Post by Neil_Hindu_Sikh_Kashmiri
An Indian is a human being who looks to be just ... where as you are not
living side by side with Aboriginals you are knocking them off and taking
their land, that is the difference between an Indian and a British/European
reject like you.
Post by Hunter1
A member of our society that lives side by side with the
rest of our society. What is an Indian?
Race and Remembrance:
Contesting Aboriginal Child Removal in the Inter-War Years
© all rights reserved
In her influential book The Australian Aboriginal as a Human Being
published in 1930 activist, writer and mission educator Mary Bennett
denounced the removal of Aboriginal women and girls as 'akin to
slavery' and as contravening the League of Nations Covenant and
Slavery Convention, both signed in preceding years by the federal
government. 1 When her paper 'The Aboriginal Mother in Western
Australia' was read at the 1933 annual conference of the London-based
Dominion Women's British Commonwealth League, accusations of
Aboriginal slavery made London and then Australian newspaper
headlines. 2 Such outspoken criticisms were denounced by Prime
Minister Lyons in terms remarkably similar to present day discussions
of international criticisms of Aboriginal status and conditions in
The raking up of atrocities that may have occurred in the early days
of settlement in Australia and the featuring of them as an indication
of the state of affairs existing today is not only unfair to the
Governments of to-day, but is extremely detrimental to the good name
of Australia. 3
This concern for national reputation in the eyes of the world points
to the preoccupation with identity which has marked Australian
culture. In their collection on memory and history, Kate Darian-Smith
and Paula Hamilton note that this nationalist preoccupation with
claiming a 'past' has predominated, both from European ways of seeing
and understanding and from acts of erasure in 'a deliberate
non-recognition and a deletion of the existing Aboriginal history'.
The combined effects of memory and forgetting continues to 'haunt
Australian society today'. 4
In recent years feminist historians have well established the gendered
nature of such nationalist accounts, they have been arguably less
ready to investigate the play of gender, sexuality and race in
constituting national pasts and presents. Along with Thom Blake,
Aboriginal historian Jackie Huggins finds that guilt and fear has
limited the writing of raced and gendered histories in Australia.
White feminist historians have yet to fully engage with anglo-women's
historical role in removal, including their sometimes abusive
treatment of Aboriginal women domestic servants. 5 Acknowledging this
silence/silencing, Australian feminist historian Ann Curthoys has
argued that only through recognition of the complicity of feminism in
Australia's colonial and imperial past can feminist history fully
engage with questions of race as well as gender and class 6
Taking the complicity of white women as members of the colonising
power as my starting point, I now want to consider evidence against
child removal provided by anglo-Australian women activists including
Mary Bennett to the 1934 Moseley Royal Commission into Aboriginal
status and conditions in Western Australia. My aim here is not to
construct a recuperative account of Australian feminists' proper
attention to race relations, nor to invent a new nationalist tradition
for feminism in Australia, 7 but rather to interrogate the gendered
nationalist and racialist contexts within and across which a feminist
politics against child removal was articulated. I argue that
challenges to child removal policies by anglo-Australian women
activists at this time raises critical questions about the complex
amalgam of welfare humanism, cultural and racial theory and population
eugenics central to White Australia's administration of Aboriginal
men, women and children and the particular relation of white women to
During the inter-war years members of various women's organisations
such as Bessie Rischbieth (Women's Service Guilds of Western Australia
and the Australian Federation of Women Voters), Ada Bromham (Women's
Service Guilds and the Woman Christian Temperance Union) and Mary
Montgomery Bennett campaigned in Australia and overseas for the reform
of Aboriginal policy and administration including the end of child
removal. In conducting a pro-Aboriginal rights campaign the
anglo-Australian, middle class members of these organisations came to
publicly question Australia's past and present treatment of Aboriginal
people, especially women and children, proposing a future 'national'
responsibility to include land, citizenship, increased welfare,
education and the protection of bodily, family and community rights.
