Michael Connor

Anita Heiss: “Where I began…”

Given her role in the Bolt Trial it was expected that Anita Heiss’s Am I Black Enough For You?  would be an important book.

It may be more important than even its Random House publicist realised.

Heiss approvingly quotes David Marr on the Bolt Trial:

Freedom of speech is not at stake here. Judge Mordecai Bromberg is not telling the media what we can say or where we can poke our noses. He’s attacking lousy journalism. He’s saying that if Andrew Bolt of the Herald Sun wants to accuse people of appalling motives, he should start by getting his facts right.

In the chapter “Where I began…” Heiss writes about her Aboriginal family tree. Many of the facts are wrong for she does not seem to have carried out even the most basic genealogical research. Then, the key discussion of her mother’s family as victims of the “stolen generations” is confused, often inaccurate and challenges the central thesis of that proposition, namely that Aboriginal families were decisively and permanently separated.

The story of Anita Heiss’s family contradicts the “stolen generations” theory which activist historians have created and publicised.

The confusions in her account start early.

Heiss makes two references to her maternal grandmother’s death in 1976. They are incorrect. Her grandmother, Amy Josephine Williams, died on 2 September, 1977.

Heiss writes that when her own mother, Elsie, was born on 11 November 1937 Amy was 32. That’s incorrect. Amy was born on 26 October 1903 and would have been 34 in 1937.

Heiss claims that her grandmother Amy and younger sister Florence were taken into care in 1910. She says Florence was 4 years old. That’s incorrect. Florence was born on 14 August 1907 and would have only been 2 or 3 years old – if that event took place as she asserts.      

BIRTH CERTIFICATES: Heiss’s grandmother, Amy Josephine, was born Emily Elizabeth Tallance on 26 October 1903 at Canbelego in New South Wales (between Cobar and Nyngan). Her mother was a 16 year old unmarried aboriginal girl called Minnie Tallance who had been born in nearby Warren. Possibly Amy’s unnamed father was white. Though Heiss refers to them in Am I Black Enough For You?, the book contains no family photographs. The evidence that the birth certificate, in the name of Emily Elizabeth Tallance, belongs to the girl who became known as Amy Josephine Tallance is that when Amy married at Brungle Aboriginal Station (near Tumut) in November 1927 she gave her age as 24, recorded that her father was unknown and that her mother’s name was Minnie Tallance, and gave Canbelego as her birthplace.

On 3 December 1927, Florence Tallance was also married at Brungle. She gave her mother’s name as Minnie Tallance, father unknown, and said that she was 20 and had been born at Brungle. There is no corresponding birth certificate in the name of Tallance, but there is a 1907 birth certificate for a child named Florence born in Brungle on 14 August to a mother named Minnie Tarrant. There is a strong case for accepting that this is the birth certificate for Florence Tallance and that an error has been made in the surname. Minnie “Tarrant” and Minnie Tallance share some similarities apart from the shared first name. Both were illiterate, so a mistake in writing the family name could have been made and not corrected. Both shared the same age and both had been born in Warren. On the Aborigines Protection Board file Florence’s age is not given but her birthday is shown as 14 August. In 1907 the only record for the birth of a child in Brungle named Florence to a mother named Minnie is the one for Florence “Tarrant”.

Because Heiss failed to consult these certificates the ages she gave to her grandmother and Florence throughout her book are incorrect.

The "stolen generation" claims: On page 13 Heiss sets out a major part of her family story. To make it easier to follow I have put text by Heiss into italics, and then added my commentary.

HEISS: … none of the kids in my class had the same harsh and diverse family history as I did. You see, documents held by the New South Wales Department of Aboriginal Affairs show that in 1910 my grandmother, then known as Amy Josephine Talence, was removed by the Aborigines Protection Board from her family in Nyngan, along with her four year-old-sister, Florence.

COMMENTARY: Is this accurate? Aborigines Protection Board files in the New South Wales State Archives tell a different story to the one Heiss tells. The files on Amy and Florence Tallance were compiled in 1922. They contain details of the Board’s previous involvement in the girls’ lives, and of subsequent events. The first notation for Amy was in 1915. She had been admitted to the Cootamundra Girls’ Home at an unrecorded date and sent out to employment to a Miss Gibson of Vaucluse in Sydney (aged 12) in December 1915. Most probably she had been admitted earlier in 1915 and spent several months being trained for domestic service. At the time, this was the normal period of training and residence at the Girls’ Home. Florence, for example, went to Cootamundra on 3 December 1921 when she was 14, and was sent on to employment in Mudgee on 30 August 1922 when she was 15. Before going to Cootamundra, both Amy’s and Florence’s files record they were living with their mother at Brungle.

