Public servants working for the Department of the Interior played key roles in Dhakiyarr's case. Between 1912 and 1978 the Northern Territory was administered by the federal government in Canberra. During the 1930s the Minister of the Interior was responsible for the Northern Territory and appointed a Northern Territory Administrator in Darwin. The Chief Medical Officer for the Northern Territory was automatically the Chief Protector of Aborigines.
Northern Territory Chief Protector of Aborigines, Dr Cecil Cook (right), with his Queensland counterpart, JW Bleakley, 1928.
NAA: A263, ALBUM
Dr Cecil Cook was the Chief Protector of Aborigines during Dhakiyarr's trial and appeal. The Chief Protector was a position of great power and influence – both in the administration of the Aboriginals Ordinance and control over the daily lives of Aboriginal people themselves. As the only official empowered to mount an appeal on behalf of a Territory Aboriginal, Cook worked with Dhakiyarr's lawyer, WJP Fitzgerald, to prepare Dhakiyarr's appeal to the High Court.
In the years following Dhakiyarr's trial, Cook played a prominent role in a 1937 state and territory conference on Aboriginal administration. He argued for the removal of so-called 'half-caste' children from their families.
The other public servants with significant roles in Dhakiyarr's case were the senior officials of the Department of the Interior and the Northern Territory Administrator.
Colonel Robert Weddell was the Administrator when Constable Albert McColl was killed on Woodah Island in August 1933. Partly because of the long distance between Darwin and Canberra, the Administrator held a position of considerable local power.
Colonel R Weddell and Mrs Weddell, Darwin, 1928.
NAA: A263, Album (page 23b)
He was responsible to the Minister for the Interior, JA Perkins, and in regular contact with senior officials of the Department, particularly Chief Clerk JA Carrodus and HC Brown. In 1934, when Dhakiyarr's appeal was heard in the High Court, Carrodus was acting Adminstrator in Darwin for six months and Brown was Chief Clerk of the department in Canberra.
JA Carrodus (second from left) with Professor AP Elkin (right) and next to him, Minister for the Interior, Thomas Paterson.
NAA: M10, 2/33
Weddell, Carrodus and Brown triggered the public furore over initial reports that a large punitive expedition would be sent to Caledon Bay in response to the spearing of Constable Albert McColl.
Article in the Sydney Morning Herald, 5 September 1933.
NAA: A1, 1933/7639, p.95
Apparently after discussions with the police, three weeks after news of the spearing reached Darwin, Weddell asked Brown to equip a large force – 12 white policemen or civilians sworn in as special constables, and 12 Aborigines. They were to be armed with 20 rifles with 2000 rounds of ammunition, 12 revolvers with 1000 rounds, and four shotguns with 300 cartridges. 'Strong demonstrative force imperative', he cabled, 'as natives numerous, hostile and cunning'. The Groote Eylandt mission station, he asserted, was 'in imminent danger' (p. 159).
Department of the Interior memorandum with details of the planned expedition, 8 September 1933.
NAA: A431, 1947/1434, pp.159–160
Such a large official punitive force had not been seen in Australia for 100 years. When Brown sought advice from Carrodus, he was told:
The party to be of any use, must be fairly large, because the abos [sic], having routed the first party, will be in high fettle and will certainly attack the second expedition ... I think we must do something, in view of the killing of a police constable. Otherwise the lives of all whites in the North East will not be safe (NAA: A431, 1947/1434, p. 188).
The government informed the press that 'a display of force was necessary to uphold the prestige of the administration', but the party would not fire except in self-defence. The Department recommended to the Minister that the ammunition Weddell requested be sent by first boat, but before the plans went any further, the Administrator should be asked to state what evidence he had of the identity of the murderers, and whether identification would be possible.
A few days later the Melbourne Herald reported that the Minister for the Interior had arranged for 'special supplies to equip a punitive expedition' to be 'rushed north'. But three days later, by 8 September, the small army proposed by Weddell had dwindled to a much smaller group of three police and four trackers.
Article from the Melbourne Herald, 8 September 1933.
NAA: A1, 1933/7639, p.70
What explains this about-face? Officials of the Department of the Interior, pushed by Northern Territory Administrator Robert Weddell, had incautiously given an in-principle approval to the massive armed expedition. While the records show that government officials in different departments and, crucially, different geographical locations had different priorities, the emergence of a large national and international protest against the proposed punitive expedition was a determining factor in the decision of their political masters to back down.