On May 28, 1997, in Adelaide, South Australian parliamentary leaders vied to apologise to the “Stolen Generations”. That was more than a decade before the Rudd national apology of February 13, 2008. Yet the details of any child-stealing in SA remain elusive.
The SA Department of Human Services on the date of the state’s apology provided a 40-page guide to the previous century’s Aboriginal policy implementation. From this rather perfunctory booklet we learn
- There were only minuscule numbers of part-Aboriginal children removed for any reason in various years of the early 20th century
- The authors had no idea about the total number of removals in SA (for whatever reasons), so they just said there were “many”.
- Child removals (for any reason) could be effected only after approvals were obtained – usually with difficulty — from courts and higher levels of the bureaucracy. And even then, there could be “a storm of protest” from pro-Aborigine lobby groups and the media.
- The intent of removals was benevolent, designed to rescue children from camp squalor and (in a pre-welfare era) to ensure their future self-supported living.
In the May, 1997, apologies in the SA State Parliament from government and opposition figures, they cite no evidence, other than hearsay, beyond that specially-prepared document. Opposition Leader Michael Rann (Lab.), for example, said, “I am told other mothers at settlements around Australia had to temporarily bury their children in the ground in order to prevent their being taken away, supposedly for their own good.” Legislative Council opposition leader Carolyn Pickles (Lab.) said, “In some cases they [children] were rounded up like animals and torn away from [their mothers].”
Accessing the SA archives
There are enormous resources of untouched primary documents on SA Aboriginal affairs lumped in half a dozen warehouse archives around Adelaide. For the past five years, volunteer researchers Joe Lane, 73, and Alistair Crooks, 65, have been intensively re-keying and posting SA archival documents on-line. So far they’ve published at least 15,000 pages from the century to 1940 including more than 13,000 letters in, and 9000 letters out, from the SA Protectors of Aborigines, circa 1840-1912.
From the documents inspected, they say that in SA the black-armband view of Aboriginal/white relations, as taught to students, is wrong.  They have found no evidence of the systematic taking for racist reasons of part-Aboriginal SA children. Removals of small numbers of children, such as orphans, did occur for welfare reasons – as also occurred with white children. Officialdom often considered that getting part-Aboriginal children out of squalid camps and wurleys was a matter of life and death, whether to protect them from infanticide, disease or abuse. For girls, removal also meant rescue from degradation and prostitution. But such removals were infrequent and treated as incidental to Protectors’ main job of organizing statewide distributions of rations.
Crooks and Lane’s documents are available at firstsources.info. The two men have now published an annotated collection of key papers in Voices from the Past: Extracts from the Annual Reports of the South Australian Chief Protectors of Aborigines, 1837 Onwards. 309pp.
The researchers’ background
To declare an interest, I wrote the book’s foreword, largely a biographical sketch of the authors. Joe Lane was married to a Ngarrindjeri woman, Maria Rigney (1949- 2008), who later became a senior academic in the Aboriginal education sector. Together in the 1970s they hand-made more than 100 of the red, yellow and black Aboriginal flags, enabling this powerful symbol to displace scores of complex and kitsch designs around the country.
Joe and Maria Lane as activists at first accepted and promoted in the journal Black News the black-armband histories. But over time they recognized that the much of the accounts were based on second/third-hand sources, oral recollections and hearsay. In 1983, Joe was delighted to come across typewritten paper copies of the journals of Rev. George Taplin, who ran the McLeay Mission on the SE coast from 1859-79, where Lane’s wife was born. Lane re-keyed the documents in 1997.
Lane says, “I wished that some fool should re-key the material for the internet. As it turned out, I was that fool. But I had discovered a goldmine of information.
“A friend gave me some old letter-books to 1900 from the mission that he rescued from a tip. By then I was hooked on searching out first-hand sources and went on to type up the thousand pages of three early Royal Commissions. More recently, I’ve been typing up the correspondence of the SA Protectors of Aborigines.”
Early in the work he joined with retired geologist Alistair Crooks who had independently begun a similar exercise re-keying papers from important conferences, such as the 1937 national meeting of all the states’ Protectors.
Counting the “stolen” children
The duo’s first surprise was the miniscule numbers of “half-caste” children that came to SA missions and institutions without a parent. According to Sir Ronald Wilson’s Stolen Generation report of 1997, 10-30% of all Aboriginal children nationally were forcibly taken (that report’s co-author, Mick Dodson, claimed about 100,000 “stolen” children). The Rudd apology of 2008, without explanation, halved the number of forcible removals, and referred to “up to 50,000”.
