by Henry Reynolds
© all rights reserved
The raping and abduction of women and the stealing of children have always been part of the story of conquest — acts which brutally illustrate new, imposed relationships of dominance, submission and humiliation.
In Australia the European colonists took Aboriginal children away from their kinsfolk, from the earliest days of colonisation. The practice was denounced officially by governors and unofficially by settlers concerned about the ethics of colonisation. In 1819 William Sorell, the Lieutenant Governor of Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania) issues a proclamation condemning the behaviour of the settlers and the cruelties practised which he described as ‘repugnant to Humanity and disgraceful to the British character’. He was particularly concerned that the ‘miscreants’ in remote districts pursued the women ‘for the purpose of compelling them to abandon their children’. This outrage, Sorell declared, was the most certain to ‘excite in the sufferers a strong thirst for revenge against all white men’.
But the concern of humanitarians had little effect on the ways things happened out on the frontier where the stealing of women and children was a constant corollary of the punitive expedition. The Queensland Native Police officers were well known as suppliers of Indigenous children. When taxed about this government officials explained that they could do little to stop the trade in children because it was so profitable, that there was a ready market and that many settlers were eager to buy a young boy or girl. It was customary for stockmen, drovers and teamsters to travel with young boys or girls. The wisdom of the frontier was that girls were as useful as boys around that camp, were less likely to run away, and provided sexual services to the womenless white men.
The consequences of abduction and illicit adoption were clearly apparent from the earliest years of settlement. Young children appeared to adapt quickly to their new surroundings. But in early adolescence they rebelled as they understood their circumstances and the fact that they were treated as unpaid servants rather than as family members. They became ‘unmanageable’ and usually ran away either to return to their own people or to live on the fringe of settler society alienated from both the colonists and the Indigenes.
For all their talk about ‘civilising’ and ‘saving’ and ‘uplifting’ the Indigenous people, white Australia could not accept Aborigines as equals even when they had grown up in European society and had received a western education. The caste barrier was impenetrable. Those who had most reason to assume they could become part of settler society were more, rather than less likely, to become objects of derision and abuse.
It was tragic that when, in the twentieth century, state and federal governments decided to remove children from their families they repeated most of the mistakes and cruelties perpetrated by individuals in the colonial period. And government was able to take action on a much larger scale. Having wrenched the children away from their kind and culture government departments had so little to offer. They never spent sufficient money on their Indigenous wards. Anything was good enough for them. Food and clothing were inadequate. Staff were usually unqualified. Zealots and misfits often ended up as supervisors and teachers. Education was inferior — and often deliberately so. Governments flagrantly disregarded their duty of care.
It was taken for granted that Aborigines could only aspire to unskilled labour of the most demeaning kind, that an educated Aborigine was an anomaly who could never find an appropriate place in white society. What was more, educated Aborigines were potential trouble-makers and agitators. In frontier folk-lore no-one was more hated than the ‘half-educated mission boy.’ So-called cheeky or uppity ‘niggers’ were treated with ruthless brutality in order to keep them ‘in their place’.
It is true that government officials and politicians were often ‘well-meaning’. They had concern and compassion for individuals. But Aborigines have suffered almost as much over the last two hundred years from misguided benevolence as from the actions of those with evil intent. Pervasive racism when combined with coercive authority was an enormously destructive force. When it became involved in the desire to preserve a white Australia and to ‘breed out the colour’ the consequences were tragic for thousands of Aboriginal families all over the country.
The testimony and the pain which are reproduced in The Stolen Children — Their Stories will allow all Australians to learn about one of the most distressing chapters in the troubled history of settler Australia’s relations with the ‘first nations’ of this land. It is also a story of determination and survival, courage and forgiveness which Indigenous Australia offers up as a gesture of reconciliation.
Henry Reynolds is acknowledged as the outstanding scholar in Aboriginal-European relations in Australia. He is the author of many books including the ground-breaking Aboriginal Sovereignty Allen & Unwin, 1996; Frontier and Dispossession, both of which were re-released by Allen & Unwin in 1996.