The historian Peter Read first used the term ‘stolen generations’ in 1981. He made it the title of a brief, 21-page pamphlet he wrote for the New South Wales Ministry of Aboriginal Affairs. The full title was: The Stolen Generations: The Removal of Aboriginal Children in New South Wales 1883 to 1969. When he prepared the work, Read was a postgraduate student at the Australian National University but, rather than a disinterested piece of scholarship, it was firmly in the mould of the advocacy research — or what Henry Reynolds has called ‘politically utilitarian history’ — that erupted at that time. The year before, Read had co-founded a social work agency called Link-Up, which aimed to reunite Aboriginal people who had been separated from their families and institutionalized. His pamphlet emerged, Read said, from his interviews with Aboriginal people about their experiences with the welfare system and in children’s homes, as well as his own research in the New South Wales State Archives into the remaining records of the Aborigines Protection Board and Aborigines Welfare Board.
Read’s pamphlet accused these authorities of ‘attempted genocide’ in their policy to remove Aboriginal children from their parents. ‘Genocide does not simply mean the extermination of people by violence but may include any means at all,’ he wrote. ‘At the height of the policy of separating Aboriginal people from their parents the Aborigines Welfare Board meant to do just that.’ As evidence of the desire of the welfare authorities in New South Wales for the ‘extermination’ of the Aborigines, Read quoted from the board’s 1921 report, which said: ‘the continuation of this policy of dissociating the children from camp life must eventually solve the Aboriginal problem’. There are two terms Read uses here — ‘camp life’ and ‘the Aboriginal problem’ — which require elaboration.
By ‘camp life’, the board meant the way of life on the 147 reserves established by the colonial government across rural New South Wales between 1860 and 1904, plus the 20 Aboriginal ‘stations’ set up by the Aborigines Protection Board between 1893 and 1915. In the late nineteenth century, the great majority of the state’s Aboriginal population was economically independent and made their living through a combination of agricultural and pastoral employment, hunting and fishing. Government-established reserves and stations were originally sites of welfare services, providing handouts of food and clothing to poor and unemployed Aborigines. In 1910, about 20 per cent of New South Wales Aborigines were receiving some kind of aid from them.
An Aboriginal station was the secular equivalent of the old missions and was, in effect, a small village. Some still employed missionaries as managers or religious instructors. They provided rations, housing and schooling to Aboriginal families who voluntarily came in to live there. A station had a white manager and a matron. Until 1915, stations were overseen by local committees of white citizens. After that date, all management was vested in the board secretariat in Sydney, advised by inspectors it employed to visit the stations periodically. Stations had populations of from about 50 up to 200 people.
An Aboriginal reserve was a place where land was set aside for Aborigines to live in tents and shacks and, if they chose, to grow food and crops. Unlike a station, a reserve did not have its own manager. Instead, the nearest local police officer was responsible for supervising the reserve and handing out rations. Some reserves, however, had a government-appointed ‘matron’ who performed the same functions and also provided some health care and advice. The population of some reserves was itinerant and ranged from one or two extended families to shifting communities of up to 100 people.
The term ‘the Aboriginal problem’ was an issue for which Read’s pamphlet provided its own explanation. What the board meant by this, Read said, were the many ‘Aboriginal people who could not, or chose not, to live as white people wanted them to do’. Read reproduced an extract from the board’s 1911 report to confirm what it meant:
to allow these children to remain on the Reserve to grow up in comparative idleness in the midst of more or less vicious surroundings would be, to say the least, an injustice to the children themselves, and a positive menace to the State.
It took the Aborigines Protection Board 32 years before it had the power to remove Aboriginal children as it wished. Founded in 1883 as a non-statutory body composed of colonial politicians and public servants, the board could initially only remove children to institutions or foster homes under existing child welfare laws that applied equally to white children. After the Aborigines Protection Act of 1909, the board still had to put a case before a magistrate to remove children on grounds of neglect. Read said that the board found the powers it gained under this act inadequate. Magistrates would not always comply with their wishes. If children appeared well fed and well dressed, magistrates would refuse to declare them neglected, no matter what their circumstances. So board members lobbied the government to give them more power.
They were rewarded in 1915 by an amendment to the Act that gave them the right to remove any Aboriginal child without parental consent if the board considered it to be in the interest of the child’s moral or physical welfare. Aboriginal parents, Read wrote, thereby lost their rights to their own children.
