Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are advised that this essay contains references to deceased people
In late October 1959, in a small town in the far northeast of Western Australia, a woman brought her six-month-old to the District Hospital, known locally as the White Hospital. The baby had a bronchial complaint and had begun to choke, but the doctor refused to make an examination and the mother was told to take the child to the Native Hospital, three miles out of town.
Instead, she took her baby to the home of the Department of Native Welfare’s local patrol officer, a K. Johnson. Officer Johnson wasn’t home, but his wife was. Mrs Johnson tried to get hold of the Native Hospital matron, who by now had heard about the incident from another party, and called the white doctor herself. He allegedly refused a second time to see the child and said he’d visit the following morning, so the matron took mother and child to the Native Hospital at the “Three Mile.”
At around 10.30 that night, aware of concern over his failure to see the baby, the doctor went looking for it. Thankfully, the child later recovered, according to a report of the incident written by Officer Johnson and held by the State Records Office of Western Australia. Still, the mother was upset. She had a citizenship certificate (under a 1944 change in WA law, Aboriginal Australians could gain citizenship rights as long as they dissolved “native” associations beyond immediate family, didn’t have active leprosy or venereal disease and could speak English). And, as Officer Johnson pointed out, “a citizenship rights holder is justly entitled to attend the White Hospital for treatment.”
A few days before this incident, another baby had been brought from the Native Hospital to the White after failing to respond to treatment. On this occasion, too, the doctor appears to have refused to see it. Later that same evening, Officer Johnson’s wife brought the child back: its condition was deteriorating. The night sister wouldn’t fetch the doctor, saying he had refused to see the child earlier on. The baby died in Mrs Johnson’s arms just outside the White Hospital.
The baby in the first case was, albeit belatedly, protected by the state and afforded the treatment a citizen was entitled to. The second baby was not an Australian citizen. It was, as the doctor involved wrote in eerily familiar language, “a native non-citizen.” It was outside the state’s protection. Exposed to death.
There are not many people in Wyndham any more: 780, according to the last census. There are, however, a lot of graveyards. There’s the Pioneer Cemetery, a few dozen graves perched on the side of rocky hills overlooking the milky-tea water of the Cambridge Gulf; the Gully Cemetery, resting home of many former workers at the Wyndham Meatworks, and other Wyndham residents (mostly white); a more recently built cemetery around seven miles out of town, where you can find relatives of the current Wyndham folk; and the Afghan cemetery, home to the former Afghan cameleers, who are buried along with their former lead camel, or so it is assumed from the large size of the graves.
Then there is a stretch of fire-charred land, out of town, surrounded by chicken-wire fencing hung with a blackened sign. The site was unmarked until work crews excavating sand or building a golf course — the story is unclear — uncovered human remains: they belonged to former patients of the Native Hospital. A sign was erected to mark the spot, but the site has since been burned and the only word I could make out when I was there in 2017 was “burial.” It’s better than nothing. Locals tell me there are other unmarked graves around town, including just outside the boundaries of the former Native Hospital. When a local Aboriginal corporation, Joorok Ngarni, took over the old hospital buildings in the 1990s, the workers used to rush to get out of there by sundown; too many ghosts.
The Wyndham Native Hospital opened in 1937, which happened to be the year my grandfather passed through Wyndham on his way to London. The resident Wyndham doctor took Pop, a fellow medico, to see the hospital, which was three miles out of town. “The colour question here is very strong,” Pop wrote to my grandmother, “and the whites refuse to have natives in [town] unless absolutely necessary.” (He was not wrong. In a letter written when the hospital was still a proposal, Western Australia’s chief protector of Aborigines, A.O. Neville, suggested it be built out of town so “the susceptibilities of the local whites would not be offended by the presence of diseased natives in town.”) I might never have known about the hospital except that I was writing a novel about a ship’s doctor and, for verisimilitude’s sake, my ship was following the same route as my grandfather’s had, and my doctor visiting some of the same places.
