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“Strike Strike, We Strike”: Making Aboriginal Domestic Labor Visible in the Pilbara Pastoral Workers’ Strike, Western Australia, 1946–1952

  • Victoria Haskins (a1) and Anne Scrimgeour (a1)

Between 1946 and 1949, the Pilbara Walk-Off of Aboriginal pastoral workers in the Northwest of Western Australia came to symbolize the demand for Aboriginal rights and independence and is now recognized as a key event in the Aboriginal land rights movement. While the Pilbara strike has received attention from many historians, the involvement of Aboriginal domestic workers in the action has not. But the strike provided an unprecedented opportunity for Aboriginal domestic workers to mobilize and organize. This article examines the historical role and impact of Aboriginal domestic workers in the Pilbara strike. Drawing upon Aboriginal oral histories and correspondence of employers at the time as well as official records, this study argues that the involvement of the domestic workers made Aboriginal domestic labor visible, and in doing so challenged the racial and gender foundations of hierarchy and power that underpinned the pastoral economy of colonization.

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1. In Australia, stations are large pastoral holdings or properties (“ranches” in the United States). Pastoral workers are “stockworkers” or “station workers” and include “drovers” and shearers; paid managers and/or the station owner (historically often called “squatters”) supervise.

2. Caroline Jula, oral history Recording 1, Woodstock Station, August 13, 1991: personal collection, Anne Scrimgeour, Bradbury, South Australia.

3. Jula, recording 2, Woodstock Station, November 5, 1992: Scrimgeour collection.

4. Michael Hess is one of the few historians to acknowledge the role played by women: Hess, Black and Red: The Pilbara Pastoral Workers’ Strike, 1946,” Aboriginal History 18 (1994): 6577 . For other accounts, see Scrimgeour, Anne, “‘We Only Want Our Rights & Freedom’: The Pilbara Pastoral Workers Strike 1946–1949,” History Australia (2014): 101–24; Holcombe, Sarah, “Indigenous Organisations and Mining in the Pilbara, Western Australia: Lessons from a Historical Perspective,” Aboriginal History 29 (2005): 107–35; Peter Biskup, Not Slaves, Not Citizens: The Aboriginal Problem in Western Australia 1898–1954 (Brisbane, 1973), 219–57. Individual focus has been upon the men, with one woman, Daisy Bindi, being the only woman to receive any limited recognition in the literature: Katharine Susannah Prichard, “Daisy: The Story of an Aboriginal Woman,” (1959) in Straight Left: Katharine Susannah Prichard. Articles and addresses on politics, literature and women's affairs over almost 60 years: from 1910 to 1968, ed. Ric Throssell (Sydney, 1982), 255–63; Maud Quinn, “Meet Daisy Bindi,” Our Women: Journal of the Union of Australian Women, March–May 1960, 2; Kath Walker (Oodgeroo Noonuccal), “Daisy Bindi,” in My People (Brisbane, 1970), 93: Michael Bosworth, “Bindi, Daisy (1904–1962),” Australian Dictionary of Biography, published in hardcopy 1993, accessed online November 3, 2014.

5. James Scott, Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance (London, 1985). Key works on resistance in Aboriginal domestic employment include Huggins, Jackie, “‘Firing On in the Mind’: Aboriginal Women Domestic Servants in the Inter-War Years,” Hecate 13 (1987/88): 523 ; Tonkinson, Myrna, “Sisterhood or Aboriginal Servitude? Black Women and White Women on the Australian Frontier,” Aboriginal History 12 (1988): 2739 ; Sabbioni, Jennifer, “I Hate Working For White People,” Hecate 19 (1993): 729 ; Walden, Inara, “‘That was slavery days’: Aboriginal Domestic Servants in New South Wales in the Twentieth Century,” Labour History 69 (1995): 196207 ; Haskins, Victoria, One Bright Spot (Basingstoke, 2005); Victoria Haskins, “On the Doorstep: Aboriginal Domestic Service as a ‘Contact Zone,’Australian Feminist Studies 16 (2001): 1325 ; Michael Aird, “Tactics of Survival: Images of Aboriginal Women and Domestic Service,” in Colonization and Domestic Service: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives, ed. Victoria K Haskins and Claire Lowrie (New York, 2014), 182–90.

