The real Australia would never have stooped so low as to try to eliminate the Aboriginal race by stealing its children. The fact that the film has been a popular success is telling. It shows that despite the best efforts of academics and schoolteachers to persuade us otherwise, Australia is not and never has been a country whose people would condone such practices.
[This is the Preface from The Fabrication of Aboriginal History, Volume Three, The Stolen Generations 1881 – 2008 (Macleay, 2009)]
As you know, every Aborigine born in this state comes under my control. [Shows slide of Aboriginal mother and child.] Notice, if you will, the half-caste child, and there are ever increasing numbers of them. Now, what is to happen to them? Are we to allow the creation of an unwanted third race? Should the coloureds be encouraged to go back to the black or should they be advanced to white status and be absorbed in the white population? Now, time and again I’m asked by some white man, ‘If I marry this coloured person will our children be black?’, and as Chief Protector of Aborigines it is my responsibility to accept or reject those marriages. [Shows slide with portrait of three family members.] Here is the answer: three generations — half-blood grandmother, quadroon daughter, octoroon grandson. Now, as you can see in the third generation, or third cross, no trace of native origin is apparent. The continuing infiltration of white blood finally stamps out the black colour. The Aboriginal has simply been bred out.
Actor Kenneth Branagh speaking from a screenplay by Christine Olsen in the motion picture Rabbit-Proof Fence, purportedly representing a speech given by Auber Octavius Neville to a Perth ladies’ charity society in 1931
Phil Noyce’s film Rabbit-Proof Fence has probably done more than any other cultural product to cement in the Australian mind the twin notions of the Stolen Generations and ‘breeding out the colour’, or putting an end to Aboriginality. When released in local cinemas in December 2002 it was the box office success of that summer. Since then it has also proven itself an enduring staple within the education market. Indeed, high school teachers who now try to show Rabbit-Proof Fence to Year 12 classes in Australian history receive groans of protest from students who have seen the film several times in various other courses since they first studied it in English in Year 6. If a girl from a private school in Sydney on an exchange visit to a sister institution in the United States is asked to update her new classmates on Australian history, she is likely to act as one did in February 2009 and give a presentation about the Stolen Generations and screen Rabbit-Proof Fence.
Teachers of history think this film appropriate because its producers advertise it as ‘a true story’ and it is based on a book about real people. In this, it is unlike the more recent Australian film, Baz Luhrmann’s Australia, which incorporates the Stolen Generations story in its plot. Australia does not pretend to be anything more than a work of the imagination, a traditional Hollywood-style romance-adventure. Rabbit-Proof Fence, however, should also be regarded a work of dramatic fiction. It gets the names of several of the main historical characters and locations right, but not much else.
In particular, the chilling, bureaucratic speech above, which the screenwriter composed to depict the Chief Protector A. O. Neville’s motives for taking the Aboriginal girls Molly, Gracie and Daisy from their families, did not give the real reason they were taken from Jigalong in remote Western Australia in 1931. While it is true that Neville did subscribe in the 1930s to a theory of ‘breeding out the colour’, it was not his motive for removing children. As the words of the phrase said, it aimed to control breeding. It was a proposal about fostering the marriage of part-Aboriginal women to white men, but, from the start, it was a hopeless failure. Most part-Aboriginal women preferred to marry men of their own background, and the Chief Protector could not force them to do otherwise. The main point here, however, is that both Noyce’s film, and many of the academic historians who have discussed Neville’s practices, have connected two distinct notions in a way that is historically inaccurate. ‘Breeding out the colour’ was not a proposal for the removal of children.
In the 1930s ‘breeding out the colour’ was seriously discussed at high political levels. In 1933, the issue went all the way to Federal Cabinet for approval, but was not endorsed. Indeed, the responsible Commonwealth minister denounced the proposal in parliament. As Chapter Seven demonstrates, all this discussion was about inter-marriage. None of it made any reference to removing children. The hordes of Australian school students fed this line have been badly misled.