Where is the document, which Heiss used, which says the children were taken into care from Nyngan in 1910? Does it explain how they came to be again in the care of their mother in Brungle before going to Cootamundra in 1915 and 1921?

Official documents spell the family name as Tallance, not Talence as Heiss suggests, and that spelling is consistently used in the family’s birth, marriage and death certificates.

In her account, Heiss does not tell us the reason the Board “assumed control” of the children. The reason given on Amy’s file was “To improve her conditions of living.” And Florence, “To give her a chance of becoming useful & taking her from surroundings detrimental to her future welfare.” From Minnie’s death certificate it appears that she had another child in 1921 and perhaps family life at Brungle was complicated when Florence was taken into care that year.

HEISS: After spending time in Cootamundra Domestic Training Home for Aboriginal Girls, she [Amy] was moved to a Catholic institution for girls: the Home of the Good Shepherd in Ashfield, Sydney.

COMMENTARY: None of this appears on either Amy or Florence Tallance’s files. The Home of the Good Shepherd in Ashfield did exist at the time and did take child welfare cases. It seems odd that Heiss does not provide more information which should have been in the records she consulted. However, Heiss introduces a further claim which makes all this look very doubtful – unless she has the evidence to back it up. On page 36 she writes, “At the age of eleven she [Amy] had already been institutionalised in Coota[mundra] for six years …” If you simply add those six years on to 1910, when Heiss says Amy was sent to Cootamundra, you arrive at 1916. From December 1915 until February 1917 Amy Tallance was working for Miss Gibson in Vaucluse – not institutionalised in Cootamundra. So, when did she go to the Home of the Good Shepherd, Ashfield? Actually, there is a connection with Ashfield. Her file records Amy was employed by Mrs J. Taylor in Bland Street, Ashfield, from 1917 to 1922.

While Heiss postulates that her grandmother spent long years institutionalised this is not supported by the official records. The APB forms ask a standard question: “Further particulars (where living during childhood, and in whose care)”. On Amy’s file the response reads, “In care of mother at Brungle.” And Florence, “In Brungle Abo. Station in care of mother.”

The whole thesis of the “stolen generations” is that Aboriginal families were deliberately and permanently broken apart, but clearly this did not happen in this case. If Heiss is accurate and the children were removed from Nyngan in 1910, then they were back with their mother in Brungle when they were again (?) removed in 1915 and 1921 to prepare them for work. This discrepancy means that until Heiss produces the evidence for the claims she is making her account should be treated with caution.

HEISS: From the ages of sixteen to eighteen, Amy was still under the control of welfare and went into service for a wealthy English lady my mum says lived at Parsley Bay in Sydney’s east, although I have letters addressed to her via a woman in Kambala Road, Bellevue Hill.

COMMENTARY: Why should there be any confusion and why should Heiss rely on her mother’s memories of events that happened long before she was born when the files often (not always) give specific dates for the events they list? For example, if Heiss has consulted the records she would know that her grandmother worked for Mrs J. Hoets of Kambala Road, Bellevue Hill from August to November 1924, a job she had taken after another period of work back at Brungle.

HEISS: Amy also spent some time as a domestic servant at Meryula sheep station near Cobar from twenty to twenty-two years of age. She was finally released from her life of servitude around 1927, when she married my grandfather.

COMMENTARY: By early 1927 Amy was once more back in Brungle doing daily work. Florence, who had come back to Brungle on holidays the previous December, went to work in Cobar in April 1927. The following month Amy came from Brungle to join her, working as a house maid for the same employer. She did not remain there very long and Heiss actually includes an extract from a letter James Williams wrote to her (though not realising its significance): “I’m ever so glad to hear that you will be coming home soon dear.” In September both girls returned to Brungle. A notation on Amy’s file reads: “Returned to Brungle without any explanation September 1927.” On 5 November 1927 Amy married James Williams: on 6 November 1927 she gave birth to a son. The following month, December, Florence also got married in Brungle. The lively Tallance girls from Brungle seem very “unstolen” individuals.

