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Rebekah Crow

Further information

About the author

Rebekah Crow is a post-graduate student in Humanities at Griffith University, Queensland.

Publication details

Volume 7, November 2000

Remembering 'Race':
Mary Crowle's colonial childhood in Moreton Bay, Australia

The central aim of this paper is to explore white women's creation of ideas of 'race' through the intersections between gender and ideologies of 'race' using a case study of a white woman in late colonial Queensland. This project will map out the space in which white women's lived experience and popular ideologies of 'race' meet and explore the connections of 'race', gender, class and ideology in the nineteenth century. By doing this I hope to gain an understanding of white women's perspectives on how 'race' influenced their experience and how they created and changed 'race' ideology. The term 'race' is used in inverted commas throughout my writing as an indication that the term is an historically and socially determined category rather than a biological reality. 'Race' only becomes meaningful when contexualised in a specific time and place. Within this project the position 'white woman' is located as a racialised position. In the period between the 1850s and 1910, Queensland was still in the process of colonisation, although this process had started much earlier in the nineteenth century. It can be argued that white women occupied a unique position within colonialism and the Imperial project. White women were both colonised and colonisers, they occupied a position of power over colonised indigenous peoples yet were excluded from the centres of power and the institutions of colonisation. As McClintock eloquently states, 'As such, white women were not the hapless onlookers of empire but were ambiguously complicit both as colonizers and colonized, privileged and restricted, acted upon and acting'. (McClintock, 1995:6) In this study I am particularly interested in one white woman's writings, based on occurrences in late colonial Queensland, Australia which reveal her creation and recreation of stories of colonialism.

The case study that follows is a preliminary overview of the material written by Mary Crowle, a white woman who spent her childhood in colonial Queensland. Mary Crowle grew up on the south east coast of Queensland in the 1880s and 1890s in an upper class white home with Pacific Islander ('Kanaka') servants. She, and certainly her siblings, had an Aboriginal nurse.

After growing up in Queensland, Crowle married a British naval officer and emigrated to Britain. There Crowle took an active role in the Red Cross and after serving for several years became a practising naturopath, an unusual occupation at the time. In 1927, now widowed she broadcast a series of radio programmes on the BBC telling various stories about her life and childhood in late colonial Queensland. As well as these programmes, Crowle lectured, gave lantern slide shows and planned a book based on her experience of Australia, which was never published. Along with her interest in colonial stories, Crowle was an advocate of women's suffrage and was deeply concerned with the treatment of women, especially mothers. She often mentions motherhood as greatly deserving of respect.

Although her writings have a humanist approach Crowle makes frequent reference to the ideas of eugenics, subscribing to the notion that the differences between 'races' resulted from environmental factors. She was concerned about the creation of third class races or classes of people. Crowle writes: 'What the world needs is fewer people, and better, and to put a stop to over-breeding, which is the result of the subjection of women. Then we should have work for all and plenty for all'.1 Her ideas on race and class are complex, informed by eugenics and scientific theories of 'race'. Yet when talking about individual people and circumstances she engages as an intersubjective, albeit unequal actor, compared to some of the more dehumanising generalisations she makes in the broadcasts. Her narrative shifts between distant 'factual' writing, and personal and richer anecdotes. Her writing style moves between personal memories of interaction with black people and sweeping generalisations which appear to deny relationality. The stories of colonial Queensland often reflect a certain childishness or naivete which may come from both her lack of critical perspective as a child and from a desire to glorify or romanticise her 'Australian Childhood'. As an expatriate, who appears not to have returned to Australia, she is steeped in nostalgia. This is both a nostalgia for another time and place and a glorified remembering of the British Empire.

The Crowle family lived on Moreton Bay in the village of Cleveland. There was an Aboriginal camp not far from their home, although it appears that most of the Aboriginal people from Cleveland were at this time removed to reserves on the large islands relatively close to the mainland in Moreton Bay. (Evans et. al., 1993:121) Two of Crowle's broadcasts are of particular interest. 'My Australian Childhood' tells about large parties of children and their nurse going into the bush and the beach for picnics during the summer holidays. The other is, 'Coochiemudlo', which is the name of a small island, very close to the mainland and not far from Cleveland. The family spent several weeks camping on Coochiemudlo during the summer. They took with them a variety of people, including an Italian priest, a government botanist, their Italian cook, Pacific Islander servants, the nurse, Polly, and a large number of family members. The Aboriginal nurse is the only one of the servants referred to by name in the stories. There is a significant paragraph in the Coochiemudlo broadcast which illustrates the remarkable innocence through which 'race' relations are viewed:

Coochiemudlo was our favourite, as a tribe of blacks lived there that we knew well. As they once lived at Cleveland, and came to Cleveland every year for their "Blanket Day". They would stay for some time, until, in fact, the police told them it was time to go back to their Island reserve.

