By JOHN P Mc D SMITH
A Scotsman, John McDouall Stuart, explored Northern Australia during 1860-62, which led to the opening up of what was to become the Northern Territory in 1911.
Another Scotsman, Doctor Charles Duguid, began his significant and far-reaching association with Aborigines in 1934 in the Northern Territory.
This was to lead to the establishing of the Ernabella Presbyterian Mission in the Musgrave Ranges in 1937, bringing with it a change in attitude as to how Aboriginal people should be approached and regarded.
Doctor Charles Duguid happened to be treating a missionary woman from Goulburn Island who over a series of consultations told Duguid about the plight of Aboriginal people. Her revelations were a great shock to the doctor.
“She told me it was common for Aboriginal women to be raped by white intruders who beat up the husbands if they tried to rescue their wives.”
The missionary urged Duguid to travel north and see the Aboriginal situation for himself.
In July 1934 Duguid made his first trip north to Alice Springs on The Ghan. It was when the train stopped at the Ilbunga siding for breakfast that Dr Duguid met Father Percy Smith, the first resident Anglican priest in Alice Springs in 1933.
Upon arriving in Alice Springs Dr Duguid performed an emergency operation. Then he had cause to meet a Padre of the Australian Inland Mission [Presbyterian].
Duguid (pictured) relates: I believe you are interested in the niggers? the padre said.
To hear this from the local leader of the mission maintained by my own church was staggering, but I asked only: ‘Do you mean the Aborigines?’
You can call them what you like. They’ve never been any good and never will be. The best they’ve any right to expect is a decent funeral.
Percy Smith, who had Alice Springs as part of his far-flung [Anglican] parish felt a special concern for the ‘half-castes’, and E E Kramer, a missionary for the Aborigines’ Friends Association, cared for full-bloods and part-Aborigines alike.
Of the Commonwealth Officials, only Doctor McCann and Sister O’Keefe showed real concern for the native people.
Charles Duguid was born at Saltcoats, Ayrshire, Scotland in 1884. He studied medicine at the University of Glasgow and graduated as a highly qualified doctor.
Without realising it at the time his long apprenticeship working with poor people in the slums of Glasgow was to equip him for working with impoverished Aboriginal people in Australia.
He came to Australia to settle in 1912 with his young wife working in rural Victoria then moving to Adelaide. In 1917 he joined the AIF as a medical officer serving at the 2nd Australian Stationary Hospital at El Arish.
Along with his wife, Rene, Dr Duguid bought a large property in the Adelaide suburb of Magill, which was to become a focal point for much of his future associations with Aboriginal people. Much of his professional life was spent working at the Memorial Hospital, North Adelaide.
His life as a doctor was extensive and demanding involving extensive travel. It was while he was journeying by ship back to Australia in 1927 that he was handed a radiogram informing him that his wife had died suddenly in Adelaide.
Rene had suffered a severe stroke. Duguid was devastated. He still had his thirteen year old son, Charlie. Intense personal loneliness gripped him. In 1929 he married a Miss Phyllis Lade who was an English teacher at Presbyterian Girls College.
Duguid recounts: Occasionally a white father would maintain his coloured offspring, but most left the responsibility to the government.
Percy Smith introduced me to the Bungalow. It was a happy enough place for the babies, toddlers and older children, but their future held little hope. In their later teens they would be drafted out to work – the girls as servants in township or station homes, the boys to whatever work was available on the cattle-stations.
They were not paid in cash. The lot of the “half-caste” girls was tragic. Far too often they became the playthings of white men, including some who were supposed to be their protectors.
The mental and spiritual deprivations were even more deplorable. Discrimination against the Aborigines was deeply implanted in every aspect of life.
Duguid continues: As a doctor, I was appalled by the physical condition of the Aborigines. Its most dastardly aspect was the spread of venereal disease, through pregnancies forced upon Aboriginal women by infected white men.
The eyes of all the babies born to these infected women were damaged by gonorrhoea, often with serious impairment of vision. I saw one baby with an eye so damaged that it was likely to be sightless.
