Elena Govor, My Dark Brother, Sydney, 2000
‘Men die to uphold their principle’
...When Leandro told Kitty about these plans, she agreed to follow him. After they left the Tablelands it was all the same to her where she lived, at G.W. Swamp or in South America — her husband and the children were all that she had. But the Australian authorities had a different opinion. On 27 April 1919 Leandro wrote to the Home Secretary.
Mt Garnet N.Q.
The Honorable the
Brisbane. Home Dept.
You may pardon me for troubling you but I do not know of any other way to get out of my trouble. ... I have married an aboriginal woman some years ago and I have four children to her, one girl and three boys. As my children are growing I can see them being despised and looked down by many people and I am afraid that later having always this feeling about them they will degrade in to worse conditions. They are better than blacks and not worse than many of the whites yet they never will be able to associate themselves with whites. ...
Now it amounts to this: I have a father, mother, brother and sister. We all were brought up in South America, Argentine, and lived there for seventeen years. I know the conditions of life there better than here and made always a living easier than here. ... The people there are of colour all and everyone, so the dark blood in my children would be no objection to the people there.
All my people are also going and between the lot of us we are going to buy a ranch. We did no good here. We brought more money here than we are taking away and we lost nine years. Also we have relatives in America. Here I am working now at £2–0–0 a week and found as a working manager of an outstation for Mr T.J. Atkinson and my prospects are not great. If I happen to break my neck some day, there will be nobody to look after my children as all my relatives are going away. And of course I do not want the police protection for them. We all know what it is.
It would also be great sorrow for my father and my mother to see me stop behind (they are 70 and 59 years of age respectively). ...
What I want to know [is] if I can take my wife and children out of the country. I see there is restriction in the Protection Act. Does it apply to a married woman to a white man and his and her halfcast children? I am going this time direct to you as before when I wrote a letter to the Chief Protector he even did not answer to me but simply used the police and nearly made me a criminal. I was advised to not to write to you as I am told I would only bring trouble to myself and never get out of the country as everybody says there is a lot of red tape on the Government Offices. Yet I can not see it, and I appeal to the human feelings of which the Ministers are not deprived if I take for example the Hon. W. N. Gillies and the late Hon. D. Bowman.
Hoping I am not trespassing on your kindness. I am sir yours faithfully
Human feelings towards Russians and Aborigines were not customary in government offices. The ‘Honorable the Home Secretary’ did exactly what Leandro feared — handed the letter over to the Chief Protector of Aboriginals, who was still J.W. Bleakley. He took out the old file. Well, he had lost the battle in 1915 but now he was determined to take revenge. This time he had a trump card — Kitty’s full-blood children. After investigation through the local police, he wrote to the under-secretary in the Home Department on 22 October 1919.
I submit for your perusal a request by a Russian, Leandro Illin, married to a full-blood aboriginal woman, for permission to take his wife and children to South America.
The wife has three full-blood children — 11, 9 & 7 years of age, by a previous marriage and four halfcaste children — 5, 3, 2 years and 5 months old, by Illin.
Illin was allowed to marry this woman, in 1915, by the late Hon. D. Bowman, although I had previously refused him permission, as this office is opposed to the marriage of fullblood women to white men, especially where, as in this case, the woman has three young fullblood children.
This man Illin is an erratic character and has for many years lived amongst, and made use of, the blacks for his own purposes.
I cannot regard his present request with anything but suspicion, and even though he may be legally entitled to take his wife and his own children out of the country, I am of opinion he should not be allowed to take the three older fullblood children. In another and less civilised country, three full-blood children would be valuable to Illin as labour and be doubtless nothing better than slaves.
As the woman herself wishes to go with him I cannot see that we can reasonably prevent her though I do not like the proposal.
If she and the halfcaste children are allowed to go, I consider the fullbloods should be sent to a reserve.
I would be glad of your advice.
J. W. Bleakley
Chief Protector of Aboriginals.
The ‘advice’ from Home Department immediately followed: ‘Do not approve of the full-blooded children being taken out of the country. He may have the others. 27.10.19.’ At that moment ‘the erratic’ Russian, whose only purpose, according to Bleakley, was to turn his Aboriginal step-children into slaves in a ‘less civilised country’, was writing a new appeal from Mt Garnet on 30 October 1919 to the Home Secretary.
... It is a matter of importance to me to know if I can now or later leave a country where my children will be protected? by the police. I am worrying over it. I love my children and am sorry for their future. I do not want to see them grow up and then be bullied by some policeman to be signed in to where they do not want to go. I am not in a hurry to leave while they are small but certainly I do not want them to remain here when they are grown up under the protection . . . . . .
Finally, six months after his initial appeal, Leandro received an answer from the Chief Protector of Aboriginals:
24th November, 19.
Your request to be allowed to take your wife and children out of the country has been submitted to the Hon. the Home Secretary who has decided that no objection will be raised to your taking your wife and your own halfcaste children with you but on no condition will any of the fullblooded aboriginal children be allowed to leave the country.
A second copy of the letter was sent to the Mt Garnet Protector of Aboriginals with Bleakley’s request to keep the movements of the family under surveillance. In the following months he did not forget to remind the local Protector to provide the results of the surveillance. The task was so disgusting that finally the local Protector, sergeant Hoey, wrote back:
8/4/20. ... Mr Illin seems very straight in all his dealings and I do not think that there is the slightest chance of him trying to do anything in the way of leaving Queensland and taking his family with him without first obtaining your permission.
Leandro, after the police visits, wrote a new letter to the Home Secretary.
The Hon the Home Secretary
... I received reply from the Chief Protector of Aboriginals that I would not get any obstacles to take my wife and my halfcast children but under no consideration I would be allowed to take the full blooded child. I only wanted to take one boy George who is too small to be parted from his mother. Well, Sir, that permit is no good to me for the time being as I do not hold with the policy of parting a small child with its mother. Therefore I am forced to stay and wait until the boy gets big enough to look after himself. ... Therefore I kindly ask you not to take it as settled that I am going to stay here but to make your decision stand good until such time as I am able to leave without grieving the child and his mother.
You will oblige yours faithfully
* * *
Leandro lost the legal battle but still he won a moral victory over Australian self-satisfied ‘democracy’. On one side of the scales was ‘a tear’ of the black boy; on the other there was the future of his own children, his family, his elderly parents, and, who knows, the destiny of the new Russian colony for his suffering countrymen. The tear outweighed all the rest. The Russian writer Fedor Dostoevsky had already pondered over this dilemma — a child’s tear versus the happiness of mankind — years before. Many of his readers agreed that the tears of a child were of utmost importance, yet only a few followed this belief in practical life. Leandro, the son of a Russian idealist, took on the hard task of following this advice literally. Years later he would write: ‘Matters of principle are not trivial. Men die to uphold their principle.’31