They called us their "white picaninnies", and we were sure of a good wild time with the blacks on this Island.2

Several ideas come out of this segment. Crowle accepts, as a matter of course, that the Indigenous people belong on the island. It is probable that the people living on Coochiemudlo were originally from Cleveland and were forcibly removed to the island and placed under government control. The term 'white picaninnies' seems to indicate a friendly relationship between Crowle and the Aboriginal people who, however, remained unnamed and undifferentiated from the general term 'blacks' in the story. They exist in the background of the story as unembodied characters.

In several of the broadcasts Crowle equates Aboriginality with childishness. She writes of Indigenous people as if they are innocent children and the possibilities for equality in her interactions with them stem from her relationships to them as a child. She conflates the idea of the 'uncivilised' child and the 'uncivilised' 'native', both of whom are deeply connected in her narratives to nature. Crowle remarks that upon leaving adolescence she had to leave her wild childhood behind and get on with more serious activities. The Aboriginal people in her stories, however, remain in the space of childhood memory and never move into 'civilised society'. Crowle however, as a young woman, enters Brisbane society. 'As we were growing up, we had to turn our thoughts to boarding school and more serious things than running wild…'3. 'And so my childhood, anyway, in Australia came to a happy ending and fifty years of real life in the Mother Country began'.4

This description of Britain as 'real life' consolidates the not quite real atmosphere of the broadcasts making them seem more like adventure stories than an historical narrative. When writing about the process of memory, historian Tom Griffiths asks; "Is it possible to identify seasons of memory, periodic surges of wistful story-telling?". (Griffiths, 1996:197) Although he is writing about a cultural moment I am interested in the idea that one such moment in the life of Mary Crowle can be explored through the nostalgic stories she left in her archives. Griffiths goes on to point out the link between nostalgia and progress, 'Nostalgia, argues Christopher Lasch, is the ideological twin of progress; its flip side…'. (Griffiths, 1996:197)

Around 1927 Crowle wrote and broadcast a substantial amount of material on her life and childhood and her stories are suffused with a 'wistful' nostalgia. She romanticised her childhood in, what she refers to as, ' the glorious Australian bush'. This wistful nostalgia is embedded in a longing for the remembered simplicity of childhood as well as the nostalgia of the expatriate. This nostalgia found a receptive audience in Britian, perhaps as a collective remembering of colonial glory. The nostalgic broadcasts could also be viewed as a propaganda-like promotion of the British Empire. Crowle remembers the Empire at its height while writing from the heart of the a declining Empire. She seems anxious to portray life in Australia to her British audience as a glorious one, superior to life in Britain. Crowle firmly locates the conflict of colonialism in the past.

Ideas and ideologies of 'race' permeate almost all of Crowle's stories and radio broadcasts. She remembers 'race' in her 'factual' writings within the paradigm of scientific ideologies of 'race', progress and white, European concepts of land use. Crowle, who considered herself an humanitarian and forward thinker, firmly believed in the natural progress of racial evolution, and that Aboriginal people were a dying 'race' when white people arrived. Her beliefs are embedded in the context of scientific hierarchies of 'race' which formed a kind of legitimate scientific racism in the late nineteenth century. The idea of hierarchies of 'race' is apparent in Crowle's writing as is the notion that Aborigines are from another age. They are seen as ancient ancestors of modern man and within this ideology, evolutionary time can be seen as mapped geographically across the globe. (McCLintock, 1995: 36) The most evolutionary advanced peoples are to be found in Europe while the 'men of the stone age' are in Australia and other distant regions.

There was a prevalent belief in the nineteenth century that Indigenous peoples were dying out when they were 'discovered' by white colonisers. In one of the broadcasts Crowle, while talking about white ant hills, comments; 'Like the black boys or grass trees they seem to belong to the past, with the aborigines, and are passing and not being replaced'.5 The construction of the idea of 'primitive' peoples giving way to 'civilised' 'races' was central to the establishment of the colony. This belief also continuously hampered efforts by Australian humanitarians to limit the brutality of colonialism. (Reynolds, 1998) Crowle draws on both the memories of her own childhood experiences and her father's experiences to write one of her BBC broadcasts, entitled 'The Moreton Bay Blacks'. Crowle's father, W. Finucane, had been Crown Land Agent and Clerk of Petty Sessions in Normanton prior to moving to Cleveland in South East Queensland. The following passage is an excerpt from this broadcast:

The Australian aborigines are the oldest living race, the men of the Stone Age, who have not made the slightest advance from that day to this, which seems incredible.

