Australian Biography

Neville Bonner - full interview transcript

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There's a bit of a mystery surrounding your birth isn't there, and your father?

Yes, my mother was married to an Englishman who jumped ship. He and a mate of his, Tommy Beach, and both Tommy and Henry Bonner married two sisters. Tommy Beach married my aunt and Henry married my mother, and Henry my eldest brother was blue-eyed, blonde and very fair. I was born a lot darker than Henry, I don't have blue eyes, I have brown eyes, and black hair, so I'm not sure whether -- it was never explained to me whether I was truly Henry's son or I was the son of another chap in between.

What does your birth certificate say?

Why ... Neville Thomas Bonner, child ...

And the year of your birth, there -- there was some doubt about that too?

Yes, there was some [laughs] doubt about that. I was always under the impression, I don't know why or where I got it from, that I was born in 1918. But I wasn't, I was born in 1922, and I went ... I was never sure of how to get my birth certificate because I tried Tweed Heads, and there was no record of it, and I was talking to an elderly lady who knew my mother as a girl, they both grew up together, and she knew where I was born, but she knew also where I was registered. I was registered at Murwillumbah, so after getting into the senate -- just before Heather and I got married, we went for a trip around, and we stayed at a motel at Murwillumbah and I got up early in the morning and knocked on Heather's door to wake her up, and we drove up to the registrar office, and it was closed, and it was too early in the morning, so we enquired from the police station, and they told us it would be open later, and I walked in and an elderly gentleman wanted to know what we were looking for, and I said I wanted to find my birth certificate, and he asked my name, I gave it to him, and he said, 'When were you born?' I said, '1918', so we started looking through ... [INTERRUPTION]

When you tracked down your birth certificate what did you find?

I found that I was born in 1922, four years later than I first believed I was. I thought I was born in 1918. The birth certificate said born on the 28th of March, 1922.

So you were given an extra four years of life really, weren't you?

[laughs] No, I'd stolen four years, in my young -- younger, younger years.

Hmm. From what age did it become apparent that you had something that was going to make you stand out and eventually take you to a position of leadership? Were there any signs earlier on, that one day you would become the first Aboriginal senator in Australia?

No, I was interested in politics, and I became involved with a political Party, but never had any ambitions to get into parliament.

But when you were on Palm Island, was there any time there where you took a position of leadership, where you were ...

... Oh yes, I became involved with the Palm Island Social Welfare Association, I became the President of the Society, which ran a kind of country show, with all the different types of exhibits and that every year, and I also worked my way up the ladder in employment from hygiene officer to the head of the carpentering business, and then to become assistant settlement overseer. So I became sort of a leader in that sense that I worked my way up the ladder to become a settlement overseer.

What was it about you do you think that led you to get that sort of advancement?

I don't know actually, a bit difficult for one to assess that about oneself, I was articulate, and I was never afraid of work. I always had an attitude towards work, you did a fair day's work for a fair day's pay, and -- I suppose that was noticed by the authorities on the island, the superintendent George Sturges recognised that, that I was a chap that was prepared to work and progress and so he gave me more and more responsibility, until finally I became the Assistant settlement overseer. As it was on all of the Aboriginal communities under the Department of Aboriginal Affairs, a white man always had to be over the Aborigines, so whilst there was the superintendent, there was an assistant superintendent, there was a storekeeper -- they all had Aboriginal people working under them -- and there was a white settlement overseer who came and opened the office in the morning and then I didn't see him again till afternoon time when closing up. I handled all the workforce, detailed ...

Did he get paid?

Yes. The settlement overseer, the white settlement overseer, was on at that time about seven or eight pound a week, and I was on two-pound-ten a fortnight. Now there was a vast difference between the salaries of Aboriginal workers on the communities and the white staff.

While you were on Palm Island, there was the beginnings of some conflict between the Aborigines and the overseers, wasn't there. Could you tell me about that?