There are other parts of the same speech that attribute to Neville views he either did not hold at the time or never expressed at any time. When Molly, Gracie and Daisy were removed in 1931, Neville did not have the control over the marriage of half-caste Aborigines the script attributed to him. The Native Administration Act only gave him that power in 1936 but, even then, he had no practical means of enforcing it, and missionaries in the north of the state openly defied him. Parts of the speech came from other authors at other times. The phrase ‘an unwanted third race’ of half-castes was used by a Melbourne journalist writing about Alice Springs in 1927. Another phrase, the ‘white blood finally stamps out the black colour’, was written by a Perth doctor in 1933. Both these people are mentioned briefly in Pat Jacobs’s biography, Mister Neville, where the filmmakers obviously found their statements and decided to put them into the mouth of the Chief Protector. They were not quotations from Neville himself.
The film claims to be a version of Doris Pilkington’s 1996 book Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence. Pilkington was one of Molly’s two daughters. She wrote her work from the stories told by her mother and Daisy about their escape in August 1931 from the Moore River Settlement north of Perth and their three-month, 1600-kilometre cross-country walk back to their families. Pilkington originally trained as a nurse but later studied journalism at Curtin University, where she obviously learnt some useful research skills.
For her book, Pilkington searched the Western Australian archives and found a number of relevant surviving documents. They allowed her to reconstruct the girls’ removal and escape, both from their own perspective and the viewpoint of the authorities. She found documents about the removal of Molly, aged fourteen, and Gracie, aged eleven, but not any records about the removal of Daisy, aged eight. Pilkington also found telegrams, memos and letters sent by police and welfare officials as they pursued the escapees across the state. She researched the vegetation the girls would have encountered in the various districts they traversed, the land use by white farmers and pastoralists in the early 1930s, the contemporary pattern of tracks, roads and railways (some now long-closed), the animals the girls would have come across at that time of season, and the weather in those months of the year. All this allowed her to vividly describe the landscape and climate zones through which the girls travelled and give a credible account of the food they found for survival.
Pilkington also uncovered some of the history of the Jigalong settlement and its relationship to the rabbit-proof fence the girls followed home. Jigalong had been established in 1907 as a government maintenance base for the workers who travelled up and down the fence, clearing away debris and mending any breaches in the wire. It also became a welfare depot where the government provided rations of food, clothing, blankets and tobacco to the nomadic Mardu people of the Gibson and Little Sandy Deserts. Gradually, the Mardu came to rely on these handouts. They came in from the desert and made Jigalong a permanent base where the old people could stay while others continued a semi-nomadic lifestyle, supplementing government rations with the hunting and gathering of traditional food. Molly’s mother Maude was a full-blood Mardu who had learned to speak English while working as a domestic help for the Jigalong superintendent. Molly’s father was Thomas Craig, a young Englishman employed as an inspector of the fence, who soon moved on.
If history teachers insist on discussing this topic, they will find the book a much more reliable resource than the film. The book does not contain a number of the film’s anachronisms about Neville’s administration, does not misrepresent his ideas and, unlike the film, does not invent scenes for dramatic effect. In the book, there is no violent removal from Jigalong by motor car, there is no pursuit of the escapees by a sympathetic blacktracker, there is no help given them on their journey by a sexually exploited Aboriginal domestic servant. The film ends with entirely fictional scenes in which, close to death, two of the girls stagger across the last stretch of desert unaided. In reality, the book tells they were brought home by a white cattle station contractor, riding on his camels.
In particular, Pilkington’s book does not contain the above speech attributed to A. O. Neville, which was composed for the movie by Christine Olsen, the scriptwriter. Olsen misrepresented the authority Neville had and the opinions he held in 1931. Despite the absence of records about the removal of the youngest girl Daisy, Olsen nonetheless decided to make Kenneth Branagh say she was betrothed to a full-blood Aboriginal man, thereby giving Neville another culturally insensitive reason to remove her. Pilkington, however, had the integrity not to put words in Neville’s mouth in order to enhance the drama of her story. She did not suggest that ‘breeding out the colour’ played any part in the removals from Jigalong. Instead, she found the documentary record revealed three quite different reasons for the authorities’ actions.
