing this somewhat artfully as epidemiology, rather than epistemology, for a reason – a poignant one, yet one that seems to have escaped whitefella general knowledge.   But I should say now that there is no literal, Ebola-like metaphor or comparison intended.  Indeed, as we will see, the epidemic seems to have long ago declared a truce, of sorts, when the concentration camp was “liberated”.

East-side and west-side camps

As a long-time (but recently, now former) Melburnian, one of Alice Springs’ most pleasing aspects is its east-west (of the Todd) bi-polarity (Melbourne’s is, of course, “north” and “south” of the Yarra).  

It shouldn’t come as any surprise that there were two competing, or at least simultaneous, town camps in the late 1920s and early 1930s – an east-side one, on the bank of the Todd, just (half a mile, or 800 metres) south-east of the present-day CBD (it is unclear whether north or south of Annie Meyers Hill/Tharrarltneme), and a rather more emphatically west-side one about 2 miles (3km) west of town, at or in the general area of a town camp famous in the 1950s called Morris Soak.  

But sorry, west-siders – after that mention, I’m shortly going to snub you for the rest of this post.  I will mention, however, that the west-side/Morris Soak camp was about two miles from town possibly for a reason, as a two-mile radius (from the Residency on the corner of Hartley and Parsons streets) exclusion zone for Aborigines (other than employees going to/from/about work, during daylight hours only) operated from 2 Jan 1930 (Fiona Coughlan MA thesis, "Aboriginal town camps and Tangentyere Council" p 36).  However, the camp was clearly there before this, so the law – as is often the way, although they don’t teach you this in law school – merely codified the status quo, which is turn was a necessary by-product of the geography of apartheid – the underclass live apart (of course), but for practical reasons (whitefella access to a nearly-slave labour force, without private transport), not too far beyond the pale.  I call this the “just outside” shanty sweet spot.

East-side concentration camp?

The east-side camp is a tempting topic for several reasons, starting with its defiance, by its very existence, of the 2-mile radius prohibition law*.  Well within this radius, Aborigines would be doing things other than whitefella work by day, and doing their own business there by night, to boot.  But again, the camp was there first, so perhaps it was “grandfathered” against the letter of the new law. 

Certainly, the whitefellas had a fair reason for some leniency here; with the east-side camp seemingly being a shoe-in for the Central Australian Tidy Town (-Camp) award of 1927. Here’s the breathless “reveal” (as they say on reality TV) of the camp’s makeover, in the words of a government official:

“the camp has been laid out in blocks, subdivided by streets, and the natives have vied one with the other in building up-to-date wurleys.  They cleaned up the deserted camp and now take pride in their new surroundings.” (NT Administration’s Annual Report 1926-27, cited Rowse p 71)
If this is not just official humbug, then it seems to me that the Australian home renovation mania (which always has been personally inexplicable), might have similar deep roots, as AFL football does to marngrook (“Always start with the worst humpy in the best Mission”, anyone?).  And even if it’s just fluff, the phrase “up-to-date wurleys” excites me anyway; it sounds like a jazz-age reference to some fancy lightweight camping kit (the acquiring and/or coveting of which I do find somewhat more explicable than jumping on a treadmill of cosmetically-enhanced ruins that are dated as soon as you finish, aka home renovations).

But in any event, the Central Australian Tidy Town (-Camp) award was not to last (and because it was proverbial anyway, the eastside camp was to be spared that dubious honour of that long-ago Tidy Town award plaque swinging in the breeze at the town limits (It’s time to renovate your “Welcome To X” sign, folks - dare I suggest that houses can age more gracefully than provincial, boastful signs).  1927’s “up-to-date wurleys” were, by 1933, to be no more than utilitarian cells in an isolation camp, or worse, during an epidemic (I note here that – again – it is unclear whether the 1927 and 1933 camps were in the exact same location; however, they were both definitely in the inner-east side, by the Todd).

Tim Rowse, in White Flour, White Power, Cambridge UP (1998) p 77 writes up the “Aboriginal medical hut” in the east-side camp as a very basic proto-hospital.  And indeed, there was absolutely nothing, in terms of medical treatment personnel or facilities available to Aborigines in Alice Springs before this.   John Flynn’s fine stone 1926 proto-hospital building, Adelaide House, which still stands in the middle of Todd Mall, was for whites only.  

