Throughout the pages of Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence, Doris Pilkington examines the line between altruism and cruelty. As she reproduces missives sent between members of the Australian government, and imagines interactions between government officials and the half-caste children they were tasked with capturing, however, this line sometimes becomes blurry. The cruelty of the Australian government’s campaign to forcibly assimilate—even eradicate—Aboriginal culture is undeniable, but by disguising their actions under the cover of altruism and “protection,” the government was able to surveil and control Aboriginal communities by confining them to “schools” and “settlements” that were effectively internment camps until well into the twentieth century.
In the early 1900s, the Australian government sought to placate the Aboriginal people by handing out rations, blankets, and other supplies. Government officials and civilians alike marveled at the “gratitude” with which Aboriginal people received these meager, half-hearted reparations, and wrote mournfully in letters and newspaper articles of the “dispossession” of the “once-numerous” tribes. These meager attempts at atonement, an insult to the Aboriginal people, were really designed to placate not the Aboriginals but the Australians, allowing them to feel slightly better about the destruction, violence, and chaos they had unleashed upon the continent, as well as the government’s ongoing systemic subjugation of Aboriginal people. The insidiousness and cruelty of such unthinking shows of mock altruism is a major concern of Pilkington’s throughout the text, and she teases this theme out, as the book progresses, through the characters she reimagines and recreates.
Doris Pilkington was herself raised at the Moore River Native Settlement, and has said in interviews that she did not realize the true nature of the place she came to see as her home—or the true role of “protectors” like A.O. Neville and Constable Riggs—until long after she’d departed the settlement. The irony of bestowing the title of “protector” upon men whose role in their local governments was to hunt down, round up, and forcibly remove half-caste children from their families is palpable throughout the text. In their letters to one another, these “protectors” discuss what to do with the children they are charged with monitoring in disdainful language. Officials abduct Molly, Gracie, and Daisy from their homes and transport them thousands of miles away without any concern for the damaging effect this forced separation will have on the girls. When a constable charged with watching Molly, Gracie, and Daisy becomes otherwise occupied, he leaves them in a jail cell for several days while they await passage south to Fremantle. The government often labeled these government officials as “protectors” of Aboriginal people, but charged them with undertaking duties and tasks which actively caused harm and trauma to them, and perpetuated the cycles of loss and dispossession which had already plagued the Aboriginal people for centuries, since the arrival of the very first white settlers.
Mrs. Flanagan, a character whom readers meet only briefly, is perhaps the character most emblematic of the sometimes deceptive boundary between altruism and cruelty. When Molly, Daisy, and Gracie, nearly halfway through their trek through the bush, approach Mrs. Flanagan’s farmhouse starving and in rags, she feeds the girls, clothes them, and sends them on their way with sacks of food, sweets, and supplies for the journey ahead. While the girls are in Mrs. Flanagan’s house, she assures them that she will not report them to the authorities, and she asks them questions about their journey so far and their ultimate destination. When the girls depart, Mrs. Flanagan, watching them go, decides that it’s unsafe for the girls to go off into the bush alone. Out of a sense of “duty,” Mrs. Flanagan calls her local superintendent and reports the girls, including information about their ultimate destination: Jigalong by way of the rabbit-proof fence. Mrs. Flanagan is satisfied with herself, proud of her “altruistic” decision, but unaware of the devastating effect that her phone call might have on the girls’ futures. Pilkington leaves it up to the readers to decide for themselves whether Mrs. Flanagan was acting out of cruel, racist motivations, or whether she truly saw herself as an altruist concerned with the girls’ safety.
In cases like Mrs. Flanagan’s, altruism is, in effect, cruelty. Even if readers are to believe that A.O. Neville, Constable Riggs, Mrs. Flanagan, and the assorted government officials who hunt the girls through the bush were all acting out of a genuinely altruistic desire to protect the girls, Pilkington shows how even such “altruistic” actions on the part of white Australians repeatedly led to experiences of unspeakable suffering and hardship for Aboriginals.
Altruism vs. Cruelty ThemeTracker
Altruism vs. Cruelty Quotes in Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence
As a further insult by the white invaders, an act of goodwill in the form of an annual distribution of blankets to the Aboriginal people was established. This generally occurred on Queen Victoria’s birthday. The Illustrated Melbourne Post of 20 August 1861, page 9, described this event as “a sorry return for millions of acres of fertile land of which we have deprived them. But they are grateful for small things, and the scanty supply of food and raiment doled out to this miserable remnant of a once numerous people is received by them with the most lively gratitude.”
Molly and Daisy had just finished eating when all the camp dogs began barking. All eyes turned to the cause of the commotion. A tall white man stood on the bank above them. Fear and anxiety swept over them when they realized that the fateful day they had been dreading had come at last. They always knew it would only be a matter of time before the government would track them down. When Constable Riggs, Protector of Aborigines, finally spoke his voice was full of authority and purpose.
“I’ve come to take Molly, Gracie, and Daisy with me to go to school at the Moore River Settlement.”
The rest of the family just hung their heads refusing to face the man who was taking their daughters away from them.
“You should have seen the other ones who were locked up for running away,” [Martha] said. “They all got seven days punishment with just bread and water. Mr. Johnson shaved their heads bald and made them parade around the compound so that everyone could see them. They got the strap too.”
When the sons and daughters of the landed gentry and businessmen and professionals such as doctors, lawyers and politicians, were sent away to boarding schools to be educated they were likely to be given pleasant rooms that would be theirs for the duration of their schooling. Instead of a residential school, the Aboriginal children were placed in an overcrowded dormitory. The inmates, not students, slept on cyclone beds with government-issue blankets. There were no sheets or pillow slips except on special occasions when there was an inspection by prominent officials. Then they were removed as soon as the visitors left the settlement and stored away until the next visit. On the windows there were no colourful curtains, just wire screens and iron bars. It looked more like a concentration camp than a residential school for Aboriginal children.
Watching the three girls disappear into the open woodlands, [Mrs. Flanagan] said loudly to herself, “Those girls are too young to be wandering around in the bush. They’ll perish for sure. They don’t know this part of the country. And the three of them with just dresses on. It’s a wonder they didn’t catch cold. I’ll have to report this to Mr. Neal for their own good before they get lost and die in the bush. It’s my duty. When she had made her decision she went inside and lifted the earpiece of the telephone.
“It’s a pity that those youngsters have gone ‘native,’ but it cannot be helped. They were attractive children, and ought to have been brought in years ago. This emphasizes the necessity for Police Officers to report the presence of half-caste children in the bush. I know this is done now, but it seems to have been neglected in some districts in the past.”