On a Mission: The Institutionalising of Aboriginal Children

March 01, 2015

On a Mission: The Institutionalising of Aboriginal Children

Missionaries … helped to grow us up … Most of them did their best and I'm glad they taught me. Now I can speak for myself.

 (Nanjiwarra Amagula, Angurugu, Groote Eylandt, 1997)[1]

 Groote Eylandt elder Nanjiwarra was educated at the mission school.  His was a different, more positive experience of Christian missionaries than the adverse experiences which receive much media attention.

Because of growing awareness of the injustices meted out to Aboriginal Australians, the words ‘mission’ and ‘missionary’ have gained negative connotations, a criticism occasionally—but not always—deserved. The history of Aboriginal and European interaction in Australia certainly includes the ‘stolen generations’. But history is far more complex than that.

‘The stolen generations’, a phrase now familiar to most Australians, speaks of the suffering and sometimes permanent damage caused to Aboriginal children unjustly removed from their families and frequently raised in institutions. The extent of this practice only became widely known through the 1995-97 National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from their Families. Its report, Bringing Them Home, was released in 1997.[2]

Most Australians are now aware of the injustice and racism which drove these restrictive practices. Politicians and public servants who developed racist policies towards indigenous people deserve our criticism. So do those who, in the name of those policies, acted with cruelty and inhumanity towards Aboriginal children. This includes some missionaries, but it also includes a far larger number of police officers, government officials and staff of Government-owned reserves and children’s homes. Furthermore, unless care is taken with complex historical data, missions can be the unintended victims of misinformation.

Hand shadows

Recently the Aboriginal walkout from Cummeragunja in 1939 was mentioned in the media but wrongly referred to as ‘leaving the mission’. References to the 1939 Aboriginal protest often call Cummeragunja a ‘mission’. The problem is that Cummeragunja, once part of the Christian Maloga Mission was no longer a mission but a Government institution. Its history is complex but the people who walked off Cummeragunja were leaving an oppressive, unhealthy, restrictive institution which belonged to the NSW Government, not a church. This misunderstanding is exacerbated by the tendency of some Aboriginal people to call all institutions for Aboriginal people ‘missions’.  The first institutions for Aboriginal people were usually missions and the label has stuck.

Another recent example of how Aboriginal history can be misunderstood and therefore misjudged is the story of the Methodist Church’s Croker Island Mission. These ‘Stolen Generation’ children were mixed-race Aboriginal children. Government policy was that they should be raised in an institution. Government officers, not missionaries, removed the children. The Methodist Mission agreed to receive the children. Missionaries were responsible for the care of the children, not their removal. These children have recently gained publicity from the film Croker Island Exodus, the story of the children’s escape from the wartime Japanese threat in the care of young missionary Margaret Somerville. The now-elderly Aboriginal women have good memories of life on the mission and clearly recalled Margaret Somerville with great affection. [3]

The institutionalising of Aboriginal children.[4]

The first institution for Aboriginal people was Governor Macquarie's Native Institution at Parramatta in 1814. Not a Christian mission, it was educational, but the first headmaster, ex-missionary William Shelley, had served with the London Missionary Society in Tonga.  The children went willingly. Many parents moved out of Sydney to camp near the school. Its name—Blacktown—still survives. The children showed high intelligence, regularly performing better than white children in public examinations, much to the consternation of white residents of Sydney! But to survive, the school needed its patron. It lingered on for a few years after Macquarie left, but it was reported in 1828 that 'its spirit, with that of its founder, is departed'.[5]     

Subsequent 19th-century governors were disinterested, content to leave responsibility for educating Aboriginal children to Christian missions. One of the first, the Church Missionary Society mission among the Wiradjuri people at Wellington, NSW, from 1832-1843, was a clear example of the emerging policy of concentrating on children as the objects of mission. William and Ann Watson and Johann Handt, the first missionaries, wanted to start a school but initially, Aboriginal children refused to attend classes. Aboriginal parents did not distinguish between the missionaries and other settlers, concluding that they too only wanted children for sexual purposes. In time, however, Ann Watson's cookery and William Watson's medical skill allayed their fears. As the mission became more established and its facilities grew, Watson became convinced that the children should actually reside there. There is no doubt that the Watsons were motivated by compassion. They had treated many little girls with venereal diseases, had seen many children die in the Aboriginal camps, particularly unwanted part-European babies. They were totally convinced that the children were doomed to sickness, abuse and death unless removed to the health care and physical protection of the mission.

