Inland Flynn

Flynn of the Inland is remembered as a missionary who called Aborigines ‘damned, dirty niggers’ and refused to have them treated by his hospitals and Flying Doctor Service. The ‘niggers’ remark is compelling, powerful and repugnant, but is it true? What were John Flynn’s own views on race? To ask this question implies a broader inquiry into what it means to be ‘racist’ and how we might own, or disown, our racially charged past. Flynn was born in the 1880s and died in 1951. His lifespan encompassed the shift from brutal colonialism to paternal assimilation. It is difficult to ‘place’ him in the context of his time, and to understand what it means to judge his attitudes from the perspective of our own time.

In 1972 Charles Duguid published Doctor and the Aborigines, a memoir of his years of Aboriginal missionary work. He recalled a conversation from the 1930s in which Flynn asked Duguid why he was ‘wasting his time on those damned, dirty niggers’. A year later Sir Mark Oliphant (who wrote a foreword to Duguid’s book) said in a speech that he had been shocked to realise that Flynn ‘refused absolutely to have anything to do with Aborigines and thought they should be allowed to die out as rapidly as possible’. Despite frantic efforts by Flynn’s successors within the church to retrieve his reputation, this has stood as a thorough—and eminently quotable—condemnation of Flynn’s racism, reproduced in both popular and scholarly writing on the history of the Inland.

When Dr Duguid first attacked Flynn in the early 1930s, he was aiming at a very large target. In 1932, Ion Idriess had published his runaway bestseller Flynn of the Inland. Flynn married around this time, and a friend wrote of his fame: ‘no engagement other than that of royalty could have caused such a stir’. Flynn referred ironically to the Idriess story as ‘my mythic self’. He was a hero to a Depression-weary nation. In his philanthropic work for the outback he performed a great service for the metropolis: he crystallised an image of Australia as a pioneering nation, whose frontier vitality was undiminished.

In 1912 Flynn had travelled through the Northern Territory, producing a report for the Presbyterian Church on the welfare needs of white settlers, and eventually setting up the Australian Inland Mission (AIM) as an organisation devoted to those needs. Aboriginal missions were separately administered and, remarkably, were administered by the ‘Foreign Missions’ branch of the Church. However, in 1914 Flynn’s friend J.R.B. Love wrote from the outback urging him to reconsider this split:

The questions of white and black are wholly bound up in each other. We cannot deal with one apart from the other. It is perfectly futile to talk of morality in this country where there is absolutely no restraint on immorality … While there is a gin in the land, she will be at the disposal of every man who wants her …
Flynn remained adamant that his mission could not tackle the racial problems of the frontier—that was work for others. He had little taste for racial and sexual melodrama; certainly much less than most missionaries. Yet in his lifelong dedication to the cause of the Inland’s white settlers he was inevitably implicated in questions of race—how could he have thought that the fates of white and black in the outback could be neatly demarcated?

Whether he consciously acknowledged it or not, Flynn’s reading of the desert as the ‘wide open spaces’ and his passionate defence of the interests of white settlers in the Inland were part of the implicit racism of the romantic frontier. And Flynn’s mission to make the Inland safe for white women and their children was the product of his racial beliefs in the eugenic importance of the white bushmen—whom he called ‘our A1 human stock’. The implication is that ‘half-caste’ children were a waste of such potential, and that sexual liaisons with Aboriginal women were a poor substitute for the ‘nation-building’ of white families.

The frontier myth was not merely indifferent to Aboriginal presence. The frontier landscape was considered deeply primitive—‘country that is raw and strange’, Flynn wrote. White imagination feared the primitive power of that landscape on its settlers. One of Flynn’s correspondents expressed a concern that white children of the Inland were ‘reverting to the blacks’. Flynn himself worried aloud about the frontiersman alienated from civilised society, who was ‘living like a blackfellow’ and becoming embittered in the process. Aboriginality was a convenient stereotype of wildness, isolation, primitivism—but an ironic one, since it was isolated white settlers who were stranded in the landscape, not its Indigenous inhabitants, for whom there was no unsettling wilderness, but a lived and living landscape home.

