by Stacey Roberts
This is a chapter from Stacey’s 2022 paper “I want an honest, decent girl if you have such a thing”: female domestic servants in colonial Australian women’s fiction 1854-1907. It has been abridged by the editor.
From the earliest arrival of the British on this land, Aboriginal women and girls were used as household help — first by coercion, then by informal contract, and by the 1880s, enforced by law.
Due to the highly unequal power balance as an ongoing consequence of white colonialism, Aboriginal women and girls in service were not afforded the same treatment, opportunities, and wages as their white counterparts, yet domestic service was the major category of employment for Aboriginal women until well into the 1970s.
Toward the end of the nineteenth century, all colonies implemented policies of child removal under the guise of “protecting” and “preserving” Aboriginal people, one objective of which was the training of young girls for work as domestic servants in white homes. By the turn of the twentieth century, Aboriginal girls were being forcibly removed from their homes to create and maintain an “underclass of obedient, underpaid labourers”.
Now known as the Stolen Generation, children were physically removed from their families in order to, as the New South Wales Aboriginal Protection board claimed, prevent their “growing up in idleness, and under the influence of ill-regulated parents” and instead be trained to “proper spheres of usefulness”.
Jackie Huggins, a Bidjara/Pitjara, Birri Gubba and Juru author, historian and academic, whose own mother, Rita Holt, was forced into a mission “home” for such training, explains how the Queensland Aborigines Protection and Preservation Act of 1897 empowered the minister to have authority over every aspect of the children’s lives in these institutions. The authorities had the right “to control the movements of Aboriginals, to enter employment contracts on their behalf, to hold any funds they might have and to control their spendings.”
“Pioneer women” of the colonies would go on to be celebrated and memorialised over time as successful maternal civilisers, or “gentle tamers”, with Aboriginal women mythologised — particularly in literature — “as passive and grateful subjects for domestication by their white mistresses”. Such whitewashing paints over the fact that colonial white women actively used domesticity to reinforce their racially privileged position over First Nations women.
I have read the fictional works chosen for this essay as a non-Aboriginal person in so-called “Australia”, and I acknowledge the racist premises, language and characterisation they contain. I would urge readers to compare the representations of Aboriginal domestic servants in these works to the documented autobiographical and historical writings of Aboriginal women themselves which are now widely available.
I also respectfully acknowledge the resilience and determination of Aboriginal women despite their continued trauma as a result of ongoing colonial oppression.
The first two appearances of Aboriginal domestic servants to be examined are the characters “Black Mary” and “black Nanny”, two blink-and-you’ll-miss-them representations in the wider narratives of white emigrant servant life in Catherine Helen Spence’s Clara Morison (1854) and Gertrude the Emigrant (1857) by Louisa Atkinson.
In Clara Morison, Black Mary appears occasionally to chop wood for the white houses of the district (suburban Adelaide). Invoked as the possible recipient of an ugly cast-off dress, Mary is described as likely to be “very much the better for a gown, for she had nothing at present but an opossum skin rug, and an old drawn silk bonnet, which had once been white”.
Clara is clearly ignorant of the importance of possum-skin cloaks to Aboriginal people as a significant marker of cultural identity, and is of the opinion that Mary is only wearing such a thing until she can obtain “civilised” colonial clothing. Mary is portrayed as a quiet, harmless creature whose simple heart would be “charmed” by the fact that the dress had a “capacious pocket.”
Similarly, “black Nanny” in Gertrude the Emigrant is discussed only as a stop-gap between obtaining white servants in the colonial household at Murrumbowrie, and is not physically present in the narrative. When the convict servant Sarah is fired, Tudor, the station superintendent, suggests to Gertrude that she consider “black Nanny”, “a good natured creature, and very useful, and clean when about a house”.
The Aboriginal people of the area (NSW Southern Highlands) are positioned as the exotic “other” in the narrative, existing on the margins of white settlement in their primitive “encampments”, and dying out as a result of colonial presence.