However, in his autobiography, Medicine Man (1959), Alice Springs’ only doctor in the early 1930s, FW McCann, places the “Aboriginal medical hut” at the centre of a much less salutary place than a basic proto-hospital.  At the time, there was an epidemic of gonorrhoeal ophthalmia among Aborigines at the east-side camp, a disease of the eye that could cause permanent blindness, with a venereal connection, but for present purposes apparently spread by flies.  The whitefellas’ acute concern, as you may have guessed, was to prevent this spreading to their own eyes.  But I’ll leave the rest mostly to Dr McCann’s own words.  Before doing so, I should stress that he was apparently one of the more enlightened whitefellas in power around Alice Springs at the time, and certainly much less racist than John Flynn.**

“Drastic action was certainly needed urgently, since before long there were more than one hundred cases in the blacks’ camp alone, and it was easy to picture what a conflagration there would be if they decided to wander off into various parts of the country in their infective state.  There was, as well, the ever-present danger of the disease being carried to the white population of the town, particularly by those blacks who were casually employed in various jobs around homes [and who also, apparently, wouldn’t let a spot of serious eye disease, if not casual blindness, stop them from going to work] …

Thanks to the initiative of the district engineer – a well-known Territory character, ‘DD’ Smith, who was prepared to take action without waiting for any formal approval from Canberra – a form of barbed-wire compound was hastily erected and all communication between the native camp and the township stopped.  A hut was built inside the compound to serve as a medical centre, but the best that could be done by way of a nursing service was to install an old pensioner volunteer# as superintendent, matron, and cook combined.”

FW McCann, Medicine Man (1959), p 164.

As you would expect, the disease nonetheless spread – perhaps the flies even jumped the barbed-wire fence to the white CBD/west-side (I may be being facetious here; possibly the disease-thingy could only live on the fly at very short range, like a Bluetooth connection).  Dr McCann's book suggests that it was close proximity, if not person-to-person contact, emanating from an Aboriginal house-maid who should have been inside that barbed-wire compound, which caused a 12 y.o. white boy, “the son of a well-known family”, to get the disease from his house-maid.  Scores of other Aborigines were also infected when the disease spread to “The Bungalow”, then at the Old Telegraph Station. And then – somehow – the epidemic just stopped in its tracks.  A “few” Aborigines did permanently lose their eyesight, while the fate of the 12 y.o. white boy (the only white victim mentioned by McCann) is unknown.

As I said near the start, this epidemic seems to have ended in a vague truce.  It would be nice, of course, to have an account of that happy day when the barbed-wire was torn down, and the isolation/concentration camp was “liberated”.  But I may be dreaming here – that happy day might well have been the same one when the former showpiece camp of only a few years earlier, was unceremoniously torn down, and its residents forcibly moved on (a familiar pattern)

Finally, I will venture to say that this lack of a “liberation” story – as a closing bookend to the strange, short history of the inner east-side town camp – is surely a notable gap; a deep whitefella shame.  And part of a pattern too, of course. 

Even if there was a “liberation” story in general circulation, that would not be the end of it, either. At the conclusion of Albert Camus’ The Plague (1960 translation by Stuart Gilbert), there is a moment of liberation, of mass jubilation, that the book’s ostensible narrator/conscience Dr Rieux can feel part of, on one level.  But he also, more or less alone, knows that the plague is never truly vanquished, and so resolves to “compile this chronicle”.  I hope that the horrors of the inner east-side camp, too, will one day live large enough allow us to see the pattern.


* Pauline Cockrill, Healing the Heart, 60 years of Alice Springs Hospital 1939-1999, p 3 quotes Rowse p77, but also inserts an erroneous gloss that the east-side camp was “about two miles” from town.  This error is logical enough for anyone with the 2-mile law in mind, but when the logic is followed through, it becomes an empirical quagmire.  A camp on the east-bank of the Todd, about two miles from the CBD, would place it near either the Old Telegraph Station, or the present-day casino - but she doesn't specify either site.  Cockrill’s gratuitous extra tidbit here is the tip of an immensely frustrating (for me) iceberg of (often unintentional) misinformation on Central Australia.  Why is it so hard, apparently, for whitefellas to specifically check-off fairly-recently vanished sites with their present-day incarnations? Cockrill, like many others, choses to “camp out” in the data, rather than build a more lasting structure – which is a cultural irony indeed). 

** Charles Duguid vouches for McCann in Doctor Goes Walkabout (1972) p 102 (and more ambiguously, p 104), while John Flynn’s racism is cogently also put by Charles Duguid in Doctor Goes Walkabout on pp 97, 100, 104, 125 and 146.  Maisie McKenzie, in Flynn’s Last Camp (1985) pp 59-61, attempts a defence of Flynn against Duguid’s allegations (without naming Duguid).  However, she doesn’t grapple with what it for me the crux of the matter:  that Flynn’s Australian Inland Mission contemptuously disregarded the donor’s intent in the (Mrs Henrietta) Smith of Dunesk Bequest – to help Aborigines (see Duguid pp 122-123).  This Bequest appears to have provided a large proportion of the early AIM’s funding for its whites-only operations.  In Flynn’s defence, he was far from being the only cynical “nigger (dollar) farmer” with an outwardly respectable occupation in Central Australia at that time, if not also now (especially per the NT Intervention since 2007).       

# Rowse p 77 has him paid 10s a week.

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