In Denial

In Denial

The stolen generations and the Right

Robert Manne


In a powerful indictment of past government policies towards indigenous Australians, Robert Manne has written a brilliant polemical essay which doubles as a succinct history of how indigenous Australians were mistreated and an exposure of the ignorance of those who want to deny that history.

On 23 February 2000 the Melbourne Herald-Sun published on its front page an “exclusive” report concerning what was described as a “shock admission” by one of Australia’s most respected Aboriginal leaders, Lowitja O’Donoghue. The essence of the supposed admission was captured by the huge headline—“I Wasn’t Stolen”.

It is well known to the Australian public that Lowitja O’Donoghue was separated from her Aboriginal mother at the age of two. According to the author of the article, Andrew Bolt, she agreed, in the course of an interview, that the word “removed” rather than “stolen” better suited the personal circumstances of her case. Her mother had borne five children while living with her father, an Irish station worker. Lowitja thought it likely that it was not the government but her father who had been responsible for having all five children sent to the South Australian “half-caste” children’s mission, the Colebrook Home at Quorn. Lowitja O’Donoghue told Bolt that if her mother had allowed her children to be taken from her this amounted to what she called “uninformed consent”. It was clear, even from Bolt’s article, that because of her father’s cruel action her mother had suffered an unbearable grief throughout her life. Lowitja O’Donoghue told Andrew Bolt that she had not been able to forgive her father for what he had done.

It ought to have been obvious to the editor of the Herald-Sun that Bolt’s article was a classic example of what is customarily called a journalistic “beat-up”. Invented by the historian Peter Read, “stolen generations” is the term that the Aboriginal people have embraced for their collective tragedy—the separation of thousands of children of mixed descent from their mothers and communities. The term covers a wide variety of circumstances— from forcible removal by agents of the state to the relinquishment of children following the application of moral and legal pressure on powerless young Aboriginal women by those who thought they knew what was best. In discussing the phenomenon of Aboriginal child removal in general, Lowitja O’Donoghue, like everyone else, had in the past used the common term, the stolen generations. When describing her own personal circumstances, however, she had been careful to speak, more simply, of her “removal” from her mother and her community. There was nothing either new or surprising in what she tried to explain to Andrew Bolt. Her only error was to have mistaken a journalist–campaigner for a reporter with a concern for discovering the facts.

It was unclear from Bolt’s article whether or not Lowitja O’Donoghue had explained to him how she had come to understand the depth of her mother’s suffering following the loss of all her children. It is a story Bolt’s readers ought to have been told. During the 1960s, some thirty years after Lowitja had been separated from her mother, she was approached by two old Aboriginal people who were sitting outside the supermarket at Coober Pedy. They told her that they could see in her face the face of her mother and that they knew who she was and from where she came. As it turned out, these old Aborigines were Lowitja’s uncle and aunty. They were able to tell her that her mother was still alive and where she lived.

It was several weeks before Lowitja was able to travel to Oodnadatta to find her mother. Her uncle and aunty had, however, told Lowitja’s mother about their chance encounter with one of her daughters.When Lowitja finally made it to Oodnadatta she discovered that on every day for the past three months her mother had sat by the roadside awaiting her daughter’s return. When they met, Lowitja and her mother could not speak to each other. Her mother knew almost no English. Lowitja, of course, had never learnt her native tongue. Nonetheless they were now together, for the last ten years of Lowitja’s mother’s life.

Lowitja O’Donoghue, who is a woman of scrupulous honesty and great beauty of soul, has devoted many years of her life to the cause of reconciliation. She has sought to help her fellow Australians understand the tragedies that overtook people like herself and her mother because of the racist belief, no doubt held even by her own father, that “part-white” children had to be “rescued” from the primitive, godless and degraded Aboriginal world. She was rewarded for this work by a nasty national debate over the circumstances of her removal, precipitated by what she rightly described as a “simplistic, sensationalist, misleading and mischievous” report.

On the morning Bolt’s beat-up appeared in the Herald-Sun, the Prime Minister of Australia, John Howard, seized his opportunity. He told a commercial radio audience in Melbourne that the revelation that Lowitja O’Donoghue was not stolen was a “highly significant” fact, one, he implied, which vindicated his government’s famous denial of the existence of the stolen generations and his even more famous refusal to apologise. Howard called on Australians to cease what he called their pointless “navel gazing” over questions of Aboriginal injustice and to move on.

John Howard, on the morning of February 23, was speaking under the shadow of the strange re-emergence of the racist One Nation Party and the anti-Coalition landslides in Western Australia and Queensland. By underlining his disagreement with Kim Beazley and his agreement with the Hanson voters on the question of a national apology to the stolen generations, John Howard had plainly announced his determination to try to cling to power by playing—as his last hand—what Australians call, crudely but not inaccurately, the race card.

Andrew Bolt’s article and John Howard’s response were not isolated incidents but the most recent moves of a long campaign to change the moral and political balance with regard to the issue of the stolen generations, and indeed with regard to the Aboriginal question as a whole. It is with this campaign that this essay is concerned.


