Mary Montgomery Bennett
Dr. Janine Rizzetti
19 March 2023
Melbourne Unitarian Universalist Fellowship
Listen to this:
Who made the Eastern Goldfields natives beggars? Surely it must have been we whites who robbed them of their land without giving them compensation, who robbed them of their children without giving them training for earning a living, and who have frustrated their every incentive to live.
This is a letter that Mary Montgomerie Bennett wrote to the Kalgoorlie Miner in November 1960, less than a year before she died at the age of 81. And now listen to Paul Keating in 1992 in his Redfern speech. He started with a recognition
Recognition that it was we who did the dispossessing. We took the traditional lands and smashed the traditional way of life. We brought the diseases. The alcohol. We committed the murders. We took the children from their mothers.
When the entries were being discussed for the Australian Dictionary of Biography in the 1960s, one of the names that was put forward was that of Mary Montgomerie Bennett. “Who’s she?” the editors asked. “What did she do of any importance?” She was incorporated into the Australian Dictionary of Biography in 1979, and what she did was of sufficient importance for her to appear not just there, but in the Womens Museum of Australia, and on the Victorian Womens Trust website as well.
In discussing Mary Bennett, I’m going to have to use terms that were used at the time, but which rightly rankle today. I see no way around that, but perhaps a bit of discomfort is not a bad thing.
She was not in fact born in Australia but in London, while her father was in Queensland on the other side of the globe. Mary Montgomerie Christison, as she was baptised, and ‘Mimi’ as she was known to the family, was a most unlikely Aboriginal activist. Her father, Robert Christison was a wealthy Queensland pastoralist and entrepreneur, deeply involved in developing meat freezing and port facilities near Bowen in Queensland. Her mother, Mary Christison had been an East End actress and artist, and it was the wealth generated by the family property ‘Lammermoor’, near Townsville and Bowen, that eased the families way into the upper classes both in Brisbane and in England. Soon after Mimi’s birth, her mother and grandmother joined Robert in Australia, but they spent little time on Lammermoor station. When in Australia, Mimi, her sister Helen and her mother stayed at properties in Stanthorpe and Tenterfield, Sydney and Hobart, with occasional visits by her father. Her mother hated the heat, and after six years she took her three children with her back to London. In December 1892, when Mimi was eleven years old, her mother and siblings again boarded a ship for Australia. From the ages of twelve to seventeen, Mimi would spend the winters with her father at Lammermoor. It was only five years, but it was to shape her identity as activist for the rest of her life.
At the age of seventeen, her mother took the family back to England yet again, leaving Robert behind to work the Lammermoor station. But this time, they were accompanied by another child, Jane Gordon, a half-caste three-year old that Mrs Christison had decided to take to London. Two years later, she decided that she didn’t want her any more. Plans were made to send her to an orphanage in Canada, but that would have occasioned ongoing expense. In the end Jane was sent back to Queensland, and ended up at the mission on Fraser Island. Mary Montgomerie Bennett was to remain silent about this episode in her family’s life and never referred to it in her voluminous writings.
Mary accompanied her father back to Australia to oversee the sale of Lammermoor in 1910. Robert returned to England, having made a total of twenty crossings between England and Australia on business and to see his family – a travel record more in keeping with cheap airline travel than a four-week ship voyage. He purchased the thirty-room mansion Burwell Park in Lincolnshire and his daughters were launched into the social life of the gentry, enjoyed a year at the Royal Academy, and were presented to the King George V and Queen Mary at court in 1913 as rather elderly debutantes. Robert Christison died in 1915. Mary continued to live at home with her family up to the age of 32. Just as war broke out, she finally married Captain Charles Bennett, aged 58 whom she had met while accompanying her father on his final trip back to Australia. He promptly sailed off with the Royal Navy to Bombay, leaving her in the family home. On his safe return from India and retirement, they set up house in a substantial house in Hertfordshire, and Mary set about writing her father’s biography.