6. For comparative perspective, Rebecca Sharpless, Cooking in Other Women's Kitchens: Domestic Workers in the South, 1865–1950 (Chapel Hill, NC, 2010), 81–83; Premilla Nadasen, “Power, Intimacy, and Contestation: Dorothy Bolden and Domestic Worker Organizing in Atlanta in the 1960s,” in Intimate Labors: Cultures, Technologies and the Politics of Care, ed. Eileen Boris and Rhacel Parrenas (Redwood City, CA, 2010), 204–21; Donna L. Van Raaphorts, Union Maids Not Wanted: Organizing Domestic Workers 1870–1940 (New York, 1988), 187, and 187–219 passim.

7. There are many examples in the literature: Cissie Fairchilds, Domestic Enemies: Servants & Their Masters in Old Regime France (Baltimore, MD, 1984), 229–40; J. Jean Hecht, The Domestic Servant Class in Eighteenth-Century England (London, 1956), 206–18; Harper, C. W., “House Servants and Field Hands: Fragmentation in the Antebellum Slave Community,” The North Carolina Historical Review 55 (1978): 4259 ; Christopher Munn, “Hong Kong, 1841–1970: All the Servants in Prison and Nobody to Take Care of the House,” in Masters, Servants and Magistrates in Britain and the Empire, 1562–1955, ed. Douglas Hay and Paul Craven (Chapel Hill, NC, 2004), 365–401. The vexed position of the Native servant in colonial societies has been explored most fully by Ann Laura Stoler, Race and the Education of Desire: Foucault's History of Sexuality and the Colonial Order of Things (Durham, NC, 1995); and Carnal Knowledge and Imperial Power: Race and the Intimate in Colonial Rule (Berkeley, CA, 2002, 2010).

8. For a sustained and critical discussion of these arguments, Janet Bujra, Serving Class: Masculinity and the Femininisation of Domestic Service in Tanzania (Edinburgh, 2000), 152–56, 59, 172–73.

9. Jula, for example, lived with the station manager's family during 1944 at the Air Force base at Corunna Downs station, to care for their infant son. The position of young women sleeping in the house when there were no young children to tend, however, could be a source for scandal. See Haskins, Victoria, “‘Down in the Gully & Just Outside the Garden Walk’: White Women and the Sexual Abuse of Aboriginal Women on a Colonial Australian Frontier,” History Australia 10 (2013): 1134 .

10. Police Constable Gordon Marshall to Commissioner of Native Affairs, January 30, 1940, State Records Office of Western Australia (hereafter SROWA) Cons 7198, 2030, 1939/1226/3; Edith Miller, interviewed by Ronda Jamieson, 1982, transcript, 60–61, 107, State Library of Western Australia (hereafter SLWA), OH506.

11. Jula, Recording 1.

12. For “colonized labor,” see Claire Williams with Bill Thorpe, Beyond Industrial Sociology: The Work of Men and Women (Sydney, 1992), 95–99; for “never truly colonized,” see Ann McGrath, “Born in the Cattle”: Aborigines in Cattle Country (Sydney, 1987).

13. Noel Olive, Enough is Enough: A History of the Pilbara Mob (Fremantle, 2007), 121; Smith, Pamela A., “Station Camps: Legislation, Labour Relations and Rations on Pastoral Leases in the Kimberley Region, Western Australia,” Aboriginal History 24 (2000): 7597 ; Mary Anne Jebb, Blood, Sweat and Welfare: A History of White Bosses and Aboriginal Pastoral Workers (Perth, 2002), 79–80, 90–91; Penelope Hetherington, Settlers, Servants & Slaves: Aboriginal and European Children in Nineteenth-century Western Australia (Perth, 2002), 142–52. Similar policies and practices pertained across Northern Australia: Martínez, Julia, “When Wages Were Clothes: Dressing Down Aboriginal Workers in Australia's Northern Territory,” International Review of Social History 52 (2007): 271–86; Stevens, Frank, “Aboriginal Labour,” The Australian Quarterly 43 (1971): 70–8.

14. Peter Coppin, interview recorded December 2000, cited in Bill Bunbury, It's Not the Money it's the Land: Aboriginal Stockmen and the Equal Wages Case (Fremantle, 2002), 45.