Yes, there was a chap who got into trouble over not attending to his job, and he had an argument with the -- he was in what they called a hygiene gang, the one that I first started as an Aborigine, but then they got a white officer to come in as the hygiene officer with Aboriginal people working under him, and this chap wasn't doing his work properly, he had a set to with the Overseer, and he was then told that he would have to leave the island, and go out onto the mainland and find his own way, and then take his family with him. And that caused a riot, the whole settlement went on strike and wouldn't do any work at all. I was the Assistant Overseer so I sat in my office and I kept working ... actually there was no work to do but I manned my office ... [INTERRUPTION]

When trouble broke out on the island, what side were you on, what position did you take?

I took an independent position, I had a job to do and I was going to continue doing my work. The argument between the hygiene officer and one of his workers had nothing to do with me. The others went out on strike, supporting this chap because he was going to be put off the island, and I didn't have any position on that, I said, well, the authorities have the right to put a person off the island or not if they so wish, so I kept out of it. The authorities sent for the white police from Townsville, who arrived on Palm Island late in the afternoon just on dark, on a crash launch. There was a whole group of Aboriginal people at the end of the jetty as the police officers were coming off, and the only lights were over the top of the jetty. All the Aboriginal people were in -- sort of in the dark. And they were yelling and carrying on, and as the police officers were coming off I saw some of the officers loosening their pouches with their guns. So I tried to ... I walked to the superintendent, Roy Bartlam, and said, 'Look Mr Bartlam, there's going to be bad trouble here, can we all go up to the picture theatre and put all the lights on so as everybody can see what's happening?' He said, 'They're your people, you go and talk to them.' I went to try and talk to them and they'd closed in around me and got me down and they started to sink the boot into me. They knocked me down and started to sink the boot into me. Two young fellows saved my life, they got themselves over the top of me and dragged me out and got me out of the road. They did finally go up to the picture theatre, open air picture theatre, and they had some talks there but nothing was settled and I tried to talk to the Aboriginal people to try and get things calmed down a bit, but no-one wanted to take any notice of me, so the police stayed on the island for two or three days and they struck in the early hours of the morning, and got all of the so called leaders and handcuffed them and put them on the boat and sent them out to the mainland, and then they transferred them all down to a settlement outside of Rockhampton, Woorabinda.

How did you feel about that?

Well, I was very, very upset about it all, particularly that I was trying to protect the people from any bad instance occurring that night, and for them to have knocked me down and start to sink the boot into me, I was pretty well bruised up around the ribs and back and that from boot marks. I felt that was a little unfair because they or someone could have been shot, because there was a whole group of young police officers coming off a boat into a dark situation where there was literally hundreds of people yelling and screaming. Any one of them could have pulled his revolver out and shot someone. And I felt that even though I went through what I did, I'd at least avoided bloodshed.

Did they subsequently accept that you were acting in their interests?

Those who were left. Those who were taken away ... I don't think they ever did for quite a long time, but the people who were still on the island, after the so called leaders were taken off, we all got together and demanded that the Head of the Department of Aboriginal Affairs come from Brisbane up and talk to us and get the matters all straightened out, which he did, brought a couple of other politicians and other important non-Aboriginal people from the mainland over, and we had quite a big meeting and had things sorted out and everybody got back to work again. But the people who were sent away, were away for a long, long time.

Did you feel badly about that?

Yes, I did, because they were forcibly taken away from their home, but they had broken the law and of course the law has to be obeyed. If you break the law then you have to accept the consequences.

Even if it's an unjust law?

Yes. Even if it's an unjust law. The only way you can change an unjust law is get into the system, which I finally did, to help to change what is ... look ... regarded as an unjust law.

Did you start thinking then about whether or not there was something that you could do? Was that the beginnings of some political ...

... No, I was still concerned about the conditions under which we the Aboriginal people were living and so I, as I said, I came away from Palm Island, brought my family away, and here in Ipswich there was an organisation called the Ipswich Coloured Welfare Council, and I became involved with that, which eventually became involved with a larger organisation called OPAL, and I worked quite a lot within that organisation. The name of OPAL was taken from the gem opal which is a precious gem made up of many colours, and our aim was to weld all people into one as Australians. But most of our work at the time was involved with Aboriginal people because it was Aboriginal people who were down at the bottom rung of the ladder, socially, economically, employment, housing, education -- the whole works. I'm sorry I've got to cough. [INTERRUPTION]

Why do you think it was that the people in the mob saw you, when you went to speak to them, as an enemy and attacked you and kicked you?