In October 1994 the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs in the Keating government, Robert Tickner, addressed the Going Home Conference in Darwin. Of the several hundred Aborigines who attended the conference, very many had been removed from their families and communities as children. Already such people thought of themselves as members of the “stolen generations”. At this conference Tickner said that as a minister no issue had so haunted him as this one. He announced he would shortly be writing to Michael Lavarch, the Attorney-General, with the suggestion that the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission conduct an investigation into why thousands of Aboriginal children had been separated from their mothers, families and communities during the course of the twentieth century.

Tickner’s letter led, in 1995, to an inquiry headed by Sir Ronald Wilson, former High Court judge and President of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, and Mick Dodson, its Social Justice Commissioner. Over two years the inquiry took written and oral evidence, across Australia, from 535 Aboriginal witnesses who had experienced separation at first or second hand. The inquiry had the support of all Australian State and Territory governments. The only government which failed to offer significant assistance was the Howard government, elected in March 1996. It declined to assist the Wilson–Dodson inquiry by producing a history of Commonwealth policy regarding Aboriginal child separation in the Northern Territory. It turned down the inquiry’s modest request for some additional funds.

The findings of the Wilson–Dodson inquiry were tabled in the Federal Parliament in May 1997. The inquiry reported that in the period from 1910 to 1970 between one in three and one in ten Aboriginal children had been separated—most by force or under duress or at least with undue pressure. It provided a history of the removal policies and practices in each State and the Northern Territory. It concluded that the physical and mental health of the separated children was probably worse and certainly no better than that of the Aboriginal children who had been spared this fate. A large part of the report consisted of extracts from the testimony of the Aboriginal witnesses who appeared before it. Story after story spoke of psychic and cultural dislocation; terrifying loneliness; physical, sexual and moral abuse; and of continuing pain, numbness and trauma experienced after an often bewildering and inexplicable removal from mother, family, community, world.

The inquiry recommended restitution for the separated children in many forms, including monetary compensation, and most importantly, solemn apologies from the churches and governments involved. According to the relevant United Nations Convention, one means by which genocide can be committed is by removal of children with the purpose of destroying, in whole or even in part, the racial or ethnic group to which they belong. The Wilson–Dodson inquiry concluded that before 1970, and arguably even after that date, the Aboriginal child removal policies and practices of the Commonwealth and State governments made them guilty of genocide, the most serious of all crimes.

No inquiry in recent Australian history has had a more overwhelming reception nor, at least in the short term, a more culturally transforming impact. On the day after Bringing them home was tabled, the Leader of the Opposition, Kim Beazley, wept openly in the House. Over the next few days Opposition members read stories contained in Bringing them home into Hansard during the adjournment debates. Overwhelmingly, the media in Australia accepted the general findings of the Wilson–Dodson inquiry and acknowledged the gravity of what the report had revealed.Very rapidly the question of Aboriginal child removal moved from the margin to the centre of Australian self-understanding and contemporary political debate.

Many stolen generations memoirs were now published; films produced; plays staged; songs sung. Hundreds of thousands of citizens signed what were called—in a language borrowed from the Aborigines—Sorry Books. A National Sorry Day was established. It soon seemed to many Australians that no historical question was of greater importance than the stolen generations, no moral matter of greater significance to the life of the nation than the apology to the stolen generations. By now the quest for what we have come to call reconciliation between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians, and the nature of Australia’s response to the issue of the stolen generations, had become altogether intertwined.

Not all Australians shared in this mood. Gradually critics of Bringing them home emerged. Some of the criticism came from former administrators of Aboriginal affairs; some from former patrol officers; some from conservative journalists; some from right-wing think-tanks and magazines. It was the magazine Quadrant, however, under the editorship of Padraic McGuinness, that marshalled the troops and galvanised the disparate voices of opposition to Bringing them home into what amounted to a serious and effective political campaign.


The assessment of the arguments of those involved in the anti-stolen generations campaign cannot take place in a vacuum. Without stories, the understanding of child removal in the first seven decades of the twentieth century is in danger of becoming far too abstract and remote. I have chosen four stories which span the decades and the States and which are, for one reason or another, unusually well documented.

i .Walter

The first story is set in 1903. At this time Dr Walter Roth, an eminent anthropologist and the son of naturalised Hungarian Jewish refugees who lived in England, was the Northern Protector of Aborigines in Queensland. Roth was a determined and effective opponent of the economic and sexual exploitation of Aborigines, especially of women and children. As such he made many bitter enemies in Queensland. In 1904 Roth was invited to conduct a Royal Commission into the treatment of Aborigines in the northern areas of Western Australia. He produced a humane and powerful report. Roth was also, as it happens, probably the pioneer in Australia of the policy and practice of Aboriginal child removal. In both his monthly and annual reports to the Queensland parliament, Roth routinely listed the names, ages, localities and, to some extent, the life circumstances of the “half-caste” children he arranged to be sent to the north Queensland Aboriginal missions at Mapoon and Yarrabah. In general it is difficult to discover a great deal from the contemporary records about how the Aboriginal children or their families responded to their removal. In one case, however, the human reality comes vividly alive.

