Between 1914 and 1917, twenty-eight Aboriginal men from two remote islands of Cape Barren Island and Flinders Island volunteered for the AIF. These men were the family of Aboriginal women who were taken to the Bass Strait Islands by sealers as slaves and reluctant ‘wives’ in the early 19th century.
Although initial relations were hostile a unique Islander community developed and by the mid-19th century Aboriginal families were settled across the many small islands in the Furneaux Group. With relatively little interference from the Government, the Islanders developed commercial mutton-birding, traded vegetables and livestock with passing ships and created a viable boat building industry.
The rise of this burgeoning economy was not lost on the European graziers on mainland Tasmania. The mainlanders petitioned the Government and during the 1870s Aboriginal families were again dispossessed of their lands.
Aboriginal families were removed from the small islands of the Furneaux Group to Cape Barren Island where the Government tried to control their livelihood. From 1912 Aboriginal people were forced to live on a small reserve on the island’s north western corner while the rest of Cape Barren and the surrounding islands continued to be divided up for European farmers.
War erupted in Europe in July 1914 and Britain declared war on Germany on 4 August. As her foreign policy was dictated by Britain, Australia was also at war from that day.
Across the country more than 500 Aboriginal men enlisted to fight, many for the same reason as non-Aborigines – adventure, patriotism, a decent income, to escape boredom and unwanted responsibilities or the hope that proving themselves in battle might reduce future discrimination. In 1914 the AIF was the only place where Aborigines received equal pay and suffered minimal racism. Among these men were 28 Aborigines from Flinders and Cape Barren Islands in Bass Strait. We will never know exactly why they left the peace of their beloved islands for the chaos of war. We do know that while their experiences varied widely, as soldiers they were equals, perhaps for the first and only time in their lives.
The impact of war reached every corner of the close-knit island Aboriginal community. Every family had a brother, uncle, grandson, nephew or cousin who left to fight for the Empire. They pitched together and contributed clothing and money at a higher proportion than their non-Aboriginal neighbours. The nineteen men who survived, however, returned to the same discriminatory society they had left. Most could not even drink with their fellow white returned servicemen in public bars. On Cape Barren Island Aborigines still lived under the Cape Barren Island Reserve Act 1912 which included restrictions on owning property. The community continued to fight against discrimination for decades.
School teachers, James Bladon and his wife Mary, came to Cape Barren in 1911. They spent the next seventeen years on the island and Bladon became the island’s longest serving schoolmaster.
Bladon’s appointment coincided with the introduction of compulsory cadet training for males aged 14 to 25 right across Australia. Cape Barren Island was exempt as it did not have a large enough population to support a senior cadet corps under the new legislation but Bladon wrote to the Tasmanian Premier Neil Lewis requesting money to set up a cadet unit. He saw this as a means of instilling discipline into the local youth. When the recruiting officer, Lieutenant Charles Littler, arrived on the island in 1914, it seems he found a receptive audience of young men who could shoot, ride and fight.
When the war broke out Bladon encouraged the Islanders to ‘do the right thing for king and country’ and enlist. While it is doubtful that Bladon had any experience of war, he was not above telling others that they should answer the Empire’s call to arms.
Lieutenant Charles Littler, whilst waiting to be deployed overseas with the next contingent for the 12th Battalion, took on a role akin to that of a recruiting officer before there was any real need for such a position. Littler travelled to various parts of the state including to the Bass Strait islands. On Cape Barren Island he found Captain James Bladon was very receptive to Littler’s suggestions that he should continue to encourage as many of the local men to enlist. Bladon was already convinced that many would make excellent scouts and marksmen and probably needed little encouragement.
In April 1919 David Gilbert, Deputy Comptroller for the Repatriation Department, stated that ‘an Aboriginal who has served as an Australian soldier is entitled to the benefits under the Australian Soldiers Repatriation Act and …. [were entitled to] the full use and enjoyment of any benefits granted to him by the Department.’
It was up to the returning Aboriginal soldiers to convince the Repatriation Department that their claims were war related, just the same as settler Australians. The families of Aboriginal men from the islands who died whilst on active service appear to have received the benefits to which they were entitled.
Some who returned to the islands received pensions or health benefits after convincing the Repatriation Department that their claims were war related, just the same as settler Australians. However the isolation of the islands often meant that they would have to travel a long way to receive health care.
It should never be overlooked that these men returned to a deeply divided society where in most cases Aborigines were denied the same rights and privileges as white society.