Researching the Wyndham Native Hospital, I came across a list of patients posted online by the Centre for Indigenous Family History Studies. The patients were categorised: “F/B,” “H/C” and “?.” I had to look up the acronyms; they stood for “full-blood” and “half-caste.” I learnt other terms too, like “quadroon” and “octoroon,” and “gin” and “lubra.” It seems incredible, but up until then it had somehow escaped me that there were segregated hospitals — an apartheid health system — in Australia in 1937. I went searching for the hospital in Western Australia’s State Records Office.
Wyndham was “far flung,” my grandfather wrote in 1937, “but not flung far enough.” (“Eighty miles up the arsehole of the world,” one local told me last year in an updated version of the slur.) In any case, Wyndham wasn’t flung far enough for the WA government either.
By 1937, the town had become an important port. Land in the East Kimberley had largely been “cleared” of its original owners, many of whom had been forced into unpaid labour or itinerancy on their own land, and pastoral stations established across the Kimberley, a process that Mary Anne Jebb and Chris Owen have meticulously documented. In 1919, the state government had opened the Wyndham Meatworks, and every year from May to September cattle were driven into Wyndham from all over the Top End.
Hundreds of single male workers also sailed into town for the season and, as Neville wrote to his undersecretary in 1928, “motor transport” brought young men into the East Kimberley, where they consorted with “natives.” There was “in consequence a greater danger of disease being spread amongst whites than in the past when the majority of teamsters and station hands were elderly men.”
The irony, of course, was that it was the very exploitation of Aboriginal women that had caused the “danger of disease” in the first place. White men who worked in the East Kimberley, even “responsible” white station officials, as one doctor wrote in 1931, “make no secret of the frequency and facility with which they gratify their appetite” with Aboriginal women. Some of the relationships were genuine; many were not. One former patient I spoke to, taken to the hospital as a five-year-old, remembers young women with dresses wet in the back from “the pox.” She tells me they caught it from sleeping with white men. Did they want to, I ask? They had to, she says.
There were people who seemed to genuinely want to alleviate suffering. But overall, the archives make it clear the hospital was mainly built to “protect” the white population by getting sick Aboriginal people out of town, out of reach of white men, and preserving an unpaid labour force. Even Neville later admitted that the “belated attempt to stamp out disease in the North” did not emerge from a sense of care but because, as he wrote in Australia’s Coloured Minority (1947), the white residents were “afraid of disease spreading to ourselves — afraid the disease would lose us many useful cheap workers in the pastoral industry.”
People were brought to the hospital from all over the Kimberley and Northern Territory, few of them voluntarily. In one letter in the archive, written a few years before the hospital was built, Neville complains that he can’t send Aboriginal people to hospital except if they agreed to go. Still, amendments to the law were planned “to cover this.” Just before the hospital opened, new legislation was passed allowing the commissioner (formerly the chief protector) to appoint “some suitable person” to medically examine Aboriginal people; these individuals could use “such means as may be necessary” to force people to submit to examination.
The 1936 Aborigines Act Amendment Act also meant that the minister, who had only been able to imprison Aboriginal people on reserves, could now also imprison them in hospitals, schools and other institutions. And there were tough new punishments — including jail — for those who tried to escape. Gidja woman Biddy Trust, who was taken to the hospital as an eleven-year-old with an eye infection she got from washing wool, told me that “they used to send people from all over the place.” Most of them “didn’t even know what they were there for.”
And so, on this small stretch of red-dirt earth at the Three Mile, the normal political–juridical order of Australia was suspended. Habeas corpus was denied. The place was ruled by a semi-sovereign in the shape of a manager who was authorised by government regulation to summarily put inmates in confinement for two weeks for, among other things, neglect of duty or insubordination.