Overall, Crooks and Lane estimate that in the 100 years from first settlement to 1940, an average two to three SA Aboriginal children per year were removed into care, usually orphaned, or given up voluntarily by a parent. Historian Keith Windschuttle’s grand total for SA Aboriginal children taken into care for all reasons from 1900-1970 was 1100 — about 16 a year.
The Crooks/Lane documents show that in SA from 1911-20, the numbers of “half-caste” SA children (mainly girls) taken from the interior camps averaged only about two per year. And these included children who were neglected, orphaned, destitute, in moral jeopardy or willingly given up by a parent. In the 1920s the numbers taken were even fewer.
Windschuttle arrived at a similar figure for the 1895-1914 period in SA. He found 54 children “taken” during about 20 years, two or three per year.
In the two decades from 1880 to 1900 at Point McLeay settlement, only eight out of 200 children had been brought there officially. In the next 50 years, children brought there officially again hardly totaled double-digits. The McLeay school’s records from 1880-1960 show that only 47 out of 800 enrolled children were ever put into care, and all but one such child (whose mother died) returned within a year to their families. Not one was adopted out.
In 1926-27 the United Aborigines Mission opened the Colebrook Home at Quorn for at-risk “half-caste” SA children, mostly from northern cattle country during droughts. Crooks and Lane estimate from the reports that admissions averaged only about two per year. By 1937-38 Colebrook Home had 31 children. Five were from a single family, the O’Donahues, brought there in 1934 by their white father. The O’Donahues included Lowitja O’Donahue (later an ATSIC chair) and her four siblings.
Another home used for domestic training of “half-caste” girls (though mainly for white girls) was Fullarton, run by the Salvation Army, in Adelaide. Again, the numbers were miniscule – it was built to cater for a dozen girls. Crooks says the 1944-45 report mentions only two “half-castes” completing training and another being dux of the school. In 1948-49 there were only eight there, still in close contact with their families. Other Aboriginal parents were reportedly keen to place their children at Fullarton.
The 1997 SA apology document similarly cites miniscule numbers. It mentions “several” teenage boys being removed for apprenticeships after an 1844 ordnance and “significantly fewer” girls. Those removals needed consent of parents and of the Governor, it said. There is another reference to “several” removals in 1896 which ignited protests in the press. In 1909-13, the document says the Protector’s tally of removed Aboriginal children was 18, i.e. an average 4-5 a year. The document does not clarify whether such removals were voluntary or forced, or what welfare considerations were involved. But it does say magistrates were initially reluctant to commit such children.
In 1911, the Premier produced a draconian and unprecedented Bill for removals, aimed at preventing contact with alcohol, prostitution and other dangers. The ‘apology’ document says, “So far as can be ascertained, it was not used by itself to authorise the removal of children from their parents.”
Amid the bureaucratic reports, glimpses of sad children sometimes emerge. In 1878, a Mr Marlin reported on a ten-year-old orphan, Joanna,
“She has no-one to look after her or care for her, and she gets her living as best she can by associating with the blacks, and has to content herself with any old rags she can find about the wurlies.” Mr Marlin successfully lobbied for her to be sent to school and cared for. “She is an intelligent little girl, and if now taken in hand and properly cared for, will no doubt be able to go to service and earn her own living in a few years.”
Crooks and Lane also found frequent references to infanticide and health hazards. Some snapshots:
1865: The issuer of rations at Overland Corner reported that in his district in the recent years, “every living child appears to have been destroyed immediately after birth.”
1868: Sub-Protector Butterfield — “There are in many parts of my district, several half-caste children whose fathers have abandoned [them] to a wurley life , a certain degradation, and, in the case of females, infamy and prostitution. It is a pity something cannot be done to rescue such from their perilous position.”
1874: Point McLeay missionary, Rev. Taplin, wrote, “Savage life is most destructive of infant life.” In the same year, Sub-Protector W.R. Thompson reported that “half-castes” in camps rarely survived to adulthood.
1908: Protector South wrote, “I think all half-caste children at least should be gathered in, instead of being left in the camps where they are subjected to the brutalizing customs and ceremonial operations still prevalent in outlying districts.”
1911: Protector South mentioned a “quadroon” girl of nine officially taken from Stuart’s Creek after her single mother had gone to Hergott Springs near Marree (700km north of Adelaide). “To have left her to the inevitable fate of all half-caste girls brought up in the blacks’ camps in the interior would have been, to say the least of it, cruel…”
1924: Protector Garnett wrote, “It is generally reported and doubtless true, that aborigines in these parts of Australia often kill children not wanted, and especially ‘half-castes’.”