(As we have seen, they promoted their national reform aims
successfully from London.) Thus women activists contested Australian
race relations, promoting what they considered to be a 'moral'
national response to the Aboriginal question. 8
In contrast racial policy in Australia during the 20s and 30s was
structured around concerns about miscegenation and its perceived
threat to racial viability: administrators argued for the biological
absorption of a growing mixed-descent population while preserving for
posterity declining numbers of full-descent Aborigines. The removal
and institutionalisation of mixed-descent children (predominantly
girls to be trained as domestic servants) was a key strategy employed
towards these policy aims. Thus Aboriginal women were subjected to the
trauma of child removal, undertaken by state authorities who assumed
parental guardianship of their 'illegitimate half-caste' children.
From 1911 the Western Australian Act, for example, excluded the rights
of Aboriginal mothers of 'half-caste' children in favour of the Chief
Protector, and was amended in 1936 to preclude a living parent or any
relative. State guardianship over removed children was extended from
16 to 21. The Chief Protector also held financial control over the
earnings of Aboriginal workers. 9
Such so-called protective legislation amounted to persecution by the
systematic separation and isolation of Aboriginal girls and young
women, and sought to eradicate 'half-castes' through the control of
Aboriginal women's reproductive lives. 10 Western Australian Chief
Protector A.O. Neville was a proponent of biological assimilationism,
arguing for the 'breeding out of colour'. Under Neville's authority
mixed-descent Aborigines were to be isolated from full-descent
Aborigines, and marriages were to be restricted to those of
'compatible' racial make-up through the protective
institutionalisation of Aboriginal women and children on government
institutions such as Moore River Settlement. 11 These policy aims came
under question during the 1934 Royal Commission appointed to
'Investigate, Report, and Advise upon Matters in Relation to the
Conditions and Treatment of Aborigines' led by Perth stipendiary
police magistrate, Henry Doyle Moseley. His brief included recent
press accusations of concerning the ill-treatment of Aboriginal
people. 12 What follows concerning the question of Aboriginal child
removal is taken from unpublished transcripts of evidence to the
In her testimony to the inquiry Mary Bennett asserted that
Aboriginality and maternal power were closely linked; the survival of
one depended upon the other. She singled out the mother-daughter bond
as particularly important to racial and cultural survival and the
successful entry or self-regulated assimilation of Aboriginal women
into non-Aboriginal society:
What Australia's aboriginal half-caste daughters need is their own
mothers who love them, and their own homes among their own people, and
teaching, until such time as they shall have attained legal and
economic and political freedom, and meet white people on terms of
The caring family with the mother-daughter dyad at its centre rather
than the 'patriarchal' parenting offered by an interventionist
administration) was, she argued, the greatest encouragement to all
forms of 'uplift': '[d]epartmentalism is no substitute for mother
love'. 14 Government policy merely exacerbated the destructive effects
of dispossession by the 'official smashing of family life' 15 -- the
removal of Aboriginal children from their homes, families and
communities and their wardship under the Chief Protector himself. In
Bennett's opinion the disastrous outcomes of this policy were
manifold. For those girls who had been removed, both employment and
unemployment placed them 'in the greatest peril'. 16 Government
policies of sending them into white homes as domestic servants left
them 'to earn their living in great loneliness in an alien community'
17 where 'unnecessary crimes and tragedies' 18 ensued. Her
conceptualisation of the 'Aboriginal or half-caste woman' protected by
her family and community was in stark contrast to the ever-single
available lubra of contemporary frontier discourse and of the racist
polices of absorption promoted by Neville.
The removal of Aboriginal children was a practice that Bennett had
long argued was 'violating the family sentiment on which their whole
culture is founded' and resulted in long-term psychological and
emotional damage. 19 Throughout these years, she maintained that far
from causing Aboriginal women little anguish (a common belief) child
removal psychologically and emotionally damaged both mother and child:
The mothers are utterly wrapped up in their children. Their human
relationships are the only things that they can have (sometimes) when
white need permits and even these the grinding tyranny and feudal
system of the Department seeks to take. 20
The ongoing removal of 'half-caste' children particularly affected
young Aboriginal women who lived in constant fear of discovery.
