No Options No Choice!
Thomas Corbett was born in 1910 at Hillside (near Marble Bar) in the Pilbara Region of Western Australia, the first born child of an Aboriginal tribal woman. His father, an Englishman, was an itinerant outback worker who failed to accept his son "by word or deed". For the first six years of his life Thomas lived with his mother and her people at Hillside, learning the tribal way of life, speaking only the Marlba language. Removed from his "heritage" and "home" by the dictates of government policy, he was conveyed to Perth. His reaction to his new environment was a mixture of bewilderment, apprehension and excitement.
A stranger in a strange land confronting radically different lifestyles and ideologies, Thomas resolved to make the best of his situation in order to survive. Providentially he was placed in the foster care of a young, childless Swiss couple who treated him "as their own". Under their tutelage Thomas soon learned the "social graces" of his new world together with basic English sufficient to commence formal education.Thomas felt like an alien in this new 'white' world, particularly at school where he first felt the cruel hurt of racist taunts. However, three years after his arrival in Perth, due to the love and kindness of his foster parents, he had grown in confidence and was doing well at school. In Thomas' own words, he had become a "pseudo white boy", accepted within his suburban community as the son of his foster parents; his mother, Hillside and the Marlba people a fading memory. But fate again intervened to rob Thomas of the love and respect he enjoyed with his 'white' family.
Shortly after the end of World War I, his foster parents decided to return to their native Switzerland. Government policy regarding guardianship prevented their taking Thomas with them. For the second time in his young life he had lost his people, his family; taken from those he loved. Thomas was left stunned, disillusioned, not knowing who he was or to whom he belonged while facing an unknown, uncertain world. That unknown world was soon revealed when he came directly under the immediate control of the Aborigines Protection Board.
The grim city office of the Protector was a precursor of what lay ahead at the Moore River Settlement to which Thomas was sent. Segregation, surveillance and subsurvience became the central theme of life at the Settlement. After his years of European life-style with his foster parents Thomas had to re-educate himself on "how to be an Aboriginal again". For the next twentyfour years the Settlement, with its privations, harsh bureaucratic control and stultifying atmosphere, was to be his home. The home in which he passed from childhood, through adolescence to manhood; a home and a life in which every facet was controlled by 'white' authority and over which he had "no option, no choice". Compulsory attendance at church on Sunday brough a profound feeling of peace within him in his youth, however in later life he became confused by the ambiguity that was God and the hypocrisy of religious bodies.
At fourteen Thomas left school and commenced his life as a "working man" in a variety of rural jobs, all allotted by the Aboriginal Affairs Department. This was an opportunity for him to escape, to some extent at least, the strictures imposed by 'white' authority. It provided Thomas with personal space to move from survival mode necessitated by the Settlement regimen to a thoughtful maturity in a wider world. By and large his experiences in the outside world were generally positive: he found a measure of respect in country communities and invariably gained respect and acceptance as a person of worth by his employers. This period, during which he returned to the Settlement between work assignments, sharpened Thomas' acceptance of his own Aboriginality and gave him a keener perspective of the degrading conditions endured by the inmates at the Settlement. In spite of the inability of the Aborigines there to defend themselves socially, politcally or at law, their traditional beliefs and values prevailed.
Overbearing control did not diminish his capacity to establish firm and enduring friendships within and beyond the Settlement. Nor did it weaken his resolve to adapt and survive. The long courtship and marriage to Rose (a marriage which required the authorisation of both the Protector and the Church hierarchies) and their raising of a large family is expressed with touching sincerity. "We didn't have many material things, but we had each other, our children, our friends and our future together. We were happy".
A motorcycle accident which resulted in Thomas having persisting headaches was believed by many at the Settlement to have been the result of a 'bone pointing' for some unknown wrong doing. Consequently Thomas endured the trauma of a nervous breakdown and lengthy confinement in hospital. On his discharge he was left uncertain as to the reasons, both for his ill-health and his recovery; a recovery for which he did not exclude the powers of two Aboriginal men "with powers beyond his understanding".
Japan's entry to World War II saw the even stricter control of the Army superimposed upon that of the Protector. Such was the prevailing paranoia that the Government believed the Aborigines to be ready to assist a Japanese invasion; this despite a good number of Aborigines already serving in the Australian Armed Forces. Meanwhile the Settlement moved closer to becoming a concentration camp. In 1944 Thomas, his wife Rose and their family finally managed to cut their ties with the Settlement, the childhood home of both parents. Having lived off, but nearby the Settlement for almost two years, their sense of independence had flourished. Thomas and Rose moved out of the shadow of the Moore River Native Settlement to a new life in Pinjarra, there to live their lives out. It is here that Thomas Corbett's biography ends.
No Options No Choice is the story of a human being of remarkable resilience beset with forced separation, institutionalisation, educational constraint, cultural confusion and racism. His life is a microcosm of the Aboriginal people's struggle for a respected place in their own land Yet despite the obstacles he was forced to confront, Thomas not only survived but managed to make the most of the limited opportunities afforded him by his "Protector" and Australian society of his time. No Options No Choice is a very readable book; one which gives a clear insight into the hardships, discrimination and injustice experienced by Aboriginal people in our quite recent past.
Brian Willis, September 1998.
|Rosemary van den Berg. No Options No Choice! The Moore River Experience. Broome (Western Australia): Magabala Books, 1994, 230p. ISBN 1-875641-12-2|