Aboriginal Children

by Philip Morrissey

© all rights reserved

¬†“I did what I set out to do – to make their passing easier and to keep the dreaded half-caste menace from our great continent”
(Bates, 1966: 243)

This essay takes the fact of the Australian State’s violent, or coerced, removal of half-caste1 Aboriginal children in the twentieth century as an exemplary instance of the socio-political strategy of Whiteness; in this instance the continuation of the Australian State’s ethnocidal processes of colonisation. It also accepts that the philosophical aspect of Whiteness, i.e., the fundamental premise of Whiteness as a metonym for morality, purity and temperance, provided the discursive framework for the removal of half-caste children.

In 1938 Daisy Bates wrote triumphantly that during her period caring for Aboriginals at Ooldea, no half-castes were born, and that of three half-castes born at Ooldea in the year before her arrival, one was taken to a mission and the others, ‘destroyed in infancy, one of them thrown into a rabbit-burrow, and the other scalded to death by a billy-can of hot tea thrown over both mother and child by the black husband’ (Bates, 1966: 193). The poetic density of Bates’ narrative of the fate of those innocents (rather than simply the horror at their treatment) has always troubled me. On a discursive level the children stand as exemplars of the defenceless, abused child; Bates as the corrupt adult; the ‘black husband’ as one of her agents; and the reader forever implicated as a silent, and complicit, witness. Equally disturbing is the apparent finality of those infants’ disappearance: one taken to a mission, and two murdered. In all, a neat summary of an aspect of Australia’s history of dealing with half-caste children,i.e., ethnocide, and in two of the foregoing instances, homicide. Wlad Godzich has argued that the West has viewed the other as a potential ‘same-to-be, a yet-not-same’, and that this otherness, when it is unable to be transformed to a same, becomes interpreted ‘as the realm of the dead’ (Godzich, 1993: xiii). The question I ask myself is, how do these children return from that netherworld, that social and in two of the foregoing instances, literal realm of the dead to which they were consigned? And what of innumerable others we know nothing of? John Berger’s dark statement, ‘all premeditated murders are an attempt to destroy a presence rather than to put an end to a body’ (Berger et al, 1982, 112), has a chilling aptness when thinking about Bates’ narration of the fate of those children. The bodies of the children display the history of white paternity and in destroying and concealing those bodies, and their forensic witness, there is the attempt to erase their presence from history and time itself. But paradoxically the density, and the triumphalist zeal of Bates’ statement, with its single-minded intention of erasing half-castes, and evidence of miscegenation, endows those children with an occulted existence – an existence that persists independent of historical fact. Bates’ narrative, with its hubristic claim to centrality and finality, produces the possibility of their resurrection through an alternative narrative/alternative representation.

What form might these alternative narratives/representations take? I’ve had intimations of that possibility when seeing historical photographs of institutionalised half-caste children. It’s also there when I hear songs like Archie Roach’s, ‘Weeping in the Forest ‘ and Kerri-Anne Cox’s, ‘Stolen Children’. Then something like the foretaste of a meeting with those children happens, something like the promise of a resurrection.

But I’ve also had the feeling when reading some of the transcripts of testimonies of members of the Stolen Generation that underneath the words there are hardly any memories – the words having taken on a life of their own (Borges, 1998: 55). Primo Levi, in relation to the Holocaust, observes that those who did not return to write about their experiences, are the ‘complete witnesses, the ones whose depositions would have general significance’ (Levi, 1988: 84). What is of interest here is not the veracity of the stories, or their factual accuracy, but their density – the fact that the narratorial focus is on something other than the recall of memory or experience. Perhaps the narrator has too much regard for the necessities of the present, or the narrative has taken on a life of its own. As a corollary to these stories of survivors, and as a matter of negative social necessity, a vulgar, and non-scholarly, revisionist history, which accords with the disposition of what may be a majority of Settler Australians, made its appearance in the mass media. This denial and relativising of the reality or experiences of the Stolen Generations is the outcome of a political will in most instances, rather than any lack of information or sufficient intelligence. In consequence it’s a state, a mode of being, that forecloses any attempt at progress through reasonable debate, without obviating the necessity to continue to debate. Hence that necessary, but pointless, debate between scholar Robert Manne and journalist Andrew Bolt on the historical fact of the Stolen Generations.

