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March 01st 2010 print

Joseph Lane

We knew these kids

I taught for a year up near Port Augusta and mixed with an Aboriginal family in the town, so I was reported by my head for “consorting with natives and other undesirables”. When Maria and I got married in 1966, we enjoyed the frisson of being just three or four years outside of illegality.

“The Children Removed from Point McLeay” was first published in Quadrant, March 2010

About ten years ago, my late wife Maria took study leave from the University of South Australia to gather all the data she could find on education at her home community, Point McLeay [Aboriginal settlement] on Lake Alexandrina. We already had the registers of births, deaths and marriages from 1860 to 1960, and we also found the school records from 1885 to 1960. With these databases, we could construct families and their school experiences, when the 800 or so students were first enrolled, which other schools they went to and came from, and when they left the school.

As an afterthought, we put together a table of all the kids who were “taken away”. This totalled about forty-five. All but one came back after less than a year, and the one child who appears not to have returned was the only child of a single mother who died of TB, with no relatives who could support her. Almost no kids were taken away before about 1934 (one family of three kids were taken to the reformatory for six months in 1916), and the girl who was sent or taken away in 1934 was an orphan, about eight years old, who later returned and married a local man. We knew most of these kids at one time of another in later life, as well as some of their parents.

Over that period, 1885 to 1960, about forty mothers died (mostly in the 1940s and 1950s), with a total of about 110 children still of school age, as well as many children not of school age at the time of their deaths. Usually the fathers remarried fairly soon afterwards. Occasionally, the new wives refused to look after another woman’s kids and they were “taken” or looked after by relations. Occasionally, a husband and father died, and the mother remarried: in the 1940s, where there were young daughters, they were quickly packed off to the Fullarton Girls’ Home to be trained as domestics.

Point McLeay already had “quarter-caste” kids by the 1870s. Many people there now are no darker than I am, a Scots-Irish mongrel. The school has been operating since 1860, and many people even then had been to schools in Victor Harbor (or Port Victor as it was called then) and Adelaide. The population was literate, and had been plugged into the modern economy since the 1830s (whaling, grain, sheep and cattle, fruit- and pea-picking). If there had been any policy to take the most malleable kids to raise them as little white kids, as the current myth goes, then kids from Point McLeay would have been taken away in droves. From my partial knowledge, very many of the kids put into care were very dark. Judging by the school records, the kids “taken” were doing poorly in their attendance and promotion from one grade to another.

My father-in-law raised two families, after his first wife died in childbirth in 1944. Her two sisters had died also, one from TB, one from Huntington’s chorea (all of them in their thirties), so he raised all fifteen kids, carting them from mission to shearing sheds, back to the mission, off to the fruit-picking, back to the mission and so on. Some of the widowed husbands were pretty hopeless as fathers, and actually as workers too, come to think of it. But none of those kids were taken while he was looking after them, and the kids that were taken, usually boys (which suggests another explanation besides A.O. Neville’s and Cyril Cook’s), returned within six months.

Aboriginal people faced far more destitution than white people, their medical services were far poorer, the men worked in more accident-prone rural occupations, intermittently, for lower net wages. Yet at Point McLeay at least, long-term removal of children, it could be argued, was less likely than in the general population. I grew up around Bankstown and Penrith in the western suburbs of Sydney, and I remember kids being taken out of class, and other kids who had been adopted, or were being fostered. At the huge Goodwood Children’s Home in Adelaide, so far as I can figure out, no indigenous kids were ever held, but I could be wrong on that score. I certainly don’t know of any.

In South Australia, by the late 1940s and perhaps much earlier, the Children’s Welfare and Public Relief Board paid single mothers to look after their children: it seems that payment was kept up until the children were twenty-one. So, far from looking to take kids away, the Board was providing some of the means for women to keep their children with them.

And of course, if there had ever been a genuine policy to assimilate Aboriginal people, then there wouldn’t have been laws against white men mixing with Aboriginal women in most states from the late thirties until the sixties. I taught for a year up near Port Augusta and mixed with an Aboriginal family in the town, so I was reported by my head for “consorting with natives and other undesirables”. When Maria and I got married in 1966, we enjoyed the frisson of being just three or four years outside of illegality.

I don’t really believe there ever was a serious policy of mass assimilation (if this is Read’s and Reynolds’s rationale for believing in “stolen generations”). My wife was raised in a small town on the Fleurieu Peninsula called Yankalilla. For the first few years, they lived in a shed up between the cemetery and the town dump: assimilation. Eventually, they moved into a Housing Trust house way out on the eastern edge of the town, about 100 yards from any other house: assimilation. The school was half a mile on the western side of the town, but the school bus never picked them up: assimilation. Maria was the eldest of ten kids and went out to work at fifteen as a domestic, on keep but no pay (I think actually that her mother may have been paid her wages, but I have no evidence of that).

Yes, the glories of assimilation. I think policy-makers dipped their toes in the icy waters of assimilation and quickly pulled back again, to retreat back to tarted-up policies of protection and segregation, and the pseudo-Left has (as a sort of pale shadow) followed suit since.