The aborigines were a dying race when Captain Cook discovered them in 1770, as reported by Dampier in 1688 and other navigators. They are of very poor physique and their only cure for illness is to let blood, hence the many scars they have on their bodies.

In the North or Central Australia they are finer and more intelligent, probably from intermixing in the North with other Islanders and in Central Australia from living according to better methods. However, they are a poor race of people and can only leave us wondering why such a race should be wasted on a land of milk and honey and of such great beauty and wealth.6

This broadcast was part of a series of colonial narratives and nostalgic remembering of the height of the British Empire. This one broadcast contains within it many of the most prevalent ideas on 'race' that appeared or were popularised in the late nineteenth century. Crowle outlines a Darwinian racial hierarchy which appears to have been only marginally influenced by her own experience of spending time with Aboriginal people in Moreton Bay. In her other broadcasts she describes her childhood interaction with the Aboriginal people on the islands in Moreton Bay, more in terms of intersubjectivity albeit with a measure of assumed white superiority. Elsewhere, Crowle writes of how the children looked forward with excitement to going on camping trips to Coochiemudlo Island and what a wonderful time they had fishing with the Aboriginal people who were living on the island at the time. The children's Aboriginal nurse, and the 'Kanaka' servants are often mentioned and form a backdrop to the story of the children growing up and having adventures.

Crowle regarded the local Aboriginal peoples as a part of the indigenous, pre-existing wilderness, akin to the unique flora and fauna of the region. Her stories often lack the critical perspective of adulthood and everything blends into a remembered dream of childhood. A happy childhood of blue skies, picnics, holidays and fishing, reminiscent of children's adventure stories. The influence of ideologies of 'race' on Crowle can be seen in the last sentence in the quote, 'However, they are a poor race of people and can only leave us wondering why such a race should be wasted on a land of milk and honey and of such great beauty and wealth'7, which perfectly and cruelly captures the essence of late nineteenth century industrial progress, the notion of perfectibility and utilitarian relationship to land use.

Crowle's stories shift between two different layers or levels of understanding. The primary content of most of the stories is drawn from her childhood experience and this embodies a type of nostalgic remembering of a sort of golden age of childhood combined with an expatriate nostalgia for the country of her childhood. The distance between Crowle and Australia, both physically and in time, results in an idealised vision of her idyllic life in Moreton Bay. On this level of understanding we can see an expatriate and autobiographical reliving and reinventing of aspects of colonisation in Queensland. Crowle becomes immersed in a fuzzy remembering of Moreton Bay and when she attempts an objective, scientific rendering of her subject, ideologies and theories emerge as another layer of understanding. There is also a kind of completeness remembered in her childhood. She writes of the return home from a day spent on the beach:

As darkness crept on, we would see the beautiful phosphorescent mushrooms gleaming and the pretty glow worms light up the dark ground like stars as we walked along, our "swags" empty, our arms full of beautiful flowers, very, very tired at the end of a perfect day in the glorious Australian bush under the Southern Cross. 8

The second layer of understanding which can be drawn out of the broadcasts is the scientific, or pseudo-scientific, theoretical perspective Crowle used. She was a firm believer in the scientific theories of 'race' and evolution that came out of the nineteenth century. Eugenicist and socio-biological ideas overlap and inform her memories. Her descriptions of Aboriginal people are mixed with other stories that contain the naivete of childhood memories. There is a fascinating combination of a belief in the inevitability of industrial and evolutionary progress, a certainty of racial superiority and a terrible childish innocence. A childishness is also transposed on to Aboriginal people. Crowle depicts them as having neither worries nor responsibilities. She mentions in an off-hand way how state intervention in their lives has given them a carefree existence, despite her acknowledgement that many Aboriginal people did not want to live on the island reserves but would prefer to stay in Cleveland, their original home. For Crowle, the contradiction appears relatively unproblematic. In another of Crowle's broadcasts she mentioned giving the family servants reading lessons and the casual superiority and power the white children employ to get their own way.