On 17 February 1903 Roth sent a typical letter to the police at Townsville. Roth had recently passed through the township of Cardwell and his attention had been drawn to six “half-caste” children “roaming about the blacks’ camp”. “I would be grateful”, Roth wrote, “by your kindly causing inquiries to be made.”

One of the children of interest to Dr Roth was a boy called Walter, aged about fourteen, whose mother, Nellie Bliss, was a full-blood Aborigine. “It seems to me”, Roth wrote, “a great pity to see the lad Walter loafing around the camps instead of learning a trade at the Industrial School.” Inquiries were duly made. On 8 June Roth recommended that Walter be brought to court and charged, under the Industrial Schools Act of 1865, with being “a child born of an Aboriginal or half-caste mother”.Walter was charged with this offence at Cardwell on 18 August 1903. He was sentenced to two years at an industrial school.

On the afternoon following the sentence a telegram was sent by the shire clerk in Cardwell,William Craig, to the Queensland Home Secretary in Brisbane. It read: “Mother half-caste boy Walter weeping outside lockup says she will kill herself by inflicting blood-letting gashes and starving herself if son taken. May I acting on her behalf pray you to instruct police to return boy pending further inquiry.” Craig followed his telegram with a letter. “It is an unassailable and incontestable fact”, he wrote after listening carefully to what Nellie Bliss had explained to him, “that Aboriginals treat all children they come in contact with or nurse— half-caste or full-blooded or white—with universal kindness.” Nellie Bliss had reared Walter as her people had reared children for centuries. Was this to be regarded as neglect? Was she now to “suffer the mental agony of separation”?

The official in Brisbane who received Craig’s letter scrawled across it, “I am not impressed.” Nonetheless he asked for further information on the case. The information soon arrived. When Walter was imprisoned he had been sobbing in his cell, while his mother howled and lamented in the street outside. Walter had fallen ill. The wife of the police sergeant at Cardwell feared for his life. Nellie was allowed inside the cell. She nursed Walter back to health. Eventually both were released. Mother and son went to a tracker’s hut awaiting news of their fate.

In mid-November Dr Roth reached Cardwell. He took the case of Walter in hand. New warrants were issued. Roth induced William Craig to convince Walter to come on board a steamship, merely, he promised, as a matter of legal formality. Roth pledged to Craig that Walter would then be freed. Instead the boy was seized. Walter tried to jump ship. The native troopers held him down.Walter had not even been able to farewell his mother. He was despatched to the mission at Yarrabah.

Craig was very bitter that he had been persuaded by the police to use his influence to prevent Walter from escaping to the mountains with his Aboriginal stepfather.Walter’s stepfather had not for one minute trusted the word of the Queensland government. “The government too much tell im lie, he all day want to stealim blackfellow piccaninny.”As it turned out, Craig reflected ruefully, “the old blackfellow knew the character of government officials better than I did.”

One of the more insidious racial prejudices of the protectors and police involved in Aboriginal child removal was the conviction, as one put it, that Aboriginal mothers, despite “momentary grief, soon forget their offspring”. Nellie Bliss did not forget Walter. On the morning of 18 July 1904 she paid William Craig a visit. She begged his help: “Master you write im letter longa government and tell im me too much cross [sorrowful] me cry all day longa my boy, you tell him quick fellow send im, longa me, me too much poor fellow.”

William Craig wrote that evening to the Home Secretary: “The sight of this helpless old gin with tears in her eyes on one side, pleading for her child, and the powerful Queensland government or its officials acting as a kidnapper on the other, has induced me to take up my pen again.” Craig told the Home Secretary he had recently met an Aboriginal escapee from Yarrabah who was hiding in the scrub, trying to get back to his land. This man had told him that the blacks at Yarrabah lived in a state of permanent hunger and that Walter, for stealing a piece of bread, had been placed in solitary confinement. Craig pleaded for the Home Secretary’s mercy. Would he not allow Walter to go home?

The Home Secretary forwarded Craig’s letter to Roth. He responded formulaically. Craig was now beside himself with rage. “I am sorry that the Home Secretary should have thought fit to have forwarded the mother’s prayer for mercy to you; the lamb does not expect mercy from the wolf.”“Do you dare”, he continued, “assert that under English law you have a better right to this boy than the mother who reared and fed him?”William Craig’s letter was passed back to the Home Secretary. He advised that no reply need be sent.

In 1906 Walter Roth quit Queensland for British Guiana, worn out by the political opposition that had followed him through his time as Chief Protector of Aborigines. For his part Walter stayed on at Yarrabah. Removal to Yarrabah was for most of its inmates a sentence for life. There is a faded typed page in a file in the Queensland State Archives recording the marriage on 13 April 1910 of a young man now called Walter Cardwell to another “half-caste”, Rosie Murray, who had, as it happens, been removed by Dr Roth from the blacks’ camp in Maytown in 1902.

ii . Margaret Tucker

During the decade after Walter was despatched to Yarrabah, the Aboriginal Protection Board in New South Wales fought a long political battle to have similar powers to those available to Dr Roth—to remove Aboriginal children from their parents—transferred to itself.

