Ten things Justin Welby should know about the “stolen generations”

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justin Welby, the Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury, is currently in Australia and pontificating on the historic wrongs we have committed against indigenous peoples. According to The Australian, Dr Welby stated:

‘There is a very considerable consciousness of past errors in a number of institutions in which, incidentally, the Anglican Church of Australia is one, but only one of that number. There is a real effort to change that and it goes right across the church, overriding other difference which are divisive in the church around human sexuality.’ 

So, according to the British Archbishop, racial reconciliation is more “unifying” than the Bible’s teaching on same-sex marriage or the ordination of gay priests? Dr Welby is also mistaken though as to the historical reality surrounding his own denomination’s ministry to Australia’s indigenous peoples.

Rather than being the government lackey for perpetuating systemic racism, the Anglican Church of Australia—alongside every other Christian denomination—was at the forefront of defending the rights and protections of Aboriginals. For example, as far back as 1920 the Church Missionary Society had asked the Australian government to set aside the whole of Groote Eylandt as an Aboriginal reserve.[1]

However, Dr Welby’s ignorance of the Christian church’s relationship with Australia’s indigenous people goes much deeper. As will be demonstrated below, the term “Stolen Generations” is a relatively recent idea, formulated by political activists. What’s more, the historical evidence proves that—despite popular opinion—the Anglican Church does not have to “repent” of participating in a racial genocide.

The Development of the Term, ‘Stolen Generations’

Keith Windschuttle, shows that the term “Stolen Generations” was first coined in 1981 by a then unknown postgraduate history student named Peter Read who wrote the twenty-page pamphlet in a single day outlining his case.[2] Significantly, the original title was “The Lost Generations” but his wife advised him to substitute the more attention-getting adjective, stolen. Two years later, Read’s colleague, Coral Edwards, addressed a meeting of the National Aboriginal Consultative Council provocatively arguing that “govern­ments never intended that the children should ever return”. 

By April 1997, Australia’s Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission published a report, Bringing Them Home, in which they accused the Australian government of—in breach of the United Nations convention—having historically engaged in genocide against aboriginal peoples. 

Then in 2001, academics Anny Curthoys and John Docker of the Australian National University went even further, equating settler colonies such as Australia as “…setting out to achieve what the Nazis also set out to achieve, the displacement of indigenous populations and their replacement by incoming peoples held to be racially superior.” 

Finally, on February 13, 2008, former Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd all but enshrined this belief into the national psyche when in he said in his famous Apology to Australia’s Indigenous people:

“The uncomfortable truth for us all is that the parliaments of the nation, individually and collectively, enacted statutes and delegated authority under those statutes that   made the forced removal of children on racial grounds fully lawful.”

However, as will be demonstrated below, this accusation is patently false, and Kevin Rudd and others should have known it was untrue as Justice Maurice O’Loughlin had ruled back in August 2000:

‘Integration of part Aboriginal children was not based on race; it was based on a sense of responsibility—perhaps misguided and paternalistic—for those children who had been deserted by their white fathers and who were living in tribal conditions with their Aboriginal mothers. Care for those children was perceived to be best offered by affording them the opportunity of acquiring a western education so that they might then more easily be integrated into western society’.[3]

What follows is a summary of the ten most salient reasons[4] as to why this is the case:

1. The High Court of Australia ruled in 1997 that there wasn’t a genocide

The verdicts of Kruger v. Commonwealth and Bray v. Commonwealth were definitive legal cases which considered whether the removal of Aboriginal children amounted to genocide. Handed down two months after the Bringing Them Homereport, most of the mainstream media and political commentariat ignored it. Significantly, all five judges rejected the claim of “genocide”.[5] For example, Justice Daryl Dawson wrote:

‘There is nothing in the 1918 Ordinance, even if the acts authorized by it otherwise fell within the definition of genocide, which authorizes acts committed with intent to destroy in whole or in part any Aboriginal group. On the contrary, as has already been observed, the powers conferred by the 1918 Ordinance were required to be exercised in the best interests of the Aboriginals concerned or of the Aboriginal population generally. The acts authorized do not, therefore, fall within the definition of genocide contained in the Genocide Convention’.

Likewise, Justice Michael McHugh stated:

 ‘The 1918 Ordinance did not authorize genocide. Article II of the Genocide Convention relevantly defines genocide to mean certain acts ‘committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such’. The acts include ‘imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group’ and ‘forcibly transferring children of the group to another group’. There is, however, nothing in the 1918 Ordinance that could possibly justify a construction of its provisions that would authorize the doing of acts ‘with intent to destroy, in whole or in part’ the Aboriginal race’.

2. Full-blooded aboriginal children were hardly ever removed from their families.

The only full-blooded aboriginal children taken into institutional care were those who were seriously ill, dangerously malnourished or physically disabled. The majority of children were half-castes (who were often rejected by Aboriginal communities as being of lesser descent) and were given access to education and job training.  Significantly, Windschuttle notes, ‘In some communities, full-blood people accepted half-castes; in others, they were not regarded as true Aborigines at all; in some cases, half-caste babies born to tribal women were routinely put to death’. 