CMS's Wellington mission lasted ten years. But all Christian missions and all government institutions for Aboriginal people in the first half of the 19th century failed. The reasons for failure are complex, but most were beyond the control of the missionaries, related to the hugely damaging effect white settlement and aggressive dispossession had on Aboriginal people. A few children were baptised at these missions.  Jane Christian Marshall, once a child at the Wellington mission, was confirmed by Bishop Broughton on 2 December 1849, the first and only Aboriginal person admitted into adult membership of any church before the middle of the 19th century. Apart from Jane and a few like her, it is wrong to attribute to these early missions any significant or lasting influence on Aboriginal people and society.

Conditions for Aboriginal people worsened in the second half of the century. As white settlement expanded into all but, for Europeans, the most inhospitable environments, an increasing proportion of Aboriginal people became dispossessed of their land and therefore their dignity, their homes and their means of survival. In more colonised parts of Australia, the combined effects of massacre, the abuse and removal of women, malnutrition, European diseases and despair led to rapid decline in the Aboriginal population. It was widely believed that the Aboriginal race was on the path to extinction. Some colonists were glad. Most thought it inevitable, even if they regretted it. Although a few churches showed concern for Aboriginal people, most churches were reluctant to engage in mission, particularly in the settled southern parts of the continent. No specific work was undertaken by a major church among Aboriginal people in NSW after the 1880s, tacitly signaling that, to most Christians, Aboriginal people on the fringes of white colonial society were unimportant or even a lost cause.

In this context, a new kind of mission arose, conceived as a refuge. Unlike earlier Australian missions, they were not 'overseas missions', staffed from abroad. Missions like Daniel and Janet Matthews' Maloga Mission (later Cummeragunja) and John and Mary Gribble's Warangesda Mission, were established by Australian Christians. Deeply moved by the plight of Aboriginal people, and with only their own resources, they set up places of refuge where Aboriginal people could be protected and survive. Maloga and Warangesda missions tried to provide homes for whole families, as did the Moravian and Church of England missions in Victoria, such as the CMA (CMS) mission at Lake Tyers under John Bulmer. In these missions, a regimented school day for children was a central feature of mission life. These missions were eventually taken over by colonial or state governments. Aboriginal people complained that as state institutions, they became much more repressive and regimented than they ever were as missions.

A few missions in the second half of the 19th century dealt exclusively with children, including  Matthew Hale's Poonindie Mission at Port Lincoln, SA,  and Anne Camfield's Native Institution at Albany, WA.  No children were forced to enter these missions. Parents willingly brought children to Anne Camfield. Faced with large numbers of young people desperate to go to Poonindie, Hale had to limit the intake. In settled Australia, Aboriginal people had very few choices about where to live. They often chose mission life so that they, or their children, might survive.

As the 19th century closed, churches began looking towards the remote centre and north of the continent, hoping to find 'real' Aboriginal people, uncontaminated by white society. The invariable mission strategy was the 'mission station'. Whether Anglican, Presbyterian, Lutheran, Moravian or Catholic, or whether the missionaries were German, Spanish, English or Australian-born, they all tried to create the European peasant village.  These missions concentrated on the education of the young through a regimented school day and a residential dormitory system. Nevertheless these children were not part of the ‘stolen generations’—that is, the missions were located on their lands so that they were not totally isolated from family and community.

With the churches concentrating their missionary efforts on 'tribal' or traditionally-oriented Aboriginal people in remote Australia, Aboriginal people in more settled parts of the continent were largely ignored. The few notable exceptions include the Victorian CMA missions at Lake Condah and Lake Tyers, although these ceased to be missions once taken over by the Government. In NSW, there were no church missions after the 1880s. This vacuum was filled by the 'non-denominational' missions which arose in the early 1900s. The most significant of these were the Aboriginal Inland Mission (AIM) and the United Aborigines Mission (UAM), which had a common origin in the little La Perouse Aborigines' Mission. The founders of these missions were people of compassion, motivated to try to do something for desperately needy Aboriginal people: to bring them the gospel, to relieve their suffering, to give them hope.

 Among the strategies adopted by some missionary societies was the establishment of children's homes. UAM's Colebrook Training Home in Quorn, South Australia began because a UAM missionary in Oodnadatta tried to shield a handful of homeless Aboriginal girls from sexual molestation. But the clear and simple motivation of seeing people in need and trying to do something about it became clouded when the UAM and other children's homes became part of the official practice of removing Aboriginal children from their families.