By the second decade of the twentieth century an estimated 7,000 Aborigines lived in New South Wales. Fewer than 2,000 were “full bloods”; the remainder were so-called “half-castes”—Aborigines of mixed descent. While the number of “full bloods” was declining, the number of “half-castes” was on the rise. Many Aborigines in New South Wales lived on the stations and reserves. Members of the Board believed that unless something drastic was done—to separate the children from their parents and families—the children would grow up on the settlements to a life of vice and indolence, becoming a permanent financial burden on the state.

In its Annual Report to parliament of 1912 the Board expressed its thinking on the nature of the Aboriginal problem in the following words:

The day is long past when it was possible to segregate the Aborigines. So far as full-bloods are concerned, the Board has done much with the limited funds at their disposal, to make their lot as easy as possible by providing suitable dwellings and supplying them with rations, clothing and blankets, and it is not proposed to interfere with them; but by far the greater number of those the Board have to deal with are half-castes, and others with a lesser degree of Aboriginal blood. With regard to the adults, it would be obviously harsh to turn a number of those who have families dependent upon them, and who have for years been taught to look upon themselves as Aborigines, away from the Reserves. On the other hand, unless some prompt measures are taken, the children who are now growing up, will, in a few years, be in the same position as their parents. Of these children, a number who are half-castes, quadroons and octoroons, are increasing with alarming rapidity. To allow these children to remain on the Reserves, to grow up in comparative idleness, and 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. The only solution of the problem, therefore, is to deal effectively with the children; and, while not unduly interfering with the relationship between parent and child, to see that they are properly trained to spheres of future usefulness, and once away from the Reserves not to allow them to return—except, perhaps, in the case of those who have parents, on an occasional visit. Past experience has shown that the children cannot be properly trained under their present environments, and it is essential that they should be removed at as early an age as possible to ensure success.

At the time this was written all children in New South Wales, including Aboriginal children, could be removed from their parents if neglect could be proved before a court. The problem facing the Board was that most of the Aboriginal children it had its eyes on were not suffering neglect. As the Board explained to the Chief Secretary in 1909: “Under the law these children cannot legally be called neglected … If the Aboriginal child happens to be decently clad and apparently looked after it is very difficult to show that the half-caste or Aboriginal child is actually in a neglected condition, and therefore it is impossible to succeed in court.”The Board thought it needed the power to separate children from their parents even where there was no question of neglect.

In 1915 legislation to give the Board precisely this power was debated in the New South Wales parliament. One member of the Assembly, Patrick McGarry, denounced the proposal:

These people are unfortunate because, in the interests of so-called civilisation, we have over-run their country and taken away their domain. We now propose to perpetrate further acts of cruelty upon them by separating the children from their parents. The mothers and fathers of these children love them just as much as the birds and animals of the bush care for their offspring, and honourable members would not perpetrate a cruelty of this kind even upon an animal.

Notwithstanding McGarry’s opposition, supported by two other members, the amending bill was passed with overwhelming support. The Board now had the removal powers it had long wanted, and it went into action. Among New South Wales Aborigines the most hated figure was the determined child remover, the Board member and then inspector, Robert Donaldson.

Margaret Clements was born at Warangesda, near Hay, in 1904. Her parents were both Aborigines of mixed descent, and Margaret grew up on three Aboriginal reserves, Moonahculla, Cumeragunga and Brungle. She was part of a large and close extended family of which her mother was the backbone. Her father, Bill Clements, was an itinerant worker who drifted in and out of his family’s life. The family was poor but not desperately so. Although on the reserves and stations, where different Aboriginal clans had come together, the culture of their mother’s and father’s people was in the process of breaking down, the Clements children, to judge by Margaret’s charming memoir written in later years, still lived a distinctively Aboriginal life—listening wide-eyed to the old stories of the spirit world, being treated by traditional remedies, roaming wild, hunting and eating native game. At the same time, the sisters went to school at both Moonahculla and Brungle.

According to the memoir of Margaret Clements, all Aboriginal families feared the police. When police arrived children fled into the bush. At Cumeragunga mothers and their children often swam across the Murray to escape. It was at Brungle that police representing the Protection Board first raised the suggestion that the Clements girls be sent to the training institute at Cootamundra. Their parents absolutely refused. Some time after, when her father had gone off shearing, Margaret’s mother took three of her daughters back to Moonahculla.

In 1915, as we have seen, the Aboriginal Protection Board at last received the power it wanted, to separate Aboriginal children from their parents at will. One day in 1917 the police arrived at the school at Moonahculla with orders to pick up the Clements girls. On that day Margaret and May were at school, while the youngest, Genevieve, was in hospital in Deniliquin. Margaret was thirteen at the time, May eleven.

