Tasmania’s Stolen Generation

I wrote this essay quite a few years ago but it still seems relevant today. Few people know that Tasmanian Aboriginal people were part of the “Stolen Generations”, forcibly removed from the Bass Strait islands and placed with white families in the cities. I first met Gus ages ago and his story emerged over time. We’re still friends despite his choice of AFL team to support.


Family Matters.

Garry Maynard and his wife are parents to two fine young boys, growing up south of Hobart on a peninsula not far from Oyster Cove. His knees have gone, and he’s getting a bit soft around the middle, but he was in his time an A-grade cricketer for North Hobart Cricket Club, located in the suburb where from age 12 onwards he grew up. With his neatly trimmed moustache and short-cropped hair, often wearing a suit, he looks like a middle-aged businessman or senior detective in the police force. But he isn’t. He is an Aboriginal man and the way he sees the world around him was directly affected by what happened to him in 1959. This, using the pseudonym Greg, is his story and him telling it.

I was born on Cape Barren. At the time I was taken the family comprised mum, my sister and [my two brothers]. And of course there was my grandmother and all the other various relatives. We were only a fairly small isolated community and we all grew up there in what I considered to be a very peaceful loving community. I recall spending most of my growing up on the Island actually living in the home of my grandmother and grandfather. The other children were living with mum in other places.

Until the time I was taken I had not been away from the Island, other than our annual trips from Cape Barren across to Lady Baron during the muttonbird season.

The circumstances of my being taken, as I recollect, were that I went off to school in the morning and I was sitting in the classroom and there was only one room where all the children were assembled and there was a knock at the door, which the schoolmaster answered. After a conversation he had with somebody at the door, he came to get me. He took me by the hand and took me to the door. I was physically grabbed by a male person at the door, I was taken to a motor bike and held by the officer and driven to the airstrip and flown off the Island. I was taken from Cape Barren in October 1959 [aged 12]. I had no knowledge [I was going to be taken]. I was not even able to see my grandmother [and I had] just the clothes I had on my back, such as they were. I never saw mum again.

To all intents and purposes, I guess my grandmother was looked upon as my mother in some respects because of my association with her and when I was taken there are actual letters on my file that indicate that she was so affected by the circumstances of my being removed from the Island that she was hospitalised, and was fretting and generally her health went on her. A nursing sister on the Island had my grandmother in hospital and she was in fact writing letters to the Welfare Department to find out, you know, how I was getting on and that sort of thing, and asking if I could go back to the Island for holidays. That was refused. My grandmother was removed from the Island and placed in an aged-care hospital, and I was taken to see her and when I did she had basically lost her mind and she did not know who I was.

It is fairly evident from reading my welfare file that [the teacher] was the eyes and ears of the Welfare Department and that he was obviously sending reports back to them about the conditions on the Island.

There is a consent form on [my] file that mum signed and it did include [my sister and my two brothers] – and their names were crossed out and mine was left. I do not know whether it was because I was at the top or not. I might add that most people that I have spoken to said that mum, whilst she could read her name, could not read or write, and obviously would not have understood the implications of what she was signing. [It] has been witnessed by the schoolmaster.

I was flown off the Island and … I was flown to where the small planes land at Launceston. I was eventually placed with some people in Launceston. I have some recollection of going to school at some stage. I noted from my file that I was transported to Hobart in 1960 – my recollection of that was being put into a semi-trailer and picked up on the side of the road by some welfare officers down there. I was placed with some people in [Hobart], and I guess, fortunately for me, I could not have been in better hands because I still maintain a relationship with them; they look on me as their son. They had one daughter but Mrs — used to care for other foster children and the house was full of other non-Aboriginal children.

I had always wanted to return to the Island but I could never bring myself to hopping on a plane and returning. [It was] thirty years before I went back. [The night I returned] I could not settle. I think I had a cup of tea and I decided I would go in a different direction and I walked around the sand spit and – I do not know, something just made me turn around and look back and I looked to the school and – I just looked back to where we used to live as kids. My whole life flashed before me and I just collapsed in the sand and started crying … And when I composed myself as best I could I just sort of reflected on things and my whole life was just racing through my mind and I guess I just wanted to be part of a family that I never had. I just wanted to be with my mum and my grandmother and my brothers and sisters.