Because I had assumed that Phillip Noyce’s Rabbit Proof Fence was one more attempt to engage with those people outside reason (the unreasonable), I avoided it when it was first released into cinemas in 2002. I was also concerned at what might be termed the ‘spectacularisation of ethnocide’ – the transformation of the experiences of the Stolen Generation into an object of mass consumption (Vidal-Naquet: 1989, 319). On the basis of what I’d read and heard, I’d also concluded that it was a manipulative and emotionally reckless film: something like an Australian version of Stephen Spielberg’s The Colour Purple (Spielberg, 1985). Thus it wasn’t until 2003, while preparing a lecture, that I first watched it in dvd format. Shortly into the film, grisly footage of the children, Molly, Daisy and Gracie, being forcibly bundled into a motor vehicle and leaving behind wailing mothers, bore out my misgivings. (Though I accept that there are sound reasons why Noyce would choose to represent the act of separation in this manner.) Henry James in his preface to The Turn of the Screw wrote of the difficulty trying to present horror through recourse to the, ‘limited, deplorable, presentable, instant’ (James, 1986: 41) and I wondered if Rabbit Proof Fence was going to be a succession of such instants. The reader gradually internalises the multi-dimensional horror of James’ ghost story. In contrast I feared Rabbit Proof Fence would offer one novel or horrific sensation after another with little demand on the viewing subject.

So it was in the manner of a subreption that Rabbit Proof Fence began to affect me. Noyce’s direction and use of the untrained child actors Everlyn Sampi, Tianna Sansbury, Laura Monaghan, in a landscape rigorous, but maternal, embodied an Aboriginality of childhood. The naivety and transparency of the actors allowed something greater than individual character to manifest. In the absence of the mask of the trained actor the realities of the unseen children of the Stolen Generations appear. The occulted children of Bates narration begin to take on being.

As popular art Rabbit Proof Fence addressed the issue of the Stolen Generations, not in a detailed historical manner, but in stressing the supra-personal desire of the child for the mother. Christine Olson’s screenplay identified what was essential in Doris Pilkington’s Follow the Rabbit Proof Fence (1996), provided additional historical context, and edited out superfluous detail and context. Noteworthy for its strong character portrayals, the film appears to draw on Jack Davis’ No Sugar (Davis, 1986) for its relatively benign representation of AO Neville, and the tracker Moodoo (identified in No Sugar as Billy Kimberley.) The film’s emphasis on universality allowed it to make a profound statement simply, and unambiguously. It translated universal desires and concepts into a form immediately accessible to any audience, and linked these desires to an historical fact denied or relativised by a sizeable proportion of Settler Australians. In short, Rabbit Proof Fence represented, in an immediate form, the police-state reality that the careful research of Haebich and Delroy ascribes to the State of Western Australia at that time:

Police were instructed to conduct regular patrols of camps and to report on possible removals. Ration lists were closely scrutinised by the Aborigines Department to identify ‘half-caste’ children and coded telegrams were forwarded to police instructing them to remove children. Families coming to official attention for any reason instantly came under scrutiny and faced the possibility of removal. These departmental arrangements were enmeshed with the practices of various churches, the public health system and the views expressed in the media (Haebich and Delroy, 1999: 21)

The film also resonates with and takes in the poetic imagery and empathy of the Settler activist Mary Bennett who in her testimony before the Moseley Royal Commission in 1934, identified with the experience of the sufferings of the victims of State implemented Aboriginal welfare policies. Bennett used the metaphor of capture to describe the fate of half-caste children and the victimisation of Aboriginal women by white men, saying, ‘They are captured at all ages, as infants in arms.’ (Moseley: 1935). While eccentric for its time (in its empathy and identification with Aboriginal women and children) Bennett’s imagery is contemporary inasmuch as it is premised on an acceptance of the universality of human rights.