The teacher–manager at Moonahculla, Mr Hill, ordered all other Aboriginal children to leave school. The children must have told their families what was taking place. Some forty or fifty Aborigines soon assembled. Hill’s wife was disturbed about the removal of Margaret and May behind their mother’s back. She told two boys to go at once to fetch their mother, who was working a mile and a half away. Mrs Hill delayed the girls’ departure by insisting they must eat. Margaret’s mother ran to the school. Her daughters clung on to her. She insisted, “They are my children and they not go with you.” The girls, mistaking a handcuff holster for a gun, thought the policemen might shoot their mother unless they agreed to go.

The policemen allowed Margaret’s mother to travel with her daughters in the police car to Deniliquin. Once there, another blow was struck.The police drove straight to the hospital to pick up Genevieve. For the remainder of her life Margaret remembers “the horror on my mother’s face and her heart-broken cry”. By chance the day before Genevieve had left the hospital with her aunt and uncle. “Mrs Clements, you can have your little girl.” Margaret’s mother was so grateful for this mercy that, time and again, she kissed the policeman’s hand. Margaret and May left their mother at the police station at Deniliquin. Mrs Clements waved frantically as her daughters sped away. What then?

I heard years later how after watching us go out of her life, she wandered away from the police station three miles along the road leading out of the town to Moonahculla. She was worn out, with no food or money, her apron still on. She wandered off the road to rest in the long grass under a tree. That is where old Uncle and Aunt found her next day. They found our mother still moaning and crying. They heard the sounds and thought it was an animal in pain. Uncle stopped the horse and got out of the buggy to investigate. Auntie heard him talking the language. She got down and rushed to old Uncle’s side. Mother was half-demented and ill. They gave her water and tried to feed her, but she couldn’t eat. She was not interested in anything for weeks, and wouldn’t let Genevieve out of her sight. She slowly got better, but I believe for months after, at the sight of a policeman’s white helmet coming round the bend of the river, she would find her little girl and escape into the bush, as did all the Aboriginal people who had children.

Margaret and May were trained for domestic service at the Cootamundra Girls’ Home. Within two years Margaret was sent out to a “situation” in Sydney. For the first time in her life she felt real fear. Here she was treated with great cruelty, beaten, abused as a worthless black, overworked, kept permanently hungry. Margaret was able to write to her mother from time to time. She conveyed what she was suffering by drawing pictures. Her mother and father came to Sydney, found out where her daughter worked and visited her. Her father secretly threw his daughter half a crown. Margaret was by now so lonely and starved of affection that the brief reunion with her parents sent her almost crazy with grief. Shortly after her parents had left, she tried to take her life with rat poison. For a few weeks after this incident, her mistress was less cruel. The ill-treatment then resumed. Eventually Margaret Clements was able to find a new situation in a New South Wales country town. She now met up with her sister May. May had been dealt with even more harshly than Margaret since leaving the Aboriginal training school at Cootamundra. She had with her a revolver.

She told Margaret that she would take her own life if the savage beatings by her present master ever resumed.

Eventually at the age of twenty-one, eight years after being taken from her family, Margaret Clements was permitted by the Protection Board to return to Moonahculla to be with her uncle before he died.Yet to some extent the policy of the Protection Board—to “solve the Aboriginal problem” by “dissociating the children from camp life”—had worked.

Margaret soon left for Melbourne to seek employment and later married into a non-Aboriginal family. What the Board could not have predicted, however, was that Margaret Tucker, as she became, would be drawn into Aboriginal politics in Melbourne or that she would write the first important book outlining the terrible cruelty of the child removal policies of Robert Donaldson and the New South Wales Aboriginal Protection Board.

iii . Lorna Cubillo

In 1911, four years before the New South Wales Protection Board won the right to take Aboriginal children from their parents, the Commonwealth government took over from South Australia the administration of the Northern Territory. It began to collect “half-caste” children almost at once.The policy seems to have been the brainchild of an administrator in the Territory, F. E. Goldsmith, and to have been set in place by the first Commonwealth Chief Protector of the Aborigines, Dr Herbert Basedow.

Basedow’s scheme for the institutionalisation of the Territory’s “half-caste” children received strong support from the Acting Administrator, Samuel James Mitchell. “In my opinion,” Mitchell wrote to his Minister in Canberra, “one of the first works to be undertaken is to gather in all the half-caste children who are living with Aborigines. The police could do most of this work. No doubt the mothers would object and there would be an outcry from well-meaning people about depriving the mother of her child but the future of the children should I think outweigh all other considerations.” The policy course was struck.

Where, however, were these “half-caste” children to go? In the north of the Territory, the police-protectors who gathered them in brought the children to Darwin, at first to the general Aboriginal reserve, the Kahlin Compound; later, from 1924, in order better to segregate the “half-caste” from the “full blood”, they were taken to a nearby three-bedroom house. In what conditions did the Darwin “half-castes” live? In 1927 the superintendent of Kahlin Compound reported thus: “The building is not only too small, but is very much out of repair … the floor is rotten … the shower is out of order … In the kitchen the stove is unfit for use …” Worst of all was the overcrowding. It is difficult to believe but none the less true that by the late 1920s, seventy-six babies, children and young adults were living in a cottage suitable for a single family. The inmates were locked in for twelve hours or more.