15. Section 12 of the Native Administration Act 1936 (WA).

16. Keith Weaver, police patrol report, October 5, 1947, SROWA, cons 430, series 76, 1946/2538 v8; Pitpit (Billy Thomas) in How the West was Lost: The Story of the 1946 Aboriginal Pastoral Workers’ Strike, directed by David Noakes (Perth, 1987), DVD.

17. R. S. Hamilton, Waltzing Matilda and the Sunshine Harvester Factory: The Early History of the Arbitration Court, the Australian Minimum Wage, Working Hours and Paid Leave (Melbourne, 2011), 12–13, 57.

18. Judith Elton, “Comrades or Competition? Union Relations with Aboriginal Workers in the South Australian and Northern Territory Pastoral Industries, 1878–1957” (Ph.D. diss., University of South Australia, 2007), 129, 132.

19. Elton, “Comrades or Competition,” 12; Hamilton, Waltzing Matilda, 115–26; Fiona Skyring, “Low Wages, Low Rents, and Pension Cheques: The Introduction of Equal Wages in the Kimberley, 1968–1969,” in Indigenous Participation in Australian Economies II, ed. Natasha Fijn, Ian Keen, Christopher Lloyd, and Michael Pickering (Canberra, 2012), 153–69, 158.

20. Elton, “Comrades or Competition,” 131–32.

21. B. W. Higman, Domestic Service in Australia (Melbourne, 2002), 178–80.

22. Letter to the Editor, “The domestic problem,” West Australian, March 7, 1941, 5.

23. Unattributed online essay, “The Economy,” John Curtin's Legacy: Leading Australia from War to Peace, John Curtin Prime Ministerial Library, Curtin University (Perth, n.d.), (accessed March 29, 2015).

24. Commissioner of Native Affairs to Minister for the North-West, September 26, 1841: SROWA Cons 993, 2030, 1941/0954.

25. “Arbitration Bill—Council Amendments,” West Australian, Thursday, November 13, 1941, 7.

26. Jula, Recording 1.

27. Jenny Hardie, Nor'Westers of the Pilbara Breed (Perth, 1988), 27.

28. McGuire, M. E., “The Legend of the Good Fella Missus,” Aboriginal History 14 (1990): 124–51; Judith Rollins, Between Women: Domestics and their Employers (Philadelphia, 1985).

29. While many pastoralists and white station workers maintained a strict social distance from the Aboriginal people (see Jebb, Blood, Sweat and Welfare, 199), memoirs and biographies of members of pastoralist families, such as Judith Drake-Brockman and Mary and Elizabeth Durack, emphasize that affectionate relationships developed within the master-servant relationship on stations: Judith Drake-Brockman, Wongi Wongi (Perth, 2001); Brenda Niall, True North: The Story of Mary and Elizabeth Durack (Melbourne, 2012); see also, McGrath, Born in the Cattle, 102.

30. Manager of Mulyie Station to Commissioner of Native Affairs, June 4, 1939; SROWA Cons 7198, 2030, 1937/0432/21–25.

31. Paul Hasluck, Shades of Darkness: Aboriginal Affairs 1925–1965 (Melbourne, 1978), 52–53.

32. Miller transcript, 64, SLWA OH506.

33. Kulyu (Molly Williams), oral history Recording 2, Woodstock Station, October 27, 1992, Scrimgeour collection; Palyakulayi (Ginger Bob), Recording 1, Warralong, September 30, 1993, Recorded by Anne Scrimgeour, Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (hereafter AIATSIS) collection.

34. Jula, Recording 1. Pilbara Aboriginal people speak Station English, which incorporates grammatical features of Australian languages. The verbal suffix “m” in these quotations is a grammatical feature that marks transitivity. The word “bin” marks past tense. They also use the terms “boys” and “girls” when referring to Aboriginal workers, a feature of Station English that was originally intended to infantilize Indigenous workers.

35. Nyirrarlpi (Maggie Ginger), Recording 10, South Hedland, May 13, 1993. Recorded by Anne Scrimgeour, AIATSIS collection. Transcribed and translated from Nyangumarta by Barbara Hale and Mark Clendon.