Maynard is baffled by the consent form, apparently signed by his mother. It states that the reason she allowed her eldest son to be taken away was that she was “a widow, in poor health.” It just doesn’t sound like his mother. As far as he remembers, she wasn’t that good at reading and writing. To this day he is uncertain about who actually wrote and signed it, but he is sure it wasn’t his mother. He points out that one of his brothers submitted to the report that at the time their mother ‘was in total despair’ when Garry was taken, obviously not knowing what was happening or why.

Then, more tragedy struck when his mother, who had been drinking, suffered a fatal accident. Later the police came with a warrant to collect the other children and flew them to Launceston. The boys were fostered together but the girls each went to a different family. The first time the five children were all together again was in 1995, some forty years later.

“The Stolen Generations” is author Peter Read’s term for those Aboriginal people who were, for the most part, forcibly removed from their families and raised elsewhere, primarily by White Australian families or in government institutions. The official policy of separating Aboriginal children from their parents, especially when one of the parents was European, began in the 1920s. Often these children were referred to as half-castes, but that term as well as being culturally offensive is also inaccurate, because children who had one Asian parent and the other Aboriginal were excluded from the scheme. The reasoning was quite obvious: it was the European blood that afforded them “a shot at redemption.” It remains a mystery then why children with one Asian and one European parent were not afforded the same chance to develop into “proper human beings.” Perhaps the “Chinese” weren’t considered to be dying out. Or maybe simply there was no social need to justify previous atrocities, to assuage the guilt of a colonial past by insisting that the Aborigine’s demise was inevitable and natural.

The practice of taking children from the Aboriginal community on the Bass Strait Islands has a history as long as they have lived there. A little more than a century before Garry Maynard was abducted, an Aboriginal girl who became known as Mathinna was “adopted” by the then governor of Tasmania, Sir John Franklin and his wife, and taken from Flinders Island to Hobart, only to be abandoned when the vice-regal couple and their real children left the colony for his next posting in Canada. Tasmania’s only Aboriginal reserve, located on Caper Barren Island was the central point of the Islander Aboriginal community that had become established on the Furneaux Islands. People born on the Reserve often left it to live on other, smaller islands but it remained the hub of the structure of the Islander community. Even today, although no longer an actual reserve, the place remains as a key part of their ancestral domains. It remains an oddity that although Tasmania declared incorrectly but expediently that with the paling of Truganini it had no living Aborigines, it did have an Aboriginal reserve.

Like many of the missions and reserves to which Aboriginal people were banished, conditions there were far from ideal and the Aboriginal people suffered under impoverished living conditions that, at times, led to malnutrition. Federal and state governments were generally reluctant to firstly fund these institutions appropriately and secondly ensure that the funding that was provided was used appropriately. Nonetheless, Aboriginal people on missions and reserve consistently voiced their reluctance to be moved:
… there does not appear to be any likelihood in the immediate future for further [voluntary] … admissions being effective as a method of assimilation of children. Firstly there appears to be a close bond between children and parents and they are naturally reluctant to let go of them (report of child welfare officer to the Director of Child Welfare on the officer’s visit to Cape Barren Island in 1961, quoted by Tasmanian Government final submission on page A-28).

Whilst not referring to Australia’s Chief Protector of Aborigine, A O Neville’s infamous policies directly, the Tasmanian Government nonetheless pursued a policy of assimilation. There are at least two principal reasons why it was desirable to the government of the state that the Aboriginal people were removed from the islands. On the one hand, there was undoubtedly a miss-placed altruistic desire by various agencies to improve the lot of the state’s Indigenous people but on the other, more and more white settlers were looking to exploit the farming and fishing potential of the Furneaux Islands, especially after both world wars. I

Once the decision had been made to close the reserve and to relocate the Aboriginal population to mainland Tasmania, the Government found it had a ready made legislation to achieve this: the Infants Welfare Act of 1935. This policy allowed the authorities to base their actions on welfare rather than racial grounds. Moreover they found an existing agent to enforce the policy: from the early 1930s to 1980 the head teacher of Cape Barren Primary School was, in his capacity as the island’s police constable and welfare agent, endowed with the power to remove any child he considered to be neglected. Whilst the amount of power invested in one male nowadays would be considered untenable, during the mid-century decades he was the sole representative of officialdom on Cape Barren Island. The pronoun is deliberately chosen: it was without fail a man.