I suppose the misunderstanding would have come about because I was standing away from the mob, when the police arrived, then when I saw the police officers loosening their revolvers, I spoke first to the superintendent and the white staff, then went to speak to the Aboriginal people, and I think that there was a misunderstanding there, that I was on the white man's side rather than on their side, and so I was looked upon as a traitor, because I'd gone to the white -- and spoke to the whites first. But I went to the superintendent because he had the authority to hold the police until everybody had gone up to where the lights were, up at the open-air theatre. So I think there was a misunderstanding in that they felt, because I spoke to the whites first, that I was on the whites' side rather than on the blacks' side.

So, you felt that it was more important to avoid trouble than to fight for the principle that the guy had the right to stay on the island?

No, no, I didn't think that at all. What I saw was a very dangerous situation, where a group of young police officers [were] coming out of the light into the dark, where there was a whole stack of howling, screaming, yelling, swearing Aborigines. They were armed, the Aborigines weren't. Now any one of those young police officers could have panicked and shot one of them. My idea was to avoid that happening, and I was prepared to put myself in to a situation where I could have been hurt, because I didn't want someone to be shot. As simple as that.

The people who saved your lives, the couple who threw themselves onto you, what was their motivation?

Well, they were young people that were relatives of my first wife, and they were very close friends of mine, and they realised what I was trying to do, where the others didn't, and so they wanted to protect me and save me from -- well I could have been killed.

Tell me about conditions generally on Palm Island.

Oh, that could take quite some time, but let me try and sum it up as quickly as I can. The attitude or the rules of the authorities, the Department of Aboriginal Affairs, was that Palm Island was a penal settlement, and there was rules governing that place that would be something similar to what we're all angry about in South Africa. No Aborigine was allowed to answer back, argue the point, or disagree with an order or an instruction from a white officer. [INTERRUPTION]

What were conditions like on Palm Island?

Well, it was regarded by the Department of Aboriginal Affairs as a penal settlement, where Aboriginal people who misbehaved (according to them) were sent there, and the rules there were very strict. It wouldn't be less strict than you would find in the arguments we have over South Africa. It was an apartheid situation where the whites lived in one area, all the blacks lived in a different area, the whites were the authorities, if you were speaking to a white officer you had to call him Mr and if it was a lady you called her Mrs, even if they were only teenage kids, you still regarded them as Miss or Mr or Mrs or Mr -- whichever the case may be. You were woken by a bell at seven o'clock in the morning, you had to be down where work was detailed by eight o'clock when the second bell rang, then you were detailed out to work. Then another bell rang at ten o'clock: you ceased work and had a cup of tea. The next bell rang at a quarter past ten and you started work again, the next bell rang at twelve o'clock: you ceased work for lunch. The next one rang at one o'clock and you started work again, the next bell rang at four o'clock and the unpaid Aboriginal workers ceased work, the next bell rang at five o'clock and the paid Aboriginal workers ceased work, the next bell rang at nine, at half-past nine, and you had then to be in your own home. The last bell rang at ten o'clock and if you were caught outside your home after that bell, you were locked up and put in gaol, and you were put on the punishment sheet by the superintendent the next day. So everybody had to work regardless of whether you were paid or unpaid. If you were unpaid you received your rations -- tea, sugar, flour, meat, soap, washing soda, syrup and items like that -- free for yourself and each member of your family. If you worked, some people worked for as low as ten shillings a fortnight. I was the highest paid person after a number of years, of course, when I became the Assistant settlement overseer, of two-pounds-ten a fortnight -- that was the highest. I was the highest paid Aboriginal in the settlement.

What opportunity did you have to spend that money?

Oh, we had a general store, you could buy food, clothing or whatever you wanted there, and you needed to buy extra items of food, you just couldn't live on the basic rations, so you know, if you wanted butter or milk or stuff like that you had to buy that out of the general store.

Being an Aborigine, did you feel the need to share that with the others, the extra money that you had?