This land at the Three Mile was — to borrow a phrase from Suvendrini Perera, who borrowed it from Bernard Cohen — “not-Australia.” And the people kept in not-Australia were not Australians. They had been stripped of their rights. They were, in the words of the doctor I quoted earlier, native non-citizens. The Wyndham Native Hospital was what the philosopher Giorgio Agamben calls a “camp.” And because it was a camp, it tells us something about how this nation was built: on exclusion.
Until the second half of the nineteenth century, Aboriginal Western Australians, like other Indigenous people, had been considered, at least theoretically, British subjects. But as Australia moved towards Federation, they were progressively disenfranchised by a series of Acts that, as historian Peter Biskup has pointed out, made voting dependent on land ownership, as understood in the European sense, and on race.
In 1893, “Aboriginal natives” were excluded from voting unless they owned a certain amount of property. In 1899, the wording of the law was tightened to make it clear that insufficiently propertied persons of “the half-blood” were locked out too. And in the 1907 Western Australian Electoral Act, all Aboriginal people and persons of “the half-blood” were excluded regardless of property. Further legislation meant Aboriginal people in Western Australia could also be subject to forced medical examinations, have their children abducted, have their money and property taken by the state, and be imprisoned in an institution like the Wyndham Native Hospital.
It is striking that this disenfranchisement, the reduction of Western Australian Aboriginal people to less than citizens, occurred alongside the birth of the modern Australian nation as though it were the precondition for the new Federation. It was as though, as W.E.H. Stanner wrote in 1963, “The primary axiom of settlement, or at least of development [was] that Aboriginal and European society could not or must not be allowed to coexist.” Prem Kumar Rajaram and Carl Grundy-Warr argue, in their 2007 book Borderscapes: Hidden Geographies and Politics at Territory’s Edge, that all nation-building is inherently utopian because it tries to create a unity that has never existed. Australian nation-building was doubly utopian in that, as many eugenics scholars have pointed out, the new Commonwealth tried to design a future population by locking out races and individuals seen as, in the language of the day, dysgenic or defective. The tools of design, identified by Alison Bashford in Imperial Hygiene: A Critical History of Colonialism, Nationalism and Public Health (2004), were those immigration restrictions known as the White Australia policy and “the widespread use of segregation of those deemed outside the civic body.”
Theories of social Darwinism, biological racial difference and eugenics, which had begun to take hold in the decades before Federation, would have a devastating effect on who was to be included as a citizen in the young Australia. According to Sandra Peart and David Levy, who wrote about the impact of eugenics on post-classical economics for a 2003 issue of The Journal of the History of Economic Thought, the social Darwinist paradigm saw the belief that humanity was essentially made of the same stuff and shared equal potential give way to the idea that some “races” were incapable of advancement. Meanwhile, new discoveries in bacteriology were contributing to an epidemiological view of different populations as more likely to succumb to and pass on disease. And so, as medical historian Warwick Anderson wrote in a 2000 issue of Medical History Supplement, “a White Australia finally could be represented as a medical necessity, not just a national goal.”
In 1931, S.D. Porteus, a professor of racial psychology at the University of Hawaii, concluded, as Anderson writes elsewhere, that Aboriginal people probably lacked the ethnic capacity for civilisation. It was not an isolated view. In September 1925, the Legislative Assembly of the WA parliament had debated a proposed amendment to the Electoral Act that would have overturned a clause preventing “half-bloods” from voting. The British government was pressing for British Indians now resident in Australia to be given the franchise. If Indians could vote (the argument for “half-blood” voting rights went), surely “half-castes” could too? Sir James Mitchell — who served as premier in separate stints before and after this debate — fought the proposed change, saying that “half-castes” were “not capable of exercising any responsibility.” They were a threat to progress, living standards, public education and moral outlook. Others backed his view. The Bill was defeated in the Legislative Council on a technicality.