1948: Aboriginal Protection Board – “One of the principal causes of ill-health, particularly among children, is the irregular and inadequate meals provided by some mothers, who are incompetent and neglectful. No doubt such children would enjoy better health, and be much happier, if placed in institution provided by missionary organisations, and in some cases, action along these lines has been taken. The board desires, however, as far as possible, to preserve family life intact…”
1960s: Infanticide rates around Ernabella Mission were up to a fifth of all births, according to anthropologist Aram A. Yengolen.
Adelaide public backlash
The records show Protectors in their annual reports – such as Protector South in 1908 – expressing a desire for part-Aboriginal children to be removed and separated until adulthood from their kin and clan. The view was that otherwise, the clan would encourage idleness and dependency. The Protectors’ desire was not translated into reality, given the legal safeguards and political resistance involved from church and philanthropic groups. Those groups, whose audience stretched to London, were eager to condemn any infraction and to publicise complaints about mistreatment.
From 1881 to 1895, the SA Destitute Persons Act allowed neglected children, white or black, to be taken into foster care or an industrial school, but taking an Aboriginal child also needed the consent of the Aborigines Department, i.e. its single employee, the Protector, plus Destitute Board, plus a court. The successor State Children’s Act was just as reluctant to concern itself with Aboriginal children.
Sub-Inspector Besley wrote in 1892:
“If forcefully taken there would be a cry of cruelty but it is cruelly unkind to leave them where they are. The girls become trained for a life of easy virtue, and the men drunken loafers. I have arranged with a Mr and Mrs Schneider at Port Augusta to take three of these children, with their parents’ consent. They are kind and good to them, though they both have to work hard for a living. These children appear to be fond of their adopted parents, and are kept clean and tidy, and attend school regularly…” (My emphasis here and below).
Besley concluded with a wish for an apprenticing, adding, “Before anything can be done Ministerial instructions should be given.”
In a revealing note in 1900, Protector Hamilton urged efforts to protect young female “half-castes” from the camps:
“In some cases they object to leave their tribe and in others the mothers of the girls will not consent to give them up.”
By 1911 state Parliament permitted removals from missions, but only of entire families, with no separation of children, and only with prior consent of two JPs. Protector South in 1916-17 mentioned several girls being removed from camps in the interior for their own protection, “chiefly at the request of their aboriginal and half-caste parents”.
In 1923 the SA Parliament passed an Aboriginal Children’s Training Act enabling removal of neglected illegitimate aboriginal children to institutions without a court order. But the Act was quickly suspended because Aborigines objected to it. The Protector could then only remove children where the parents were willing.
Protector South’s successor, Francis Garnett, reported in 1924 that about 20 “half-caste” girls from Alice Springs had been put into domestic placements in SA, since jobs were scarce in the NT and the girls were at risk from predatory white station hands. But he said such transfers were inhumane and “should be considered a temporary expedient and stopped as soon as possible.”
The 1997 apology document concedes that Protectors and departmental officials lacked power or ability for arbitrary removals. Such actions not only required the cooperation of courts but also several branches of the government, it said. It cites the “storm of protest” when Parliament sought to drop safeguards.
More on the 1997 booklet
In the whole 1997 document, there is only one instance cited of an Aboriginal child being targeted for removal because of race rather than welfare or neglect. It quotes the Protector in 1912 about
“an illegitimate quadroon girl, aged between 9 and 12 years, called [girl’s name] at Point McLeay Mission Station. Although the girl is fairly well cared for, I consider that she should not be reared amongst the aborigines, and would respectfully suggest that the matter be referred to the State Children’s Council with a view to her being brought under their control.”
The document does not say whether the removal actually occurred. But it notes contemporary testimony that police were reluctant to get involved in removals — even if a child was “in a really bad state” — because they could suffer violent clan retaliation. Moreover, magistrates tended to have no objection to children being brought up in a wurley.
Another church home for children was at Koonibba, which had 67 children in 1920. The 1997 document says they were
“hence separated from their families. Reports of the day claim that ‘many parents voluntarily [gave] up their children’ to be placed in the children’s home. This claim is disputed by many Aboriginal people today.”
This wording is quite dishonest. The reality was that parents worked during the week on local stations, while their children were being schooled and cared for on the mission. Of course, they were re-united for the weekends. This occurred at many missions, well into recent times – for example, at Gerard Mission until 1961, when the government took it over and ceased the service.
The same apology document claimed that from about 1913-63, removed children, shamefully, “were rarely allowed contact, or reunited with their parents.” Crooks and Lane find the opposite.