36. Miller transcript, 51, 108, SLWA OH506.

37. Hardie, Nor'Westers, 181.

38. Jula, Recording 1.

39. Miller transcript, 63, SLWA OH506.

40. Miller transcript, 87–88, SLWA OH506.

41. Nyirrarlpi (Maggie Ginger), Recording 27, South Hedland, May 21, 1993, Scrimgeour collection.

42. Marshall, Police Report, June 1, 1946, SROWA, Cons 430, 76, 1943/0099v7.

43. Constable Les Fletcher, Police Patrol Report, SROWA Cons 430, 76, 1939/1777v7; Laurie O'Neill, Native Affairs Journal, May 11, 1946, SROWA 1945/0800/127–126; Les Miller, letter to the editor of the Northern Times, May 15, 1946, clipping in SROWA 1945/0800/118.

44. Fletcher, report to Native Affairs Commissioner, May 2, 1946, SROWA Cons 993, 2030, 1945/0800/56–60; Native Affairs Inspector O'Neill, statement, May 24, 1946, SROWA 1945/0800/133–135; Reg Sherlock to Kitty, May 15, 1946, Sherlock family personal collection.

45. West Australian, May 4, 1946, 14; Commissioner Bray to O'Neill, May 14, 1946, SROWA 1945/0800/68; Fletcher, Police patrol report, May 19, 1946, SROWA 1939/1777v7; West Australian, May 18, 1946, 10; Bray to Western Australian Premier, Frank Wise, May 27, 1946, SROWA 1945/0800/111.

46. O'Neill to Bray, May 26, 1946, SROWA 1945/0800/143; O'Neill to Bray, July 16, 1946, SROWA 1945/0800/274; Benja Sherlock to Kitty, June 21, 1946, Sherlock family personal collection.

47. O'Neill statement, May 24, 1946, SROWA 1945/0800/134; O'Neill to Bray, May 9, 1946, SROWA 1945/0800/67.

48. Bray to O'Neill, May 14, 1946, SROWA 1945/0800/68.

49. O'Neill to Commissioner of Native Affairs, May 26, 1946, SROWA 1945/0800/143–145. Wages for non-Aboriginal domestic workers at the time were likely to be in the vicinity of five times this amount.

50. “Natives’ Dispute,” West Australian, May 3, 1946, 6.

51. In October 1942 Port Hedland had been declared a “prohibited area” for Aborigines (including those of mixed-descent) with passes issued to so-defined “good conduct natives” to allow them to remain in town: Biskup, Not Slaves Not Citizens, 162, 212–13, 256.

52. Marshall, police report, June 1, 1946, SROWA 1945/0800/170–173.

53. Benja Sherlock to Kitty, July 31, 1946, Sherlock family personal collection. It's not clear whether Daisy's wages had been raised as a result of the strike, though Benja added that Daisy and her husband were both “on a good wicket” (fortunate).

54. Benja Sherlock to Kitty, July 31, 1946.

55. Benja Sherlock to Kitty, August 7, 1946, Sherlock family personal collection.

56. Benja Sherlock to Kitty, August 7, 1946.

57. Benja Sherlock to Kitty, August 21, 1946, Sherlock family personal collection.

58. Peter Hodge to Acting Commissioner for Native Affairs, Lew McBeath, November 18, 1946, SROWA Cons 993, 2030, 1946/0799/82; Marshall, police report, June 1, 1946, SROWA 1945/0800/170–173.

59. Marshall, Patrol Report, November 24, 1946, SROWA 1946/2538 v8; Marshall to McBeath, November 26, 1946, SROWA Cons 993, 2030, 1943/0621/17.

60. Weaver, police patrol report, August 30, 1947: SROWA 1946/2538 v8.

61. Barton, Ruth, “Domestic Help: Daughters, Servants and Domestic Work in Western Australia, 1900–1960,” Studies in Western Australian History 14 (1993): 425, 6, 10. See also Kennedy, Sally, “‘Australian Untouchables’: Domestic Servants in WA, 1920–1940,” Hecate 5 (1979). For the “servant problem” in Australia generally, Beverley Kingston, My Wife, My Daughter and Poor Mary Ann: Women and Work in Australia (Melbourne, 1975) and Higman, Domestic Service in Australia (2002).