This was to be a more unsettling experience than she anticipated. She had always been aware, from her winter vacations with her father, that Lammermoor was on Dalleburra land. In her biography of her father, she romanticized him as a benevolent pastoralist. Unlike their neighbours who were keen to ‘disperse’ the local tribes, her father encouraged the Dalleburra people to ‘come in’ where they could continue to hunt on their traditional lands and he would protect them from the Native Police. This, of course, gave him a free labour force in return for provisions. Although she is completely silent about it in her father’s biography, going through her father’s correspondence and his own jottings for an autobiography, she must have become aware of her father’s willingness to ‘cull the half-castes’, to give a vagrant ‘a dressing he will never forget’ and he may have even hosted the Native Police on the station. She finished her manuscript at the end of 1926, but prompted by newspaper reports of atrocities at Forrest River in the north-west of Australia, she inserted an additional chapter into the book. It spoiled the structure somewhat: Chapter 8 was titled ‘What to do about the Blacks (1867) followed by Chapter 9 ‘What to do about the Blacks today’ then Chapter 10 ‘What to do about the Blacks 1867 (continued).
So what to do with Blacks in the late 1920s? She shared her father’s romanticization and sympathy with the ‘full-bloods’ over the ‘half-castes’. She acknowledged the inevitability of assimilation, but urged the creation of 50 autonomous settlements, where full-blood families could develop agricultural skills, separate from the white community, before joining white society a few generations later. This inserted chapter was quite different to the rest of the book, prickling with a sense of moral outrage, dominated by footnotes, and drawing attention to the abuse of women, the shooting of innocent people and the inevitability of Aboriginal people being driven off their lands in the interests of pastoral and agricultural enterprises- just like the enterprises her father, who she had lionized throughout the rest of the book- had been involved in. Where did this come from?
Part of it was through her own research, but it was also attributable to her meeting two very different people. The first was Constance Cooke, an activist from Adelaide, president of the Adelaide-based Aborigines’ Protection League who then introduced her to the London-based Anti-Slavery and Aborigines Protection Society. She was to become deeply involved with this organization while still living in London, and to correspond with them over her decades back in Australia.
The second person she met was Anthony Martin Fernando, an outspoken Aboriginal activist, who was regularly seen outside Australia House in London, toy skeletons pinned onto his coat, with a placard reading ‘This is all Australia has left of my people’. Fernando was wary of her, as he was with all humanitarians. Viewing her as a hypocrite, he challenged her that “if you are not working with the Aborigines, you are working against them”.
By this time, her life had changed completely. Her husband Charles had died of a sudden heart attack a month after her glowing biography of her father Christison of Lammermoor had been published. She was 46 years old, with both parents dead, estranged from her sister Helen and childless. Following the biography, she had quickly published two other books, the The Condition of the Aborigines of Australia under the Federal Government, based on her father’s own notebooks, and in 1930 another book under a title that marks the change in her thinking -The Australian Aborigine as a Human Being. That it was even necessary to specify Aborigines as ‘human beings’ speaks to the attitudes of the time. By now she was a regular speaker at the Anti-Slavery Society, and at the British Commonwealth League, an organization of women from across the Empire, concerned about conditions for women in Africa, India and Australia. Perhaps she was suffering from ‘imposter syndrome’ at giving talks and being feted as an author on the Aboriginal cause because at this point, she suddenly sold up and returned to Australia. But on her arrival in 1932 instead of returning to the Dalleburra at Lammermoor – on whom she had based her personal authority – she went to Western Australia. Perhaps it was through guilt. Perhaps she was spurred by her sense of outrage at the atrocities in the north-west that she had read about, or perhaps by the injustice faced by Anthony Fernando that had prompted him to picket Australia House on the other side of the world.
For some ten years she worked at Mount Margaret Mission, near Kalgoorlie, as a teacher. This mission was conducted by husband-and-wife Christian missionaries Rod and Mysie Schenk, and it was run on different lines to that of the government-run Moore River Native Settlement, 90 kms north of Perth, which you may remember from the book and film ‘The Rabbit Proof Fence’. Although it had dormitories and classrooms, children were not completely separated from their families and would accompany them on country during the school vacations. Mrs Bennett, as she was known by now, had high expectations of her students, and delivered the same curriculum as that given to white children- although she had to borrow the materials from the Schenks who used it with their own children as the government refused to make the correspondence material available to Aboriginal children.