In the southern half of the Territory, in the corrugated iron shed known as the Bungalow, conditions were even worse. In 1924 a journalist visited the Bungalow at Alice Springs. He described the place as “a horror” where the souls of fifty human beings were being destroyed. In 1929 the Reverend Davies visited the Bungalow when it moved to Jay’s Creek. “The accommodation provided exhausts my power to paint adequately … The whole place makes me boil that such a thing can be tolerated in a Christian country.”

No-one endowed the sorry business of child removal with a grander social and geo-political purpose than the architect of Aboriginal policy in the Northern Territory between 1927 and 1939, the Chief Protector Dr Cecil Cook.When his protectorship began, no more than 3,000 Europeans were settled in the Territory. They were vastly outnumbered by Aborigines—18,000 “full bloods” and 800 “half-castes”. Cook was particularly obsessed by the menace posed to White Australia by the “half-castes”. Anxious brooding on rates of birth convinced him that in one or two generations the Territory’s “half-castes” would outnumber the whites.

How was such a nightmare to be averted? Dr Cook’s plans were clear. All “half-caste” children must continue to be collected by the police and institutionalised in the state-run homes in Darwin and Alice Springs. In these homes the “half-castes” were to be segregated from the “full bloods”. The girls were to be given a rudimentary education, trained in the domestic arts and released, at age fourteen or so, into service in respectable white homes. The boys were to be prepared for work as station hands.

Dr Cook, however, was concerned not only with the social but also the biological future of the “half-castes” under his control. As Chief Protector under the Territory ordinance of 1918, Cook wielded immense power over the lives of the Aborigines, including the right to approve or veto marriage. During his protectorship, marriages between “half-castes” and “full bloods” were, in practice, forbidden. More unusually, a vital dimension of Cook’s policy was to try to arrange for the marriage of “half-caste” girls to European males. He believed that if the state encouraged marriages between “half-caste” females and white males, over four or five generations the stain of Aboriginal blood could eventually be bred out altogether. Cook was the champion of a policy called “breeding out the colour”, or more popularly, “fuck ’em up white”.

In 1939 the policy and practice of child removal in the Northern Territory changed gear. Dr Cook had always been a fierce opponent of the Christian missions. His successor, the former colonial administrator of Papua New Guinea W. P. Chinnery, was not. In 1940 Chinnery decided to close the Government’s “half-caste” homes in Darwin and Alice Springs and to transfer their inmates to a new Roman Catholic home on Melville Island and a new Methodist home on Croker Island.

As it turned out, these plans were interrupted. After the Japanese bombing of Darwin in January 1942, virtually all the “half-caste” children institutionalised in the Territory were transferred south, chiefly to South Australia (where one group was housed in horse stables at Balaklava) and to New South Wales. At the end of the war most of these children returned to the Territory. The Christian island homes reopened. Two new “half-caste” homes were created—the fundamentalist Retta Dixon Home in Darwin and the Anglican St Mary’s Hostel in Alice Springs.

Lorna Napanangka was born in 1938 at Banka Banka Station near Tennant Creek. Her mother was Maudie of the Waramungu people and her father a European soldier named Horace Nelson. Horace abandoned Maudie, who died shortly after Lorna’s birth. Lorna was raised by her mother’s sister, Maisie, whom she believed to be her biological mother, and by her grandmother. Little is known of Lorna’s first years. All that is clear is that Lorna moved at some stage from Banka Banka to a new station depot, Seven Mile Creek; from Seven Mile Creek to Six Mile Creek; and in August 1945, because of lack of water, from there to Phillip Creek.

Phillip Creek was established by the Aborigines Island Mission with the assistance of the Northern Territory Native Affairs Branch. More than 200 Aborigines, of both the Waramungu and Walpiri peoples, settled there. The adults camped around the settlement. When they reached school age the children were separated from their families and placed in dormitories—the “full blood” boys in one; the “full blood” girls in another; the “half-caste” boys and girls in a third. It was in the “half-caste” dormitory that Lorna slept.

There is some uncertainty about whether or not Lorna’s “mother”, Maisie, lived permanently at Phillip Creek or worked at Banka Banka. There is even some uncertainty about whether or not her grandmother was still alive. What is not uncertain, however, is that Lorna was a happy and healthy child who spoke both the Waramungu and Walpiri tongues but little English and lived among a large, warm extended family at Phillip Creek. There is considerable controversy about how far the “half-caste” children were accepted within the traditional Aboriginal world. There is no controversy, however, with regard to Lorna Napanangka’s acceptance by her people. Two “full blood” Aboriginal women who lived at Phillip Creek with Lorna, Bunny and Annie Naparrula, gave evidence in 1999 before a court. They said that all the “half-caste” children at Phillip Creek were fully accepted by their Aboriginal families and dearly loved. “No-one”, Bunny said, “hated these half-caste kids; mothers and stepfathers, they looked after them just like their own.”

