An Aboriginal Proposal Declined
On the 3 July 1915, The Queenslander published an article which, unusually for the time, advocated that indigenous men be accepted for active service in the AIF. The article reported a recent offer made to the Minister for Defence by Mr. A. Meston of the Queensland Bureau in Sydney, to take from 50 to 100 North Queensland Aboriginal warriors to the Front. In Mr. Meston's letter to the Minister he stated,
"You may confidently accept my assurance that the aboriginals selected by me are capable of doing useful and creditable work as scouts and hand grenade throwers, and that their courage will not fail them when called upon to face hand-to-hand combat with weapons specially made and suitable for their peculiar system of fighting. We have already seen work done by the Gurkha with the knife thatwould be comparatively useless in the hands of the average European. I could arm the aboriginal with specially made weapons with which he could do quite as deadly work as the Gurkha can do up to a range of 150 yards."
The Minister replied expressing his keen appreciation of the offer, but stated he was "not prepared at present to recruit Aborigines." Mr. Meston then sent the offer directly to Lord Kitchener at the War Office, with references to Sir William MacGregor' and Sir Thomas Robinson. Mr. Meston received a reply from Lord Kitchener's private secretary, at the War Office,
"Dear Sir, - Lord Kitchener desired me to acknowledge the receipt of your letter of August 14, offering to organise and lead a body of' North Queensland aborigines for service in the field. The Secretary of State desires me to inform you that he has brought your letter under the notice of the Colonial Office, as the department more immediately concerned with the consideration of you proposal."
The proposal was altogether not accepted by the relevant authorities. In 1915 indigenous Queenslanders faced many obstacles to enlistment. The main obstacle was the Aboriginals Protection and Restriction of the Sale of Opium Act (1897) which made all indigenous Queenslanders wards of the state, under the legal guardianship of the Chief Protector of Aborigines. The Act denied them the basic rights of citizenship, and restricted their movements and activities without the written permission of the Chief Protector or his agents. The Defence Act (1909) also excluded ”those who are not of substantially European origin or descent”.
Although some indigenous men managed to enlist early in the war, it was not until May 1917 that impediments were to some extent relaxed. At that time, the massive losses on the Western Front and the need to maintain enlistment numbers caused the Commonwealth government to amend the Defence Act so that “half castes may be enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force provided that the examining Medical Officers are satisfied that one of the parents is of European origin”. This was a halfway measure, but did enable many more aboriginal men to join the AIF.