Queensland, 1921: Protection and Governance in the Salvation Army’s Purga Colony

Image of Purga Aboriginal Cemetery gravestones, commemorating the former inmates of Purga Colony, Queensland c. 2015. This cemetry is located on the land of the former mission site, Purga Colony, that was governed by the Salvation Army between 1921-1948. via Wikimedia Commons

In 1921, an unnamed twelve-year-old Indigenous girl was transferred for three weeks to Purga Colony in the town of Ipswich, Queensland. The girl, a child boundary rider, had been picked up by police in Birdsville, a small town near the border with South Australia, and declared orphaned and vagrant. The police contacted the Salvation Army and requested assistance, and shortly after, the Indigenous girl became a subject of the Army’s “protection” on the colony. Commandant Knight, superintendent of Purga Colony, believed she was in potential danger from white settlers who thought “unprotected aboriginal girl[s] fair game”. The girl was institutionalised for two years whilst she learned to read and write, and she studied the Bible intently before converting to Salvationism (a religious doctrine that emphasises the saving of the soul). This spiritual “transformation” signified her readiness to begin domestic employment, negotiated and observed by the Salvation Army. This story is just one of many that was portrayed in the global Salvationist periodical All The World as a typical success story of “protection” (All The World, August 1925, PER/1, SAIHC). These narratives followed a typical trajectory from the protection of the vulnerable or oppressed, to the saving of the soul, and finally to gendered employment dictated by the Army.

The Salvation Army (or Army) first governed Purga Colony in 1921 when representatives of the Queensland State Government contacted Commissioner Hay and requested the support of the Army. The Army were thereafter appointed “protectors” of Purga Colony and given control of the site and inmates of “protection”, subject to oversight. Previous manifestations of Purga Colony originated in 1892 when the Aborigines Protection Society sought land for Indigenous protection and established a mission at Deebing Creek, Ipswich. Administered by the various local church groups until 1914, the mission at Deebing Creek was relocated to Purga, where it became known as the Purga Creek Aboriginal Mission. Between 1914 and 1921, the mission had considerable oversight from the Queensland State Government and was supported by several missionary organisations, including the Army itself, which provided support on limiting alcohol and drug consumption. Hence, the Army’s credentials as “protectors” had been strengthened through its close liaison with the State Government. Upon acquisition, the Salvation Army rebranded the site as Purga Colony to conform to founder William Booth’s policy of colonisation as expressed in In Darkest England And The Way Out (1890).

The Aboriginals Protection and Restriction of the Sale of Opium Act 1897 provided the jurisdiction for the Salvation Army’s control of Purga Colony. This act, exclusive to the state of Queensland, prescribed the regulations for the protection of Indigenous peoples, and provided the Army with the status of protector which gave them control over the residence, mobility, employment, education, wages and consumption of the colony’s Indigenous subjects. Such powers exposed some of the contradictions of protection and humanitarianism in the case of Purga Colony. On one hand, this supposed benevolent colony offered a haven of protection for Indigenous peoples under the threat of violence from a growing settler society, whilst on the other, it served as a site for isolation and exploitation. For example, the control over the mobility of Indigenous subjects became a point of contestation in the colony. Under the 1897 act, the mobility of Indigenous peoples at Purga became the sole concern of Commandant Knight who could refuse entry to, or exit from, the colony if he believed it necessary. Several cases of such contestation were publicised in All The World, with subjects whom were separated from their families refused reunion, even for visitation. Furthermore, employment became disputed inside the colony. For male subjects, agricultural training was provided for their employment on nearby settler farms, whilst women were given domestic training. The Army set the wages of the Indigenous workers, in line with minimum pay amendments to the act of 1897, and their earned capital went directly to the Army to be banked. Such a policy allowed the Army to farm out Indigenous workers for cheap labour and served the interests of the settler agriculturalists.

The Army’s promotion of protection for Indigenous populations coincided with the large-scale assistance for white settler migration across Australia in the 1920s. Through the Army’s In Darkest England emigration and colonisation scheme, the Army developed so-called “citizens of empire” in Britain that progressed through the city colony to the farm colony and eventually to the colony over-sea. Such emigration intensified in the 1920s through “universal emigration”, as thousands of these emigrants, especially juveniles, were sent to farm colonies in Australia. One of these colonies, Riverview Farm Colony, was established in the same town as Purga Colony for male settler juveniles. They received additional agricultural training before receiving placements on nearby farms. The Army believed this scheme would produce “industrious citizens of empire” and leaders of the next generation of settler society. Such a scheme appears incompatible with the promotion of protection in the 1920s. At a time when the Army decried settler violence and dispossession of Indigenous land, it was facilitating the emigration of a new generation of white settlers and the acquisition of Indigenous land for their benefit. Thus, the Army exploited its role as protectors to further the spatiotemporal expansion of white settler empire as the increased dispossession, governance and surveillance of Indigenous peoples released land for settler occupation.

Debates around protection have tended to privilege the Antipodes geographically, and the nineteenth century temporally. Nonetheless, some historians have begun to debate changes to protection policies between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Amanda Nettelbeck has argued that the purpose of “protectorates” had evolved from “civilisation and Christianisation” in the nineteenth century to assimilation through surveillance and governance in the twentieth century (Nettelbeck, “A Halo of Protection”, p. 410). However, the case of Purga Colony suggests such temporal definitions are less easily applied. Whilst the Salvation Army used surveillance and humanitarian governance to police Purga Colony, it also continued to use the colony as a site for the “civilisation” and “Christianisation” of its subjects. Indigenous children were particularly targeted by the Army’s attempts to civilise and Christianise. They were viewed as those “most in need” and were subjected to tales of the civilising mission of empire. One focus of the Army’s “civilising practices” was education and evangelism. Until 1921, Indigenous children were not central to the operations at Purga, and schooling was limited for children. Upon attainment of the colony, the Army made its principle obligation to create a school that provided a colonial education and additionally transformed the chapel into a Salvation Army corps (church). There was a belief amongst the Army that if children were nurtured through humanitarian governance, they would accept the hegemony of the racial hierarchy present in settler society.

This entry reveals a paradox in the narrative of protection and humanitarian governance; whilst portrayed as saving Indigenous lives from settler violence, this regime of protection exposed Indigenous populations to the exploitation and manipulation of their “protectors”. Purga Colony isolated Indigenous peoples from their families, exploited them for cheap agricultural labour on local settler farms, and introduced them to a system of colonial governance that was repackaged as “humanitarian”, but propagated a racial hierarchy that upheld white supremacy. Moreover, the evolving landscape of Indigenous and settler interaction was dictated by the Army as they progressed from a policy of Indigenous isolation on the colony to “assimilation” through employment. This narrative displays how the Salvation Army weaponised humanitarian governance as a tool for empire building, adding to a burgeoning scholarship on global ‘protection’ and humanitarian governance.

Further Reading

Short Biographical Note on Contributor

Adam Millar is an ESRC-funded doctoral candidate at the University of Leicester. He is broadly interested in the entangled histories of empire, humanitarianism and migration in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. His thesis, provisionally titled ‘In Darkest Empire’: The Salvation Army’s Imperial Settlements and Colonies, 1890-1939, explores emigration and colonisation schemes to Australia, and the interactions of Indigenous and settler populations. Adam was a fellow of the Global Humanitarianism Research Academy 2019.