During the war the policy of collecting the “half-caste” children had, of necessity, been abandoned. After the war the old policy was resumed. By mid-1947 it appeared as if the new “half-caste” home in Darwin, Retta Dixon, had both the room and the staff to take in the sixteen or so “half-caste” children living at Phillip Creek. On 23 July both Amelia Shankelton, the head of Retta Dixon, and Les Penhall, a cadet patrol officer, arrived separately at Phillip Creek.Within a day, the “half-caste” children were loaded onto Penhall’s truck and driven away. All the camp was howling for the children, Annie Naparrula remembered. The women in the camp—in the traditional ritual for the mourning of the dead—beat their heads with sticks until they bled. Some women and children locked themselves indoors. Some temporarily left the camp—a place of sorrow. One mother of a child who had been taken was never to return. For the Aborigines who lived at Phillip Creek, the removal of the sixteen “half-caste” children on 14 July 1947 would never be forgotten. One of the children removed was Lorna Napanangka. On the two-day journey to Darwin she nursed an infant, suffering from diarrhoea, less than two years old. Fifty years later Lorna claimed she had never fully recovered her mental balance after the sudden inexplicable loss on that day of her family and her world.

Lorna Nelson, as she was now called, was an inmate of Retta Dixon for the next ten years. Some Aborigines have fond memories of Retta Dixon, especially of Amelia Shankelton and two other female staff. Not Lorna Napanangka. For her Retta Dixon was a place where she was starved of all physical and emotional affection, where her language was beaten out of her, where a regime of joyless, puritanical religiosity prevailed and where the beliefs of people like her mother and grandmother were said to condemn the soul to hell. Lorna’s feelings with regard to Amelia Shankelton were ambivalent—a mixture of rebellion and respect. Her feelings with regard to one of the male missionaries—“the chief judge and whipper” as he was once called—were a combination of intense loathing and animal fear. On one occasion this missionary placed his hand high on her thigh. On another occasion, for a trivial breach of the Sabbath rules, he beat Lorna so savagely with a belt and buckle that her face was scarred and her nipple almost torn off. Almost fifty years later this missionary spoke in court with such an air of superior rectitude about how the rod of correction could straighten out a child that it chilled the judge’s heart.

During her years at Retta Dixon, Lorna lost almost all contact with her family. Once some relatives approached the Home. Lorna tried to touch their hands across the fence. She was called away and strapped. Shortly before she left Retta Dixon, Lorna Nelson travelled to Banka Banka and Tennant Creek. Although she met Maisie and other family, she found she could no longer even converse freely with them because of her loss of language and divergent life experience. The severance from family was complete.

Lorna Cubillo, as she came to be called after her marriage, settled in Darwin, married a sometimes violent Filipino, bore six children, suffered much ill health and worked as a cleaner and then a clerical assistant until her retirement in 1991.

In 1996 she and Peter Gunner, another “half-caste” Aborigine separated from his family and community as a child, sued the Commonwealth government for wrongful imprisonment and breach of duty of care, among other things. Two psychiatrists who examined her before the trial thought that she had suffered from chronic depression and post-traumatic stress disorder for the remainder of her life as a consequence of her removal. The Gunner–Cubillo case was heard in the Federal Court between 1998 and 2000. In August 2000 Justice O’Loughlin, although far from unsympathetic to her suffering, dismissed her case and that of Peter Gunner on a variety of legal grounds.

iv. Malcolm Charles Smith

In New South Wales in 1940, the power that the Aborigines Protection Board had acquired in 1915 to remove Aboriginal children at will was withdrawn. The separation of an Aboriginal child from his or her parents was now governed by general child welfare legislation and required the agreement of a court. Even more importantly, over the decades the rationale of the policy and practice of Aboriginal child removal had changed throughout Australia. Before the Second World War, child removal was thought of as an exercise in racial–social engineering, a way of finding a solution to the “problem” of the Aborigines. After the war it changed gradually into an administrative habit, the more or less routine response of police, welfare workers and the courts to the difficulties Aboriginal families so frequently faced. In this era Aboriginal child removal was an instrument of assimilation. It was also the expression of something no less destructive but altogether more banal—a racism rooted in the shallow soil of indifference and thoughtlessness.

Malcolm Smith grew up along the Darling River, one of thirteen children born to Joe and Gladys, respectively of Ngyiampaa and Pankantji descent. In order to maintain their freedom and to avoid the tedium of life on one of the New South Wales stations or reserves, Joe and Gladys kept on the move throughout their early married life, taking all they possessed in a horse-drawn cart, sleeping under a tarpaulin. Eventually they and their children settled in a shack they built at the Old Dareton Mission, as it was called, a rough Aboriginal camp without a water supply or electricity but also without the presence of a European manager to interfere in their lives.

