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May 12th 2010 print

Tony Thomas

Peter Read invents the “Stolen Generations”

From The Pocket Windschuttle: The “Stolen Generations” tag originated from a 1981 pamphlet of 21 pages by historian Peter Read, now Professor of History at Sydney University, who argued that children were removed to separate them permanently from the rest of their race.

The Pocket Windschuttle: Peter Read and the "Stolen Generations"

Tony Thomas: This essay describes how the “Stolen Generations” story first arose, and the research on which it was based. Windschuttle demonstrates by checking the same archival material that the original research work was seriously flawed, and that the truth was very different to what the “Stolen Generations” historians claimed.  

[Note: All page references are to The Fabrication of Aboriginal History - Volume Three: The Stolen Generations 1881-2008 by Keith Windschuttle (Macleay, 2009)]

The “Stolen Generations” tag originated from a 1981 pamphlet of 21 pages by historian Peter Read, now Professor of History at Sydney University, who argued that children were removed to separate them permanently from the rest of their race. p43

He claims to have written this pamphlet ‘at white heat in a single day’. p62. And he urged the political follow-through that led to the “Bringing Them Home” inquiry and report. p74

He first wanted to call his pamphlet The Lost Generations, but his wife Jay Arthur thought that was too bland and suggested the tougher word, “Stolen” generations. p73

He wrote: “…Welfare officers, removing children solely because they were Aboriginal, intended and arranged that they should lose their Aboriginality, and that they never return home.” p44

Read in other publishings drew an explicit analogy between the Holocaust of World War 11 and the Stolen Generations p52 He also compared the Nazi use of terror in controlling Jewish victims, to the child-stealing policies of the NSW Aborigines Protection Board. p52

Other academic historians such as Paul Bartrop of Deakin, and Dirk Moses of Sydney University, used the same Holocaust analogy. p52 and p53

Read wrote his 1981 pamphlet when a postgraduate student at ANU p55 He based it on his interviews with Aborigines about their experiences with the welfare system, and on his own research into the NSW official records. p56

Over time, he hardened up his thesis to even maintain that the authority’s desire was not just to end Aboriginal culture p60 but to eliminate Aborigines themselves p61:

“Their extinction , it seemed, would not occur naturally after all, but would have to be arranged.”

Read claimed to have read “all” the thousands of childcare records of the NSW Aborigines Protection Board. That is, 800 detailed files on wards, and 1500 other references to wards. p61 He said the total stolen children in NSW from 1883-1969 was 5625. p61

From this research, he claimed one in six or seven NSW Aboriginal children had been ‘taken’ in the 20th Century, with intent of permanent removal from their culture  77.4 and every present-day NSW Aboriginal would know or be related to a ‘taken’ person. 61.7

Sir Roland Wilson’s “Bringing Them Home” report went even further, and said that nationally, not one Indigenous family has escaped the effects of forcible removal. p61 

Windschuttle says that Read’s research and pamphlet, the two foundation props of the Stolen Generations national scandal, were filled with errors and distortions. Windschuttle studied all the 1200 pages of records that Read claimed to have studied, which cover more than half of all NSW’s ‘stolen’ children to 1938. p76

Strangely, Read has published little analysis of these files, eg tabulations of reasons for removal, age, sex, parents and other circumstances. p76

But Read himself concedes  that from 18 years, stolen children were free to go home to their community, and indeed many did. p79. Hardly, ‘permanent’ removal.

Windschuttle follows up, and calculates that in NSW from 1907-32, more than half the wards returned to their family and communities. The real proportion was probably a lot higher because of gaps in the forms. p80

Read claimed that children were often taken when very young – babies, infants, primary school age kids. The SBS series First Australians, claimed that nationally, ‘most’ of ‘50,000’ children allegedly taken from their families were ‘under five’. p81

Case studies profiled in Bringing Them Home were all of these types – babies, youngsters. p81

The reality: NSW, 1907-32 – Separations: 0-5 years, 10.6%; 6-12 years, 22.6%; 13-19 years, 66%.    p82

In actual numbers, in that quarter of a century, only 25 children out of 700 were under two years. p82

The bulk were teenagers, and the board ‘took’ two-thirds of these teenagers because it had found jobs for them, as domestics, farm workers, and other four-year apprenticeship work. p84

The jobs weren’t usually where the kids home was, so naturally they were found board as well. (Don’t get snobbish: in that era, many white country kids sought the same jobs under the same apprenticeship rules).

