All my youth, my best years, were taken from me and I regret it bitterly. The hunger and the poverty of it all. Always hungry. Sometimes when I have a meal now I eat too much … It’s that stolen youth. Stolen youth. And that’s the saddest thing of all which I’m so bitterly resentful about. I know lots of people say, ‘I worked hard all me life and I never even knew youth, I just worked in a factory’ or somebody says, ‘Life was difficult for me too, always lived in Marrickville, it was Struggletown’. Well, I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about my life, and my life as I see it was taken from me. And it shouldn’t have been.
— Charles Perkins, interview with Peter Read, 1989
From the early 1960s until his death in 2000, Charles Perkins was by far the best known person of Aboriginal descent in Australia. He was a long-time political activist who had drawn attention to his cause by becoming in 1965 the first male Aborigine to gain a university degree, by his appointment to a prominent public service position under the Whitlam Labor government in 1973, and his rise to become the head of the Commonwealth Department of Aboriginal Affairs in the 1980s. Along the way, he was the centre of attention in a range of events that captured national media attention. In February 1965 he was the central figure of the student Freedom Ride to north-western New South Wales. In August 1965, he thwarted the White Australia policy by ‘kidnapping’ from Sydney Airport an Indian girl (with covert approval of her family) as she was about to be deported to Fiji. In 1975 he rescued white hostages held by an Aboriginal gunman in the Department of Aboriginal Affairs in Canberra. In 1988 his career imploded when he was dismissed by the government after granting public funds to an Aboriginal club he chaired so it could buy poker machines. In 2000 he threatened to organize internationally embarrassing demonstrations against the Olympic Games in Sydney.
In his 1975 autobiography, A Bastard Like Me, Perkins declared himself a child forcibly removed and institutionalized by white authorities. Long before Peter Read defined the term ‘stolen generations’, Perkins had described the damaging long-term unhappiness that removal had given him. In 1973, he told a Senate select committee that, although he was made tougher by his removal from his mother in Alice Springs, ‘you lose things along the way’.
You lose the love of your family and home which some people think are important. I do … You develop a set of values that you are not entirely happy with when you finally achieve some sort of success. And is it success in consideration of what you would have done in another world? I would hate anybody to have to live the life I have had to live.
In his autobiography, Perkins gave a long and disturbing account of the brutal policies in place during his childhood in the Alice Springs region in the 1930s and 1940s. Authorities forcibly seized children from their parents and, as a result, scarred them for life. A Bastard Like Me gave readers the distinct impression that Perkins was describing his own fate:
Welfare officers took the child away by force from the tribal mother and put the child in Welfare or Church homes, in dormitories and on reserves. That is where I was brought up, in a dormitory. There was a dormitory for all the young blokes. These were the dormitories where they brought children up. This was to keep them away from the tribal people. It was cruel and unnatural. Bobby Randall, Bill Ryan and thousands of others throughout Australia are living examples of this practice. We always tried to cling together anyhow, in some way or another, despite these things. If we were caught together, then the police would intervene and beat us up …
If tribal people were living around the towns, on cattle stations or near settled places, permanently resident there, the police would just whip them off, no trouble. Children were the main victims of this division of families. The troopers would ride up and say, ‘All right, get the half-caste kids!’ Like rounding up the lambs from the rest of the sheep, they would separate them, put them in a truck and off they would go. These kids were brought up in institutions across the Territory. That is why a lot of us have hang-ups. How else could it be? You miss the love of a mother and all the other things that go with it, the family circle. As a young kid, four or five years old, dumped with a lot of strangers, you can be emotionally scarred for life.
Perkins said his experiences of white institutions in his childhood, coupled with his removal from his tribal cultural heritage in Central Australia, troubled him all his life. ‘All through my life I have been plagued by doubt: “Something’s wrong, what is it.” I suppose everybody has this but with me it was almost an obsession.’ He had no doubts, however, about who was to blame.
Everything that has gone wrong is mainly due to government and missionary stupidity and to white society generally. The Aborigines let it happen in one way. They are passive, humble and considerate. They are not a militaristic people. Their attitude is, ‘There’s plenty of room — come in and live with us’.