Throughout these years Joe worked as a musterer, saw-miller, fruit-picker and rabbiter; Gladys, who had lost a hand in a shooting accident at the age of sixteen, tended the children with love and care. The most conspicuous success of the couple was their ability to avoid, throughout their years together, the attention of welfare and the police. This was a time, as Joe would later put it, when “we used to dodge welfare people because all Aboriginal people knew they used to take the children away.” In 1965 Gladys died. Malcolm was eleven years old at the time, a carefree boy who swam in the irrigation channels, hunted birds with his shanghai and who, while enrolled, very rarely went to school. Although they helped their father out at times with the young ones, the older girls of the Smith family were beginning to have babies of their own.When he went fruit picking, Joe would take his six youngest children, all boys, along with him.

On one occasion Malcolm and his elder brother Robert stole bicycles from the local high school. Joe returned the bikes and gave his sons a belting. Nonetheless the police arrested Malcolm and Robert. They were charged at Wentworth with being in a condition of neglect. Joe attended the hearing, but without legal representation. He barely understood what was taking place. His sons were found guilty and sent to Kinchela Aboriginal Boys’ Home near Kempsey, 1,500 kilometres away. Joe had no idea where his boys had been sent. He was illiterate and had never written a letter in his life. Moreover, after the death of Gladys he turned to drink. Soon after, he also lost control of his four youngest sons to a Salvation Army home in Melbourne, although they, unlike Robert and Malcolm, never lost contact with their family at Dareton, going home each Christmas for holidays. Unlike their two older brothers, none of them ever fell into serious trouble with the law.

Malcolm from the age of eleven lived in institutions. He endured first the dreary routine of Kinchela and then, after his release and his immediate involvement in petty crime, the punitive regime of Mt Penang and the brutal regime of Tamworth Boys’ Home, the toughest youth prison in the State. In 1972, for the first time since his incarceration, the authorities decided to contact Malcolm Smith’s family. His father was keen to have him back. The prison authorities noticed that his spirits lifted at once. In early 1973 Malcolm returned to Dareton. It was his first contact with any member of his family, except for Robert, in seven years. He and his family had a lot of catching up to do.

At Dareton, Malcolm Smith returned almost at once to his life of petty, impulsive property crime. In the years between 1973 and 1980 his life became a series of substantial prison terms punctuated by the briefest periods of freedom. In 1980, while inside, Malcolm began receiving letters from home which told of how one of his sisters, Peggy, was being bashed and harassed by her white boyfriend,Terry Percival. Malcolm took it into his head that as soon as he was free he would act as the protector of his sister as he had been the protector of several fellow-prisoners over the years. On release Malcolm Smith found Terry Percival in a pub, took him outside and beat him to death on the footpath. It was the first really violent or serious crime he had committed in his life. When he was arrested he discovered, to his dismay, that members of his family were appalled by what he had done. They disowned him altogether. When he went to trial for the killing of Percival, several gave evidence against him, including Peggy and his father, Joe. Malcolm was found guilty of manslaughter, and returned to gaol.

Malcolm Smith’s life now changed. In various prisons in New South Wales he suffered a series of psychotic breakdowns. One psychiatrist who later examined his case, Dr Rodney Milton, thought he was most likely crushed by his family’s rejection of him and overwhelmed by feelings of remorse and guilt. Malcolm now took to Christianity, listening incessantly to Bible tapes in his cell and carrying a Bible on his person although he could not read. At some moments, when delusional, he believed that he was Jesus Christ and that he was being crucified. At some moments he was very violent. At yet other moments, more common, he began to inflict upon himself serious physical harm. Malcolm became increasingly obsessed by a passage from the Gospel of St Matthew, chapter 5, verse 29: “If thy eye offends thee, pluck it out.” In September 1982 he gouged out his left eye with such force that he lost the sight of it permanently. When he was less tormented Malcolm painted pictures, either with an Aboriginal or a Christian theme.

On 29 December 1982 Malcolm Smith took a paintbrush into a toilet cubicle. Hal Wootten, one of the Royal Commissioners into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, who later examined his case and on whose wise and humane report I have relied for my interpretation of his life, recorded what happened to Malcolm Smith: “[The warders] found Malcolm kneeling on the floor near the toilet pan, muttering something that sounded like ‘Oh God.’They saw the bristles and metal sleeve of a paint brush protruding from his eye.” A week later he was pronounced dead.

God only knows what would have happened to Malcolm Smith if he had been with his family during his teenage years. All we know is that at the age of eleven he was a healthy and a happy boy and that, as a consequence of stealing a bike, he was removed from all contact with his family for the next seven years. In the post-war years, the separation of Aboriginal children from their families by the authorities had become little more than a reflex action when difficulties arose. For this habit of the authorities, Malcolm Smith, and many thousands of other children, would pay a truly terrible price.


This is an extract from Robert Manne's Quarterly Essay, In Denial: The stolen generations and the Right. To read the full essay, subscribe or buy the book.


Robert Manne is emeritus professor of politics at La Trobe University. His recent books include On Borrowed TimeMaking Trouble: Essays Against the New Complacency, and The Words that Made Australia (as co-editor). He has written three Quarterly Essays and is a regular contributor to the Monthly and the Guardian.


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