Meanwhile, as social Darwinism grew in influence and certain races were deemed incapable of citizenship or civilisation, the number of Western Australians captured under the definition of “native” grew. Soon, almost anyone with a hint of Aboriginal heritage was locked out of the nation. In 1905, only those “half-castes” who lived with an Aboriginal partner or community, or who were under sixteen, were included as “aborigines.” By 1936, all “half-castes” were classed as “natives,” as well as some “quadroons.” The more Aboriginal “blood” you had, the fewer rights you enjoyed and the more control you were subject to.
“Second-class citizen” is a term often used to describe the position of Aboriginal people in Australia, but it’s way too generous. In a widely quoted observation in his 1942 book Black Australians, Paul Hasluck described the legal status to which Aboriginal Western Australians were confined after the state’s 1936 Aborigines Act Amendment Act as being closer to the status of a “born idiot than of any other class of British subject.” Giorgio Agamben might have described it as “bare life.”
The first appearance of bare life, Agamben writes in Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life (1998), was a figure in ancient Roman law known as the homo sacer, or sacred man. The ancient Greeks had separated life into “zoe,” or simple biological life, and “bios,” the life of social participation, but the homo sacer was another category of life again. This individual could not be sacrificed, but was exposed to death because the sovereign would not punish anyone that murdered him. The homo sacer was set outside human jurisdiction and yet did not come under divine jurisdiction either. His was a life stripped of rights and exposed to death.
The official records of the Wyndham Native Hospital are written in emotionless prose that might well have been described using the words of W.E.H. Stanner, who in 1968 reflected on his own earlier reports of living conditions for Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory. There was “a very interesting absence of declamation,” he wrote. “Apparently what lay before my eyes seemed to me a natural and inevitable part of the Australian scene, one that could possibly be palliated, but not ever changed in any fundamental way.”
There is a similar absence of declamation in the records related to the hospital. There is no mention, for example, of how the baby’s parents reacted after Mrs Johnson asked “the sister would she please examine the baby as she thought it had just died in her arms.” The banality of language alone suggests the inmates of the hospital were viewed as “bare life” rather than citizens; and perhaps they were more than just viewed as such. Agamben argues that because it has lost all the protections of citizenship and abandoned to death, bare life is exposed to things that a citizen would never be.
Reading through the archives, I found instances of what looked to be treatment withheld, and not just from individual patients like the two babies whose stories I told at the beginning of this essay. In 1939 the then Wyndham doctor, Keith Sweetman, took blood from all the natives employed in Wyndham and “found that all had positive Kline tests or in other words had syphilis or yaws.” Dr Sweetman wrote to Commissioner Neville to find out what to do. The patients would have to be treated in the White Hospital in town because the Native Hospital was already full and, moreover, who would pay? The government? Finally, he wrote, “Am I to bother about treating them at all?”
The query was passed on to the commissioner of public health, Everitt Atkinson, who responded: “I do not think that we should consider the wholesale treatment of every native” who returns a positive test. Instead, he recommended treating only those who had lesions or who had given birth to children with syphilis; the others may only have had yaws or congenital syphilis and were unlikely to be infectious. Playing devil’s advocate, it’s possible Atkinson didn’t want to subject otherwise healthy people to a treatment with uncertain results, but it is difficult to imagine a similar response had the patients been white. (Indeed Atkinson had presided over schemes in which whites could get free treatment for syphilis, but which did not extend to Aboriginal people.)
There are hints, too, of experimentation. In the same 1939 letter, Atkinson suggested Sweetman “try treatment upon a few” of those who had tested positive for syphilis “with a view to discovering whether anti-syphilitic treatment renders the blood test negative.” A few days later Sweetman replied, confirming that “a certain number of patients” who showed no sign of syphilis other than the positive blood test were being treated “to gain information as to future action.” The “future policy” of the Native Hospital would be to test all patients, but only treat those with obvious signs of syphilis.
Perhaps Sweetman was going to keep track of whoever tested positive in case wholesale treatment was later decided upon. Still, testing for a disease you don’t intend to treat could be read as experimentation. It recalls the Tuskegee study of “Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male,” which had begun seven years earlier and left men untreated to see how the disease would progress.
