‘The Forgotten Aboriginal Political Warrior

Research By Professor John Maynard on Episode 6

Jane Duren an Aboriginal Yuin woman from Moruya on the South Coast of New South Wales remains as one of the great forgotten Aboriginal political patriots. Duren was a very prominent member of the Australian Aboriginal Progressive Association (AAPA). Her record and memory largely is tied with two very significant events and moments. There is much written about William Cooper’s famous 1937 letter to the King, which sadly was never sent. Jane Duren on the other hand in 1926 did write a letter to the ruling monarch. Duren’s letter did reach Buckingham Palace and was returned to Australia postmarked from the Palace. The King sent the letter back to the Governor General, who then sent the letter back to the NSW Aborigines Protection Board. This was unfortunate in that the target of Duren’s original letter was the Board. Duren’s impassioned plea highlighted the plight of Aboriginal children of Bateman’s Bay being forced from the local school. ‘I beg to state that it is months and months since those children were at school and it is a shame to see them going about without education’.[1] She strongly highlighted that the school was a public school and if this was the case, why were Aboriginal kids denied their place in this so called public institution? Duren stated that education was compulsory under state legislation but this was obviously only the case if you were white. She directed that the community at Bateman’s Bay had been prolific in their attempts to draw attention to their plight. She stated that they had been ‘writing to different places, namely, the Minister of Education, the Child Welfare Department, the Aborigines Protection Board also to our Members of Parliament but cannot get fair play’.[2] Duren powerfully illustrated her frustration at not being heard or gaining any recognition. Obviously, this is what had driven her to undertake to write directly to the King. She concluded by revealing that the Aboriginal reserve land itself was under threat to white appropriation:

Even the reserve land where the coloured race were bred and born the white race are trying to have them turned off on to another piece of land. It is unfair and I hope you will see that fair play be given let them stay on the land that was granted to them.[3]

Archival evidence reveals that the Governor General received notification of the letter to the King and he dictated and delegated responsibility back to the New South Wales state government to respond to her letter. On the 31st July 1926 he relayed to state government:

I have the honour by His Majesty’s command, to transmit to you, to be laid before your Ministers, the accompanying letter which has been addressed to His Majesty by Miss Jane Duren, of Moruya, New South Wales, concerning the question of the education of coloured children at Bateman’s Bay. [4] 

One can only speculate at the consternation and embarrassment that the revelation of this action and letter would have caused in the halls of the New South Wales Aborigines Protection Board itself. They would have been highly uncomfortable that their actions had been brought to the attention of the King himself. For them, the just exposure was highly unsettling. Their practice of making decisions behind closed doors, that was their long established habit of secrecy and unquestioned executive power, had been revealed to the highest seat of power in the Commonwealth.

In 1927 Jane Duren was back in the news – the Sydney Morning Herald rana story that centred on a meeting betweenthe Australian Aboriginal Progressive Association leadership and high-ranking church officials. The Herald banner declared ‘Aborigines – Want Racial Equality – Appeal to Churchmen – Letter To The King’.[5]

There was a strange mixture of humour and pathos at a meeting at the Chapter House last night between the Bishop Coadjutor of Sydney (Rev D’Arcy Irvine), the chairman of the Australian Board of Missions (the Rev J S Needham) and seven [A]borigines, members of the Australian Aboriginal Progressive Association. The natives sought the opportunity of stating their claims to racial equality with the whites and certain other concessions for the less educated brethren.[6]

Importantly the article illustrated and reinforced that the AAPA was not some male only driven organisation, but that Aboriginal women were heavily involved in the leadership and direction of the Association.

Two of the natives were women, and one of them, Mrs Duren, astonished Bishop D’Arcy Irvine by saying she had written to the King. “To the King” – he asked. “Yes”, replied Mrs Duren “I addressed it to King George V, England”[7]

Jane Duren emphasised that it was the stripping of Aboriginal lands that had driven her to write directly to the “Head of the Empire”. The land in question on the South Coast had been reserved for Aboriginal use but suddenly pressure had been applied to alienate it from their hands.

            “Do you think the King received it?” asked Bishop D’Arcy Irvine.

            “Well” replied Mrs Duren. “I registered it so he must have”

She admitted, however that she had received no reply. But the land had not been sold.[8]

The article revealed that President of the AAPA Fred Maynard a ‘self educated [A]boriginal’ acted as spokesman for the group.

They intelligently pleaded their claims for the repeal of the existing Aborigines Act, and its substitution by another that would be more agreeable to them and would make no distinction between them and the whites.[9]

This meeting also revealed the at the time wide discussion of establishing a separate Aboriginal state. A petition largely white driven was sent to the Prime Minister and government with over 7000 signatures including many prominent names. It is amazing that Michael Mansell in recent years has raised a similar proposal. But back in 1927 the Aboriginal leaders were quick to pounce upon the subject of the much-publicised push for an ‘Aboriginal State’. The Aboriginal leadership emphasised that their membership totally rejected any such notion which sought to remove Aboriginal peoples from their traditional lands and remove them all to some arid remote location in northern Australia.