Following on from this, the major rationale for removing children was not based on race but “illegitimacy”. In the rough social justice of the nineteenth century, white children were also routinely removed if their mothers were unmarried because they lacked a father, and hence, a means of financial support. Thus, the child’s fate was not determined not by their skin colour but rather, their illegitimacy. 

3. Older children were removed more than younger ones

Contrary to the opinion of some historians such as Henry Reynolds—who claimed that children were taken by authorities as young as possible so they would never inherit Aboriginal culture—it was not only extremely rare for either babies or infants to be removed but some state governments explicitly forbade their removal unless they had been orphans or needed immediate hospitalisation. In NSW, the age of those who were most commonly affected were around thirteen to fifteen years of age. Whereas in Western Australia and the Northern Territory it was around primary school.

4. Children were not removed permanently but returned to their families

A careful examination of the case records reveal that the majority of children removed in New South Wales—for instance—were later returned to their families or Aboriginal communities. Indeed, the older children were given money for the rail fare home, while the younger ones were accompanied by a supervising adult on the train.

Once again, Henry Reynolds wrongly contends that, “The break from family, kin and community must be decisive and permanent”, but not only were children later returned to their families or communities, but they were sometimes accompanied by their own parents to government institutions or religious mission stations during their stay.

5. The majority of children were victims of child sexual abuse

Rather than for racist reasons, government officials and religious leaders wanted to rescue children from communities plagued with alcoholism, domestic violence and sexual abuse. Public servants, doctors, police and Christian missionaries all recorded that Aboriginal girls between five and eight years of age were suffering from sexual abuse and venereal disease. Occasionally, girls of nine or ten years old hired out as prostitutes by their own parents. Keith As Keith Windschuttle rightly remarks:

‘Government officials had a duty to rescue children from such settings, as much they as they do now. From the perspective of child welfare officials, the major problem was that state treasuries would not give the relevant departments and boards sufficient funds to accommodate all the neglected and abused children who should have been removed’.[6]

6. The total number of Indigenous children removed was not “large scale”

While Kevin Rudd stated in his Apology that between 1910 and 1970, approximately 10 to 30 per cent of indigenous children had been “forcibly” taken from their parents—a total figure of “up to 50,000”—the statistical reality was much less. According to Windschuttle: 

“My own estimate of the total number of Aboriginal children taken into care in the period from 1880 to 1970…is 8250. ‘Taken into care” means Aboriginal children separated from parents and placed in government, church and charitable institutions, plus the very small numbers placed into foster care and adopted by white families. The figure represented 5.2 per cent of the Aboriginal population at the 1976 census of 160,000.”[7]

7. Indigenous populations increased during this period

Ironically, the Australian Aborigines are the only people in history to have supposedly suffered racial “genocide” in the midst of a boom in their own population. According to Windschuttle:

‘In the first half of the twentieth century, when university historians and Bringing Them Home assured us governments were doing their best to eliminate the Aboriginal race, its population grew substantially. In the period nominated by the Human Rights Commission as the worst affected, 1910 to 1970, the Aboriginal population of Australia grew by 68 per cent from 83,588 to 139,456. Growth was particularly strong in those regions where governments were purportedly determined to absorb half-caste and other part-Aboriginal people into the white population. In New South Wales, the Aboriginal population grew by 65 per cent from 1915 to 1940. In Western Australia, the supposedly “doomed race” of full descent people in the north of the state did not decline at all, while in the southern half of the state, where part-Aboriginal people            predominated, their numbers were up no less than 12- per cent between 1900 and 1935. In both cases, their populations grew at a faster rate than that of white people’.

8. The government invested more in education than institutionalism

One of the major reasons why governments did not systematically remove Aboriginal children from their parents is because they wanted them to go to school. This was the Australian government’s chief objective—in terms of time and money—than removing children from their homes. This is because in the 1880s education was made compulsory for all children of school age, regardless of their racial or ethnic background, were required to enrol their children. What’s more, many aboriginal stations had better facilities than white people. As Windschuttle states:

‘The best Aboriginal stations had superior buildings and more amenities than many white working-class people in the outer suburbs and country towns at the same time. Some institutions for Aboriginal children had swimming pools, gymnasiums, tennis courts, film projectors, radios, record players, pianos and telephones decades before many white people’.

9. Removal of children was for “safety” rather than “sterilisation”

It is common for “activist academics” to claim that when government authorities realised Aborigines were not “dying out” as they’d hoped, it was decided they had to finish the job themselves. For example, historian Heather Goodall has claimed that Aborigines Protection Board’s aim was explicit targeted at reducing the Aboriginal birth rate. As Goodall writes:

 ‘The Board stated quite openly in its reports and minutes that it intended to reduce the   birth rate of the Aboriginal population by taking adolescent girls away from their communities. Then it intended that the young people taken in this way would never be allowed to return to their homes or to any other Aboriginal community. The ‘apprenticeship’ policy was aimed quite explicitly at reducing the numbers of identifying Aboriginal people in the State.’