[The kanakas from the Islands] take lessons in reading (not writing, as they had no one to write to) in order to read their hymns in church, of which they were very fond. If they refused our requests we threatened to cut down their lessons, which they depended on from us children. That was a terrible threat and they soon complied with our wishes.9

The dominant class and racial position of the white children is taken for granted. In this schema, the hierarchies of 'race' that Crowle applied become visible. Aboriginal people are located as part of the landscape, the Kanakas or South Sea Islanders are considered more civilised, having the attributes of loyalty to the white family and taking lessons in reading and western music. Interspersed between these layers and the colonists at the top of the hierarchy are a mixture of the other inhabitants of the region, such as the West Indian proprietor of the local hotel and his Irish wife. 10

Within her stories Crowle makes the distinction between Australians and the English and she constructs Australians as ex-colonial or non-colonial actors. Crowle believed Australians to be superior to the English. Life in the colony having produced a superior 'race of Greater Britons' embodying the national characteristics of independence and tenacity. 11 Australians in this schema are the result of a fresh, new colonial lifestyle and she holds the British responsible for the evils of colonisation. This peculiar division between the evils of colonisation and the romanticisation of the emergence of the 'Australian' as a post or ex-colonial agent is most obvious in a passage which comes from a radio broadcast - 'The Kanakas'. Crowle begins:

The old slaving days in Australia are a blot on our history that we "Australian born and bred" are not responsible for, but to our credit, we are responsible for wiping out this crime and establishing the Commonwealth. 12

She went on to explain the introduction of slave labour as a result of the scarcity of labour and the unsuitability of 'the white men of those days', that is, the British rather than the Australian men - for physical labour. 13 She laments the treatment of the 'kanakas' , explaining the methods employed by 'blackbirders', to kidnap Pacific Islanders for labour in Queensland. Crowle proudly asserts that 'Australians' ended the slave industry and says how sorry they were to say goodbye to their servants when they were repatriated. Crowle adds that repatriation for the most part was unsuccessful and is heartened that these practices can be left behind along with the British themselves once the new 'race' of Australians is established.

For Crowle, colonisation is over by the 1890s and is a process linked with the British and the past. What remained was a naturalised process of civilisation, one that was both 'Australian' and inevitable. The distinction she makes between the Australians and the British is a racial distinction. This is an extension of popular nineteenth century beliefs of the evolutionary progress of man, from historical 'stone age man' through to white European man. A trajectory that can be imagined through linear time but one that is also represented spatially in nineteenth century ideas. It was possible to think back to 'stone age man' existing in the distant past and within racial hierarchies. It was possible to imagine these ancestors existent in the present, represented in social evolutionary ideologies by Indigenous peoples. With the development of scientific theories of 'race' as well as evolution it becomes apparent that '[n]ow not only natural space but also historical time could be collected, assembled and mapped onto a global science of the surface'. (McClintock, 1995:36) Crowle depicts the development of an Australian 'race' as the next step in the natural evolutionary process, the key factors were obviously environmental as she based the birth of the new 'race' on being 'born and bred' in Australia.

Crowle's ideas were informed by the ideology of eugenics and her belief in the environmental creation of a new 'race' of Australians can be seen as evidence of this. A further example of Crowle's eugenicist thinking appears in the next passage which was at the end of one of the drafts of a broadcast. (MacGregor, 1997) The last sentence was crossed out in the original and I have included it here as it offers us an insightful glimpse into Crowle's thoughts. In the following paragraph Crowle is writing about Aboriginal women and childbirth.

When a baby is born all the men go out and come back when it is all over. Here we have something in common with our black sisters. Women attend women at such times, and here we might learn something from our black sisters to our advantage, and incidentally reduce the high rate of maternal mortality amongst the civilised mothers. [Thus removing one of the causes of creating a C.3. race]. 14

Crowle attributes the creation of a third class 'race' with inadequate birthing practices and, I would speculate, with inadequate care for mothers. The idea of race here incorporates class distinctions and the conflation of 'race' and class and the centrality of reproductive technologies to the condition of the 'race', here the white 'race', demonstrates the complexity of Crowle's ideas of 'race'. Crowle is very concerned about maternal welfare. In several of her writings there are references made to the respect that should be accorded mothers and childbirth. One of these reference is a passionate anthropomorphisation of laying turtles and a plea to give these mothers the necessary respect and space they require in the breeding season. Crowle extols the sacredness of motherhood in general.