Bennett defended leaving 'half-caste' children in camps (which she
hoped would become village settlements) because their removal would
only lead to 'promiscuous relationships with white people, so that
they belong to no one and have no family ties'. 21 She recommended a
change in attitude to the treatment of 'half-caste' girls under the
control of the Department because a cycle of despair faced the many
Aboriginal and 'half-caste' women and their children either in flight
from authorities, or detained in the Department's infamous Moore River
Settlement. According to Bennett her Aboriginal informants described
the Government's Moore River Settlement as a 'prison farm'. She
provided detailed accounts of starvation, of summary beatings and
prison conditions, accusations also made in the testimony of
Aboriginal witnesses themselves. 22
Equally determined to defend the Aboriginal mother and child against
state intervention Ada Bromham testified that Aboriginal women she
knew were working but lost their earnings to pay for the support of
their children, even though '[u]nder the law the mother has no right
over the child.' Bromham pointed out that the Chief Protector's powers
of guardianship over all Aboriginal children overrode maternal rights:
'[i]t is becoming more or less the practice to take children away
rather than to try and obtain maintenance from fathers'. Noting that
the sexual availability of Aboriginal women was 'useful' to
maintaining the frontier sexual economy, she added: '[t]here is a
feeling that the aboriginal woman has been more or less useful and
that those administering the Act consider there is not much harm in
the system that has grown up.' 23
And in her evidence to the inquiry Bessie Rischbieth called for a
Commonwealth investigation into the 'present alleged practice of
taking children of a certain age to the Government mission stations
and thus depriving their parents of the custody of their children'.
She argued that if deemed 'neglected' (by which they were often
removed by authorities) Aboriginal children should be subject to
adoption as was the case with white children. However, she explained,
'In most instances I should prefer to see the children left with their
parents ... (T)he system should be improved in order that [Aboriginal
parents] might keep their children'. The state had a duty to support
motherhood, including Aboriginal mothers whose economic conditions
might otherwise make it impossible for them to adequately care for
their children. 24
In their evidence to the Royal Commission the majority of activist
women expressed no doubt as to the dreadful emotional pain suffered in
silence by fearful Aboriginal children and mothers and to their
reliance upon the (white, enfranchised English speaking, middle-class)
women's voice to give expression to their anguish. Because of
Aboriginal women's exclusion from enfranchised political identity,
women activists claimed for themselves a crucial role in shaping
Australia's future Aboriginal policy. 25 The Women's Service Guilds
journal The Dawn claimed in 1927, '[i]t must be remembered that the
[A]borigines are an inarticulate race, unable to voice their own
wrongs, hence the more reason that others must do it for them'. 26
Used to acting in the name of 'women', they understood their duty as
'women of Australia' to include demands for Aboriginal land rights,
citizenship, education, employment and family life.
Central to that political duty was a critique of white masculinity.
The prostitution of Aboriginal women and the denial of their offspring
revealed the white man as 'unnatural', callous and lacking in
compassion. Insisting on cross-class responsibility Bennett argued
that 'wealthy squatters, station-managers and others', the father of
'half-caste' children, showed no responsibility to any woman, 'black
or white'. They betrayed both individual Aboriginal women and white
womankind by their immoral often adulterous behaviour. They were
happier to retain their unclaimed children as 'serfs' or station
workers rather than fulfil their parental duty to teach them to become
'self-supporting, self-respecting Australian citizens', a potential
Bennett told the Moseley Royal Commission she had witnessed as the
teacher of 'half-caste' children: 'cleverer, finer, more affectionate,
responsive children cannot be found anywhere.' 27
Appalled by what they considered to be the devastating consequences of
the removal of Aboriginal children, women activists insisted that
mother and child must be kept together at all costs. Local,
community-based, self-sufficient reserves would offer safe areas for
women to bring up their children within Christian marriage. Yet even
those Aboriginal women who married on missions and entered the
workplace as 'happy, self-respecting young couples' under the
protection of their husbands and Christian law were faced with 'risks
and dangers ... we would not tolerate if our own daughters were the
ones who had to face them'. 28 In thus positioning the Aboriginal
woman as 'our' daughter, activist women such as Bennett confronted the
paternalism of the Board in a reversal of its own terms -- it was not
by imagining 'other' daughters but their own that white men might be
persuaded to stop their abuse.