By 1911, every mainland state had enacted legislation to manage Aboriginal people. These Aboriginal Acts all emphasised 'protection' and the restriction of liberty, giving governments wide powers over the lives of Aboriginal people, particularly the power to determine where they lived and to remove children from families to permanently institutionalise them. It was widely believed that Aboriginal people were a dying race.  In urban parts of Australia, the evidence was hard to ignore. The Aboriginal birthrate did not begin to overtake the deathrate until the 1920s. It was much longer before the fact was officially recognised. It was thought that the best plan for the Australian community as a whole was to separate Aboriginal children from the influence of family and community and to raise them to live in the white community.

Some Aboriginal children were neglected or mistreated by parents as were some white children. They needed to be taken into institutional care, but the point is that there were already laws which allowed for child protection. There was no need for special Aboriginal laws if the invading race had not intended to treat the colonised race differently from themselves. Under the Acts, Police, Protection Board officers, Welfare officers and others had wide powers to remove Aboriginal children from parents for much less reason than white children.  Documents indicate that in many cases, the only recorded reason for removal of children was that they were ‘of Aboriginal blood’. The ugly truth is that the policies were devised and implemented by officials who believed that the solution to the 'Aboriginal problem' was to breed them out of existence. This was to occur by merging those of mixed ancestry into white society. State Governments saw this as a financial saving. The strategy was to institutionalise the children, to encourage mixed-race marriages and, as their skin lightened, to absorb them into white society and thus, eventually, be rid of the Aboriginal race.

The key to success was the removal of Aboriginal children from families as early as possible to be raised in distant institutions. It must be remembered that this was official Government policy but it is an undeniable fact of Australian history that churches and Christian organisations owned and ran institutions which received ‘stolen’ children. Missions were lured by Government funding. Missions were obliged to receive children from distant places in order to continue to qualify for financial assistance.  Churches were therefore party to the system of removal and institutionalising of children, consenting to a policy which had as its goal the disappearance of the Aboriginal race.

All major churches were involved in the running of these children’s homes and institutions, including Catholic institutions such as New Norcia (WA) or St Joseph's Abbotsford (Vic); Salvation Army homes such as the Catherine Booth memorial home (Vic); Anglican homes such as Sister Kate's (WA) and St Mary's Alice Springs (NT); AIM homes including Retta Dixon Home in Darwin (NT); and UAM homes such as Colebrook (SA) and Bomaderry (NSW).  Churches and Christian missions established these homes with good intentions, often out of compassion for genuinely needy Aboriginal children.

Some people closely associated with these homes such as Ruby Hyde and Delia Rutter at Colebrook, Kate Clutterbuck of Sister Kate’s and Amelia Shankleton at Retta Dixon Home are recalled with affection. These well-intentioned, compassionate people felt a real sense of calling. They knew little of official policies. They simply felt called to assist children in need of care and in many cases they gave up lucrative careers to do so. The author recently spoke to Jan Clifford who worked as a young woman in Darwin’s Retta Dixon Home. She had no idea at the time that any child may have been forcibly removed by Government officers. She saw them all as underprivileged children in need of her care.  Now that the Retta Dixon home is receiving adverse publicity due to the findings of the Royal Commission into institutional child abuse, she is absolutely appalled that any such abuses happened there and equally appalled that people whom she once knew had covered them up.  

By contrast, it does need to be pointed out that not all Christian missions were repressive places to which children or young people could be sent from afar. This applied particularly to missions in more remote locations, including the Methodist missions at Millingimbi and Elcho Island and the Anglican missions at Roper River (Ngukurr) and Groote Eylandt. On these mission stations, dormitories for children were a conscious part of the mission strategy to educate the children and raise them in a Christian way. The major difference between these and other institutions for Aboriginal children was that these children were not generally removed from their parents, but housed in residential dormitories in the communities where their parents lived, or were welcome to live.

At Roper River, for example, many children were local but some children of mixed parentage were brought there by the missionaries and housed with the other children in dormitories. This was nothing like the experience of the ‘stolen generations’. None of their past was hidden from them. They came only from nearby gulf communities, where most of them had been fathered by white men and deserted. Aboriginal people accompanied the missionaries to the town camps to talk with the mothers. Wherever possible, the mothers were brought to Roper with the children.  All these young mothers were eagerly sought in marriage by the younger men and became incorporated into the Roper community.