There were other cases of treatment that no citizen would have been subject to: patients sleeping on the floor or sharing beds, and unpaid Aboriginal workers locked up with patients at night. Biddy Trust remembers that people with suspected leprosy were kept chained up and locked in small huts, their food passed to them through the gap at the bottom of the hut door and their only toilet a bucket. Some of them were kept in the hut for several months, she says. When patients died they were buried in unmarked graves and it often took months or years for family members to be notified.
Reg Birch may have collected some of those patients. As a boy, he used to help his father collect bodies from the hospital and load them onto a truck used to collect nightsoil. There were so many that Reg started getting nightmares, so his mum sewed him a cloth bag to put over his head when there was a corpse to load onto the flatback.
“Put on your bag, Reg,” his dad would say.
And then there is this: in 1942, after the white women and children had been evacuated from Wyndham over fears the Japanese would bomb the town, Biddy Trust and the other inmates of the Native Hospital were dropped out in the bush, and told to make their way south to the Aboriginal cattle station at Moola Bulla and hide from any low-flying planes along the way. Some of the remaining townspeople took pity on them, commandeered vehicles and drove out to leave them food and water or drive them part of the way south. Other than that, they were left exposed to the enemy.
It’s hard to reconcile the abandonment of the Native Hospital patients and the micromanagement and control to which they were subject. But at a protest rally against offshore detention earlier this year, I came closer to putting the two things together. One of the rally organisers read out a letter from the men on Manus Island. The men didn’t want to come to Australia, they wrote. They wanted only to be set free. Their situation seemed to me akin to that of the inmates in the Wyndham Native Hospital: Australia, though it had abandoned them, would not release them. They were tethered to the state in what Agamben calls a relation of abandonment, at once completely turned over to the law and abandoned outside its protection.
Why bother trying to see the Wyndham Native Hospital as a camp and its inmates as bare life? Because, according to Agamben, bare life is the original political element, the basis of state power. In the state of nature that existed before, when everyone was bare life to one another, the sovereign first established its rule through an originating act of violence over all the other bare lives. To maintain its power, the sovereign carries with it into the state the ability to dissolve its new kingdom and reduce its subjects to bare life. The sovereign alone would not revert to bare life but hold on to its power, which would now be absolute. Agamben calls this situation a “state of exception.”
For a long time, Agamben writes, all this was largely theoretical, since you were generally subject to whoever ruled the region into which you were born. But with the French Revolution and the birth of the modern state, with declarations of rights and citizenship, it was no longer so easy to determine who was in and who was out. It was this new difficulty, Agamben says, that accounts for the flurry of provisions issued in the wake of the French Revolution specifying who was a citizen and who was not. Maybe it also explains why in the wake of Australian Federation there was such a welter of laws specifying which person was a citizen and which a mere “native.”
The birth of the nation-state occurred at what Michel Foucault has identified as the “threshold of modernity,” when the state’s raison d’être changed from maintaining its own power to managing the biological lives of its citizens, a phenomenon he calls “biopolitics.” Agamben finds the first juridical appearance of the “biopolitical structure of modernity” in a “well-intentioned pamphlet” on euthanasia issued in 1920 and entitled Authorization for the Annihilation of Life Unworthy of Being Lived. The idea of life unworthy of being lived suggested its flip side: the life that is worthy of living. And this, Agamben writes, “implies a new decision concerning the threshold beyond which life ceases to be politically relevant, becomes only ‘sacred life’ and can as such be eliminated without punishment.”