But the white people took over by force. The Aborigines did not oppose them. They presumed the whites would act according to their values and ethics. This did not eventuate. The law in Australia is one of force and this is the way it has been in the Territory, and is now. Physical violence and the power of money are the instruments of Western society and their full force was brought to bear on the Aborigines in Australia.
The unhappiness Perkins attributed to his removal provided an obviously influential model for the thesis on stolen children that Peter Read was to announce six years later. Indeed, so taken was he by the story, Read decided in the 1980s to write a biography of Perkins. His research included a wide range of interviews with Perkins himself, his mother, his siblings and former school friends. However, when he put the work together he produced a noticeably different version of Perkins’s childhood than the one in the autobiography. Diplomatically, Read did not draw a comparison between his account and Perkins’s earlier version, but anyone who reads both will find a serious discrepancy. For Charles Perkins was never forcibly removed from his family at all.
He was one of ten children born to Hetti Perkins, a half-caste woman from Alice Springs who had a series of four de facto husbands, three of them white men. Charles was born some time in 1936. His father was Martin Connelly, a half-caste man from Mount Isa, whose relationship with Charles’s mother lasted throughout 1935 and 1936. After fathering a second son to Hetti, Connelly abandoned her and the boys. Since 1928, Hetti had been employed at the Bungalow, a government-run welfare home for half-caste children from the Alice Springs district. When Charles was born, the Bungalow was located in the former overland telegraph office of the Postmaster-General’s Department, which still survives today as a heritage site and tourist attraction. His mother’s job was called ‘chief dormitory girl’ but she was the senior Aboriginal staff member in rank and payment, responsible for both the infants’ dormitory and all food preparation. According to Read’s biography, when Charles was young he hardly left her side.
He was close to his mother, the closest he believed, of all her children …In the early years she carried him in a bundle to the kitchen while she got on with the cooking. By 1940 Charles followed her like a shadow, ‘like a little dog’ wrapped up on a sack near the stove.
In 1942, when Alice Springs came under control of the Australian Army as part of World War II defences, the Bungalow was closed as a children’s home and became a military headquarters. Hetti and her youngest children moved first into a room at the back of a shop, then to a nearby welfare housing village called Rainbow Town, while she was employed as cook in an Alice Springs restaurant. In 1944, a local Anglican priest, Father Percy Smith, set up a school for both black and white boys. ‘Hetti trusted Father Smith, who regularly visited Rainbow Town,’ wrote Read, ‘and when he offered to educate Perkins at St Mary’s church across the paddocks she willingly accepted.’ The school was residential but Charles could hardly be described as a boy who had been ‘removed’ to it. Read wrote: ‘For a few months the 8-year-old Perkins lived apart from his mother, coming home only for weekends, though his new residence was only 200 metres away.’
Percy Smith was an Anglican priest of the Brotherhood of St Paul. In 1933, he arrived in Alice Springs where he and his wife Isabel built relationships with the families of half-caste Aborigines who were treated as outcasts by the local full-blood population. He thought that half-caste children were entitled to and capable of becoming normal Australian citizens.
At the time, Alice Springs did not have a high school, and did not get one until 1953. White children who wanted a secondary education generally went to Adelaide and stayed at a boarding school or hostel. Smith wanted something similar so the boys at his school could go on to further their education. He and his wife got church support to take over a converted eight-bed former hospital in the middle-class Adelaide suburb of Kensington Park. They were to take six Aboriginal boys who would live with them while they attended a local state school. ‘Their parents would not only have to agree,’ wrote Read, ‘but they would be expected to help support the boys’ education.’ When the first three boys left on the train from Alice Springs with Percy and Isabel Smith in January 1945, no one in their families thought they were being forcibly removed or stolen. It was a great occasion:
There was a large crowd to see them off at the station and more of the boys’ relatives gathered along the track for a kilometre or two to wave goodbye. There was more excitement than tears. To Perkins it seemed like a holiday rather than a new life; so great was his excitement that he cannot remember whether it was day or night.