The whole notion of family was to present a point of cultural confusion. Most, if not all, of the Cape Barren Island community was family. Each member had a duty to care for every one else’s children. This is far from unusual in Aboriginal societies: traditionally, the Aboriginal family is a collaboration of clans composed of mothers, fathers, uncles, aunties, brothers, sisters, cousins and so on. This conception of an “extended family” continues to be the norm in Aboriginal societies but it was, ostensibly, at odds with the sensibilities of non-Aboriginal Tasmanians, who demanded nuclear family structures, or at least acceptable variations thereof. With the threat of having their children taken away from them under the guise of neglect, some Aboriginal family saw no other option but to accept relocation to the mainland of Tasmania. Most of them moved to one suburb of Launceston, Invermay, where somewhat ironically, their culturally distinct patterns of family life continued, much to the chagrin of the city’s aldermen. In the big smoke however, there were alcohol and drugs, inadequate social security and blatant racism to fuel their anger and despair.

Neglect, particularly in terms of living conditions, is (if you’ll pardon the pun) a relative notion. A European child living with aunts and uncles, grandparents or other family members who are not biologically his or her parents may be cited as being neglected, especially if the arrangement is uncertain, unsafe or subject to rapid change in circumstance. In Aboriginal communities such a domestic arrangement is usually safe, sure and adaptably reliable. Garry Maynard spent large amounts of time with his grandmother, particularly when his mother had difficulty in tending to the family but at no time was he neglected. Unfortunately, under those conditions he was an easy target for the assimilationist activities of the Government and its agent on the island who was determined to place him with a white family “for his own good”.

During the time Maynard went to school on Cape Barren Island, the schoolmaster there still held a raft of portfolios, including welfare officer and policeman. It was he who made the decisions about which children were to be removed from the island. Garry never knew his father but he remained close to his mother, even when he was living with his teetotaller grandparents. If that situation were considered unhealthy for all Australian children regardless of colour, our orphanages and foster homes would be over-flowing. Further, anyone with the most rudimentary knowledge of Aboriginal family structure would know full well that it was not a cause for concern. Obviously the schoolmaster on Cape Barren Island in the 1960s didn’t have such a basic understanding of his charges.

The impact when Maynard was abruptly seized and bundled off the island reverberates not only in his own memory . He ran into an old classmate in August 1996 who told him that he could still remember the screams and tears of that day. His school-friend remembers how shocked and afraid all the children were: who knew who would be next? A reasonable concern because although Maynard was taken, neither of his brothers who were also in the class at that time. To this day he doesn’t know why he was singled out.

When his mother died he was called to the welfare office. In their notes it was recorded that “Garry was advised of his mother’s death. He expressed interest in the whereabouts of his brothers and sisters.” To this day Maynard rankles at the manner in which it transpired. It was insensitive: in 1962, barely a teenager, he was summoned to the welfare office to be informed that his mother had drowned on Christmas Eve. He wasn’t even offered a chair, standing in front of the desk behind which the welfare officer sat. The man was surprised that not only was the boy upset at the news, he wanted to know what had happened to his brothers and sisters, and his grandmother. He was told nothing.

Even today there are a lot of things that he still doesn’t understand. Why weren’t the letters he sent to his grandmother passed on to her by the Welfare? She died in a Hobart hospital, demented to the point that when he did manage to visit her, she no longer recognised him. Maynard believes his letters were deliberately withheld from her to give the impression that he didn’t want to return to Cape Barren Island. He couldn’t go to her funeral and it angers him that she was buried in a pauper’s grave in the Cornelian Bay cemetery. Her house, inherited by Garry and a cousin, was sold to pay the outstanding rates without his approval. He has no course of redress, no apparent way to lay claim to the property.