First, as half-castes, the girls were not readily accepted by full-blood society. The superintendent of the depot, Mr Keeling, became concerned about the attitude of the others to Molly and Gracie. He wrote to the Chief Protector that the girls would be better off if they were removed from Jigalong. They ‘were not getting a fair chance as the blacks consider the H/Cs [half-castes] inferior to them’. Combined with her interviews with Molly and Daisy, this allowed Pilkington to reconstruct the following scenario:
As she grew older, Molly often wished that she didn’t have light skin so that she didn’t have to play by herself. Most of the time she would sit alone, playing in the red dusty flats or in the riverbed depending where her family had set up camp. The dust-covered child stood out amongst her darker playmates. The Mardu children insulted her and said hurtful things about her. Some told her that because she was neither Mardu or wudgebulla [white] she was like a mongrel dog. She reacted in the only way she knew. She grabbed handfuls of sand or stones and threw them at her tormentors, and sometimes she chased them with a stick. After a while she became used to the insults, and although they still hurt she didn’t show it.
Second, in response to the growing number of half-castes in the state and the deteriorating economic conditions that forced them onto crude camps on the edge of white settlements, Neville’s department had a policy of training part-Aboriginal children for occupations in which they were likely to be employed in white society. Pilkington described these policies as evidence of the authorities’ benign intentions. She wrote:
Official concern shifted from the decreasing numbers of traditional or full-blooded Aborigines to the half-castes and part-Aboriginal children who were being born all over the country. The common belief at the time was that part-Aboriginal children were more intelligent than their darker relations and should be isolated and trained to be domestic servants and labourers. Policies were introduced by the government in an effort to improve the welfare and educational needs of these children.
Third, and clearly the main reason for the removal of at least the two older girls, was a letter written to Neville in December 1930 by Mrs Chellow from Murra Munda Station near Jigalong. Pilkington found it in the Perth archives of the Department of Native Affairs. Mrs Chellow was concerned about the girls’ sexual behaviour.
9th December 1930
Chief Protector of Aborigines
… There are two half-caste girls at Jigalong – Molly 15 years, Crissy [Gracie] 11 years; in my opinion I think you should see about them as they are running wild with the whites.
(Sgd.) Mrs Chellow
At the time, ladies like Mrs Chellow could not frankly discuss sexual matters in an official letter, but there is no doubting the message she wanted to convey. ‘Running wild’, when applied to girls, was a contemporary euphemism for promiscuity; ‘running wild with the whites’ meant Molly and Gracie were having sex with the whites. The white men Mrs Chellow most likely meant were the maintenance workers on the rabbit-proof fence who, like the Englishman who had sex with Molly’s mother fifteen years earlier, periodically stopped overnight at Jigalong on their long north–south tours of inspection. It was the information in this letter that finally led Neville to order the girls’ removal. So, rather than being sent to the Moore River Settlement in order to be mated with white men, Mollie and Gracie were removed from Jigalong in order to be protected from white men. Unfortunately, the film neglects to give even the slightest suggestion that this might have been a motive. It also fails to say this was not a racially motivated policy. At the same time throughout Australia, under-age white girls who were sexually active were removed to institutions for exactly the same reason.
Sexual abuse of Aboriginal women and girls was an issue that concerned Neville for many years. As he travelled around the state on tours of inspection, he kept a brown-covered notebook in which he recorded cases of child abuse, abduction, rape and violent death. Neville’s biographer Pat Jacobs found the notebooks among his private papers. Had their contents ever been made public, Jacobs writes, they would have shocked the community. By 1931, Neville had been trying for more than a decade to have his powers increased so he could prosecute white men who took advantage of the half-caste teenage girls who found jobs after leaving missions or government stations.
I have endeavoured to have an amendment of the section brought about to include half-castes, and not until this is done will it be possible to do anything towards preventing these girls becoming the easy prey of the unscrupulous white man.
He did not gain laws of this kind to protect half-caste girls over sixteen years of age until the new Act of 1936.
Neville lamented not just this environment but, given the paucity of his financial resources — by far the lowest per head of any similar department in Australia — how little he could hope to change it.
In these respects under the existing system the department is powerless to exercise the necessary control. It has … neither the necessary means nor facilities to do what is patently and urgently necessary if these people are to be turned into decent self-respecting citizens rather than a race of outcasts, which they are rapidly becoming.