It is clear that Aboriginal people believed that the Native State idea, strongly supported by Needham among others, was indeed a proposal to move all Aborigines by force to the Northern Territory. This opinion was held on the north coast and the strong opposition of Kooris there to the Native State was reconfirmed at an AAPA meeting in Lismore later in November, where the people stated that ‘they preferred to live where their homes were’.[10] The Aboriginal fears were strongly announced to the church leadership:

Mr Maynard declared defiantly against the proposal to institute a native State in the Northern Territory. Some of the less civilised tribes, he declared, would insist upon adhering to their age-old tribal customs, and the place of their birth.[11]

Maynard lectured that directives aimed at Aboriginal people and issues warranted representation from each state and that, from Maynard’s standpoint would undoubtedly have necessitated Aboriginal input, direction and representation. Needham sought to ease the Aboriginal suspicion when he explained:

that there was no intention forcibly to remove natives from their usual haunts, but that it was proposed merely to segregate the natives and secure them from molestation. Mr Maynard seemed placated. He insisted however, that the natives should be provided with their own communities, with schools and other public buildings and should be supervised generally by educated and capable [A]borigines.[12]

Needham attempted to discredit the Aboriginal argument that if given fair opportunity Aboriginal people were capable of achievements the equal of anyone. He claimed that there had been:

many instances where natives had been given all opportunities to improve themselves, but with two exceptions – that of the well known David Unaipon and a Queensland girl – they had disappointed the white protectors, who had endeavoured to help them.[13]

Needham’s predictable reply is ingrained with the total lack of knowledge of his day and reinforces the concept to which the AAPA was so strongly opposed “as being treated as children that needed helping and saving”. One can only hazard a guess at Maynard’s contempt at such an ignorant response. He immediately replied and insinuated that obviously Needham’s movements with regard Aboriginal people and communities were vastly different to his own. Maynard’s rebuke dictated the injustice and total lack of equal opportunity that confronted Aboriginal people:

Wherever he had come into contact with his own people he had discovered the most appalling conditions. At Macleay River he had found 60 natives, men, women and children, suffering from starvation. The conditions were most horrible. The public did not learn about it because there was a “hush” policy. In reply to Bishop D’Arcy Irvine, Mr Maynard said that help from the police was not sought, as it was feared that the children would be taken away from the parents. That was considered crueller than starvation.[14]

Jane Duren slammed home the inequality of Aboriginal existence through education and the inability of the New South Wales Protection Board to respond to Aboriginal complaint and ill treatment:

Mrs Duren said she had complained to the Minister for Education of the exclusion of black children from the State school at Batemans Bay. The Aborigines Protection Board was a nice name, she had told officials of that office, but when this kind of thing occurred where did the protection come in? Influence was everything. If one did not have it, one got nowhere.[15]    

Maynard concluded his remarks by once more raising the issue of Aboriginal land and complained:

That some of the land set aside in the early days of Australia was gradually being alienated from their use; and urged that the liqueur prohibition clause in the Act should be abolished as it was insulting to the Aborigines.[16]

Needham responded that he would place their requests before the proper authorities. He revealed to the press that as a result of the meeting with the Aboriginal leaders he would personally take an interest in the claims of the AAPA. His comments however were to a great extent guarded and unsupportive:

I am not sure the best is being done for the [A]boriginals… Some of their complaints are legitimate, but I am quite certain that a number of their requests cannot be granted.[17]

Despite their appeal the AAPA’s hopes of widespread support amongst the religious brethren was sadly not forthcoming.

Church organisations are not likely to join with the Aboriginal Progressive Association in an assault on the State Government, but they are pressing for the appointment by the Federal Government of a Royal Commission Inquiry.[18]

Jane Duren certainly deserves her place amongst prominent early Aboriginal activists and she died in 1947.

[1] J. Duren (1926) A Letter sent to King George V, Box 5/14819, New South Wales State Archives, Sydney.

[2] J. Duren (1926) A Letter sent to King George V, Box 5/14819, New South Wales State Archives, Sydney.

[3] J. Duren (1926) A Letter sent to King George V, Box 5/14819, New South Wales State Archives, Sydney.

[4] Governor Generals instruction to above – Box 5/14819, New South Wales State Archives, Sydney.

[5] The Sydney Morning Herald 15 November 1927

[6] The Sydney Morning Herald 15 November 1927

[7] The Sydney Morning Herald 15 November 1927

[8] The Sydney Morning Herald 15 November 1927

[9] The Sydney Morning Herald 15 November 1927

[10] Goodall, 1996:167

[11] The Sydney Morning Herald 15 November 1927

[12] The Sydney Morning Herald 15 November 1927

[13] The Sydney Morning Herald 15 November 1927

[14] The Sydney Morning Herald 15 November 1927

[15] The Sydney Morning Herald 15 November 1927

[16] The Sydney Morning Herald 15 November 1927

[17] The Sydney Morning Herald 15 November 1927

[18] The Sydney Morning Herald 15 November 1927