The romantic frontier, which Flynn consolidated as a national myth in the 1920s and 1930s, had deep racial undercurrents. It skated across Aboriginal presence, which was elided into the landscape as a dark and primitive force. Yet Flynn rarely wrote about Indigenous people explicitly in this way. In fact his writing on Aboriginal affairs is marked by other factors, including a sense of compassion for the dispossessed. In 1915 Flynn wrote a long article in The Inlander called ‘Our Aborigines’, which had searing photos of Aboriginal prisoners in chains. In it Flynn condemned both church and government policies on Aboriginal health and welfare as ‘terribly amateurish. Our benediction to the blacks has been like the curate’s egg—good in parts. Our efforts need to be increased, improved, systematised’. Flynn was blunt about European culpability:

‘... we are all to blame. We are all more or less ignorant into the bargain.’

Flynn clearly did not subscribe to a simple Social Darwinist vision, which looked forward to the eclipse of Aborigines by a supreme white race. As he said in 1915:

It should be quite unnecessary at this late day for us to point out that the black man as a member of the human family has a right to increasing opportunities of self-development. We who so cheerfully sent a cheque for £100,000 to Belgium to help a people pushed out of their own inheritance by foreigners—surely we must just as cheerfully do something for those whom we ‘clean-handed’ people have dispossessed.

In these statements we see Flynn’s humanism, and we also sense its limitations. Flynn, like most of his philanthropic contemporaries, had no respect at all for ‘tribal’ life: he shared Hobbes’ view of ‘primitive’ life as ‘nasty, brutish and short’. He was particularly critical of what he saw as the violent and exploitative attitudes towards women in Indigenous societies, and had little patience for ‘romantic’ ideas, as he saw them, of traditional culture.

Flynn’s inclusion of Aborigines as members of the human family came at a significant price: assimilation to white models of respectability and community. He was pleased to report donations from Indigenous people to the mission, exclaiming, ‘That’s unity’. Like other sympathetic but assimilationist writers he was particularly keen to welcome respectable, acculturated Aborigines into the national family. So he published stories in The Inlander of Aboriginal shearers, farmers and builders, ‘happy’ as he saw it ‘in self-realisation’—that is, in realising themselves as simulacra of white people, becoming more authentically human, as they became less traditionally Aboriginal.

How did his enemy, Dr Duguid, champion of Aboriginal missions in the church, compare? As Rani Kerin says in her compelling work on Charles Duguid, he treated the Ernabella Aboriginal Mission, which he founded, as his ‘baby’. Duguid literally acted as a surrogate father to a number of Aboriginal children, whom he took into his home, both ‘full blood’ and ‘half-caste’. He was deeply involved in the ‘rescue’ of half-caste children from their Aboriginal mothers. The rationale of Ernabella was not, of course, the preservation of Indigenous culture, but the ‘education and evangelisation’ of the Aborigines. A letter from Duguid, which Rani has kindly shown me, describes an Aboriginal mother who had managed to rescue her two older daughters from abusive positions on stations. When they were taken away by missionaries, ‘she begged that the baby should not be taken from her and, even after giving her consent, broke down and wept bitterly’. Despite documenting her grief, Duguid wrote with equanimity of these ‘rescues’in the name of a higher ideal: Aboriginal ‘improvement’.

Flynn and Duguid were schooled in the same progressive, reform-minded world view. Flynn had been a slum missionary in Melbourne and rural Victoria before turning his attention to the outback. In a climate of eugenic ideas that condemned the poor as defective, and doomed to hereditary inferiority, Flynn was part of a brave new wave of reform-minded churchmen, who regarded human nature as essentially flexible and adaptive. These people saw the degradation of the ‘slums’ as a natural outcome of an environment of poverty and hardship, rather than a confirmation of the feckless and criminal nature of the poor. Their key ideals were efficiency and uplift, and the practicality of the ‘Social Gospel’. As a theological student, Flynn once proposed that his fellow students should establish settlement houses, like those in the United States, where they would live and work with the poor and be of practical service. He was laughed out of the meeting.

The dark side of this humanitarian impulse was a patronising assumption that white, middle-class values were to be universally applied and aspired towards. This was as much a cause of resentment among the poor as among Indigenous people. The assumption underlies Flynn’s lack of interest in Aboriginal cultures, as it does Duguid’s collusion in the removal of children. In both cases indifference or even brutality wore the mask of reform and uplift. But it is also true that both men represented a profound advance on the Social Darwinist views of some of their contemporaries. In 1928, when Flynn had been writing of Aborigines as ‘members of the human family’ for over a decade, more than 30 Indigenous people were massacred by police and settlers at Coniston in Central Australia, and Ion Idriess, Australia’s most popular inter-war writer, continued to write of Aborigines in animal terms—as dogs or monkeys.