Father Smith named their new Adelaide home St Francis House. In the 1940s, most of its eventual intake of 23 boys came from Alice Springs. A few had originally been evacuated from the Northern Territory during World War II and had spent a period at the Mulgoa Anglican mission on the western outskirts of Sydney. The little experiment was far from trouble-free. The school work at the first high school the boys attended was beyond their then ability and they had to transfer to a technical school. Some of the boys found the religious regime of chapel twice a day onerous. Nonetheless, Read acknowledged the boys responded very well to their participation in this ‘remarkable and innovate act of faith’. They were treated as individuals who the Smiths ‘treasured as if they were their own sons’.
Probably as much love was bestowed upon the boys by the Smiths as on any children in the long history of Aboriginal institutions. There was no paid staff. Percy and Isabel did all the work until Mrs Smith’s cousin, known as Aunt Jingle, came to help. Money was tight even after the Commonwealth government provided a subsidy. On Saturdays Smith sometimes took the boys to football matches, or at night to the pictures. Out would come the pocket-money tin, kept replenished by parents in Alice Springs.
As noted above, Perkins complained in A Bastard Like Me that his experience at St Francis had turned him into ‘an institutional type of bloke’, as if he had been rendered a submissive, deprived automaton. The evidence Read gleaned from those who knew him at the time told another story.
Perkins was loved as much as the others. The Smiths seemed to have understood him well, and he responded to their warmth. He was lively and affectionate, sang in the choir, and did not answer back as Malcolm Cooper sometimes did. But he was more sensitive to slight than the others. He would fight on and on with other boys, sometimes past the point of good sense.
After 1948, when the Smiths returned to their parish at Alice Springs, their successors at St Francis installed a more institutionalized and authoritarian regime. Nonetheless, Perkins was anything but submissive. In 1952, aged sixteen, and after a succession of arguments with the supervisor, he was ordered to leave. At the time, he had finished school and St Francis organized an apprenticeship for him at British Tube Mills, Adelaide. He moved into a private boarding house (the source of the complaint at the start of this section that he was always hungry — no after-meal snacks were provided) and eventually emerged as a qualified fitter and turner.
In the long history of welfare homes for Aboriginal children in Australia, St Francis House in the 1940s was probably the most successful. Perkins was only the best known of its high achievers. One of his classmates, John Moriarty, became a director of Aboriginal Affairs in South Australia. Another, Gordon Briscoe, became an academic historian at the Australian National University. Others from the same small group included an industrial foreman, a police sergeant and a cultural entrepreneur. In 1996 John Moriarty recorded an interview for the National Library’s oral history project. As well as a public servant, Moriarty had been sportsman, businessman, designer and author of the memoir Saltwater Fella (2000). He could count three of their little group who had university degrees (one a PhD), eight who became qualified skilled tradesmen, and eight who represented their state in various sports. In the 1950s, Wally McArthur and Jim Foster had gone to England to play rugby and Gordon Briscoe, Charles Perkins and Moriarty had gone to England to play soccer. Moriarty represented South Australia in the sport and was chosen for the Australian team.
Perkins was not grateful for the training he was given in his skilled trade. He found the work ‘boring and futile’. His workmates were ‘nice people but it was agony for five years’. However, he had an alternative attraction. He had been playing soccer since he was fourteen and the sport quickly came to dominate his non-working life. He was a gifted forward and centre-half. In 1955, when his team International United were South Australian competition premiers, he was named one of the three best players.
In 1957, after a visiting talent scout from the Liverpool club Everton offered to pay half his fare to England to try out for the club, Perkins accepted. He arrived at Liverpool midway through the 1957 season and, although he did not make the first division squad, his performance in lower divisions led Everton to offer him a contract as a part-time professional player. He opted instead to play for one of England’s top amateur teams, Bishop Auckland. Halfway through the 1958 season, the manager of Manchester United offered him a contract to play first division. However, he turned it down and instead accepted an offer from Croatia soccer club in Adelaide to pay his return fare home and become a professional player for them. He returned to Adelaide in June 1959 after an absence of two years. By 1961 he had signed up with the Sydney Greek Pan-Hellenic (later Sydney Olympic) team. He and his new bride, Eileen Munchenberg, a descendant of one of South Australia’s German Lutheran families, moved to Sydney. He soon became captain-coach of the ostensibly Greek team.