Women activists envisaged a future national policy which would
endeavour to respect Aboriginal women as mothers and uphold their
rights to family life. They linked femininity with assimilation into
society by promoting citizenship for Aboriginal women in terms of
universal family and motherhood rights -- those of choice of husband,
the economic viability of the family unit and recognition of the
fundamental mother/child bond which they argued was central to
Aboriginal society as it was to their own. As independent and elite
women, many of whom regularly travelled overseas, they pursued
professional careers for themselves. In contrast they mobilised an
idealised version of working-class family life for Aboriginal people
in which Aboriginal women would along with Aboriginal men negotiate
economic and social assimilation for themselves and their children.
White activist women's concern for the familial and bodily rights of
Aboriginal women arose from their analysis of the exploitation and
abuse that they found characterised Aboriginal women's sexual
relationships with white men. Although both maternalistic and
patronising, these women activists' investment in 'uplifted'
Aboriginal family life was an attempt to counter the overwhelming
obstacles they saw denying the rights of Aboriginal people to family,
home and paid work. Arguably their pro-family campaign countered
contemporary representations of Aboriginal women as dissolute and
immoral, not married under white law and therefore sexually available
to all white men. Bennett found that frontier conditions across the
whole continent were dangerous for Aboriginal women because of the
activities of 'average ordinary' itinerant white men. 29
Such contestations of Aboriginal policy during the inter-war years
give testimony to the complex reverberations of memory and forgetting
that have shaped and continue to shape Australian history. The
'forgetting of the past in the present', according to Chris Healy,
effects a 'silencing' of 'encounters between black and white' 30 ,
encounters that I understand here as present within anglo-Australians'
defence of varying versions of assimilationism. Historical memory
plays a significant role in present-day politicians' legitimisation of
a return to an unapologetically assimilationist line. Insisting upon a
homogenous past which unites 'us all', the Minister for Aboriginal
Affairs, Senator Heron, has compared Aboriginal child removal to
leaving home for boarding school, a practice long considered good for
the (white, upper class, anglo-Australian) child and if damaging in
hindsight certainly not worthy of compensation. His message is that
while we may find such separations cruel, they were carried out by
well-meaning individuals often struggling in the face of a child's or
a mother's pain, but who toughened their hearts believing their
actions were in the best interests of the child. Through their
assertions of a united nation, Aboriginal people are to be denied a
distinct historical, cultural and social relationship to the colonial
As attested to in the recent national inquiry into the removal of
Aboriginal children from their families, however, child removal has
had a profoundly traumatic impact upon Aboriginal individuals and
groups and communities across generations. 31 This legacy continues to
confront non-Aboriginal Australians with their tenuous identity as
settler-colonials. For his part, Prime Minister John Howard admonishes
historians to focus upon working and middle class Australia's past of
'settlers' and migrants as the makers of real national history.
