Bennelong Papers

Investigative Journalism, Fairfax-Style

kinchela gate On Saturday, November 30, the Fairfax papers, the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, published two articles on Kinchela, the former welfare home for Aboriginal boys on the north coast of New South Wales. Written by Rick Feneley, the first of these was a story in the news pages under the headline “Stolen boys to tell their stories of life in hell”. However, rather than opening with the boys’ stories, it began by attacking the account in my book The Fabrication of Aboriginal History, Volume Three: The Stolen Generations about the home’s operation. “In Keith Windschuttle’s version of history,” Feneley began, “the Aboriginal residents of Kinchela Boys Home ‘got off lightly’ when compared with the severe punishment dealt to white schoolboys of the same era. The flaw with Windschuttle’s conclusion is that the author didn’t ask Kinchela’s inmates what happened to them. They would have told him horrific stories of systematic brutality endured by successive generations of indigenous boys who were removed from their families and held in the home near Kempsey on the mid-north coast from 1924 to 1970.”

The second article by Feneley was a double-page feature article in the News Review headlined “They Were Numbers: Now They Have Voices” and based on interviews he made with three former inmates of Kinchela — Cecil Bowden, Manuel Ebsworth and Richard Campbell — who confirmed his account of systematic brutality, giving various anecdotes of how badly they were treated.

While preparing his article, Feneley emailed me to ask why I had not interviewed any former Kinchela inmates. On November 25, I sent him a long email discussing the contact I had had with both former Kinchela inmates and former Kinchela staff in the late 1980s, that is, long after it had closed as a boys’ home, when I visited the site to evaluate a government program being run by its successor, Benelong’s Haven. Yet, in his Fairfax press articles, he accuses me of failing to ask Kinchela’s former inmates what happened to them. “Asked repeatedly if he had ever asked any former inmates what happened to them,” Feneley writes, “Windschuttle did not respond.”  That is an artful misrepresentation. In my email of November 25, I told Feneley that in none of the conversations I had with both former staff and former inmates was any claim about systematic brutality or cruel punishment ever made. “I never heard anyone tell the stories you mention,” I wrote. “Nothing like that was ever raised at the time, either by the staff or former boys.” I said this to him more than once. In fact, at one stage in his report he does quote me saying this, thereby contradicting his own earlier claim. The full text of our exchanges on the subject are here.

feneleyOf course, I could hardly be expected to question any of the people I met in 1989 and 1990 about allegations made in Feneley’s article, such as his claim about “children stripped of their names and referred to only by number”, since that particular claim, and several others he reports, had never been made at the time by anyone I had heard of. Moreover, my purpose in being on site was to investigate the suitability of the existing organisation to run a government training program. I was not there to interrogate people in detail about conditions in a home for boys that closed twenty years earlier. In any case, at the time I completely believed the story told by the white historian Peter Read in his 1981 pamphlet The Stolen Generations about the awful treatment of the boys at Kinchela. It was only when I did my own original research into the Stolen Generations that I discovered most of what Read said about Kinchela was fictional.

As Feneley acknowledges, my later research into Kinchela was based largely on the surviving documents. I was skeptical then, and now, of Aboriginal oral testimony, in fact of most oral testimony, about events that happened up to fifty and even sixty years ago. To call such memories “primary sources”, as Feneley does when he accuses me of overlooking them, is to display an ignorance of what the term means. Original documents are real primary sources because their content does not change over time as memory does. Indeed, memory is especially unreliable when people quite openly state their objective is financial compensation. One of Feneley’s informants, Cecil Bowden is frank about this. He says on the Kinchela Boys website, though in a passage Feneley tactfully declined to repeat for his Fairfax readers: “Well I think we should be compensated … We’re the original people of this land. We were taken away. Why aren’t we compensated?”

Generations of children were stripped of their names and referred to only by number: In his correspondence with me, Feneley said he was reliably informed that at Kinchela: “All were given a number when they arrived and were referred to by that number until they left – between five and 10 years later.”

This is demonstrably false. It is true that the admissions register of the Kinchela Home gave eave each boy a number. These numbers were also sewn on their clothing and boys were called by number by non-teaching staff when an issue of new clothes was made at first arrival or at the start of each year. Former inmate Bill Simon’s published memoir Back on the Block (2009) describes the process. However, Simon also records that in class his teacher acted differently: “Mr Telfour always called us by our names and not our numbers.” (page 30) Similarly, he makes other references to the staff using boys’ names, such as when he describes a morning parade when a number were punished for wetting the bed. Simon recalls: “Six boys names were called out.” (page 27); or when he writes “Sometimes we knew we’d be getting the cane at four o’clock , but quite often we had no idea until our names were called out.” (page 32). After he assaulted one of the non-teaching staff, Simon ran off but was met by the local police sergeant, for whom he had done some laboring work. “You been playing up, Bill?” he asked. (page 58)

In his article, Feneley tries to draw an unspoken analogy with Nazi concentration camps by listing alongside the name of each of his three informants their number. However, had he done a little documentary research and looked up their names and numbers in the Kinchela admissions register from 1923 to 1962 (available in the Mitchell Library), he would have found two of his informants remembered their numbers wrongly, as did Bill Simon in his own memoir. Hence no one should believe the numbers Feneley allocates to his informants, let alone his assertion that boys were known only by their numbers for periods of between five and ten years.

Little children were treated like animals and subject to terrifying punishment: According to Feneley’s article, “The former inmates say children as young as seven were chained, alone in the dark, to this tree outside Kinchela’s dairy, where generations of them worked milking the cows.”