Her lack of appreciation of this fact leads Doris Pilkington into the only major misinterpretation in her otherwise credible story. In Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence, she thinks Neville established institutions exclusively for half-caste Aboriginal children, one at Carrolup, the other at Moore River. In fact, both were settlements that housed welfare-dependent, part-Aboriginal people of all ages, children and adults. The great majority were not kept there against their will. Apart from a small number of ex-prisoners on parole and unattached wards of the Chief Protector, they could come and go as they chose. Between 1930 and 1934 the Moore River Settlement admitted 1067 people, but over the same period 1030 people left. At Moore River, the children were housed in separate dormitories for boys and girls, where some rudimentary training was given. Most of those housed there were the children of parents who lived in other accommodation within the same settlement. In other words, despite the impression given by Phil Noyce’s film, most children at Moore River were not forcibly or permanently separated from their parents. They slept apart but saw each other almost every day.
For most of the lives of these settlements, the state government provided only enough funding to enable one to remain open at any one time. Carrolup housed between 100 and 200 people from 1915 to 1922 when, as an economy measure, it was closed and not reopened until 1940. At any one time, Moore River held a population of between 100 and 400. It operated from 1918 to 1951.
Pilkington also gave an exaggerated account of how children were recruited for these settlements and how much anxiety was generated by the threat of their removal. She wrote:
Patrol officers travelled far and wide removing part Aboriginal children from their families and transported them hundreds of kilometres down south. Every mother of a part-Aboriginal child was aware that their offspring could be taken away from them at any time and they were powerless to stop the abductors.
This was untrue. For most of Neville’s tenure of office from 1915 to 1940, he had no patrol officers or travelling inspectors at all. He employed his sole official in this role, E. C. Mitchell, from 1925 to 1930. Mitchell did not roam the country looking for children to remove. His time was mainly consumed investigating working conditions, approving or rejecting permits for whites to employ full-blood Aborigines, and supervising handouts of rations on Aboriginal missions, settlements and pastoral stations. During the Great Depression, the loss of government revenue meant funds available to all government departments in Western Australia fell dramatically. Neville’s departmental budget shrank to only 60 per cent of what it had been in 1911. In 1930, the year before Molly, Gracie and Daisy were removed, government finances had shrunk so much that Treasury issued a directive that travel was no longer permitted in any department of the public service unless ‘urgently necessary’. At the same time, Neville was forced to retrench his one travelling inspector Mitchell.
Instead, country administration was left to a few local magistrates, doctors and police. The responsibility for removing the three Jigalong girls belonged to Constable Riggs, the sole police officer for the district, based at Nullagine, 200 kilometres away. Riggs was nominally the local Protector of Aborigines but could only act on instruction by the department in Perth. Given his habit of personally supervising the minutiae of his administration, Neville himself approved each recommendation for removal and filled out the forms. This is one detail the film Rabbit-Proof Fence does get right. It shows Neville personally writing out the orders for the removal of Molly, Gracie and Daisy, and even filling out the index cards for their files. But this very fact meant, of course, that the number of children that could be processed each year — while Neville and his six clerical staff also fulfilled the rest of their responsibilities to the state’s 19,000 Aborigines in the settled districts — was tiny.
The available records bear this out. In 1931, the Chief Protector’s annual report revealed that Molly, Gracie and Daisy were three of only four Aboriginal children from the whole of Western Australia sent to the Moore River Settlement that year. As Chapter Eight demonstrates, such a small number was not unusual. During Neville’s entire 25–year administration, the admission rate of unattended children was abnormally high if it reached twenty in one year. In several years he sent no children there at all. Neville was only stating the obvious when he primly advised the commission: ‘It cannot be said that the department has unduly exercised its powers in this direction.’
