Flawed History Keeps Myth Alive
The Weekend Australian
January 30-31, 2010
In his 2008 parliamentary apology, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd endorsed the estimate by Peter Read, the university historian who first advanced the concept of the Stolen Generations, that 50,000 Aboriginal children were forcibly removed in the twentieth century. Read had written that governments removed children as young as possible and reared them in institutions isolated from any contact with Aboriginal culture. “Welfare officers, removing children solely because they were Aboriginal,” he said, “intended and arranged that they should lose their Aboriginality, and that they never return home.” The majority were allegedly babies and infants. The SBS Television series First Australians claimed most of the 50,000 were aged under five. Henry Reynolds explained the rationale: “The younger the child the better, before habits were formed, attachments made, language learnt, traditions absorbed.”
It is not difficult to prove these assertions are untrue. When you look at the surviving individual case records in New South Wales, as I did for the period 1907 to 1932, they reveal that 66 per cent of the 800 children then removed were teenagers aged 13 to 19 years. Some 23 per cent were aged 6 to 12, and only 10 per cent were babies to 5-year-olds. Most of them came from Aboriginal welfare stations and reserves. Two-thirds of the teenagers went not to institutions but into the workforce as apprentices. For white children in welfare institutions, apprenticeship was then the standard destination too. At the time, for both white and black children, apprenticeship meant leaving home for four years and living with an employer. The principal occupations targeted by these job placement schemes, agriculture for boys and domestic service for girls, were the same for both black and white apprentices.
In Queensland, Western Australia, South Australia and the Northern Territory in the first half of the twentieth century, laws and policies forbade the removal of full-blood children. The policy for segregated reserves across all of central and northern Australia, where full-blood populations still predominated, had been defined in Queensland in 1897. One of its principal aims was to preserve the ethnic integrity of the full-blood population by prohibiting sexual relations with Europeans and Asians. For J. W. Bleakley, the Queensland Chief Protector who also wrote the Commonwealth policy that prevailed in the 1920s and 1930s, this was a matter of great principle. “We have no right to attempt to destroy their national life. Like ourselves, they are entitled to retain their racial entity and racial pride.”
Only half-caste children could be removed. However, in Western Australia half-castes could not be removed under the age of six. In the post-war Northern Territory, 80 per cent of children in the Retta Dixon Home in Darwin and almost all those at the St Mary's hostel in Alice Springs (the Territory's sole institutions for part-Aboriginal children) were of school age, between five and fifteen. This was not surprising since the main reason for these homes' existence was to provide board for children sent by their parents to go to school.
The idea that most children were removed permanently is also untrue. In New South Wales, 80 per cent of those sent to one of the three Aboriginal child welfare institutions stayed there less than five years. Those aged 12 to 15 typically remained for months rather than years. Long-term residents were limited to those who had no parents willing or able to care for them. Rather than attempting to destroy Aboriginal culture, institutions for these children performed a temporary care function for disadvantaged and dysfunctional families, the same as welfare institutions for white children. Those made apprentices were away from home for four years but could, and often did, return for annual holidays. Their case files show that once their apprenticeships were complete a clear majority returned to their homes.
Another falsehood is that parents were not allowed to visit children in institutions. In New South Wales, the Aborigines Protection Board not only permitted this but from 1919 onwards it gave parents the money for the rail fare plus “a sustenance allowance” to do so. There is plenty of evidence of Aboriginal parents visiting their institutionalized children in New South Wales, South Australia and Western Australia. As one inmate of the Cootamundra Girls' Home said, “my father, he always used to come over on pension day, and me birthday”. At the Retta Dixon Home in Darwin, up to one quarter of those accommodated were young working women, several of them single mothers who lived there with their children. The notorious Moore River Settlement in Western Australia was an institution for destitute Aborigines of all ages, not just children. Indeed, most children went there with their parents. Only a small minority of children at Moore River — a total of 252 from 1915 to 1940, or just ten a year — were removed from their families. This was out of a state population of 29,000 Aboriginal people.
What little support there was for the Stolen Generations thesis always came from selected quotations taken out of context by politically motivated historians. Peter Read claimed the files of individuals removed by the Aborigines Protection Board openly revealed the motives of those in charge. “The racial intention was obvious enough for all prepared to see, and some managers cut a long story short when they came to that part of the committal notice ‘Reason for Board taking control of the child'. They simply wrote ‘for being Aboriginal'.”
My examination of the 800 files in the same archive found only one official ever wrote a phrase like that. His actual words were “Being an Aboriginal”. But even this sole example did not confirm Read's thesis. The girl concerned was not a baby but 15 years old. Nor was she sent to an institution. She was immediately placed in employment as a domestic servant in Moree, the closest town to the Euraba Aboriginal Station she came from. Three years later, in 1929, she married an Aboriginal man at the Church of England in Moree. In short, she was not removed as young as possible, she was not removed permanently, and she retained enough contact with the local Aboriginal community to marry into it. The idea that she was the victim of some vast conspiracy to destroy Aboriginality is fanciful.