Bottom line: this dominant group of ‘stolen’ kids spent their whole childhood in their community, then boarded out for four years as teenagers with a job provided – often returning home during holidays- and were then free to return to their community.

Peter Read claimed that ‘the vast majority’ of the children removed, were neither orphans nor neglected. Instead, they had mothers, fathers and other caring relatives.p87

Windschuttle’s analysis of archives on 631 NSW families in the Ward Registers, 1907-32, shows orphans totalled 134 or 21%, – and 99 of them appeared to be completely alone without even a living granny. p88 and p90

Another 33% were from single parent families, and 46% had two parents known to the authorities, though not necessarily cohabiting. Only 29% of the 800 separated children had known relatives (grannies etc) who could have cared for them, although bureaucrats might have failed to note some other instances.

More than half the families had no male breadwinner, suggesting a high degree of welfare dependency and dysfunction. p88

Peter Read claimed that bureaucrats ‘welfare’ and ‘neglect’ reasons for child removals were a cover-up for “a violent and premeditated attack not only on Aboriginal family structure but on the very basis of Aboriginality itself”. Some officials, he said, gave as reason for removal, simply ‘for being Aboriginal’, i.e. they were heartless monsters. p90

Windschuttle tirelessly checked the files, finding 674 files that gave ‘reasons’. Of 800 children, only three files used “for being Aboriginal” or similar terms. p90

Instead, the officials gave a big number of reasons, reflecting the complexities of human life.

Among the ‘negative’ reasons were:

Neglected – 113; Orphan – 73; no proper parental care, 52; moral danger, 28; uncontrollable, 26; and poor/undesirable surroundings, 21. A long string of other negative reasons followed, eg ‘parents alcoholics’, ‘crime’, ‘homeless’, ‘abandoned’ and indeed, ‘For being Aboriginal’ (4 cases). p93

Another category was health reasons, about 80 cases.

And a third category was positive reasons. Here we find the biggest single reason for separations – to go into apprenticeships or jobs – 173 cases. Other large categories here were to improve living standard (62 cases), schooling (52), parent’s request (30), and child’s own welfare (13).

Read and Co., faced with those records, claimed the officials were faking the records to disguise their racist goals. p92

That would have to be the mother of all conspiracies, lasting 25 years and involving scores of varied officials.

The conspiracy theory collapses further when Windschuttle examines the removals by age grouping. In the 0-5 year old category, 17 were removed by the State Children’s Relief Board (involving a case before a Children’s Court), compared with only 12 by the supposedly villainous Aborigines Protection Board. (Read, without supporting evidence, also accused the magistrates and judges of cultural insensitivity and racism p109). Ten were orphans, and 16 had parents ill, dead or incapable. Another six removals were at parent’s request. p96

In the 6-12 year old group, 45 were deemed neglected by the Aborigines Board, 10 by the Children’s Relief Board, and 25 were orphans or with no fit parents. p96

Read claimed that his national estimate of 45-50,000 stolen children, included 5626 stolen in NSW. p97

Windschuttle checked Read’s NSW figures , and found they involved some complete fiction, exaggerations, double counting, errors, creative accounting and guesswork. p98-99

Windschuttle’s own estimate for NSW removals from 1912-68 was only 2600. They were not ‘stolen’ – far from it. Of those, two-thirds were simply teenagers boarded out for apprenticeships, just like white kids. p103

The other third were largely orphans, neglected, destitute, in moral danger, or abused, in other words, rescued not stolen. As a percent of all NSW Aboriginal children in those 56 years, the annual separation rate was 1 to 2 percent, hardly the ‘genocide’ claimed by the Human Rights Commission, or backing its claim that ‘not one Indigenous family’ was escaping the effects of forcible removals. p103

Windschuttle is careful to note that some individual police or officials were harsh and racist, while others went out of their way to nurture their wards. p123-124 But to tar the whole system with a racist brush was contrary to the evidence. The data tells the real story – how the ‘stolen generations’ story that arose from NSW data, was in fact fabricated.

Buy The Fabrication of Aboriginal History – Volume Three: The Stolen Generations 1881-2008 here…