The Australian Legend in Baz Luhrmann’s Australia
In 2008, the story of the Stolen Generations became the sub-theme of Baz Luhrmann’s romantic adventure film, Australia, set in the Northern Territory on the eve of the Second World War. Although most prominent film critics panned the movie, it did very well at the box office. By February 2009, after fourteen weeks of release, it had grossed $36.78 million in Australia, the second highest return of any Australian film, surpassed only by the $44.7 million taken by that other representative of outback adventure and heroism, Crocodile Dundee. At least one Aboriginal academic and political activist, Marcia Langton, thought Australia momentous. It had, she imagined, embedded her own brand of radicalism within popular culture and had rewritten the Australian legend. Langton wrote:
In his fabulous hyperbolic film Australia, Baz Luhrmann has leaped over the ruins of the ‘history wars’ and given Australians a new past — a myth of national origin that is disturbing, thrilling, heartbreaking, hilarious and touching.
While national myths and legends do not have to be historically accurate in all respects, they are more likely to endure if they are at least historically plausible. The story of the Stolen Generations told in Australia struggled to make that grade. For a start, the typical child removed in the Northern Territory in the pre-war period was not a boy like Luhrmann’s character Nullah, but a girl. In 1928 the Half-Caste Home in Darwin housed 56 girls but only 20 boys. By 1938, the ratio was 121 females to 32 males. These girls came mostly from fringe camps where they were vulnerable to prostitution and other kinds of sexual abuse. Of the 121 half-caste females in 1938, one quarter of them were inmates of the compound’s ‘lock hospital’ for venereal disease.
Second, in the 1930s the authorities preferred orphaned and neglected half-caste boys not to be sent to welfare institutions but to work on cattle stations. The author of the Territory’s pre-war policy, J. W. Bleakley, said one reason more females than males were ‘rescued’ (his term) was due to:
the practice of not removing the young males if the Protector is satisfied they are being looked after on the stations. As these young half-castes make useful station labour at an early age, the employers are reluctant to part with them.
So in Australia, when Nicole Kidman’s character, Lady Sarah Ashley, pleads with the Territory’s fictional Chief Protector Dr Barker to let her keep Nullah, saying he would be better off on her cattle station than in a half-caste home, she is actually arguing what the real-life authorities thought too, and what really happened at the time.
Third, when Dr Barker denies Lady Ashley’s request, saying ‘We’ll soon breed the colour out of him’, he is not only contradicting the then existing practice but also talking nonsense, since it is biologically impossible to ‘breed’ anything ‘out’ of one person alone. It is true the Territory’s real-life Chief Protector for most of the 1930s, Dr Cecil Cook, did subscribe to the notion of ‘breeding out the colour’, like A. O. Neville in Western Australia. But, again, this was a proposal about the marriage of adults, not the removal of children. Its aim was to encourage marriages between half-caste Aboriginal women and white men but, like Neville’s experiment at the same time, it was also a failure. In the ten years Cook tried to implement his program, fewer than 50 mixed marriages of this kind were recorded.
Fourth, Australia played fast and loose with the truth when it portrayed Japanese soldiers occupying Mission Island. During the Second World War, the Japanese never invaded northern Australia, preferring to bomb it 97 times instead. But even if they had, it was quite wrong of the film to portray Territory authorities knowingly abandoning the island’s half-caste boys to the Japanese invaders. In fact, the real-life children at the mission on Melville Island had been evacuated by ship to Darwin five days before it was bombed on 19 February 1942. The children were still in the port on the morning of the first attack but the authorities got them all away safely, with no one killed or injured, that same afternoon. For the rest of the war, Territory officials ensured they were kept out of harm’s way in a Catholic community at Carrieton in the Flinders Ranges of South Australia.
As the final credits of Australia roll, Luhrmann links his story to the present period. A line of text informs the audience of the parliamentary apology given by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd in February 2008. Nowhere, however, did either film or apology endorse the central claim made by academics and political activists about the Stolen Generations, that they were subject to genocide. Marcia Langton should have been very disappointed on this score. She was mistaken to imagine she was witnessing some kind of cultural revolution.
By the time Rudd won the 2007 election, the demand for the Prime Minister to say ‘sorry’ had gained considerable popular support. There was little doubt that by then millions of suburban voters, who had never felt any animosity towards Aboriginal people, wanted racial reconciliation and an end to all the bad feeling this issue had generated. Rudd sensed many people felt it was time to address what his speech called ‘this unfinished business of the nation’, and ‘move on’. He did this in the most inexpensive way possible, offering warm words only, but no mention of genocide and no reparations. If Rudd truly believed children had been removed from loving parents for racist reasons, he had a moral (and probably legal) obligation to pay them tangible compensation. Instead, his avoidance of this issue meant the apology was primarily a public relations exercise for white audiences.