These dormitories typified missions from the 1920s until the 1950s or even later.  Older Aboriginal people who grew up in these missions speak positively about their experience. There were negative experiences but they were much like the complaints of children of whatever race in any boarding school, and in no way comparable with the devastating experience of Aboriginal children elsewhere, taken unwillingly from parents who they might never see again. At Roper River, many of the House Parents in the dormitories were local Aboriginal people. If any convincing proof were needed that life in these dormitories was desirable and valued by the children, it is that the most serious punishment was suspension from the dormitory, meaning that the child had to leave and live with their parents until allowed back again.

In the 20th century, the policy of these missions was certainly called ‘assimilation’ but there is a huge difference between the biological assimilation as promoted by Government administrators—the ‘breeding out’ of the Aboriginal race—and the benign social assimilation practised on these remote missions. Their intention was to educate and train Aboriginal children to grow up into adults who could be assimilated, that is, take their place comfortably in Australian society. Missions like CMS actually assisted Aboriginal people to maintain their traditional distinctiveness and encouraged them to marry within the local Aboriginal group. The only criticism Aboriginal people in places like Ngukurr (Roper River) now voice is that the missionaries’ aspirations were not high enough. When in later life they realised they might have become teachers or nurses or lawyers, they feel the missionaries only trained them for work in unskilled occupations.    

Those who came as children frequently acknowledge that, despite problems, they were given a better life than the squalor which they would have otherwise faced.[6]

The memories of my years at the Mission are not all good ones and some things might have been better.  But I can truly say I was very happy there and I was given a home when no one wanted me. (Connie Bush, 1972)

I loved the Old Mission and I'm grateful to the missionaries.  They taught me everything I know.  Those were hard times but they were good times.  We all worked together, black and white you know.  I wish Old Mission was still there.  I would send all my grandchildren there, no mucking about, I'd send them there tomorrow if I could! (Harry Huddlestone, 1981)

Sometimes when I think about all these things in the past and about all those children in other places who were taken, I realise we were not taken away.  Most of our mob came willingly to Old Mission, came for freedom, came for safety, came for food and medicine. We came to live. (Gerry Blitner, 1988)

Missions like Roper River had shortcomings but life there bore no resemblance to the experience of institutionalised Aboriginal children removed from family and community. As the Bringing Them Home report clearly shows, many children were damaged in some way. The overwhelming evidence is that the long-term institutionalising of children did not lead to well-adjusted lives. Even as a means of developing Christian faith, it could not be said that Christian homes succeeded. It is to the shame of the churches that an almost inevitable consequence of the regimentation and restrictions of these homes was a debasement of the very gospel the churches stood for. The mandate of the church is to proclaim a Christ who loved people so much that he died to give them hope of eternal life. Instead, Christ was far too often linked to harsh discipline and trivial moral rules. This resulted in a 'gospel' distinctly lacking in grace, leading children to believe that a supposedly loving God destined them to a life of servitude and inferiority.

That this is now widely understood as true is shown by the fact that all major churches and Christian organisations have apologised for their role in the unjust removal of children. Many have specifically expressed regret for their silence on the issue and that they may have brought the gospel into disrepute.[7]

It took longer for the Australian Government to formally apologise to the ‘Stolen Generations’. It is not merely an historical co-incidence that this will forever be associated with Christian Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd who, on 13th February 2008, apologised on behalf of the Commonwealth of Australia for the pain, suffering and hurt inflicted on so many Aboriginal children over so many years. A hugely important moment in Australian history but it still remains to be seen whether the apologies made by churches, governments, organisations and individuals translate into genuine efforts to combat racism and injustice.

[1] John Harris, We Wish We’d Done More (Adelaide, 1998), pp 343-344.

[2] Commonwealth of Australia, Bringing them Home:  National Enquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from their Families (1997).

[3] http://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/tv-and-radio/mission-to-the-mainland-20121117-29iqy.html

[4] Unless otherwise indicated, all information on missions is drawn from the author's book, John Harris, One Blood: Two Hundred Years of Aboriginal Encounter with Christianity 2nd ed (Sutherland, 1994) and all sources can be checked there.

[5] http://trove.nla.gov.au/ndp/del/article/31761052 (accessed 10/10/14).

[6] These quotations can be accessed in the author’s work on Ngukurr which also includes a full discussion of the dormitory system there: We Wish We’d Done More, op. cit., ch 6.

[7] Most of the apologies are set out in full in We wish we’d Done More, op. cit., pp324f

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