At the same time, she continued her lobbying work, writing to the Anti-Slavery Society and British Commonwealth League back in London, and to her contacts in the feminist network in Western Australia through the Womens Service Guilds and the Australian Federation of Women Voters. She was particularly incensed by the practice of polygamy and child-bride arrangements among traditional groups, arguing that these young women, married without choice to older men, were bartered for tobacco and alcohol to white pastoral workers, often leading to pregnancy. This, she argued, was a form of slavery- a loaded term for the humanitarians back in London, and the feminists here in Australia.
It was largely through the pressure of this international scrutiny that led to the calling of a Royal Commission by the West Australian government in 1935 to Investigate, Report and Advise upon matters in relation to the condition and treatment of Aborigines, headed by Henry Moseley. As well as collecting evidence and encouraging a number of Aboriginal women to appear before the Commission, Mary Bennett herself appeared for two days before Commissioner Moseley. We’ve recently seen Royal Commissions at work and how searing they can be. On the first day she gave largely-uncontested evidence, but on the second day she was strongly challenged by A. O. Neville, The Commissioner, Chief Protector, with whom she had had a testy relationship.
Although in the end Moseley made recommendations roughly in line with her own opinions, he was scathing of her characterization of slavery that she had promoted at an international level. At this point, Bennett’s interests and those of the feminist groups parted. The Womens Non-Party Association and the Australian Federation of Women Voters welcomed Moseley’s recommendations, and baulked at the idea of equal rights. Instead of the broader feminist community, Bennett was to turn now to the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, led by Ada Bromham, and Christian missionaries Charles and Phyllis Duguid who formed the League for the Protection and Advancement of Aboriginal and Half-Caste Women in 1938.
Meanwhile the Royal Commission gave the West Australian Government the cover it needed to introduce the 1936 Aborigines Act Amendment Act (or the Native Administration Act) which made Neville the Commissioner for Native Affairs, with even broader powers over Aboriginal lives.
I must say that I am wary of liberal use of the term ‘genocide’, which has a very specific, legal use. But certainly, had his policies continued to be carried out, their effects would have culminated in the extinction of all Aboriginal people. A strong eugenicist, his focus was on the ‘half-caste problem’. The solution as he saw it, was removal of half-caste children, the marrying of girls to white men in order to ‘breed out the colour’, discouragement of marriage between full-bloods and half-castes, and a hands-off policy with full bloods who, with their traditional lands appropriated, would struggle to find sufficient food to survive. It was in effect “breed out, die out”. He was quite open about the policy with mixed-descent girls:
Our policy is to send them out into the white community, and if a girl comes back pregnant our rule is to keep her for two years. The child is then taken away from the mother and sometimes never sees her again. Thus these children grow up as whites, knowing nothing of their own environment. At the expiration of the period of two years, the mother goes back into service, so it really does not matter if she has half a dozen children.
Under the Native Administration Act, Neville could control the lives of any West Australian citizen who had at least one Aboriginal grandparent. As Commissioner, Neville was made the legal guardian of all ‘native’ children up to the age of 21 and had the power to take any child of mixed descent. Sexual intercourse between a ‘native’ and another person was an offence, and he had the power to forbid marriages. He could compel ‘natives’ to accept any form of employment, and administered any inheritances, which were transferred to the Commissioner. A proportion of any Aboriginal workers wages were to be paid into a trust account, again under the Commissioner’s control. Aboriginal people of full descent were not eligible for any education. Neville’s policy of ‘absorption’, which he prosecuted forcefully, was adopted by the other states and territories at the 1937 Conference of Commonwealth and State Aboriginal Authorities in Canberra.
An additional element of the Native Administration Act was that it required all missions and missionaries to be registered with the government. This was just part of the increasing conflict between Neville and missionaries generally. . By now she was drawing support from Aboriginal groups in the Eastern states, and she attended the Day of Mourning in Sydney in 1938. In 1940, faced with drought and wartime constriction, Neville ordered all ‘indigents’ and full-bloods off Mt Margaret mission, leaving it to function as a half-caste home. This may have been the last straw, and in 1941 Mary Bennett returned to England. She was to return six years later when the Ernabella Presbyterian mission was opened amongst the Pitjantjatjara people in South Australia, but returned to England again in 1950.
