Working here on the old camel trails, we commonly encounter a Rasheed, an Ahmed or an Akbar.
And there is always a story.
This particular little ’Afghan’ is 15 months old, a cherub with round cheeks and light brown curls.
When you see a face like this you cannot stop yourself from smiling.
A child with a face like this finds himself in a world where every adult smiles at him. He likes this world that seems to love him so.
Sarah, his mum, has the same ripe-fruit cheeks.
What is the cherub’s story?
Sarah explains: “Akbar’s great grandfather was a cameleer. His great grandmother was Aboriginal. Here – you can read about it in this book.” Sarah hands me a heavy paperback, titled “Linden Girl”, by Pamela Rajkowski. The subtitle reads: a story of outlawed lives.
There is always a story, and that is the cherub’s story. It is the story of a couple and their encounters with Law. The Law forbade this cherub to exist.
The book – I was to discover – is scholarly and quite meticulous in its research. I found quite a bit about Laws. Such as an early Law in Queensland (the Aboriginals Protection and Restriction of the Sale of Opium Act of 1897) that purported to protect Aboriginal women from exploitation by Chinese, who were widely accused of using opium to enslave or seduce Aboriginal women and girls. The Act was an early instance of legislation to regulate sexual relations between Australia’s various non-white minorities.
The volume falls open at a photograph of the face and trunk of a man. He wears an Afghan-style turban, a splendid moustache, a sprig of fine blooms, a ceremonial pendant. He looks like a pirate, a prince, a Sheikh of Araby. It’s clearly a studio portrait.
“That’s Jack Akbar, my little feller’s great grandfather. Take the book home. Have a read.”
I do so…
In Western Australia the 1886 Aborigines Protection Act provided for the feeding, clothing and education of Aboriginal people, as well as their preservation and wellbeing. This Act was administered by the British Colonial Secretary. In 1898 these responsibilities were assumed by the State Government, which passed the Aborigines Act (WA,1925), providing for the appointment of the Chief Protector of Aborigines; all Aboriginal children under the age of sixteen became wards of the Chief Protector, who was empowered with the forced removal of Aboriginal children from their biological families. The same Act forbade ‘full-blood’ Aboriginal children attending state schools, on the understanding that they, being primitive, lacked sufficient intellect for education. After 1905 Aboriginal people were banned from the colonists’ hospitals. Later legislation raised the age limit of departmental control of Aboriginals to twenty one years.
In 1915, Auber Octavius Neville became Chief Protector in WA. He remained in that role until 1940; and he prosecuted governmental protection by monitoring confiscated children well into their adult lives; and allowing only such marriages as served the policies of the day. Neville was energetic in preventing marriages between ‘Asiatics’ and ‘half-castes’ under the 1905 Act. Following the contraction of venereal diseases by Aboriginal women from ‘Asiatic’ pearlers, he wrote: marriages of… Asiatics to native women result… in their desertion, destitution and prostitution. Afghan and Aboriginal marriages have led to similar ends.
The 1905 Act in WA made such cohabitation a punishable offence, and as such applications to Neville by Asiatics to marry Aboriginal women were always refused.
Around 1910 a ‘full-blood’ Aboriginal woman named Tjirrgulu had given birth to a baby girl in a creek bed in the eastern goldfields district of Coolgardie in Western Australia. The mother had been born in the same creek bed, which was both spiritually and physically a safer place to give birth than a whitefella hospital where the baby might be stolen. The girl child was given the name ‘Lallie.’
A cameleer hawker called Jack Akbar was active in the eastern goldfields. He made Lallie’s acquaintance and when she was about sixteen years of age, Jack requested permission of the elders of Lallie’s community to marry her. Jack was prosperous and respectable; Lallie was of marriageable age; and Akbar was well able to provide for a bride (and her dependants); and – as his photo makes clear – he was strikingly good-looking. In other words, in other worlds, a catch. Jack Akbar approached the elders: he respected traditional Laws.
Jack Akbar respected Australia’s Laws. He instructed a solicitor in the goldfields to write to Neville requesting permission to marry Lallie. Marriage would uphold traditional values of his own faith, as well as of Lallie’s traditional Law and of the Christian faith of the colonists. When permission was refused, Akbar had the lawyer write again; and a third time. Ultimately, the couple marry, but not in Western Australia.
But by the very act of honouring Laws Jack brought his union with Lallie to the attention of the authorities, thereby triggering a relentless manhunt and the setting of innumerable traps; the keeping of a governmental file that outlived the union by many years; the hunting of the couple from Lallie’s country and from Jack’s place of established and successful business; the overland walk by heavily pregnant Lallie 129 miles to a place of refuge; the couple’s flight to South Australia and their subsequent arrest and forcible repatriation to WA on legal grounds too flimsy to prosecute in court; and the keeping of a secret on the part of the couple that would deprive their generations of knowledge of their identity (until apprised c. 1990 by Rajkowski, researcher and author of “Linden Girl.”)
I read all this and I recalled the history of my people: a government in Egypt created Laws that affected Israelite family life. Under those Laws newborn females were to be confiscated and passed into the hands of the Egyptian majority. Male newborns were to be thrown into the Nile. The Midrash tells how Israelite women embraced celibacy rather than lose their children; but of course this served the precise genocidal purpose of the Laws. Our history records the different action of one exceptional mother, an activist who saved her child and through him, her people; she complied with the Law by placing her newborn son in the river, but she preserved his life by floating him in an ‘ark’.
In Australia Auber Octavius Neville was pharaonic in his pursuit of the Laws of sexual hygiene in Western Australia. He stated “he could condone an unwed Aboriginal girl having illegitimate children to white men, even though she might be deserted, as this at least contributed to the breeding out of colour – a situation he viewed as more desirable than that of an Aboriginal girl legally marrying a non-European man who would look after their children.” (from “Linden Girl”. The emphasis is mine.)
I return the book to Sarah. Like her child she has a radiant face, but her colouring is neither Asiatic nor Aboriginal. I ask her where her own roots lie. “Oh, me?” – she laughs – “I’m descended from the Protector of Aborigines.”
Footnotes: the oldest of Lallie and Jack’s four children survives. A link to a brief youtube video is below.
“Linden Girl”, by Pamela Rajkowski, is published by University of Western Australia Press.