The Moulding of Menials: The Making of the Aboriginal Female Domestic Servant in Early Twentieth Century Queensland

Article excerpt

At the turn of the century, a domestic servant was often conventionally known by the euphemism of 'slavey,' a corruption of 'slave' and a reflection upon the poor pay, bad conditions, back-breaking work, high surveillance and low status which invariably accompanied the job.' Arguably, domestic service was the worst employment option available to young women, even though it statistically accounted for the most common form of paid employment among them.2 Unpaid housewifery and mothering within marriage were at least accorded a high social status, female factory work attracted far less moral scrutiny and even prostitution was considerably more lucrative than being a harassed `domestic.' Governessing, school teaching or secretarial work were cleaner, almost congenial occupations by comparison. Even the position of 'barmaid' promised a more colourful and convivial life than the closeted existences of many poor, colonial `Mary Anns.'3 Yet, lowly and difficult as it was, domestic service was not experienced equally by all such workers. Race, especially, remained a major factor of differentiation even within such oppressive employment confines. Black domestics, whether Aboriginal or Melanesian, were generally worse paid, harder worked, more tightly disciplined and less wellregarded than their white counterparts.4

The State-sponsored system of education for Aborigines in Queensland provided a necessary precondition for this uneven state of affairs, for it stressed uncomplaining obedience and service. Young males were mainly directed towards outdoor, menial labour and young females into hard work inside the home. Both, in short, were schooled for lifetimes of drudgery. The teaching provided for Aboriginal girls on government reserves and missions was part of a broader system which we have characterised elsewhere as a `culture of control and surveillance.'5 In its content and purposes, such education embodied the entrenched racism of white officialdom and, more generally, of the white community in Queensland. Its aim was the creation and maintenance of an underclass of obedient, underpaid labourers, both on reserves and missions and in private employment. A comment by a Queensland Education Department official in 1896, applauding the exclusion of `half-caste' girls from colonial schools, reflects this. `What they [Aborigines] need is teaching in religion, moral duty, decent behaviours and habits of perseverance in settled industry,' he wrote, expressing sentiments which continued to influence the provision of separate Aboriginal schooling well into the twentieth century.6 In 1939, the author of a proposed work scheme for Aboriginal schools introduced his plan with the statement that: `The moulding of character and the training in social, intellectual, and moral responsibilities, as well as the promulgating of habits of industry . . . are among the important features taught through the medium of the [settlement] school.'7 Attention, however, was concentrated upon utilitarian rather than intellectual ends. Academic attainment did not extend beyond basic numeracy and literacy skills and often, in practice, did not achieve even this.

The standard of education available to Aboriginal children was therefore well below that of their European counterparts, with white officials urging as purposeful policy that the former should not be schooled to the same level as those in the white community. This position reflected both a belief that Aborigines were intellectually inferior to Australians of European heritage, and an assumption that black workers would constitute a distinct workforce separate from and structurally below white employees. In 1924, the Chief Protector of Aboriginals, J.W. Bleakley, revealed some of his ideas about 'native' education in a letter to the superintendent at Yarrabah Aboriginal Mission. He referred to 'a tendency to europeanise the natives too much,' and recommended that:

The teaching should be in the direction that would improve their value to themselves and one another, for instance it is not much value training the girls to be skilled cooks or waitresses etc. …