It was up to the parents to show that the child had a right to be with them, not the other way round. No court hearings were necessary; the manager of an Aboriginal station, or a policeman on a reserve or in a town might simply order them removed. The racial intention was obvious enough for all prepared to see, and some managers cut a long story short when they came to that part of the committal notice, ‘Reason for Board taking control of the child’. They simply wrote, ‘for being Aboriginal’.
The overall process began in 1893, Read claimed, when the Aborigines Protection Board built a dormitory for girls at the Warangesda Aboriginal Station on the Murrumbidgee River. He said its plan was for girls from all over New South Wales to live there while they were taught skills for domestic service. However, the board had no legal power to remove them from their parents, so over the next fifteen years the board could only place 300 girls in this institution.
In 1911, the system became more institutionalized and coercive, Read said, when the board established the Cootamundra Girls’ Home. This was an institution for Aboriginal girls who were removed at too young an age to go straight into employment. They were still to be trained for positions as domestic servants. In 1924, the board established the Kinchela Boys’ Home on existing Aboriginal-farmed land on the Macleay River, near Kempsey, to train boys for jobs as farm labourers. It also established the Bomaderry Aboriginal Children’s Home, near Nowra, for babies and young children of both sexes. Conducted by the United Aboriginal Mission, the children at Bomaderry were moved on to Cootamundra and Kinchela when they reached about ten years of age. When these young people turned fourteen, the board arranged for them to be engaged as apprentices by private employers. The Cootamundra, Kinchela and Bomaderry institutions functioned in these roles from their founding until 1969.
Read’s pamphlet did not record the precise proportion of stolen children who went to these three homes but it gave the impression, through both its discussion and photographs, that the majority were placed in them. He has a section called ‘Life in the Homes’, which he begins by stating: ‘the view of the Board was that Aboriginal children had to be separated from the rest of their race’.
One Annual Report of the 1920s predicted that the children, once institutionalized, would not be allowed to return to any Aboriginal station or reserve, ‘except perhaps those who have parents, on an occasional visit’. In practice, no home visits were allowed at all. Parents received no encouragement to come, and were positively discouraged if they attempted to stay more than a day. Even the Christmas holidays were generally spent in the homes. Letters in and out were censored.
Conditions in the homes, he said, were appalling. The environment was ‘sterile and hostile’ and ‘the staff at the homes varied between those who might have been good in another environment, and the psychopathic … probably all of them were brutalized by the system in which they had chosen to work’. One manager at Kinchela was accused of being drunk on duty, using a stockwhip on the boys, tying them up, and using dietary punishments. He locked one boy in a shed for several days and told him to eat hay. Another boy got frostbite from tending to cows barefoot before dawn on winter mornings. The staff indoctrinated their charges with the view that blacks on reserves were ‘dirty, untrustworthy and bad’. Children became ashamed of the colour of their skin.
Girls have stated that they crossed the road in order to avoid an Aboriginal man, not just because they had been taught to, but because in the end, they themselves had come to believe that he was a threat — dirty, brutal, black!
Read acknowledged, however, that some ex-wards, especially women, resented criticism of the institutions.
They argue that if they had been left on the reserves they would now be barefoot, pregnant or drunk. Through the homes, they say, they have gained a knowledge of the ‘right’ way to live.
He admitted the psychological issues in the institutionalization of children were ‘most complex’, but made it clear that the overall outcomes were unreservedly awful. Whether their superintendents were good or bad, the children ended up ‘emotionally, spiritually, intellectually and psychologically deprived, and the scars might never heal’. Read composed a picture of a fictional but supposedly typical ‘composite family’ subject to these institutions and wrote of the long-term consequences:
As the children who had come back grew to their thirties, it was clear that they were not able to function as normal adults. They had nightmares. They resented their parents, particularly their mother, as if she had been responsible for their removal. They had periods of alcoholism during which they became uncontrollably violent. They drank or gambled what few wages they earned, and remained what the Aborigines Protection Board called ‘unassimilable’.
In a mid-western town I met an ex-Kinchela man. When he was ten he had been taken straight from school by a welfare officer, he said, and was never able to say goodbye to his father. He was placed in Kinchela and was an inmate during the period described above. He could not, or would not, talk of his experiences there. He was divorced, had been an alcoholic, and was deeply unhappy … Kinchela crippled that man for life.