Dwelling upon the 'regrettable' past of racialist policies amounts to
'obsessive and consuming national guilt and shame'; it is a '"black
armband" view of our past' which seeks to obscure the 'balance sheet
of our history', 'heroic achievement' of its immigrant men and their
helpmeets, immigrant women. 32
Where then does this leave Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal contestations
of Aboriginal policy such as child removal. How might it be possible
to retrieve a sense of contestation over Aboriginal policy and
administration without conversely being accused of writing
recuperative, non-racist history? The campaigning of Aboriginal
organisations and humanitarian groups was considerable during the
1920s increasing into the 1930s. As Howard's repudiation indicates,
concern has largely focussed on the motivation of men (and to a lesser
extent women) officials, missionaries and others who formulated policy
and/or participated in its administration. Were they cruel racists or
merely misled by the racial theory of their day? I argue that the
inter-war contestations of policies of assimilation and authorities'
counter-defence disturbs any easy either/or reading of these
non-Aboriginal men and women. Writing their history does not seek to
assimilate their actions into a homogenous nationalist account of the
past; rather I would argue that it offers an opportunity to recognise
the complex and often contradictory political history of
non-Aboriginal Australian women's and men's responses to indigenous
rights in Australia.
Fiona Paisley lectures at the Centre for Women's Studies at the ANU.
She has published a number of articles on women's pro-indigenous
activism during the inter-war years and is currently writing a book on
Notes and References
1. Mary Montgomery Bennett, The Australian Aboriginal as a Human
Being, Alston Rivers, London, 1930, for example, p. 122.
2. British Commonwealth League Conference Report, 1933, pp.44-45,
Fawcett Library; The Mail (London), 17 June 1933, p.2; Sydney Morning
Herald, 18 June 1933,p.1.
3. Sydney Morning Herald, 20 July 1933, quoted in Governing Savages by
Andrew Markus, Allen and Unwin, Sydney, pp.141-142.
4. Kate Darian-Smith and Paula Hamilton, Memory and History in
Twentieth Century Australia, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1994,
5. Jackie Huggins and Thom Blake, 'Protection or Persecution? Gender
Relations in the Era of Racial Segregation', in Gender Relations in
Australia: Domination or Negotiation, eds Kay Saunders and Raymond
Evans, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1992, pp.42-58.
6. Ann Curthoys, 'Identity Crisis: Colonialism, Nation, and Gender in
Australian History', Gender and History, vol. 5, no. 2 (Summer 1993,
p.172; work which begins this project includes that by Marilyn Lake,
Catriona Elder and myself. See for example, Lake, 'Between Old World
"Barbarism" and Stone Age "Primitivism": The Double Difference of the
White Australian Feminist', in Australian Women: Contemporary Feminist
Thought, eds Norma Grieve and Ailsa Burns, Oxford University Press,
Melbourne, 1994, pp.80-91; Fiona Paisley, 'No Back Streets in the
Bush: 1920s and 1930s Pro-Aboriginal White Women's Activism and the
Trans-Australia Railway', Australian Feminist Studies, vol. 12, no. 25
(April 1997), pp. 119-138; Catriona Elder, "It was hard for us to
marry Aboriginal": Some Meanings of Singleness for Aboriginal Women in
Australia in the 1930s', Lilith, no. 8 (Summer 1993), pp.151-173.
7. Here I am drawing on Eric Hobsbawm's notion of 'invented
traditions' through which collective memory is authorised. See
Hobsbawm, 'Introduction: Invented Traditions' in The Invention of
Tradition, eds Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger, Cambridge University
Press, Cambridge, 1983, pp.1-14.
8. See Paisley, Ideas Have Wings: White Women Challenge Aboriginal
Policy, 1920-1937, PhD, La Trobe University, 1995.
9. Western Australian Aborigines Act Amendment Act, 1911, no. 42,
Statutes of Western Australia, Government Printer, Perth; Western
Australian Act to Amend the Aborigines' Act, 1936, Statutes of Western
Australia, Government Printer, Perth, no. 43, section 7.
10. Patricia Jacobs, 'Science and Veiled Assumptions: Miscegenation in
W.A. 1930-1937', Australian Aboriginal Studies, no. 2 (1986),
11. Anna Haebich, For Their Own Good: Aborigines and Government in the
Southwest of Western Australia, 1900-1914, University of Western
Australia, Perth, 1988.
12. Western Australian Votes and Proceedings, vol. 1, 1935, pp.1-24.
As I show in my thesis, government officials had collected a large
file of such press clippings. Mary Bennett required her own file.