The destruction of traditional tribal diet was another serious concern. As Aborigines gravitated to the stations and settlements they were only given government rations of flour, sugar and tea. Inevitably their health suffered severely.
Duguid met Pastor Albrecht from the Hermannsburg Lutheran Mission. He was impressed with the mission’s desire to maintain tribal culture.
Quite devastated by his Central Australian experience Duguid returned to Adelaide determined to initiate things that would improve the lot of Aboriginal people.
He began making many public speeches. The Adelaide News misrepresented and exaggerated Dr Duguid’s claims about what was happening to Aborigines. When the News would not publish a retraction Duguid engaged a lawyer which forced the News to make a public statement.
It said in part: “Our reporter in this instance put himself and the paper badly in the wrong by paraphrasing Dr Duguid’s remarks in such a way as to put words into his mouth which were not actually intended.”
In 1935 Duguid was appointed Moderator of the Presbyterian Church in South Australia.
One of his principal aims was for the Presbyterian Church to take Definite action towards helping Aborigines in South Australia. As part of his campaign Duguid made his first trip to the Musgrave Ranges.
The 1000 mile trip was a terrible experience in outback travelling with the car taking a considerable battering blowing a cylinder-head gasket. Upon arriving Duguid was able to get a young Aboriginal man to guide them into the country of the Pitjantjatjara tribe.
Duguid describes them as a “fine people with striking dignity, living naked and with few possessions amid the rocky hills … wandering their tribal territory in the constant search for food and water, and yet contented and virile.”
Not many viewed tribal Aborigines in this way with another being the anthropologist Dr Donald Thomson. Duguid was very concerned for their future for he surmised that it would not be long before their lifestyle would be overtaken. So he became quite determined to that the Pitjantjatjara people should be given a chance to survive in their own country.
Upon his return to Adelaide Duguid met with the South Australian Minister for Aborigines in SA, the Hon Herbert Hudd.
The minister was interested in Duguid’s proposal and asked for a detailed written report that he could consider. Duguid wanted to establish a mission in the Musgrave Ranges where freedom would be respected.
He did not want to impose the white man’s ways on the Aborigines nor to interfere with tribal customs. The tribal language was to be learnt and respected. The early years of education would be taught in the Pitjantjatjara language. This is still the case.
The government accepted Duguid’s proposal and gave approval for the establishment of a mission. In 1936 Duguid made another trip to what was to be known as Ernabella with the new Moderator of the church, Rev D Munro, which had the desired impact.
Duguid explained to Munro that tribal Aborigines were bound to [the land] by a complex structure of myth and tradition, wherein every physical feature of the land had significance to their spiritual life. When they were driven off their land, they lost their will to live and began the swift degradation which has often been irreversible.
After extensive and exhaustive meetings with governments and church officials in 1937 formal approval was given for the establishing of the Ernabella Mission.
Dr Duguid had suddenly become a force in matters to do with Aborigines, so much so that in 1940 he was appointed a member of the Aborigines Protection Board in South Australia. As a member of the board Duguid visited all the Aboriginal reserves and settlements making many recommendations for change and improvement.
On a visit to Ernabella Duguid was pleased to see that the mission “was becoming a means of introducing tribal Aborigines into the modern world without the suffering and degradation undergone by native Australians in other parts of the country”.
Dr Duguid keenly supported others who worked with Aborigines. When Father Percy Smith opened St Francis’ House, Semaphore South in 1946 as a place where Aboriginal boys from the Northern Territory could reside wile furthering their education Duguid gave support.
He said: “The Rev P McD Smith dreams of a new deal for Australia’s ‘half-caste’ boys, the time when they will return to their depressed brothers to bring justice, progress and health.”
During his long life Charles Duguid never gave up on promoting the cause of Australia’s Aborigines. He said: “There is one thing which remains unchanged in a ceaselessly changing world – the astonishing power of selfless love. It remains for me the ultimate solution to the world’s problems.”
His sublime altruism will always be remembered.
(Detail for this story comes from the book Doctor and the Aborigines by Charles Duguid, published by Rigby, Adelaide 1972.)