Atkinson, born in New South Wales in 1834, did attempt to write about Aboriginal culture sensitively, but still clearly with a colonial, Christian mindset as evidenced in this passage:
Solitude unbroken reigned there; and the race that had once hunted the kangaroo and emu through those thickets, and laid the snare for eels and watermoles in the creek were mostly cold in death; and the soul, the uncultured soul had sped forth on the unknown future, to stand one day as a witness against those who had taught it naught but evil.
Nanny’s final mention is when a white servant is hired from Sydney, “Nanny returned to the camp, quite tired of civilisation, and conventionalities for the time”, perpetuating the stereotype of the Aboriginal worker who would walk out on the job when the desire to return to their families on country overtook their nascent civilised sensibilities.
This purported “unreliability” is notably depicted in The Little Black Princess (1905), a children’s novel by Jeannie Gunn (1870–1961) who also authored We of the Never-Never, famously based on her year as mistress of Elsey station in the NT. As Katherine Ellinghaus points out, Gunn’s self-titled role of the “Little Missus” in these plucky novels of settler courage was only made possible by the violent theft of the lands of the Manarayi and Yanman peoples of the Roper River.
Bett-Bett, the Little Black Princess of the title, is described as “just a little bush black-fellow girl, about eight years old” who is encouraged to live with the missus under the guise of protection, but really to help with domestic chores. She is positioned as a cheeky scamp, always “a real nuisance”, and played up as a comedic character for younger readers.
The final chapter describes Bett-Bett’s “hunger for her own ways and her own people; for the bush talks, and the camps, and the long, long wanderings from place to place, for the fear of debbil-debbils, for anything that would make her a little blackfellow girl once more, for anything — if only she could shake off the white man for a little while, and do nothing but live.”
Gunn writes, “we can never even guess at the pain of a blackfellow’s longing for his own people and his beloved ‘bush’”, seemingly ignoring the fact that it was she keeping Bett-Bett from her family. On the last page, the Missus watches the young girl “fade away into her wonderful, lonely palace”, certain that at some point “Bett-Bett would need her Missus, and come back bright and happy again”.
We know now the character of Bett-Bett is based on Dolly Bolson, an Aboriginal girl who lived in the area before being moved to Darwin, 450 km north, to be the playmate of the children of two white families and then working as a house and parlour maid, never to return home.
Bett-Bett is described as being full of “naughty tricks”, not always obedient. The Missus metes out punishments in order to force her acquiescence: she whips the child, forces her to do chores, restricts her food, chains up her dog, and shuts her in the bathroom by herself, but still Bett-Bett continues to disobey.
Bett-Bett did enjoy some tasks, however, like watering the garden and “polishing the silver” which was, to the Missus, indicative of Aboriginal people’s ability to find joy in hard work, a theme repeated throughout the novel.
In one chapter, a typical washing-day is described as a delightful experience for the Aboriginal women who made the chore “fast and furious fun”, and entertainment for the mistress watching on:
The sheets and big things were done first. After they had been carefully spread out on top of the water, everyone climbed up the banks and took flying leaps into them. Down they went to the bottom wrapped up in a sheet or table cloth, there to kick and splash till they came to the top again. The first person out of the tangle ducked the others as they came up, or else swam off up the creek with a sheet, which still had one lubra half rolled up in it, and two or three others hanging on to it .
For this labour the women receive one tin of treacle to be shared between them.
This opinion that Aboriginal women enjoy working and often turn it into play is also attributed to Bathsheeba Macgregor, a white woman working alongside Betty, an Aboriginal woman, on laundry day, in Marie Braithwaite’s Betty Pops the Question (1906) which features a young couple, forced apart by misunderstanding, deftly reunited at the end by a wise Aboriginal woman.
