Settlers, Servants & Slaves: Aboriginal and European children in nineteenth-century Western Australia
UWA Press, $34.95 pb, 246 pp
Childhood is something we take for granted. We all had one, but our idea of when it ended is quite subjective, depending on the society and culture in which we grew up, our economic and class background, and particular family circumstances. In some societies, the end of childhood is quite clear-cut. Most Aboriginal societies in the past (and some in the present) defined the onset of male adulthood by putting boys through stringent initiation ceremonies. Some girls also went through initiation ceremonies, others ended childhood when they reached what was deemed a marriageable age.
Penelope Hetherington has found that in nineteenth-century Western Australian colonial society childhood is not so easily delineated. Her solution to this problem of definition is to look at how childhood was defined in legislation and censuses. Even here she runs into problems. Under British law imported to the colony on the Swan River, people were deemed infants until the age of twenty-one. In reality, childhood in the colony was socially constructed according to the gender, class, and ethnicity of the child and the labour needs of the colony. For most children, childhood, or dependence on adults, ended around the age of fourteen or fifteen.
Childhood as portrayed in Settlers, Servants & Slaves is not the carefree idyll of the romantics, but the hard truth of exploitation and cruelty experienced by the working class. These lives are glimpsed through the legislative and institutional framework established by the state, rather than the subjective experiences of individuals. Hetherington found that childhood and children’s lives were not easily accessed through the archival records. Much of her data had to be extrapolated from more general records and statistics.