Paisley, 'Ideas Have Wings: White Women Challenge Aboriginal Policy,
1920-1937', PhD, La Trobe, 1995, pp. 274-280.
13. 'Report of the Royal Commission Appointed to Investigate, Report,
and Advise on Matters in Relation to the Condition and Treatment of
Aborigines, 1934, Transcripts of Evidence, State Archives of Western
Australia, AN 537, Acc. 2922 [hereafter MRTE], p. 341.
14. ibid, p.229.
16. ibid, p.223.
17. ibid, p.269.
18. ibid, p.223.
19. The Dawn, (Journal of the Women's Service Guilds of Western
Australia) 20 January 1932, p.1.
20. Bennett to anthropologist Olive Pink, Olive Pink Papers,
Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies,
2368/A3, 223, A3b; B1F(a) (2), 4.
21. MRTE, p.301.
22. See their evidence, MRTE, pp.464-466, and Neville's accusations of
Bennett's undue influence upon them, pp.644-645.
23. MRTE, p.557.
24. MRTE, pp.539-540.
25. Antoinette has described the mobilisation of 'the Indian woman' in
presuffrage British feminism. See Burton, Burdens of History: British
Feminists, Indian Women, and Imperial Culture, 1865-1915 University of
California Press, London, 1994.
26. The Dawn, 19 July 1927, p.14. They also promoted themselves as
'world women'. See Paisley, 'Citizens of Their World: Australian
Feminism and Indigenous Rights in the International Context, 1920s and
1930s', Feminist Review, forthcoming 1997.
27. MRTE, p. 222.
28. ibid, p.223.
29. Daily News (Sydney), 13 December 1933, clipping, 'Allegations by
Mrs. M. M. Bennett', State Archives of Western Australia, DNW AN 1/7,
Acc. 993, 166/1932.
Whatever the basis of such relationships, policies of child removal
continued throughout these years; Aboriginal women and men who gave
evidence to the 1934 Royal Commission were intent upon ending the
incarceration of their relations at Moore River. Other Aboriginal
women who submitted written evidence to the inquiry demanded their
total exemption from Aboriginal legislation which they argued would
reduce abuses of power by white men protectors. A group describing
itself as the 'Half-caste women of Broome' sent a closely typed, three
page petition to Moseley outlining their own set of reform aims for
Aboriginal policy comparable to those advanced by white women
activists. They demanded work and family independence, autonomy in the
choice of marriage partner, education for their children, funding for
welfare in their community and security for their families from the
threat of removal. Although acknowledging the value of white women
advisors these petitioners ultimately called for the end to state
power over their lives. See document 2.9, 'Make us happy subjects of
this our country', Freedom Bound II: Documents on Women in Modern
Australia, editors Katie Holmes and Marilyn Lake, Allen and Unwin,
Sydney, 1995, pp.59-62.
30. Chris Healy, In the Ruins of Colonialism: History as Social
Memory, Cambridge University Press, Melbourne, 1997, pp.44-45.
31. Bringing Them Home: Report of the National Inquiry into the
Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from
their Families, Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission,
Sterling Press, 1997.
32. The Australian, 19 November 1996, p.14.
Bringing them back home: a report on stolen Aboriginal children by the
Australian Legal Institute online
In Australian Humanities Review,see also
Carmel Bird's The Stolen Children Their Stories
Henry Reynolds's After Mabo, What About Aboriginal Sovereignty? and
The Stolen Children Their Stories: an afterword
John Frow's A Politics of Stolen Time
Sue Stanton's Time for Truth: Speaking the Unspeakable Genocide and
Apartheid in the 'Lucky' Country
Re-membering and taking up an ethics of listening: a response to loss
and the maternal in "the stolen children" by Brigitta Olubas and Lisa
Those two little words by Beth Spencer
and Cracking Up by Hannah Fink
Please feel free to contribute to this discourse.