Not in due season nor in due fashion
: the death of women of child-bearing age in the Northern Territory, 1870-1938

  • Brian Douglas Reid

    Student thesis: Other thesis - CDU


    This is a study of women of child-bearing age of the Northern Territory who died from causes that were 'not naturall’. The study begins with permanent settlement in Port Darwin3 in February 1870. It also begins with M, a 34-year-old European woman, who died in 1874 from malaria in late pregnancy. At the time, malaria was threatening to disrupt the new settlement as it had the earlier nineteenth century north coast military settlements.4 The study continues through the gold mining and pearl shelling periods and includes C, a 17-year-old Chinese woman who died in childbirth in 1908. It extends out to the mines where in 1916, V, an Aboriginal woman of 27 years, died from a miscarriage.5 The examination of deaths of women of child bearing age also reaches out to the pastoral properties where Maude Cockbum-Campbell died from obstructed labour in 1916, trying 'to have her baby on the station just like (her) darker friends'.6 She also had a large homestead to manage. The study concludes in 1938, when the military build up in North Australia was becoming substantial.

    In the period covered by this study, 1870-1938, there were significant changes taking place in maternal mortality in the more densely settled parts of Australia. Of most significance was the trend for Australian women to die in childbirth and from associated disorders between WWI (1914) and WWII (1939) at a rate that at times exceeded that of comparable countries, such as Britain and New Zealand, and continued, for the most part, longer. Australia in 1935 had a maternal mortality rate of about six per 1000 births, New Zealand just under five and England and Wales about four and a half. These events took place in the context o f a sharp fertility decline that progressed in western countries throughout the first half of the twentieth century. Some of those women who died, did so as a consequence of contraceptive or abortion practices and, thereby, represent birth limiting choices. They also represent the inter-relationship of maternal mortality and fertility decline. It is the purpose of this study to assess to what extent women in an isolated, and more sparsely settled, part of Australia made similar choices.

    The conclusions of a study of this nature would be relevant to regional historiography. Did, for example, the change from a South Australian administration in 1911 to a Commonwealth one, reflect broad social change in the Northern Territory, or was it simply a 'changing of the guard'? The conclusions would also contribute to the theoretical consideration of Australia's fertility decline. Were there factors other than the place of children in the home that influenced fertility? Would the national fertility decline theories be able to absorb the Northern Territory data?

    This study of the deaths of women of child bearing age in the period 1870-1938 comprises, therefore, two assessments; the measurement of patterns of mortality and the measurement of patterns of fertility decline.7 This would enable any relationship between them to be exposed. Sustained fertility8 decline was the third of the major demographic changes to emerge out of what has been referred to by the demographic historians, Wrigley and Schofield in 1981, as the 'high-pressure equilibrium between population and resources' of early modem Europe.9 They identified mortality decline and population expansion as the other two changes. The causes of mortality decline have been much debated by social historians since WWII. Especially in England, they have attempted to assess the factors responsible. Disease and deprivation have been the main sources of mortality in Europe and the debate has focused on the extent to which weight should be given to environmental (especially health improvement and sanitary reform) or social change (notably employment, income and cost of living).10
    Date of Award1997
    Original languageEnglish

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