In Sydney, Perkins became a familiar member of the small group of Aboriginal political activists and their white supporters. One of the latter, the clergyman Ted Noffs, arranged for Perkins to do a course in remedial English at the Metropolitan Business College and, from there, to start a Bachelor of Arts degree at the University of Sydney. The following year, the media exposure attracted by the Freedom Ride, organized by students at that university, made Perkins a national figure. When the Whitlam government was elected in 1972, partly on a platform of Aboriginal reform, Perkin’s trajectory into the world of politics was fixed.
There are a great many young Australians of all ethnicities who would covet a career start of this kind — skilled tradesman, sporting star, media identity, political figure, all by his mid-thirties. Indeed, there are many who would admire Perkins for his soccer career alone. They would revere anyone offered the chance to play for such hallowed clubs as Everton and Manchester United — and would be simply incredulous that he could turn down both. While Australia has always been a country where boys from nowhere could do very well for themselves (as the life stories of most of our prime ministers testify), Perkins’s career was almost unprecedented in the social mobility he attained in such a short time. Nonetheless, when Perkins himself deliberated on the hand life dealt him he did not see it that way. In the interviews he gave in 1988–89 for Peter Read’s biography, his bitterness went deep. Read recorded:
Perkins, who in 1952 was grateful for his ‘rescue’ from the slums of Alice Springs, is now much less so. To him the story of St Francis House is one of opportunities lost, not won. The apprenticeship which was arranged for him he sees merely as a futile limitation on what he might have achieved if the expectation had been that boys could succeed at anything they tried … ‘I forgive but I don’t forget … I owe nothing to the whites in Australia. Nothing.’
Read claims that it was only as he grew older that Perkins realized the significance of his cultural loss, and its consequences for all Aboriginal children removed from their parents, no matter what the circumstances.
Did the years away rob him and the other boys of their culture? Is the part-Aboriginal heritage lost in childhood fully recoverable? It is worth recovering? Should all the separated children, whether their parents assented or not, be counted amongst ‘the stolen generations?
Read’s answer to his own rhetorical questions was an unequivocal ‘yes’. Despite his mother’s open agreement to his white education, Perkins’s loss of his Aboriginal surroundings thereby rendered him and anyone like him, a ‘stolen’ child. In the Foreword to his biography, Read wrote:
To some extent Perkins is the product of the racist policies in force during his youth. In 1945, at the age of 9, he was removed from his mother’s care at Alice Springs to a family group home in Adelaide. He did not return for a longer period than six weeks until he was stood down from the Department of Aboriginal Affairs in 1975. No Aborigine, I hope, will ever endure the fractured childhood which so many members of his generation suffered.
In other words, for Read, any part-Aboriginal child who grows up among whites was, by definition, ‘stolen’ as the result of ‘racist policies’. Moreover, those who imagine Perkins was well compensated by his influential career and political accomplishments are mistaken, Read says, because they are simply seeing things through the values of Western culture. ‘Perkins believes, as did Smith, that he would not have achieved so much had he remained at Alice Springs,’ Read wrote. ‘He is undoubtedly correct — in European terms.’ Although the St Francis boys were thankful for having avoided becoming Todd River drunks or illiterate stockmen, Read argued Perkins would still have been better off had he remained with his mother in Alice Springs. By the 1980s, his drive and ambition would have allowed him to take advantage of all the reforms then won by Aboriginal people.
Perkins, remaining, would clearly have been the most powerful indigenous personality in a country of strong people. He would have been chairman of the Central Land Council, Imparja Television, the Central Australian Aboriginal Land Congress or Tangentyere Town Council. He could have been a traditional healer, a fully initiated elder, or a kadaitcha of great mystical power.
This is hardly credible. There was little chance a boy like Perkins would have ever become a leader of any Central Australian Aboriginal organization in a community where the majority were still of full-blood descent, where land title and ‘big man’ status were decided by rules of kinship, and where full-bloods saw town half-castes like him as inferior breeds. Indeed, in June 1968, when Perkins started a public debate about how Australia needed a radical Black Power movement like that of the United States, full-blood Aborigines in the Northern Territory put him in his place. Clancy Roberts, a full-blood man from Roper River, responded:
We don’t want Black Power and we don’t want people advocating it for us — especially people who are not aboriginals.
