Not intended to be offensive, but sometimes evidence in isolation is no evidence at all…

03 Feb

I was taken by Jim’s latest post Report of the NSW Aborigines Welfare Board, year ended 30 June 1940, and like Jim I had not intended to do another post just now on Indigenous issues. First, it has to be said that the post is very interesting. Second, I do need to quote Jim’s postscript:

Please do not construe this post as a contribution to the sorry discussion. I have said all along that one needed to look at the variety of the Australian Aboriginal experience.

What the post does do is to present a snapshot of the official position at a point in time, an important point, but still a point. There are issues raised by the Board’s report that interest me and which warrant further investigation. At this point, I would only say that it is a helpful caution about some of the more sweeping universalist views.

I do endorse Jim’s point about the variety and complexity of current and past Aboriginal lives, experiences, and issues. That said, it is quite ironic that I find Jim’s very fair presentation of what that report tells us to be a wonderful example of what the apology is actually about. The cool language of the report is unlikely to explore what those various agencies were actually about, what really happened under their auspices, why they were there in the first place, what had gone before, what the effects of those policies and agencies actually were.

Cootamundra Girls Home and Kinchela have become bywords of bad policy. They in fact are one of the reasons to apologise.


Kinchela is a 13 hectare area of fertile land at the mouth of the Macleay River on the mid-north coast of New South Wales. In 1924, the Aboriginal Protection Board opened the Kinchela Boys Home with the ‘official’ purpose of providing training for Aboriginal boys between the ages of five and fifteen. These boys were taken from their families by the State from all over New South Wales.

Conditions at Kinchela were harsh. The boys received a poor education from unqualified teachers and worked long hours on vegetable and dairy farms run by the Board on the reserve land. Boys were beaten, tied up, given little emotional support, and no attention was given to developing skills of individual boys.

At the age of fifteen, the boys were sent to work as rural labourers. The board kept control of most of their earnings, which were supposed to be kept in trust for them until they reached adulthood. Most never saw their trust money.

Conditions improved in 1940, when the Protection Board was abolished and replaced by the Aboriginal Welfare Board. From the 1950s boys were sent to high school in Kempsey where they won many local athletics and sporting championships. Despite improvements, the fact remains that Kinchela was a home for ‘stolen children’.

Kinchela closed down in 1969, when the Aboriginal Welfare Board was finally disbanded.

Cootamundra Girls Home

Cootamundra Girls Home, established in 1911, was the first of the homes for Aboriginal children set up by the Aborigines Protection Board. The main aim of the Board was to ‘rescue’ Aboriginal children from their families and assimilate them into the white community. Girls were the main target of the Board, especially so-called ‘half-caste’ or ‘mixed blood’ girls. The girls were trained as domestic servants and sent out to work for middle class white families.

At Cootamundra, Aboriginal girls were instructed to ‘think white, look white, act white’. This was part of the process to make the girls suitable wives for white men, in the hope that through interracial marriages, Aboriginal blood would be ‘bred out’. They were taught to look down on their own people and to fear Aboriginal men.

Girls in the home were not allowed to communicate with their families. They were often told that their parents were dead and even given forged death certificates. As a result, many of the girls in the home lost their families forever.

Cootamundra Home was closed in 1968, the year before the Aboriginal Welfare Board (previously the Aborigines Protection Board) was abolished.

I met a Cootamundra victim in 1983 and got to know her well, living as I was in the same house. Using her own words I tried to capture her spirit and experience in a poem. This was long before I had heard anything much about the “stolen children”.

Marie: Glebe 1983

(for the “stolen generation”)

my mama was black
dadda a scotsman

in the home there was a flower
it woke us up

see here it is…

Read the rest, if you like.

Official reports like the one Jim describes do not tell you stories like these:

Children’s well-being was sometimes severely neglected.

These are people telling you to be Christian and they treat you less than a bloody animal. One boy his leg was that gangrene we could smell him all down the dormitories before they finally got him treated properly.

Confidential evidence, New South Wales: man removed to Kinchela Boys’ Home in the 1960s.

Many witnesses related receiving or witnessing severe punishments.