By this time, the world was changing. In the wake of WWII the British government was rethinking its policies with former colonies in Africa and India. The Declaration of Human Rights was passed in 1945 and in 1948 the UN passed the Convention on Genocide. In 1950 she published Hunt and Die: The Prospects of the Aborigines of Australia, and by now she was supported by anthropologists like Donald Thompson and W.E. Stanner who was later to coin and popularise the term ‘the Great Australian Silence’ in his 1968 Boyer Lectures.
She returned to Australia for good in 1951. She returned briefly to teaching at Cundalee Mission in Kalgoorlie, but left in disgust at sexual improprieties and suggestions that an Aboriginal boy might be taken ‘home’ to Canada by one of the Canadian missionaries- just as her mother had taken ‘home’ little Jane fifty years earlier. A falling out with the Schenks at Mount Margaret Mission and ongoing conflict with the Board of Missions marked the end of her involvement with Christian missionaries, although she retained her Christian faith.
By now Neville’s absorption policy had been replaced by the assimilation policy, which was just as firmly embedded. But the humanitarian landscape had changed. The age-old model of ‘charity’ had been replaced by the discourse of human rights- although it has been interesting to see this dichotomy arise again in the opposition to the Uluru Statement, especially in the National Party. Meanwhile, industrial action in the north-west of Western Australia, and the work of Don McLeod in forming the Committee for the Defence of Native Rights had brought union support, and the involvement of Communist Party members like Jean Davenny and Shirley Andrews from the Council for Aboriginal Rights. The appropriation of Maralinga and the Woomera Rocket range again attracted international attention as television footage showed full-blood traditional people who had not ‘died out’, despite Neville’s policies. As a result, Jessie Street was despatched from the Anti-Slavery Society in London to investigate the conditions of life for Aboriginal people on the Eastern Goldfields, as the basis of a report to the United Nations.
In February 1958 Bennett and her friend Ada Bromham from the Women’s Christian Temperance Union attended a meeting in South Australia where the Federal Council for Aboriginal Advancement was formed. She was amongst a who’s-who in Aboriginal activism: she met Shirley Andrews and Barry Christophers from the Council for Aboriginal Rights, Gordon Bryant the Labor MHR, Stan Davey from the Victorian Aboriginal Advancement League, Bill Onus and Pastor Doug Nicholls.
By now, she was ill with complications of her long-term diabetes but her writing continued unabated. She remained an assiduous correspondent at both international and national level, and two rooms of her house were filled with Weeties boxes containing clippings and files on fifty Aboriginal people personally known to her, for whom she had lobbied over many years. She died in 1961, aged 80. She was a tricky one. She was not beyond bending the facts to suit her purposes, and she had burned off many of her allies, including her feminist and missionary connections. She was inordinately fond of capital letters in her communication with authorities, and knew that her interventions often caused as much harm as good. But as the world changed around her, she changed too. Her allies changed from feminists, to missionaries, and eventually to unions and internationalists as her emphasis changed from humanitarianism to human rights.
In the last few weeks, we’ve seen opposition to the Uluru Statement harden amongst conservatives and the progressive vote splinter. We’ve seen the formation of the ‘Allies for the Voice’ and pushback against ‘White Saviours’. It’s hard to know where to stand, and that really dismays me. I wonder where Mary Montgomerie Bennett would stand on the Uluru Statement? I suspect that she would be strongly supportive of Noel Pearson’s emphasis on education, enterprise and health and his critique of the previous 50 years of Aboriginal policy. I think that she would see the Uluru Statement as an issue of justice, and that she would argue the moral case for Yes. And I think that I would agree with her in that.
After her death, a friend described her as a “white hot flame”. Might our Fire of Commitment burn as brightly.
Alison Holland Just Relations: The Story of Mary Bennett’s Crusade for Aboriginal Rights (2015)
Sue Taffe A White Hot Flame (2018) Available as e-book through SLV