David Daniels, a full-blood member of the Nunggubuyu people, said of Perkins:
He is not a full-blood Aboriginal. He can’t know how full-blood aboriginals think and feel — but I can tell him we don’t want Black Power.
Perkins’s status within traditional Aboriginal society had been decided long before he was born. His mother, the daughter of an Aboriginal woman and a white man, had gone past the point of no return when, as a teenager, she walked away from Aboriginal community life and went to live with white men. The notion that Perkins could have been a traditional healer or man of mystical power is romantic fantasy.
Moreover, Perkins himself freely chose to make his own life among white people. While at school in Adelaide, he had returned home for holidays every year, spending December and January at Alice Springs. Once he left St Francis, he could have gone home permanently had he strongly felt the need. Instead, he preferred the life he made in Adelaide and Sydney. His laments about his ‘stolen youth’ cannot be taken seriously. A very large number of Aboriginal people have moved further away, for much longer periods to get an education, to pursue a career, to play sport, or simply to see the world, and have been more than happy to do so.
The truth is that Charles Perkins was one of the most privileged Australians of his generation. Few white children born in the Depression decade of the 1930s had his opportunities.
Only a minority of boys of that era had the chance of entry to a skilled trade. Before the 1950s, many trades were closed shops, with the few apprenticeships available going largely to family members or the well-connected. If a young man wanted to go to England from Australia in 1953 he needed either to have wealthy parents or to save for a long time to pay for the sea voyage. For a part-Aboriginal youth to play professional football in the 1950s there had to be an institutional culture that assessed him only on ability, not race. All Australian football codes were of this kind. To join the small elite who went to the Australian universities in the early 1960s, you normally had to matriculate by passing five subjects, including maths, a science and/or a foreign language, in the New South Wales Leaving Certificate examination, or its interstate equivalents. Thanks to the academic connections of the Reverend Ted Noffs, Perkins was spared that high educational hurdle. To live away from home and be a full-time student in that era of tuition fees, you needed a Commonwealth or Teacher’s Scholarship, or a financial benefactor. Scholarships depended on your results in the matriculation examination, which Perkins did not take. Instead, his white wife Eileen worked to support him while he undertook his course full-time and practised student politics. For most of his adult life, Perkins pursued the Aboriginal cause through public service jobs funded by Australian taxpayers. The social and cultural organizations he established were funded by government grants and white donations. In short, despite what he said publicly, Perkins owed his entire career to white people.
Although he initially directed his words at white audiences, in the long run they had a greater impact among Aboriginal communities. This was especially true of those in cities and big country towns disconnected by several generations from traditional society, who looked to him as the man who defined their concerns and interests. By blaming whites for all the problems faced by Aborigines he scored some debating points, he put their cause onto the political map and, in the early years, got some quick results. Ultimately, however, the culture of permanent grievance, for which he provided one of the earliest and most public models, did much more harm than good. It told Aborigines they were not responsible for their behaviour. None of the domestic violence, broken families, alcoholism, abandoned children or criminal actions that devastated Aboriginal communities was their own fault. Instead, Aborigines came to believe the causes lay in white society, by a white racism that kept them down, by the historical disruption of traditional society, and by white removal of their children.
Thanks to his natural intelligence and ability, coupled with the considerable efforts of his closest supporters, Perkins made a very successful career for himself within the white society he pilloried. But the public complaints that generated his own success told others that his was the wrong way to go. His critique defined black entry to white society as a sell-out. Education and the work ethic were white values, not blackfella ways. In effect, instead of creating a means for others to pursue the life he had enjoyed himself, he kicked away the ladder.
This left a great void in the program for Aboriginal political reform and was one of the reasons why integration, the original slogan under which the Freedom Ride was launched in 1965, later became a dated concept and a dirty word. In its place, the void was filled by the romantic alternative advocated on the far left of the political spectrum: black power, cultural and political separatism, land rights, remote communities, customary law, education in tribal languages, welfare instead of work, and such vocations as ‘kadaitchas of great mystical power’ — in short, a package in direct contradiction to everything that gave Perkins the fortunate life he lived.
Interview with John Moriarty conducted by Sue Taffe, 25-26 November 1996, National Library of Australia, Collaborating for Indigenous Rights: http://indiqenousrights.net.au/person.asp?pID=976