Keith Windschuttle has written a new volume of his important work The Fabrication of Aboriginal History which investigates these claims in detail. He has presented some of his findings in a brief newspaper article, which is well-argued and well worth reading in full.
I'll try to summarise some of the key information. The historians who originally set up the idea of the stolen generations made some key assertions, including:
- that 50,000 Aboriginal children were forcibly removed
- that authorities aimed to seize children as young as possible with the aim that they should lose their Aboriginality and never return home
- that the children were forcibly removed solely because they were Aboriginal
In his 2008 parliamentary apology, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd endorsed the estimate by Peter Read, the university historian who first advanced the concept of the Stolen Generations, that 50,000 Aboriginal children were forcibly removed in the 20th century.
Read had written that governments removed children as young as possible and reared them in institutions isolated from any contact with Aboriginal culture. "Welfare officers, removing children solely because they were Aboriginal," he said, "intended and arranged that they should lose their Aboriginality, and that they never return home."
The majority were allegedly babies and infants. The SBS television series First Australians claimed most of the 50,000 were aged under five. Henry Reynolds explained the rationale: "The younger the child the better, before habits were formed, attachments made, language learned, traditions absorbed."
But are these claims true? Windschuttle provides some strong evidence that they are far from being true. First, it's not true that most of the children removed from their families were aged under five. Windschuttle looked at the NSW records and found that only 10% were under five, most were teenagers.
Second, it was not "generations" who were removed from their families. For instance, at the Moore River settlement in WA, only about 10 children per year were removed at a time when the Aboriginal population of the state numbered 29,000.
Third, the children were not removed "because they were Aboriginal" but because of concerns for their welfare:
Rather than acting for racist or genocidal reasons, government officers and missionaries wanted to rescue children and teenagers from welfare settlements and makeshift camps riddled with alcoholism, domestic violence and sexual abuse.
In NSW, WA and the Territory, public servants, doctors, teachers and missionaries were appalled to find Aboriginal girls between five and eight years of age suffering from sexual abuse and venereal disease. On the Kimberley coast from the 1900s to the 1920s they were dismayed to find girls of nine and 10 years old hired out by their own parents as prostitutes to Asian pearling crews. That was why the great majority of children removed by authorities were female ...
Government officials had a duty to rescue children from such settings, as much then as they do now.
The prevailing policy of the time was not assimilation but the racial preservation of the Aborigines. It's true that there were two regional officers who did propose assimilation policies: they wanted to marry half-caste Aboriginal women to white men. But they did not have government support for these plans. The plan was rejected in cabinet in 1933 and in 1934 a commonwealth minister declared in parliament that:
It can be stated definitely, that it is and always has been, contrary to policy to force half-caste women to marry anyone. The half-caste must be a perfectly free agent in the matter.
The prevailing policy was expressed by J. F. Bleakley, the chief protector of Aborigines in Queensland and the author of the commonwealth policy of the 1920s and 30s, when he wrote of Aborigines that:
"We have no right to attempt to destroy their national life. Like ourselves, they are entitled to retain their racial entity and racial pride."
This is the opposite of genocide. It is a clear statement that the government of the time wanted Aborigines to continue their own distinct ethnic existence.
There's much more in Windschuttle's article, including evidence that those Aboriginal children who were placed in welfare institutions were not cut off from their families or their Aboriginality and were treated in a similar way to white children in similar circumstances (e.g. sent out to complete apprenticeships).
We're fortunate that Keith Windschuttle has made such a determined effort to write authoritative books on Aboriginal history. He may not be a traditionalist conservative (he's more of a right-liberal) but he's provided an important contribution.