The horrific apotheosis of the camp, of course, was the Nazi concentration camp. But Agamben argues that it is not what occurs in a camp that marks it out as such; rather, it is its structure — its suspension of the normal political and legal order, and the reduction of its inmates to bare life. The holding space in which asylum seekers are held at French airports can be described as a camp, as can Guantanamo Bay. Agamben writes, “Whether or not atrocities are committed depends not on law, but on the civility and ethical sense of the police who temporarily act as sovereign [in the camp].” In a 2002 edition of Borderlands e-journal, Suvendrini Perera builds on Agamben, arguing that it is in the camp, where bare life confronts unbridled sovereign power, that the claims of the human (as opposed to the citizen) are tested, and found to be almost non-existent. Agamben points out that one of the rules to which the Nazis fastidiously adhered during the Final Solution was that Jewish people could be sent to an extermination camp only when they had been fully denationalised. No German citizen could be sent to the camps. In a similar manner, no Australian citizen could be sent to the Wyndham Native Hospital, only a “native.”
Seeing the Wyndham Native Hospital as a camp makes it possible to explain, though not understand, the possible experimentation on inmates, the withheld treatment and the tiny huts for lepers. It also makes it possible to explain how patients, apparently brought to the hospital for healing, were dumped in the bush in 1942.
Not long before Biddy Trust and her fellow hospital inmates were dumped, a missionary from the nearby Forrest River Mission, John Best, met with an army major from the North Australia Observation Unit, which was tasked with patrolling the north of the country to watch for signs of foreign invasion. Best had been told by a senior army officer that Aboriginal people in the Kimberley were considered a threat in the instance of a Japanese invasion, according to Neville Green, who records the incident in Triumphs and Tragedies: Oombulgurri, an Australian Aboriginal Community (2011). Best “took this to mean that the Kimberley Aborigines were expendable.” At their meeting, he asked the major if there was an extermination order. The major did not deny it, but “assured him that no Aborigines would be shot while he was the officer in charge,” Green writes. “Best’s concern was for the 939 persons counted at Kalumburu, Forrest River, Kunmunya, Munja and the Wyndham Native Hospital.” The major’s name was W.E.H. Stanner.
Expendable, unworthy of life, bare life, mere life, not politically relevant: to echo Agamben writing of the treatment of Jewish people under Nazism, the term “racism” is inadequate to describe such concepts. If what paved the way for the Wyndham Native Hospital was racism or eugenics or social Darwinism, then the task of understanding it is arguably not as urgent, since social Darwinism has long since been debunked and eugenics rejected, and we’re at least working on racism. But if what permitted the existence of the Wyndham Native Hospital was a decision between valuable or relevant life on the one hand and mere life on the other, and further if this is still, as Agamben contends, the underlying structure of the modern nation-state, then the urgency remains.
As an example, consider the health gap between non-Indigenous and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians: the difference in life expectancy and in the numbers of children who die under five, the levels of type 2 diabetes, and the suicides of young people in the Kimberley. If you consider all this as a legacy of racism, you will see certain solutions. More medicine, better access to healthy food, more youth drop-in centres, for example. But if you see it as a legacy of life categorised as “irrelevant” or “not worthy of life,” the task is much greater. And if, as Agamben contends, the excluded bare life and the sovereign are inextricably linked, if they give form to one another, then the inequalities also tell us something about how the Australian state creates and maintains itself.
There is, to use Stanner again, “a very interesting absence of declamation” in the word “gap,” as though it were just a reflection of what exists, of a natural occurrence. It seems to me that “gap” rebrands mistreatment into a racial profile, as if we thought high child mortality and low life expectancy and diabetes were linked to Aboriginality, as if they were not the consequences of a relationship of abandonment.
When I was in Wyndham, I met an elderly woman who had been moved there after her home in Oombulgurri — an Aboriginal community on the former site of the Forrest River Mission — was razed by the state government amid claims the place was dysfunctional. Her home was destroyed and she now lives along with members of her extended family in a corrugated-iron donga on the main road of Wyndham. A few years ago, her granddaughter hanged herself, age thirteen, a few metres away from the site of the old Native Hospital.
A life deemed unworthy of life. ●
This essay first appeared in Griffith Review 61: Who We Are, edited by Julianne Schultz and Peter Mares.