Rather than acting for racist or genocidal reasons, government officers and religious missionaries wanted to rescue children and teenagers from welfare settlements and makeshift camps riddled with alcoholism, domestic violence and sexual abuse. In New South Wales, Western Australia and the Northern Territory, public servants, doctors, teachers and missionaries were appalled to find Aboriginal girls between five and eight years of age suffering from sexual abuse and venereal disease. On the Kimberley coast from the 1900s to the 1920s, they were dismayed to find girls of nine and ten years old hired out by their own parents as prostitutes to Asian pearling crews. That was why the great majority of children removed by authorities were female.
The fringe camps where this occurred were early versions of today's notorious remote communities of central and northern Australia. Indeed, there is a direct line of descent from one to the other — the culture of these camps has been reproducing itself across rural Australia for more than a hundred years. Government officials had a duty to rescue children from such settings, as much then as they do now. Indeed, the major problem was that state treasuries would not give the relevant departments and boards sufficient funds to accommodate all the neglected and abused Aboriginal children who should have been removed.
The other great myth about the Stolen Generations is that children were removed to “breed out the colour”. It is certainly true that two public servants responsible for Aborigines in the 1930s — Cecil Cook in the Northern Territory and A. O. Neville in Western Australia — subscribed to a proposal for radical assimilation under this name. Cook said in 1933 that he was endeavouring “to breed out the colour by elevating female half-castes to white standard with a view to their absorption into the white population”. Neville said in 1937 that if such a scheme was put into practice we could “eventually forget that there were any Aborigines in Australia”.
There are two problems with this case. For a start, the proposal was, as its name said, about “breeding” not the removal of children. It was a plan to oversee the marriage of half-caste women to white men. In practice, it was a hopeless failure. Part-Aboriginal women preferred men of their own background and few wanted to marry white men. By 1937, Cook confessed he had overseen fewer than 50 such marriages in his whole time in office.
Second, those who proposed it were never given the legal authority by their ministers or parliaments to institute such a scheme. Nor were they ever given enough funding to do so. Neville constantly complained about the tiny budget he received — half that of New South Wales for an Aboriginal population three times as great. He was never funded to undertake a program of inter-marriage and assimilation. Indeed, the Native Administration Act of 1936, now routinely demonised by historians, actually inhibited his ability to breed out the colour by defining half-caste people as “natives” and forbidding their marriage to white people or those of lesser descent.
An earlier generation of historians once supported my interpretation. In his 1972 book Not Slaves, Not Citizens , Peter Biskup declared Neville's program “an unequivocal failure” that was “quietly dropped”. Biskup said of the 1936 Act: “instead of being bred out, colour was being bred in”. In Shades of Darkness , his history of Aboriginal affairs from 1925 to 1965, Paul Hasluck said the proposal was far too unpopular with white voters and their elected representatives to ever have been implemented.
And yet recent historians and commentators have persisted in describing this proposal as both “a massive exercise of social engineering” and an instrument of genocide. Robert Manne, Professor of Politics at La Trobe University, described it as official Commonwealth policy: “The officials in Canberra and the Minister, J. A Perkins, gave support to Cook's proposal for an extension of the Territory policy to Australia as a whole.”
This is quite false. The truth is that Perkins, the Minister for the Interior in the Joseph Lyons government, in a carefully worded statement to the House of Representatives on August 2 1934, denounced the proposal. He said: “It can be stated definitely, that it is and always has been, contrary to policy to force half-caste women to marry anyone. The half-caste must be a perfectly free agent in the matter.”
From 1932 to 1934, Cook had tried several times to get approval for his proposal from the Lyons cabinet. None of the letters and reports that circulated between Darwin and Canberra on this issue ever mentioned that it had anything to do with removing children. The whole discussion was about arranged marriages.
Once Lyons and his ministers learnt about Cook's plan, and especially after being subjected to the embarrassing publicity it generated in both the Australian and English press, they wanted nothing to do with it. On September 19 1933 Cabinet sent the proposal back to the department unapproved. Bleakley's alternative recommendation for segregated reserves that retained the Aborigines' “racial entity and racial pride” remained Commonwealth policy for the duration of both Cook's and Neville's tenures in office.
None of the historians of the Stolen Generations have ever reproduced Perkins's statement. Nor have they reported any of the other critical reactions made by Lyons to the press. On June 23 1933 the Darwin newspaper, the Northern Standard , quoted Lyons government sources saying: “It is all a lot of rot.” But you won't find that quoted in any of the academic literature on this topic.
Robert Manne is obviously not the only offender here but, as a professor of politics, he had the greater public duty to tell the story in full. However, he stopped short of revealing that the events concluded with cabinet throwing out the proposal and the minister denouncing it in parliament. To have told it all, of course, would have publicly disproved his case about the Stolen Generations and the allegedly racist and genocidal objectives of government policies in the 1930s.
Keith Windschuttle's The Fabrication of Aboriginal History, Volume Three, The Stolen Generations 1881-2008 , was published in December by Macleay Press, Sydney.