At the time, we used to get a lot of coke. You got to fill the coke bins up. That’s what you got to kneel on – on the coke [as a punishment]. You got no long trousers, [only] shorts and bare-footed. You know what we got to eat? Straw and buns. That was our tea. That’s besides getting the cane. Get straw and buns. Quite naturally you’re going to pull the straw out and chuck it away. You do that and you get caned. You’re supposed to eat it.

Confidential evidence 531, New South Wales: man removed to Kinchela Boys’ Home at 9 years in 1950.

I remember the beatings and hidings [they] gave us and what I saw. I remember if you played up, especially on a Sunday, you got the cane. You play chasing, you had to drop your pants, lie across the bed and get 3-5 whacks. If you pissed the bed – another 3-5. I remember seeing, when I was about 7 or 9 – I think it was IM get pulled by the hair and her arm twisted behind her back and hit in the face …

Confidential evidence 251, South Australia: man removed to Colebrook at 2 years in the 1950s.

They were very cruel to us, very cruel. I’ve done things in that home that I don’t think prisoners in a jail would do today … I remember once, I must have been 8 or 9, and I was locked in the old morgue. The adults who worked there would tell us of the things that happened in there, so you can imagine what I went through. I screamed all night, but no one came to get me.

Confidential evidence 10, Queensland: NSW woman removed to Cootamundra Girls’ Home in the 1940s.

I’ve seen girls naked, strapped to chairs and whipped. We’ve all been through the locking up period, locked in dark rooms. I had a problem of fainting when I was growing up and I got belted every time I fainted and this is belted, not just on the hands or nothing. I’ve seen my sister dragged by the hair into those block rooms and belted because she’s trying to protect me … How could this be for my own good? Please tell me.

Confidential evidence 8, New South Wales: woman removed to Cootamundra Girls’ Home in the 1940s.

Or you can listen to this mp3 file, or read this (PDF) sample chapter on Cootamundra from Uncommon Ground: White women in Aboriginal history by Anna Cole Victoria Haskins And Fiona Paisley Eds, Canberra: Aboriginal Studies Press, 2005.

A couple of days ago I wrote:

You know, there have been times, places, and policies in the history of Indigenous Australia since 1788 when the word “genocide” is appropriate, whether that genocide was deliberate or accidental. But is skews the whole picture if that alone is seen to be the story.

That reservation in place, I nonetheless commend, and support, Colin Tatz “Genocide in Australia”. The time is long gone for denying what happened, or what it amounted to, though I for one do not wear a hair shirt as a result, nor do I see the need for one. I can also concede the great contribution made by my own British ancestors and their friends and extended families in all manner of difficult circumstances since, in my case, the 1820s. But the collection of Aboriginal spears and artefacts that I saw in the Wellington home of my father’s cousin in the 1960s now speaks a more complex tale; my first questions about where they had come from met with almost embarrassed silence and a change of topic. I wonder how many others have had a parallel experience at some time. Now we speak of such things, and so we should.

I will finish with Colin Tatz:

Hephzibah Menuhin was a better musician than a sociologist. But a line in one of her books remains with me: that the test of a nation’s civility and civilisation is the manner in which it treats its most underprivileged minority. An emotional rather than an empirical measure, perhaps, but it isn’t difficult to take her meaning. Who are the most underprivileged? And how does Australia rank?

In South Africa, I studied “native policy”. On arrival here in 1961, I studied “Aboriginal policy”. People who know of my dual interest still ask me, “Is it true to say that apartheid was a malevolent instrument of racial oppression, whereas racism in Australia was a form of ignorant innocence, or innocent ignorance, an inability to understand or respect indigenous culture and values, albeit with some nasty consequences?” Comparisons aside, how does one categorise Australia’s race relations?

Much of that inter-racial history I call “genocide”. In the current climate of heat in Aboriginal affairs, which I will describe, very few people use the word. Almost all historians of the Aboriginal experience – black and white – avoid it. They write about pacifying, killing, cleansing, excluding, exterminating, starving, poisoning, shooting, beheading, sterilising, exiling, removing – but avoid genocide. Are they ignorant of genocide theory and practice? Or simply reluctant to taint “the land of the fair go”, the “lucky country”, with so heinous and disgracing a label?