Betty and Bathsheeba are pictured down at the river, laundering the clothes and “blueing” the whites, and “[f]rom start to finish the whole wash was chatter, and rub, and gurgle”, as if the strenuous chore was nothing but a bit of a lark in the sunshine. When Betty asks for a break, the exchange is depicted as Betty getting easily distracted from her work by her desire for food and tobacco:
“All right, Betty; you finish that one blue tub, then me put this fellow on line and make tea”.
“That good one, lady,” said Betty with much satisfaction; “me finish this one blue phellow then have’m tea. You thing’m got tewbacca long house?” This in the softest of soft insinuating tones that was irresistible in the way of begging.
“Oh, I think so,” laughed Bathsheeba, “me find ’bacca long house; you washum clean now Betty.”
“Yes; me wash’m clean. You berry good one, Missus longa Betty – plenty gib’m – me wash’m clean”, and once more the work went on harmoniously with the near prospect of tea and ’bacca to brighten it.
Although Betty is described as “not so given to wandering as the rest of the tribe”, laundry work does halt when she abruptly decides to go in search for her mistress’s lost love, to rectify the misunderstanding that drove them apart:
A coloured shirt – the last of the wash – dropped from Betty’s hands, and she slowly and thoughtfully began to wipe from each skinny black arm the frothy suds. “Think me go now,” she remarked in a tone of decision which Bathsheeba knew there was no gainsaying. “Poor Betty tired?” queried Bathsheeba, trying to brighten her countenance with a smile, while she was secretly surprised at this sudden suspension of washing arrangements. But one never knows when to depend on a native.
Bathsheeba’s observation draws again on the trope of the peripatetic Aboriginal servant, likely to wander off without notice or promise of return. Indeed, Bathsheeba knew Betty “would not come again till she felt inclined. Not, indeed, till she needed “’bacca, tea, sugar, or flour – four luxuries they would not go without”:
Black Mary, black Nanny, Bett-Bett and Betty are the imaginings of white, middle-class colonial women attempting to represent a people to whom they had varying amounts of access. Although each attempted to portray Aboriginal women sensitively and with respect, and have been critically noted for doing so, the authors still position Indigenous women as “other”, unable to be imagined as fully-realised, productive members of colonial society. Jeannie Gunn speaks for all these authors when she says, because “blacks are blacks and whites are whites”.
Aboriginal women’s domestic labour was vital for white women’s capacity to cultivate the well-ordered, moral home, and her position as controller of “native” women in that home enabled the public display of her success as a colonial housekeeper. With the settlement of harmonious homes helmed by a perfect white Christian woman, the new imperial outpost of Australia could flourish.
Stacey Roberts graduated with a Bachelor of Journalism, and was a freelance writer and blogger for a decade before completing a Graduate Diploma in English and Theatre Studies. She is now undertaking a PhD. Stacey blogs at allforbiblichor.wordpress.com.
Illustration by Pam Harris, from The Little Black Princess
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Braithwaite, Maria (aka “Jack Rugby”). “Betty Pops the Question”. The Observer, 16 Jun., 1906.
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Thanks for a very interesting discussion, Stacey. I’ve selected the laundry passage from Little Black Princess for this week’s Friday fiction from the archives. Your piece gives a valuable context. And it’s a thrill to see “Betty pops the question” in an academic paper!
Thanks Elizabeth! So happy to be able to contribute. and thank YOU for unearthing “Betty pops the question” on this blog or it might never have come to my attention!
Glad to help! I hope we can uncover many more gems.
Stacey, you’ve inspired me to post (on my own blog, Fri. 12/05) on Bett-Bett/Dolly’s real life, and on some of the racist commentary when The Little Black Princess first came out.
And I should have added at the end of this essay, that in a couple of weeks (Wed 24/05) you’ll have another piece up on domestic service in the latter part of the nineteenth century.
Ah fantastic, I look forward to reading your post, Bill! Thanks so much for your careful work with this piece also.