How did Flynn’s humanitarian ideals square with his adamant separation of Aboriginal and white missionary work? Dr Charles Duguid visited Alice Springs in 1934. He was shocked by the attitudes of the Australian Inland Mission staff, who apparently told him that ‘the nigger never was any good and never will be. The best he has any right to expect is a decent funeral’. Duguid was further appalled that the large and comfortable AIM nursing hostel in Alice Springs was reserved for white settlers only, despite the terrible health problems of the Alice Springs Aboriginal population. On his return to Adelaide Duguid met with Flynn, who apparently told him that the hostel was not intended for ‘the hobo white, the half-caste or the nigger’. Duguid would later say that it was at this meeting that Flynn had said ‘you are only wasting your time among so many damned dirty niggers’. In a letter to the Minister for the Interior in 1935, Duguid argued, ‘It was my experience to find the native more condemned by John Flynn and Kingsley Partridge than by any policeman, administrator, station owner or manager whom I met’. This was severe criticism indeed when you think that it was only seven years since the Coniston revenge killings.

By 1936 Flynn and Duguid had become sworn enemies in a bitter competition for loyalty and money in the church. One of Duguid’s supporters described Flynn at the 1936 Assembly as ‘the devil incarnate’ for his ability to argue for increased Aboriginal missions, while undermining Duguid’s own work at Ernabella. It was, Duguid wrote, ‘just another example of the Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde nature of the man’.

Duguid was right about the AIM hospitals: Aboriginal people were not admitted as in-patients until the 1930s, although they were treated as out-patients. In fact, Flynn argued to Duguid that no Aboriginal person had ever been refused out-patient treatment at an AIM institution. The AIM argued that it had never set out to provide an Aboriginal medical service, and therefore such treatments that it did provide were a bonus. Duguid argued that the treatment of Aboriginal patients was a Christian duty. The Flying Doctor Service was, officially, always open to Aboriginal patients—reliant of course on the patronage of a white wireless operator to call the service—and one of Flynn’s early Flying Doctors leapt to his defence in the early 1970s, stating that when he worked for the Aerial Medical Service in the late 1930s Flynn had personally instructed him that ‘there was no restriction on medical flights on the basis of race, colour, or creed’.

The doors of the AIM hostels remained closed to Aborigines partly because Flynn and the AIM had forged an alliance with a deeply racist white settler culture. Flynn spent the greater part of 1926 living in Alice Springs, literally building the Alice Springs Hostel—his flagship—on a kind of sabbatical from his administration of the AIM. He was tremendously proud of the hostel, and became deeply involved in every aspect of the design. He was equally deeply involved with the white community who sponsored it, and which it served—a white community whose commitment to racial separation was entrenched. The hostel came to embody his vision of domestic warmth allied to scientific efficiency, with its ingenious natural ventilation systems, economy of space, and inventive storage. It was, said Flynn, a ‘real haven for those who come in weak from illness and that subtle depression sometimes joined thereto—which we may call “bush shock”. Our idea was a spot, in the very heart of the bush, where all might come at times to forget that they are in the bush’.

Ernest Kramer, an eccentric individualist missionary to the Aborigines of Alice Springs, wrote to Duguid in 1936 that, ‘I personally remember a time when Rev John Flynn’s heart was moved to consider the possibility of a special ward for the Aborigines at the back of the Alice Springs hostel—during the time of its completion—but public feeling in Alice Springs was so against it that he had to abandon the idea’. Kramer also noted in a letter to Andrew Barber, an AIM administrator, that ‘during my association with the workers and nurses of your mission, chiefly Oodnadatta and Alice Springs, I much appreciated instances of co-operation by the latter in dealing with acute sickness among the full-blood Aborigines’.

In his passion for relieving the ‘bush shock’ of his white settlers, Flynn inevitably became complicit in the deep racial conflict and tension of towns like Alice Springs. Flynn’s old friend, J.R.B. Love, thought this was endemic to the AIM’s patrol padres too, who ‘tend to follow the lead of the station people in their attitude to the blacks’. Although Love understood why AIM padres did not want to alienate white pastoralists, he thought they lacked moral courage in their acceptance of the racism of the frontier.

Duguid recognised this problem himself when he wrote of the hostel at Oodnadatta, where: ‘the Sisters told me of the fight they had with the white people before they were able to include half-castes in the Sunday School. The parents of the white children resented the inclusion of the half-castes bitterly and it was only firmness on the part of the Sisters that overcame the deep and ever present prejudice of the Interior.’ I think it is likely that Flynn’s own views hardened in some ways during his time in Alice Springs—or at least he became adept at pandering to the racism of the Inland, while playing the humanitarian elsewhere.