Well, not in cash but in kind, because if someone else didn't have, you know, there was always someone wanting a little bit of help, maybe a cup of sugar or maybe a wee bit of a special tea that you bought out of a shop or a coffee or something like that. You always did share amongst each other. When you were out you went to someone else, and if they were out they came to you, so it was a kind of sharing situation.

How did you cope personally? I mean, you were someone who'd been as it were born free, out there, and here you were in what was essentially a penal settlement, and you were there voluntarily to be with your wife.

Hmmm.

How did you feel yourself about that?

Well, I was a bit of a rebel I suppose when I first went there, but I learned that ... in a situation like that you had to learn ... [INTERRUPTION]

Did you feel rebellious about this?

Yes, when I first went there I was very rebellious, but I soon learned that you catch more flies with honey than you do with vinegar, and I learned to weave between the different people in authority, the different white people in authority. I learned to manoeuvre people, I suppose, to get the things done that I wanted to have done for the benefit of myself, my family and other people on the community, and I became quite expert at doing that.

Was this the beginning of the politician?

I suppose it could have been, yes, it could have been. I was not aware of it in that sense at that time but I suppose in retrospect, yes, I suppose it was the beginning of the makings of a politician.

When you first went there and you were rebellious, how did the rebellion express itself, what did you do?

Well, when I first went there I lived outside of the main settlement and it was quite a walk into the main settlement to be on time for work. [INTERRUPTION]

Well, an example of how rebellious I was -- I lived outside of the main settlement when I first went to Palm Island, which is about a half-an-hours walk into the settlement, and I had to be there at eight o'clock to get my instructions for the work for the day and I turned up late, and I was put on the crime sheet, which meant that I would have been put on punishment, so I breasted the superintendent himself, and told him that in the course of my work, I was doing something on the way in, which made me late for the parade, work parade. And he said, 'Oh, you can't tell me that, I know better than that,' and I argued the point with him, and of course I wasn't put on the punishment sheet but he let me know that he was the boss, and I was to do what I was told in the future, so I started to wake to myself then that if you want to beat the system, you do it in a sensible, quiet way instead of being hot-tempered and answering back to someone who was, according to them, of more higher authority.

What was the worst kind of punishment that could be meted out to you on the punishment sheet?

Well, if you were an unpaid worker, you could be put on work on Saturdays, you could be worked from four o'clock till five every afternoon, you could also be made to work on a Saturday, when no-one else would be working.

What were the worst things that you saw happen on Palm Island?

Well, they had an Aboriginal Police Force on the island in those days, and there were some pretty nasty characters who got themselves onto the police force. I suppose one of the worst things I saw happen was two police officers beating an Aborigine up with their waddies, their batons, on the way to taking him down to the cell. While two police were holding the chap, these other two blokes kept hitting him with their batons, and nothing happened to them. The poor bloke was knocked around pretty much, and he was put into gaol and then brought to the court case the following day, and was sentenced to six weeks in gaol.

Was that a common occurrence?

Oh yes, quite often, in those early days ...

... So there was quite a lot of physical violence?

... Doesn't happen now, but it did in those days, yes. Now they have white police on there as well as Aboriginal Police, but in those days there were just police working under the instructions of the superintendent.

So it was pretty much dictatorship by the superintendent?

Oh yes, it was a total dictatorship, yes. And that was the law of the government.

What about the children, were they well looked after? Your wife had wanted to go there for the children's sake ...

Well, we were fortunate in this sense, we had force, totalling five sons. They were able to stay with us in our home the whole time and go to school, so we were able to take care of them. But if you had daughters, once they reached the age of five they were put into the girls' dormitory under a matron and staff who kept [them] and they were locked up at night, and they were kept in the dormitory, just down to school and back to the dormitory, out at school and back to the dormitory, that type of thing, and as they grew up to be women of course they had to stay then in the women's dormitory, single women's dormitory.

What was the difference between the boys and the girls, why did they have a different rule for ...

Well ...

... from five?

I suppose it was ... they were more susceptible to being taken off by men than boys were. There was no ... there was no homosexuality on the island, so the boys were quite safe living at home with their parents, but the girls, the authorities didn't believe [the parents] were capable of protecting their daughters so they were put into the dormitory. And all young women were in the dormitory. [INTERRUPTION] Now can we start again.

[end of tape]

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