This claim is accompanied by a photograph of the said tree, with a steel loop embedded to hold a chain. The caption declares: “Punished: the tree and its loop are still there.” Had Feneley’s investigation extended beyond interviews with his informants and cutting and pasting from their website he would never have written such rubbish. The notion that seven-year-old boys would be given a job milking cows could only be believed by someone who has never seen it done. At Kinchela, boys younger than 12 years of age were given some chores, it is true, but they were confined to light tasks such as sweeping paths and polishing door knobs. Only boys of working age, which at the time was at least 14 years and 10 months, milked the cows or did other serious farm work. They were known at the home as “work boys” and they did most of the manual jobs involved in running the school’s farm. They had a roster that changed their tasks each month. Feneley did not have to search in the archives to find this out. Bill Simon’s book (page 30) lists the chores the work boys had to do in his time: outdoors – ploughing fields, planting crops, digging the silage pits, working in the dairy, milking the cows, general maintenance, cutting grass and bailing it, maintaining the fences; indoors – kitchen duties set by the cook, setting and clearing tables, washing dishes, mopping floors, serving meals, cleaning the dormitories, cleaning the toilets and bathrooms, sweeping and tidying the classrooms.

The aim of the school was to persuade children they weren’t Aborigines: Feneley quotes Richard Campbell being constantly told by the manager Mr H. Hendricksen and his wife, the home’s matron, that he was white, not Aboriginal. Feneley also discusses the violence perpetrated by another of the home’s managers, Frank White who, Cecil Bowden claims, “constantly told us we weren’t Aborigine”. In short, the Fairfax press portrays Kinchela as a place where whites ruled and imposed white racist ideology on Aboriginal inmates.

One inconvenient truth this story omits is the contribution made by Aboriginal people themselves to running the institution. The manager of Kinchela in 1968, 1969 and 1970 was Herb Simms, an Aboriginal man who himself was enrolled at Kinchela from 1934 to 1941. Simms went on to become a well-known identity in Aboriginal politics, including the Aboriginal Welfare Division of the NSW Department of Child Welfare and the La Perouse Aboriginal Land Council. At his funeral in June, 2004, the Governor of New South Wales, Marie Bashir, gave the eulogy. The notion that this man was a brutal fiend who referred to the boys in his care by numbers is defamatory.

Feneley did not mention Simms in his article, even though I pointed out his role at Kinchela in our email correspondence. I also told him that Simms, and probably other managers before him, had employed Aboriginal people among his non-teaching staff. On my first visit in 1989, the two Aboriginal women who showed me around the Kinchela premises with more than a little pride, told me they had been employed at the school during this period. Not only this, but under the regimes of its white managers, Kinchela adopted a system of trustees, in which older Aboriginal boys had the responsibility for allocating and supervising the chores of the younger boys and making sure they did not misbehave.

…by repeating uncorroborated claims by a handful of disaffected former inmates, Feneley’s article defames a number of good Aboriginal men and women who dedicated their lives to their people, and it does so without making any attempt to tell their side of the story…

Aboriginal people were also represented in the governing body of the institution. As I told Feneley, and as he actually reported in his article in this case, in the post-war period, the NSW Aborigines Welfare Board, which ran the institution, always had two prominent Aboriginal activists as directors. This began in October, 1944, and from then until the Board’s demise in 1969, it usually drew these directors from members of the Aborigines Progressive Association or similar political organisations. One of the duties of the board was to inspect the conditions and management of the three Aboriginal children’s institutions in NSW at the time — Kinchela, Cootamundra and Bomaderry. While some of the Aboriginal board members at different times were highly critical of living conditions on some NSW welfare stations and reserves, I could not find any similar criticisms they made of Kinchela. Yet Feneley still wants his readers to believe that over this 25-year period, these Aboriginal directors presided over a system of unrestrained brutality and racist assimilation, without taking any steps to stop it, or even publicise its existence. The claim is inherently implausible.

In short, by repeating uncorroborated claims by a handful of disaffected former inmates, Feneley’s article defames a number of good Aboriginal men and women who dedicated their lives to their people, and it does so without making any attempt to tell their side of the story. How many former directors did Feneley interview? None. How many former staff did Feneley interview? None. Such are the standards that now prevail in the sadly deteriorating world of Fairfax “investigative” journalism.

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Finally, for those interested in further reading, let me recommend my own analysis of the many fictional claims made about Kinchela. Chapter Five of my book on the Stolen Generations discusses all three of the historical institutions for Aboriginal children in New South Wales, Kinchela, Cootamundra and Bomaderry, and canvasses all the documents publicly available when I wrote it in 2007. The chapter is 20,000 words but, when I set up a website for the book, I divided its chapters into shorter, more readable sections for those in a hurry. The section most relevant can be found here.

Let me also do a little bragging. I set up the website in 2010 with the aim of making my very long book more accessible to students doing high school or university essays on the topic. Given the fact that the myth of the Stolen Generations has now become a compulsory field of study for all Australian schoolchildren, I wanted to provide them with something that challenged the two most mendacious, but widely read sources, the various books and pamphlets of Peter Read and the 1997 report of the Human Rights Commission, Bringing Them Home.

I am pleased to report this website has generated far more traffic than I expected in my most optimistic hopes. According to Webstat, in the twelve months to November 30, 2013, attracted no less than 5.04 million hits. Yes, that’s 5.04 million! This traffic came from 333,403 visits in which visitors read a total of 2.44 million pages. They were not casual visits. They were made by people who came online and stayed for extended periods, reading several pages per visit. The peak months for traffic were May and August-September, that is, the two periods when students are preparing major essays and final assignments.

In other words, no matter how much mythology the education system, the Fairfax press and other media peddle about this topic, there is now a viable competitor in the arena.

Keith Windschuttle is the editor of Quadrant


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