Flynn always argued, however, that he supported Aboriginal missions by both church and government, while believing that the AIM was not the right vehicle to tackle issues of Aboriginal health and welfare. I suspect that this actually reflects Flynn’s own temperament: a lack of focus on Indigenous welfare, mixed with a broadly humanitarian outlook. Flynn was largely uninterested in responding to the distinct needs of Indigenous people, but he was by no means incapable of recognising those needs. In 1932, two years before his supposed ‘damned dirty niggers’ comment, Flynn wrote a letter to the Board of Missions arguing for the establishment of a dedicated Aboriginal hospital in Alice Springs:

As regards the care of the blacks. In my opinion a ‘public hospital’ would not be satisfactory for the blacks. If they are to be treated with due consideration their patients must be permitted to be visited by their friends. If they are to be made comfortable they should be given special beds, practically on the ground. In fact for ‘Camp Blacks’ their hospital while truly sanitary, should be designed to serve children of the open air … The staff too, should be mission sisters specially devoted to Aborigines—devoted enough to study their language and habits of thought … I hope you will agree with me that the Aborigines of Central Australia deserve specialised care in their own institution at the hands of sisters who are consecrated to their particular care.

My own writing about Flynn has been haunted by race: not only his indifference to Aboriginal issues, but also his entangled anxieties about white vitality and regression. Yet in a letter like this one, where Flynn tentatively imagines a dedicated hospital for Alice Springs, there is a hint of some prescience. He had neither the will nor the inclination to do anything serious about it, but it is clear that Oliphant’s characterisation of Flynn as a man who ‘refused absolutely to have anything to do with the Aborigines and thought they should be allowed to die out as rapidly as possible’ simply should not stand.

It is easy, of course, to read such recognition of different needs as simply a rationalisation for neglect. Certainly Alice Springs was a town founded on segregation and intolerance. In this period no Aboriginal person was allowed within the town limits unless employed by a licensed employer, and the cinema was restricted to Aborigines with individual permits to attend, issued only to the ‘clean’ and ‘respectable’ (Rowse, White Flour, White Power, 1998).
Flynn’s own position is difficult to elucidate fully. He did condemn the failure to create a dedicated hospital for Aboriginal people, in a confidential memo he wrote in 1936: ‘There does not seem to be sufficient enterprise among professed friends of Aborigines to face up to obligations implicit in their own fierce declamations.’ He later regretted that he had not offered the AIM’s practical support to Duguid in setting up such an Aboriginal hospital. He thought that Duguid would have refused the challenge of diverting resources away from his own pet project, Ernabella.

Did Flynn actually describe Aboriginal people as ‘those damned dirty niggers’ in 1934? The word ‘niggers’ occurs most often in Duguid’s accounts of the AIM: I have never seen it in any AIM files, and Flynn’s personal correspondence. It is impossible to know what Flynn said in private, but his own writing some years earlier contradict Duguid’s account:

We Australians who, light-heartedly, for four generations, have been reading to Aborigines the ‘move aside’ clause, will surely be called up to render an account of our stewardship—God only knows how soon.

Flynn was a humanitarian, a visionary of modern medical care, a mythologiser of the frontier, a man who was quick to point out injustice to Aboriginal people, and slow to do anything about it in his own institutions. At times his racism is apparent and repugnant, but he was capable of simple compassion and acute criticism of his racist peers. How is history to judge such a man? How many of us would have had the imagination and boldness to do more, were we children of his time?

In every culture there are people whose suffering is considered obviously deserving of compassion (for Flynn it was the lonely white settlers, especially women with children). But every culture also has its shadowlands—inhabited by those who suffer no less, but who are cast as disturbing ‘others’ who are marginal, threatening, uncontained. It is striking, for example, how disturbing the public presence of the mentally ill can be in our culture, provoking uneasy tolerance and a desire for flight. Flynn’s humanitarian vision was incomplete and corrupted by that incompleteness, but this should do more than encourage moralistic historical judgment. The gaps in his mission would serve justice better were they to remind us to search out our own shadowlands, and the people who inhabit them.

Brigid Hains is a Melbourne writer interested in the intersections of biology, race and history. She has recently published The Ice and the Inland: Mawson, Flynn and the Myth of the Frontier (MUP, 2002). She would like to thank Rani Kerin, PhD student at the ANU, for sharing her unpublished work on Duguid, and Tim Rowse, also at the ANU, for his response to a seminar paper on this topic.



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