A review of John Hillcoat’s The Proposition suggested, with some pertinence, that The Proposition’s representation of Aboriginals was an implicit criticism of the ‘soft-edged, often patronising’ (Schembri, 2005, 2) portrayals in films such as Rabbit Proof Fence and Ivan Sen’s Beneath Clouds (Sen, 2002). Rabbit Proof Fence is sentimental – but it is a sentiment proportionate to the truths that it represents i.e., the persecution of half-caste children, and the bond between mother and child. It contrasts with the sentimentality of those politicians and media apologists who attempt excuse the proponents and agents of child stealing on the basis that they had good intentions.

There are other implacable qualities in Rabbit Proof Fence. The resistance of the half-caste children makes an implicit judgement of history and adults. Males, whether Aboriginal or Settler, are presented as threats, or possible threats, and personify a philosophy of disconnection and objectification. White women, represented by the figure of the matron at Moore River, are shown as unthinkingly subscribing to, and benefiting from, this infra-human philosophy premised on the centrality of whiteness)

It is also clear that Noyce doesn’t sentimentalise the girls. Molly, the oldest, played by Evelyn Sampi, is a sullen and defensive personality rather than a presence one warms to, and the two younger girls say so little that no sense of their individuality emerges. As well as having a clear-eyed perception that the majority of adults they encounter, whatever their race or guise, don’t have their interests at heart,2 the girls find food, evaluate situations and assess adults, orient themselves, and evade captors and pursuers. In a recent paper, John Munro (2005), an educational psychologist, has described the girls’ level of ‘self-directed autonomous learning’ as spectacular.

Rabbit Proof Fence’s popular impact is intensified by resonances it shares with two major Hollywood films Robert Mulligan’s, To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) and Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter (1955). Both films accentuate the physical smallness of the child protagonists as they confront adult cowardice, evil, and stupidity. Amid the large Southern houses and the deep shadows cast by the trees in To Kill a Mockingbird the Finch children challenge normalised racism of the town of Maycombe. In The Night of the Hunter the orphans Pearl and John Harper are juxtaposed with the menacing image of Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum) silhouetted on horseback. (In the same manner the children in Rabbit Proof Fence are pursued by Moodoo.) Powell pursues them relentlessly across an American wilderness with an inhuman passion commensurate with that Stephen Kinnane (2004) so admirably identifies in AO Neville. The poisonous ambience of To Kill a Mockingbird is created by racism; in The Night of the Hunter it’s the outcome of sexual repression and religious gullibility; in Rabbit Proof Fence it’s colonial racism and eugenics. The fact that a commitment to eugenics is a distinguishing feature of National Socialism gives us an insight into the world the girls find themselves in. (Weingart, 1998: 403).

In evaluating the deeper affects produced by Rabbit Proof Fence the analytical methodology of Corbin and Jung provides some guidance. Corbin suggests that the, ‘genuine transcending [sic] the past can only be “putting it in the present’ as sign’. (Corbin, 1983: xvii) The long journey and return of the girls in Rabbit Proof Fence is transformed from an historical event that happened once, into a sign reverberating in the present: one that valorises the past and suggests possibilities for a creative future. As suggested earlier, the impact of the child actors has less to do with any verbal facility they display as actors but more with the simplicity of their performances and the way they are framed by the washed-out ochre coloured landscape and Peter Gabriel’s soundscape. Through these powerful images we are confronted with the paradox of the child: helpless but powerful. In a religio-mystical context Henri Corbin has written of a theophany that, ‘presupposes the existence of a concrete person, but invests that person with a function which transfigures him [sic] because he [sic] is perceived in the light of another world’ (Corbin, 1969, 52). With respect to the subtlety of that relation between the girls and what they theophanise, i.e. the vanished children of the Stolen Generations and ultimately the archetype of the Child, we might keep in mind Jung when he writes that ‘An archetypal content expresses itself, first and foremost, in metaphors.’ and yet it remains an ‘unknown third thing that finds more or less adequate expression in all these similes, yet – to the perpetual vexation of the intellect-remains unknown and not to be fitted into a formula’ (Jung, 1959: 157). The figures of Mollie, Daisie and Gracey represent the Stolen Generations in a form that cannot be reduced to an isolate historical fact or narrative.