Australians understand only the stereotypical or traditional scenes of historical or present-day slaughter. For them, genocide connotes either the bulldozed corpses at Belsen or the serried rows of Cambodian skulls, the panga-wielding Hutu in pursuit of Tutsi victims or the ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia. As Australians see it, patently we cannot be connected to, or with, the stereotypes of Swastika-wearing SS psychopaths, or crazed black tribal Africans. Apart from Australia’s physical killing era, there are doubtless differences between what these perpetrators did and what we did in assimilating people and removing their children. But, as we will see, we are connected – by virtue of what Raimond Gaita calls “the inexpungable moral dimension” inherent in genocide, whatever its forms or actions.

I am proud that our government is at last seeing fit to apologise, but, and here Jim and I would definitely agree, it is the future which matters most. My belief is that future is best secured on the ground being laid now in Canberra.

Meanwhile, whatever the difference in our perspectives at times, I do commend Jim’s posts on Aboriginal matters. They have unearthed much that is fascinating and valuable, and long may Jim continue to do so.


SBS had a pair of programs tonight that beautifully flesh out the complexity of these issues:


The second program, Dark Science, followed.

In 1910, a scientist called Erik Mjoberg led the first Swedish expedition to Australia. An entomologist by trade, Mjoberg’s brief was to document the native wildlife, but his underlying motivation was to explore the idea that Aborigines were the missing link between ape and man. Landing in Derby, Western Australia, he bought supplies, hired a bullock team and set off into the Kimberley with his increasingly fractious team, battling heat and flies until they got their first glimpse of “one of the oldest races in the world – the Australian negroes”.

Describing the Aborigines as “ugly”, “Neanderthal-like” and possessed of an “animalistic cunning”, Mjoberg set about plundering their grave sites and smuggling the remains back home – actions that were to have lasting consequences for all concerned.

With narration by Jack Thompson and haunting original footage, this artfully composed documentary provides a chilling glimpse into the mind of a 20th-century explorer.

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3 responses to “Not intended to be offensive, but sometimes evidence in isolation is no evidence at all…

  1. Jim Belshaw

    February 3, 2008 at 9:18 pm

    Neil, while I admire Colin Tatz’s passion I never thought of him as in any way balanced on this issue.This includes a 45 minute lecture he once gave me on the need to make Drummond’s role in Aboriginal education central in my thesis.

    As I said once before, if I was doing the same work today I would deal with the issue simply because there is now so much more material available. But it would still remain one element in a broader picture.

    Speaking just as a historian, I have been careful not to comment on other jurisdictions because I do not have the evidence.

    I read the chapter on Coota. I suppose the main thing that struck me was the apparent deterioration in Board performance in the fourties and early fifties. The conventional picture – one that I had simply accepted – is that the changes to the 1940 act marked a major change in direction. On the other had, your quote on Kinchella suggested an improvement after 1940, I just don’t know now.

    I am going to have to investigate this.This may be unfair, no I am not talking about you, but I am getting to the point that I simply don’t trust much the stuff I am reading. Among other things, there is absolutely no context.

    Beyond the Board report that I found interesting because it set a context to other things I was interested in, I see little point in saying too much at the present time.

    Take as an example, the actual numbers at the various homes. If I were to investigate this, I might well find that (as in 1940) the actual numbers were very small in absolute terms and as a proportion of the Aboriginal population.

    Now if I were to find and present this just at present in a reasonably rigorous fashion, it would immediately become a factor in debate and be miscontrued. Better to let it go for the present, at least until after February 13.

    It won’t go away entirely since I do have to address it in my writing about my own family as well as my historical writing on New England. My grandfather was a member of NSW cabinet in 1940. If you look at the Board report you will see the cross-references to Education and Child Welfare, both portfolios for which he was Minister.

    Anyway, in the meantime I will at least continue my investigation of the Dainggatti, since this is useful and provides a building block for other things

  2. ninglun

    February 3, 2008 at 10:01 pm

    Just a small point, Jim: Take as an example, the actual numbers at the various homes. If I were to investigate this, I might well find that (as in 1940) the actual numbers were very small in absolute terms and as a proportion of the Aboriginal population. That itself is interesting, as who was counted, and who admitted to being Aboriginal, must have been quite an issue in those days.

  3. Jim Belshaw

    February 4, 2008 at 12:04 pm

    I think that’s right in terms of numbers, Neil. I was struck by the small overall numbers. Not much incentive in wanting to be seen as aboriginal. You can see the converse in the major increase in numbers recently over the natural birthrate.

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