Regimes of this kind, according to Read, had an overt political purpose. The long-term intention of the board and its political supporters was to absorb Aborigines into the white population. Their children were the vehicles to accomplish this. The 1926 Aborigines Protection Board report stated that when children were placed in a ‘first class private home’, the superior standard of life would ‘pave the way for the absorption of these people into the general population’. The intention, Read claimed, ‘was to separate children from their parents (and their race) permanently’.
In short, the removal of Aboriginal children from parents, and their integration through employment with white people, would inevitably cause the decline and eventual elimination of the population of full-blood and half-caste Aborigines. Hence, Read felt the term ‘genocide’ entirely appropriate.
He said the board pursued this policy without restriction between 1915 and 1939 when its officers had full power to decide which children were removed and on what grounds. However, in 1939, the New South Wales law changed when Aboriginal children were brought under the jurisdiction of a new Child Welfare Act. Once again, hearings before a magistrate became necessary for a child to be removed.
Between his first foray into the subject in 1981 and the book he published in 1999, A Rape of the Soul So Profound, Read grew far more confident about his thesis, especially on the accusation of genocide. He no longer confined his accusation to a desire to end Aboriginal culture or ‘Aboriginality’. He now said the aim was to end the Aboriginal race itself. He observed that a number of Australian state governments recognized early in the twentieth century that their earlier expectation of the Aboriginal race ‘dying out’ by natural causes was not being fulfilled. Instead, there had been a rapid increase in the birth rate of half-castes and others of part-Aboriginal descent. So governments came to the conclusion they had to eliminate the Aborigines themselves. Read wrote: ‘Their extinction, it seemed, would not occur naturally after all, but would have to be arranged.’ The Aborigines Protection Acts enacted by various governments in this period were consciously designed, he argued, to stem the increase and reduce the size of the Aboriginal population. ‘The removal and institutionalization of the children was to be the principal weapon of the new Acts.’
Read said the main information for his thesis came from the surviving archival records. He came to his conclusions, he said, ‘after reading all the thousands of childcare records of the NSW Aborigines Protection Board’. The New South Wales Archives held the detailed files of 800 wards removed from 1916 to 1928. It held a further list of names, though without any other details, of the 1500 children made wards of the board up to 1936. Apart from this, there were no systematic records kept of Aboriginal children sent to non-indigenous state or religious homes. Moreover, he observed that the number of children of Aboriginal descent who were not recognized by the board as Aboriginal was also unknown, but was likely to have been substantial after the 1950s, since welfare officers were then instructed to hand over Aboriginal children of ‘lighter caste’ to the Child Welfare Department if they were to be committed. In total, Read identified some 5625 Aboriginal children removed from their parents between 1883 and 1969.
Read said this tally of removals meant that ‘perhaps one in six or seven Aboriginal children have been taken from their families during this century’, and hence ‘there is not an Aboriginal person in New South Wales who does not know, or is not related to, one or more of his/her countrymen who were institutionalized by the whites’. This claim, that every Aborigine has been connected in some way to the Stolen Generations issue, has informed the whole debate ever since, not only in New South Wales but across Australia. The Bringing Them Home report gave its full endorsement: ‘not one Indigenous family has escaped the effects of forcible removal … Most families have been affected, in one or more generations, by the forcible removal, of one or more children’.
All the blame for this belonged to white people, Read said. For 50 years, the policy was proposed, debated and affirmed in the New South Wales parliament and administered by government instrumentalities. There were plenty of people, many of them pillars of society, who were aware of the policy and what it entailed but they shirked their responsibility to oppose it.
For two or three generations there was scarcely a word of protest by those whose duty it was to protest: members of parliamentary oppositions, Christians, parents, people of common humanity. Why? Why was it necessary to remove five thousand children from their parents and try to turn them into white people?
The reason, he said, was partly because the growth of the Aboriginal camps posed a ‘positive menace to the State’ but primarily it was because of the whites’ psychological need to interfere. ‘White people have never been able to leave Aboriginal people alone,’ Read said.
The whites could not tolerate a different way of life. They did not like being not wanted, not needed. But legally, economically, and in values, Aborigines were not like whites, and most did not want to be. Those who wanted to be were not allowed to be. When it became obvious that Aborigines didn’t want them, or want to be like them, the whites resorted to force.