Finally in light of the foregoing and our own knowledge of the Stolen Generations I want to conclude with a consideration of some of the points Jung makes about the Child archetype. The implications of points ii), iii) and iv) for contemporary Australian society need no elaboration:

i) ‘Abandonment, exposure, danger, etc. are all elaborations of the ‘child’s’ insignificant beginnings and of its mysterious and miraculous birth’ (Jung and Kerenyi, 1949: 119).

ii) ‘The child-motif represents not only something that existed in the distant past but also something that exists now ; that is to say, it is not just a vestige but a system functioning in the present whose purpose is to compensate for or correct, in a sensible manner, the inevitable one-sidedness and extravagances of the conscious mind’ (Jung and Kerenyi, 1949:112)

iii) One of the essential features of the child-motif is its futurity. The Child is potential future’ (Jung and Kerenyi, 1949:115)

iv) The Child is ‘a unifying symbol which unites the opposites; a mediator, bringer of healing, that is, one who makes whole’ Jung and Kerenyi, 1949:115).

Iranzo argues that the image (or in our context the sign), because it resists reductive interpretations, is excluded from those Western modes of knowing and establishing truth that are derived from Aristotle (Iranzo, 2007)). The Child evoked by Rabbit Proof Fence is the appropriate response to the false myths and sophistical empiricism of the deniers of the Stolen Generations. Language justified the taking and institutionalisation of half-caste children; Daisy Bates celebrated the disappearance of three half-castes in language, but it is the verbal inarticulacy of Rabbit Proof Fence’s child actors that allows them to portray what Jung describes as ‘the strongest, the most ineluctable urge in every being, namely the urge to realize itself. It is, as it were, an incarnation of the inability to do otherwise, equipped with all the natural and instinctive forces, whereas the conscious mind is always getting tied in its supposed ability to do otherwise.’ (Jung and Kerenyi, 1949: 124). In their simplicity the children represent that urge to self-realisation and challenge our adult inability to address the injustice done to the children of the Stolen Generations.

Richard Dyer, in a defence of The Sound of Music as popular art imbued with a transformative politics, described the climb of Maria and the Von Trapp children at the end of the film as a ‘celebration of human endurance’ (Dyer, 1992: 59). If we wished to follow Dyer we could say that in its aspect as popular culture the heroic journey of Daisy, Gracie and Mollie becomes a universal symbol of the human spirit in its quest for freedom and an horizon of aspiration for everyone. On a more intuitive level Noyce’s representation of that journey performs a theurgical function delivering half-caste children from that netherworld to which Australia once tried to exile them to. The Aboriginal mothers and grandmothers lacerate their heads in mourning when their children are taken, believing that the abduction of their children is the equivalent of death. The enormity of their return journey is overwhelming when we see it as a return from death, or as I would put it a, a realm of the dead. The fortuitous conjunction of the Doris Pilkington’s story, the original journey of Gracie, Daisy and Molly, and Noyce’s direction adds a miraculous dimension to the historical fact.


Philip Morrissey teaches in the Australian Indigenous Studies, Australian Literary Studies and Cultural Studies programs at the University of Melbourne. He has contributed chapters to several recent publications including Unfinished Constitutional Business?: Rethinking Indigenous Self Determination and Sovereign Subjects: Indigenous Sovereignty Matters.


1. In order to keep in mind the race philosophy of the 1930s I will use this term for the duration of the essay.

2. As Anna Haebich has made clear, the policy of removing Aboriginal children was based on the interests of the colonist not the children.


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If you would like to contribute to this discussion, please email ahr@anu.edu.au