HEISS: It is from this knowledge of the incredibly hard life my grandmother lived – and the one photo that always comes to mind – that I draw my strength, and from where stems my sense of commitment and obligation to do what I do in life.

COMMENTARY: The family story Heiss tells is part of her claim that family members belonged to the “stolen generations”. They have been used to give authority to her criticisms of Australia’s racist past, and present. They also underpinned a children’s book she wrote about the “stolen generations” called Who Am I? The Diary of Mary Talence [sic], Sydney, 1937. That book, which is much used in schools to teach about our racist history, also informs readers “that Captain Cook discovered Australia in 1788”.

Other comments by Heiss deserve scrutiny. Although Amy, Florence and Minnie lived for many years in Brungle, Heiss writes (Page 14):

My maternal grandparents begin the love story of my family as I know it. When my grandmother was eighteen and still in service [working as a maid], she was walking through the Botanic Gardens in Sydney and met another Aboriginal lady, who turned out to be my grandfather’s sister. Her name was Tilly Williams and she was also living under the Protection Act. She asked my grandmother, ‘Are you Aboriginal?’ and that’s how they became friends. My great-aunt Tilly later took my grandmother back to Brungle in 1923, where Amy met the love of her life.        

Brungle was her home and James Williams was born there in 1900. How could she not already know both him and his sister?

Anita Heiss states that she owns the letters written by her courting grandparents from 1923 to 1927. Writing of them Heiss even tells her reader that they mention the presence of Amy’s mother Minnie in Brungle: “My grandfather’s letters to his ‘ever loving Amy’ provide news to my grandmother of what is happening [in Brungle] with her own family especially her mother, and how they are doing.” Didn’t Heiss find this odd? Wasn’t the supposed “stolen generations” policy meant to permanently destroy links between Aboriginal family members? Why didn’t Heiss point out that Amy’s supposedly lost forever mother (Heiss’s great-grandmother) was also living in Brungle?

Without knowing what else was happening in the lives of the two people who would become her grandparents, Heiss’s accounts are misleading: “My grandparents maintained a long distance relationship, from Brungle to Bellevue Hill from about 1923 to 1927, surviving on letters and gifts sent by post.” This is not correct. Amy worked at other places than Bellevue Hill in this period and also, at times, returned to Brungle. The actual story is more complicated, and personal.

Heiss does not reveal that her grandparents saw far more of each other before their marriage and that they were not simply “cheeky kids”: “Sometimes they read [the letters exchanged between her grandparents] like cheeky kids in a world of their own, but clearly even trivia is a tool that was essential to them remaining connected to each other when ‘real’ life kept them so far apart for so long.” Heiss would know the naivety of all these comments if she had consulted the records she refers to: “After a long courtship my grandparents finally married in 1927.”

Heiss’s maternal grandfather, James Andrew Williams, was born in 1900 at the Aboriginal Station Brungle. In an interview in 2006 his daughter Elsie Heiss said, “My mother was brought up in a Catholic home and my father was from an Irish Catholic background.” What she meant by that comment about her father is unclear. Though it obviously seems to suggest his racially mixed parentage this may not be the case at all, or be what she intended to mean. When his parents were married in 1899 the Catholic ceremony was performed in the Brungle Aboriginal Camp by Father Patrick Hanrahan.

In 1927 the marriages of Amy and Florence were not the only ones in the Tallance family. Minnie herself was married in Brungle on 12 April. Having had at least four children by then (and she would have two more), she described herself as a spinster without issue. All three women were married in the manager’s office in Brungle, in the rites of the Presbyterian Church.

Conclusion. Obviously, the facts as presented here are completely different from those given in Anita Heiss’s Am I Black Enough For You? At the Bolt Trial she presented a witness statement that claimed her grandmother and sister were part of the “stolen generations”. If there really is, as Heiss says, an Aborigines Protection Board file which says that 5 year old Amy, “along with her four year-old-sister, Florence”, were removed from Nyngan in 1910 she needs to bring it forward to clarify how they were taken away, for what would have been the second time, in 1915 and 1921, from the care of their mother in Brungle.

Anita, please explain.

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