One thing Baz Luhrmann’s movie did get right was its assumption of how Australians would respond to a story about stolen children like Nullah. Watching the film, we all instinctively take the side of the children. Luhrmann is doing no more than demonstrating something most of us once knew to be true: while we have had our share of scoundrels in authority, the real Australia would never have stooped so low as to try to eliminate the Aboriginal race by stealing its children. The fact that the film has been a popular success is telling. It shows that despite the best efforts of academics and schoolteachers to persuade us otherwise, Australia is not and never has been a country whose people would condone such practices.
 Rabbit-Proof Fence, Phil Noyce director, Christine Olsen screenplay, Phil Noyce and Christine Olsen producers, Australian Film Finance Corporation, Premium Movie Partnership, South Australian Film Corporation and Jabal Films, 2002
 Richard Guilliatt, ‘Why Kids Hate Australian History’, Weekend Australian Magazine, 23–24 February 2008, p 18
 Deborah Cassrels, ‘Exchange Brings History Home’, Sydney Morning Herald, 21–22 February 2009, Special Report, p 3
 Pat Jacobs, Mister Neville, Fremantle Arts Centre Press, Fremantle, 1990, pp 160–1, 208–9
 Doris Pilkington, Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence, (1996), University of Queensland Press, St Lucia, 2002 ed., pp xi–xiv, 34–6
 Pilkington, Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence, pp 34–6
 Pilkington, Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence, p 39
 Pilkington, Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence, p 40
 Department of Native Affairs file no. 175/30, cited by Pilkington, Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence, p 41
 Chapter Three contains a history of welfare policies and reasons for removal of white children.
 Jacobs, Mister Neville, p 236
 Annual Report of the Chief Protector of Aborigines for the Year Ending 30th June 1918, Government Printer, Perth, p 7
 Department of Aboriginal Affairs, Annual Report, 1932, cited in Jacobs, Mister Neville, p 204
 Pilkington, Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence, p 40
 A. O. Neville, evidence to Moseley Royal Commission, 3 May 1934, transcript p 603
 Peter Biskup, Not Slaves, Not Citizens: The Aboriginal Problem in Western Australia 1898–1954, University of Queensland Press, St Lucia, 1973, pp 155–6
 Pilkington, Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence, p 40
 Biskup, Not Slaves, Not Citizens, pp 74–5
 Jacobs, Mister Neville, p 186
 Western Australia, 42 of 1911, An Act to Further Amend the Aborigines Act 1905; A. O. Moseley, Report of the Royal Commissioner Appointed to Investigate, Report, and Advise Upon Matters in Relation to the Condition and Treatment of Aborigines, Government Printer, Perth, 1935, p 20
 The Chief Protector in Western Australia never had more than a skeleton staff. In 1906, he had only one clerk to assist him. By 1936 the staff was still only one clerk-in-charge and five clerks: Biskup, Not Slaves, Not Citizens, p 75
 Annual Report of the Chief Protector of Aborigines for the Year Ended 30th June 1931, typescript version, p 12. The full record of Western Australian removals for 1931 was as follows: ‘Removals under Section 12: Eight warrants were issued in accordance with regulations made under the above section, transferring 25 natives from one part of the state to another. Of these 4 were admissions to the Moore River Native Settlement, 9 old and decrepit natives to La Grange Bay Feeding Depot and 9 released prisoners to the Kunmunya Mission, Port George IV.’
 Neville, evidence to Moseley Royal Commission, 3 May 1934, transcript p 604
 ‘Baz Wins at Box Office’, Sydney Morning Herald, 27 February 2009, p 9
 Marcia Langton, ‘Faraway Downs Fantasy Resonates Close to Home’, The Age, 23 November 2008
 Report of the Administration of the Northern Territory for Year 1937–38, p 25
 J. W. Bleakley, The Aboriginals and Half-Castes of Central Australia and North Australia, Commonwealth Government, Melbourne, 1928, p 14