Sisters, Wives and Mothers: Settler Women as Healers and Preservers of Health in the N.T. during the 1930s

Article excerpt

Introduction

The lives of settler women in the 1930s in the Northern Territory (NT) are best viewed from the two complementary aspects of history: time and place. Their story is unique from both perspectives. The conditions of the North, a `Dry-Wet' tropical region, were harsh. Long months of hot and humid weather broken only by the heavy rains of the monsoon were scarcely relieved by four months or so of cooler weather during the `Dry'. Every aspect of human activity was affected by these conditions. Europeans, not particularly conditioned by their world view, or even by a hundred and fifty years of settlement in Australia, to adapt to the climate, found the way tough. Climate contributed to the special health problems they faced: malaria and dengue fever were endemic, and only malaria was being held in check. Necessary supplies of fresh food-stuffs were hard to produce locally, and very few Europeans learnt from Aborigines how to use the local resources.

Distance was a compounding factor. The NT itself was not easily accessible; travel to the region from other parts of Australia was difficult and lengthy, and within the Territory the situation was no better. Many months of the year, during the Monsoon, townships and settlements were cut off from communication with each other and with the rest of Australia. People in the back country, on cattle stations or in mining communities, were even worse off: not easily able to travel to townships during the `Dry' because of appalling roads, they had to spend months during the Wet not being able to travel at all.

Settlement of the NT by Europeans came late in the overall settlement of Australia, and the timing of the process caused additional problems for the settlers. There was a shortage of capital for investment in infrastructure, consequently transport and communication systems in the NT lagged behind the rest of Australia. In addition, at a time when families in southern cities were beginning to have a range of community facilities made available, particularly in the areas of infant and child health and welfare, settlers in the Territory were still having to cope with very basic problems like finding adequate fresh food. Women who had grown up in areas of closer settlement in the south would have had to make dramatic adjustments to their life-styles and life-expectations. Significantly, those adjustments would have been made without the support of a close circle of other women, and far from the wisdom of older women in the family.

This paper looks at European women in the remote frontier society of the NT in the 1930s. Their lives were hard and their response courageous. Many conventional wisdoms had to be left behind and, in the process, new wisdoms took their place. These women might have tended to see their lives as an individual and personal experience; for politicians and planners, the presence or absence of European women was seen as a major issue in the settlement and development of the North. The women were a crucial political and economic factor in this process. And politicians and planners were agreed that the single most important factor affecting their presence, or absence, was provision of adequate health services.

The Setting: The Pastoral Frontier.

Two incidents from the 1920s provide a focus for this discussion. Each story is about a European woman and childbirth. One of the women survived and passed on her story to her daughters and grand-daughter. The other died; her story has been told, sixty years later, by one of her sons. Both women were living in the Victoria River District at the time; both were married to white men employed as managers on stations owned by the British company, Vesteys; each had an Aboriginal woman close at hand at the time of her confinement.

The first story concerns the Fogarty family who have become one of the better-known families connected with the pastoral industry in the NT. Originally from Queensland, they came into the Territory in the early 1920s. …