62. Letter to Mary Ferber from “A Tryer,” Daily News (Perth), November 1, 1941, 30.

63. Constable McGeary to McBeath, October 6, 1947, McBeath to McGeary, October 17, 1947, SROWA Cons 993, 2030, 1947/0922.

64. C. T. Stannage, Western Australia's Heritage: The Pioneer Myth (Perth, 1985), 2, 7.

65. Miller transcript, 101, SLWA OH506.

66. Anne McClintock, Imperial Leather: Race, Gender and Sexuality in the Colonial Context (New York, 1995), 161–64.

67. Elton, “Comrades or Competition,” 160.

68. F.E.A. Bateman, Report on Survey of Native Affairs (Perth, 1948) 18.

69. Native Affairs Inspector Tom Jensen to McBeath, September 11, 1948, SROWA Cons 993, 2030, 1947/0305/199.

70. Kulyu (Molly Williams), Recordings 2 and 3, Woodstock Station, October 27, 1992, Scrimgeour collection.

71. “Report by Sir Ross McDonald and Mr. F.E.A. Bateman on Native Group at Marble Bar,” August 15, 1952, SLWA 5525A-2.

72. Statements to committee investigating native labour, SROWA Cons 3390, 20, 1952/0830 v1/94, 132.

73. David Johnston, statement to committee, March 5, 1952, SROWA Cons 3390, 20, 1952/0830 v1/128–129.

74. Dorothy Faulks-Taylor, statement to committee, March 5, 1952, SROWA Cons 3390, 20, 1952/0830 v1/132.

75. Aubrey Hardy, statement to committee, May 3, 1952, SROWA Cons 3390, 20, 1952/0830 v1/94.

76. Don McLeod, statement to committee, March 18, 1952, SROWA 1952/0830 v1/99.

77. John Wilson, “Authority and leadership in a ‘new style’ Aboriginal community: Pindan, Western Australia” (MA diss., University of Western Australia, 1961), 72–3.

78. Norman Tindale, May 23, 1953, Journal of the University of Adelaide and University of California Anthropological Expedition, 1 (1952–1954): 406; South Australia Museum, AA 338/1/19/1.

79. Harvey Tilbrook, Native Affairs patrol report 2 of 1950/51, SROWA Cons 993, 2030, 1950/0741/53.

80. Native Affairs reports at the time indicate that domestic workers at Roy Hill were paid 15/- to 25/- per week. Jack Rhatigan, Native Affairs patrol report, September 15, 1951, SROWA Cons 993, 2030, 1951/0779. Other sources, such as an account by John Wilson (who met Daisy Bindi in 1959), suggest that women were not receiving any wages at all and that this was a principal source of discontent that led to workers leaving Roy Hill: Wilson, “Authority and Leadership,” 78.

81. Some sources give Daisy's Aboriginal name as Mumaring, but we have been unable to corroborate this. Bindi, or Bindee, was the name of her husband; therefore we have decided to use her European first name in this account.

82. Jack Rhatigan, Native Affairs patrol report, September 15, 1951, SROWA Cons 993, 2030, 1951/0779.

83. Robert Middleditch, statement to committee, March 6, 1952; Alexander Spring, statement to committee, April 7, 1952, SROWA 1952/0830 v1/130, 102.

84. Native Affairs officer Gare, notes taken on patrol for Commission of Enquiry, SROWA 1952/0380/191.

85. Quoted in Quinn, “Meet Daisy Bindi,” 2.

86. Wilson, “Authority and Leadership,” 78.

87. Native Affairs officer Gare, notes taken on patrol, SROWA 1952/0380/191.

88. Gare, notes taken on patrol, SROWA 1952/0380/191; Don McLeod, statement to committee, March 18, 1952, SROWA 1952/0830 v1/109; Max Brown, The Black Eureka (Sydney, 1976), 213.

89. McLeod, statement to committee, March 18, 1952, SROWA 1952/0830 v1/109.

90. Wilson, “Authority and Leadership,” 78; Gare, notes taken on patrol, SROWA 1952/0380/190-1; Don McLeod, letter addressed to “Dear Sir,” April 12, 1952, SROWA 0830 v1/59–60.

91. Bosworth, “Bindi, Daisy”; Prichard, “Daisy,” 262–63.

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International Labor and Working-Class History
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