A theme, which appears in the case study, and which is both less obvious and more difficult to theorise, is the phenomenon of a kind of interior conflict between the beliefs and ideologies of white women and the reality of their experience. This only comes out of the material in a subtle instances, such as human interactions with Aboriginal people and Pacific Islanders on a most basic level are embedded in white ideology. Yet lived experiences do not fit comfortably into ideas of 'race', or the meanings that 'race' embodies. Crowle moves between descriptions of interactions in everyday life and ideological interpretations and explanations of 'race' difference that are informed by the socio- scientific, eugenic and colonial modes of thought. The glorification of Crowle's childhood in the stories and the happy, adventure story tone of the narrative enables Crowle to establish a distance between the very recent and violent history of settlement in the area where she grew up.

The innocence of her childhood stories also allow a remembering of a childhood that was located within an oppressive system of racial exploitation and exclusion, as a romantic time. In many ways Crowle defines herself and her own position, as white and Australian, against the position of black people in Queensland, both Indigenous and Islanders. By holding Australians responsible for ending the 'Kanaka' slave trade, Crowle instantly established the superior humanitarianism of Australians. Her childhood of running wild is linked to the wildness of the Australian bush and the location of the friendly Aboriginal people within this bush. The freedom and independence of Australians is contrasted against the British, yet the identity of this new 'race' of Australians is firmly defined by the boundaries of their whiteness. Indigenous Australians are located as an ever present dark 'other' which illuminates and defines the white child.

In a way, this brief introduction to Mary Crowle has been an expedition into the heart of the Empire. It has explored some of the ways that remembering 'race' is infused with ideas and ideologies and how personal stories can be transported out of their original contexts and become myths of colonialism. When I first started writing this paper I began with the idea that the material I was working on was a product of the consciousness of the subject and that stories like Mary Crowle's can be thought of as mediators between consciousness and reality. (Hayden White in Spivak, 1999:202) The stories of white women contain within them more than personal experience and yet remain essentially a record of the experiences of one person. Crowle's stories reveal to us the consciousness of an individual white woman as well as the ferment of ideas that informed her and grew out of nineteenth century and indeed earlier ideologies. Through the writings of Mary Crowle we can trace the transformation of childhood experiences into a body of personal stories and nostalgic memories and then further into the public discourse of the mythology of colonialism itself.


1. Mary Crowle, 'The Kanakas', c. 1927, Mary Crowle collection, National Library of Australia, Canberra, Australia

2. Mary Crowle, 'Coochiemudlo', c. 1927, Mary Crowle collection

3. Mary Crowle, 'Amity Point', c. 1927, Mary Crowle collection

4. Mary Crowle, 'Toonnaldo (no more)', c. 1927, Mary Crowle collection

5. Mary Crowle, from 'The Paddock' broadcast, c. 1927, Mary Crowle collection

6. Mary Crowle, 'The Moreton Bay Blacks', c. 1927, Mary Crowle collection

7. Mary Crowe, 'The Moreton Bay Blacks', c. 1927, Mary Crowle collection

8. Mary Crowle, 'Under the Southern Cross', c. 1927, Mary Crowle collection

9. Mary Crowle, 'Coochiemudlo', c. 1927, Mary Crowle collection

10. Mary Crowle, 'Fairy Island', c. 1927, Mary Crowle collection

11. Mary Crowle, 'Blanket Day', c. 1927, Mary Crowle collection

12. Mary Crowle, 'The Kanakas', c. 1927, Mary Crowle collection

13. Mary Crowle, 'The Kanakas', c. 1927, Mary Crowle collection

14. Mary Crowle, 'The Moreton Bay Blacks', c. 1927, Mary Crowle collection


Evans, R, Saunders, K, Cronin, K, (1993) Race Relations in Colonial Queensland: A History of Exclusion, Exploitation and Extermination, University of Queensland Press, St Lucia

Griffiths, Tom, (1996) Hunters and Collectors: The antiquarian imagination in Australia, (Cambridge University Press), Cambridge

MacGregor, Russell, (1997) Imagined Destinies: Aboriginal Australians and the Doomed Race Theory, 1880-1939, (Melbourne University Press) Carlton South

McClintock, Anne, (1995) Imperial Leather (Routledge), New York

Reynolds, Henry, (1998) This Whispering in Our Hearts, Allen and Unwin, St Leonards

Gayatri Spivak, (1999) A Critique of Postcolonial Reason: Toward a history of the vanishing present, (Harvard University Press), Cambridge

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