Children not separated
In 1919, Crooks and Lane cite, Protector South complained that when girls were placed in domestic work (one of the very few occupations for working-class girls at the time) they still had liberty to return to their camps or parents whenever they wished, and to live there in idleness.
At Point McLeay and Point Pearce missions there had been a degree of separation after children were voluntarily placed by parents in a dormitory. When the state took the missions over in 1917 and closed the dormitories, policy became to bring mothers more closely into the child’s upbringing, with requirements to wash and mend the school clothes, for example.
Aborigines on the missions came and went at will, Crooks and Lane say. Children who wanted to go back to their home districts were supported for the trip. One boy was supported to Oodnadatta and then further to his home country. He was back at the mission a year or so later, when his successful request for a harmonium (a small organ) was recorded. He had saved 15 pounds, half the substantial cost. The Protector paid the other 15 pounds. Lane adds, “No mission was ever fenced to keep people in.”
Far from wanting to herd communities onto missions, the Protectors sought to keep groups self-sufficient. From the 1860s onwards the Protector provided dozens, perhaps a hundred or more, fifteen-foot boats and smaller canoes, fishing gear and guns for hunting to people on the Murray and Coopers Creek waterways to help them “stay in their own districts”. Non-workers got the items and repairs free; working Aboriginals paid half costs.
In the 1940s an explicit goal of the Aborigines Protection Board was to preserve family life intact as far as possible, and it created travelling welfare officers to coach Aboriginal mothers on child-rearing and thus avoid the need for removals because of neglect.
Today’s odd priorities
As for the modern era, more than one in twenty (5.23%) of South Australian Aboriginal children as of June, 2015, were in out-of-home care, more than nine times the rate of non-Aboriginal children. In Victoria, of the 1511 Aboriginal children in care (up 59% since 2013), close to 90% had experienced family violence and parental alcohol/substance abuse. There seems more pressing social issues today than painting grim and exaggerated pictures of “stolen generations”.
Tony Thomas’ new book of Quadrant essays, “That’s Debatable – 60 Years in Print” is available here.
 A typical example: “Tearing drawings. Students make a drawing of their family at home and include valued items such as pets or computers. The teacher then tells the story of stolen children and, while walking around the room, tears away part of each student’s drawing. A student could then talk about how they felt about their valuable work being ripped apart and how they would feel being ripped from their family.”
 Health aspects were mentioned by Point McLeay missionary Rev George Taplin on 5/7/1864:
The practice of the natives in drying their dead is a very horrible one. Fancy a corpse over a slow fire in a state of putrefaction and the juices of the body gradually frying out and dropping into the fire below and making a horrible fetid smoke…I have no doubt that the practice is killing them, and will do so in increasing numbers, for every death causes disease. I have known horrible old men to catch the corruption dropping from a dead body in a pannican, and then besmear their bodies with it to make them strong. Fancy how they smell afterwards. I would fain visit the wurleys more, but am often kept outside by the horrid smell. There will be perhaps 15 or 20 dead bodies all more or less decayed in the wurley or hut, and the stench from them is indescribable.
How horrible it is too, to see a mother or father basting with oil and red ochre an infant’s corpse as it is squat up on a sort of bier or stage. And then the mourners will be daubed (that is, the women) with human ordure and consequently stink till you cannot approach them. I have known people to die through the stench of the dead and yet the poor souls keep on the practice. The young men and women would I believe fain to do away with it, and would be glad if the civil power compelled them to bury their dead. And then, most of their witchcraft depends on the practice.
Elsewhere a horrified Taplin notes breast-feeding mothers smearing their breasts with these body juices and then suckling their children.
 Nationally from about 1880 to 1970, Windschuttle found 8250 Aboriginal children taken into care for all reasons, including NSW (2600); WA (2500); NT (1000) and Victoria (700). That’s about 90 a year, including orphans, the destitute, the neglected and those given up voluntarily by parents. The small numbers leave small scope for any “stolen generation” national genocide involving a total 50,000-100,000 forcible removals.
 The schooling appeared to be effective, a contrast to the remote schools today. Protector South commented in 1908, “It is now seldom in the settled districts that one meets a native who cannot read and write.” The Closing The Gap report (2015) said remote attendance rates were as low as 14%, and only 35% of children there met minimum Year 7 reading standards. Overall there was no significant literacy improvement by Aboriginal students generally from 2008-14.
 Confusingly, the 1997 document says a few pages later that removals from 1909 had “gathered pace” and the total of removals from 1909-14 was 58.