However, Windschuttle writes in response: 

 Goodall did not give any specific source for her claim. Instead, she referred readers of her book Invasion to Embassy to the Aborigines Protection Board’s annual reports for the period 1906 to 1923. I read the board’s reports not only for the     years she suggested but also for its entire eighty-five years of existence, looking for any comment about its intention to reduce the Aboriginal birth rate. I could not find anything of the kind. Instead, the board explained its apprenticeship policy in 1924 in the following terms:

 [The Board’s] object is to save the children from certain moral degradation on the reserves and camps, and to give them a chance to reach maturity, after which they are given every facility to return either on holidays or permanently, according to their wish, to their own districts, where they are expected to take up suitable employment. Here they have an opportunity of meeting people of their own colour, and in many instances, they marry and settle down in homes of their own. [8]

10. Aboriginal people themselves were involved in fostering

Finally, one of the most overlooked factors is that there were many indigenous men and women who themselves participated in fostering the children who had been removed. As Windschuttle explains: 

 ‘Some prominent Aboriginal people engaged in child welfare have been quietly airbrushed from history because their activities contradict the Stolen Generations thesis. One of them was Aunty Molly Mallet, a member of the Cape Barren Islander community descended from the Tasmanian Aborigines….Mallet moved to Launceston where she provided government-approved foster care for orphaned and neglected Cape Barren Islander children. From the 1950’s to the 1970’s, she fostered so many she “lost count”. Even though she had far more experience than anyone else in the plight of these half-caste children, the Human Rights Commission’s inquiry never called her as a witness. Bringing Them Home declined to even mention her role, preferring its readings to believe the children were all placed with white families and in white institutions’.

The “Stolen Generations” Enduring Popularity 

In the light of the above evidence it is difficult to understand why the accusation of Australia being systemically racist was able to take hold. And yet the myth of the “stolen generations” involving systemic racism with the consequence of genocide has since taken hold in the national psyche. But it is clearly false. Windschuttle offers the following explanation as to how it has become so popular, especially amongst indigenous people.

“It is not difficult to understand the immediate appeal of such an explanation to many Aboriginal families, especially to those who had grown up on welfare communities and segregated housing estates with high rates of crime, alcoholism, domestic violence and child abuse. This new version of events was deeply comforting. The myriad problems in their own lives no longer derived from the failings of their families or the bad choices they made themselves. Mothers had not given their children away; fathers had not left their children destitute or deserted their families or been so consumed by alcohol they left them vulnerable to sexual predators. Siblings and cousins had not abandoned their communities because they thought their way of life hopeless. Instead of reproaching themselves, Aborigi­nes could suddenly identify as morally innocent victims of a terrible injustice. Their problems could all be blamed on faceless white bureaucrats driven by racism. Read’s interpretation has since come to be believed by most Aboriginal people in Australia.”

If we are to move forward as a nation, then it must be on the basis of truth. Australia has never had an official government policy targeted at eliminating Aboriginal people but has rather sought to produce a harmonious society where everyone is afforded the same rights and opportunities.

Finally, the Christian church in Australia has always been at the forefront in protecting the rights of indigenous peoples. Rather than proclaiming a political program such as that contained in “The Voice”, the Archbishop of Canterbury should instead focus on being a spokesperson for God. Promoting the Biblical Gospel of reconciliation through Jesus Christ which alone brings down the dividing wall of hostility between different groups of people (Gal. 3:28; Eph. 2:11ff).

–  Mark Powell


[1] Murray Seiffert, Gumbuli of Ngukurr: Aboriginal Elder in Arnhem Land (Acorn Press, 2011), 2.

[2] For a detailed examination of the issue see Keith Windschuttle, The Fabrication of Aboriginal History, Volume 3, The Stolen Generations 1881-2008 (Macleay Press, 2009).

[3] Justice Maurice O’Loughlin, judgment in Cubillo and Gunner v. Commonwealth, Federal Court of Australia, August 2000, para 162.

[4] This article is a summary of Keith Windschuttle’s work in Quadrant on the subject found here and here

[5] Windschuttle concludes, “In short, when they tested specific policies before the Federal Court, and when they argued the general intentions of the parliaments and legislators before the High Court, the historians and political activists who invented the notion of the Stolen Generations proved incapable of substantiating their case. As far as Australia’s highest courts are concerned, the central hypothesis of the Stolen Generations is legally extinct.”

[6] Windschuttle goes on write, “The fringe camps where this occurred were early twentieth-century versions of today’s notorious remote communities of central and northern Australia. Indeed, there is a direct line of descent from one to the other—the culture of these camps has been reproducing itself across rural Australia for more than 100 years.” 

[7] Windschuttle writes, “Rather than governments being over-zealous, the reality was the opposite. Everyone who worked in Aboriginal child welfare complained that the states and territories did not do nearly enough, especially in the period from Federation to the Second World War. There were always many more Aboriginal children badly in need of welfare, education and health services than governments were willing to fund”.

[8] Windschuttle goes on to conclude, “In short, the board saw a period of apprenticeship as the key to gaining employment, and the best way for Aboriginal youth to get off welfare and live independent lives in the modern world. It wanted to put an end not to the Aboriginal race but to Aboriginal dependency.”