The Australia wide policy of removing Aboriginal children from their parents caused immeasurable misery whilst it was in force. And it seldom achieved what it set out to achieve: the cutting of the bonds between children and parents. Case after case is recorded where members of the Stolen Generations have searched desperately to find their Aboriginal heritage, for without it they are anchor-less. The Federal government has been forced to set up Jigsaw, a national program set up by the Federal Government to help re-unite the fractured families wherever possible.

Despite being removed from his family and the island, for Maynard, his identity as an Aboriginal has never been in doubt. Even after he was taken, some of the potential host families refused to adopt him because although he wasn’t as swarthy as his siblings, the notion of “what’s bred in the bone will out in the flesh” remains strongly held. Maynard is well aware that racism, both overt and covert, remains ingrained in Tasmania. When his first son was born and we were discussing names, I asked him directly why he insisted that the boy’s surname would be that of his wife, rather than Maynard. He replied simply that the name had negative associations within Tasmania. Despite his sporting ability shielding him to some degree, he was no stranger to racism whilst growing up. His report mentioned that he was completely honest – a most unusual comment to make on a school report, and one seldom seen on a white child’s. Perhaps it is a coincidence, but it is easy to see why Maynard would not want his sons to be embarrassed or suffer from those prejudiced attitudes.

The reporting of racist behaviour has been a recurrent theme amongst the stories of the contemporary Tasmanian Aboriginal people – Ida West called her autobiography Pride Against Prejudice. Most, if not all, Tasmanian Aboriginal people have similar stories to tell. Perhaps their exposure to such behaviour has bonded them in the way that communities are often defined and strengthened in the face of adversity. Wherever groups of Tasmanian Aboriginal people have congregated they have, through necessity, sought refuge in their identity as Aboriginal people, and consequently, in being social outcasts. They were excluded as a group because they were Aboriginal. When they organised themselves politically and socially, it was their identity that galvanised them and to an extent, unified them as Tasmanian Aboriginal people.

Little wonder then that when some recompense for their forcible removal from kith and kin was proposed, some of the people who had had no choice but to identify as Aboriginal felt resentful that suddenly those who kept their ancestry secret now began to associate themselves with the numerous federally funded Aboriginal organizations in order to make a claim on that recompense. Maynard is concerned about the increasing numbers of people claiming to be Aboriginal, despite having no discernible ancestry or family history. He has a point: the number of people claiming to be Aboriginal is steadily approaching 20,000. Few commentators, either Aboriginal or non-Aboriginal, see that number as anything but fanciful. It seems likely that a substantial percentage of that number claim Aboriginality on account of “dark blood somewhere amongst their ancestors”, without countenancing the fact that much of that is more likely to have come from Indian, Sri Lankan or Mauritian rather than Aboriginal forebears, although of course there are those who have both Asian and Aboriginal ancestry. But in Tasmania as elsewhere, a swarthy complexion does not necessarily indicate an Indigenous identity.

The main problem is that whilst most of the Bass Strait Islander Aboriginal community can easily produce family histories, others claiming Aboriginality cannot. According to the last ATSIC regional chair many records are incomplete and many Aboriginal people depend on oral histories. There is no denying the importance of storying in general Aboriginal culture: it was, and in places continues to be, the driver for educative, legal, economic and social development. Almost all knowledge was held in stories, songs and dances. It more than anything else is likely to have contributed to the way in which Aboriginal peoples see the world and themselves in it. To categorically dismiss a family’s memoirs as historical fiction not only runs rough-shod over strongly held sensibilities, it also denies a genuine source of data.

Aboriginal people have for countless generations used, perfected and relied on narrative to maintain their world-view and self-concept. Maynard’s claims Tasmanian Aboriginal people are no different in that regard. But they have never relied upon it to identify themselves – simply because until invasion and colonisation they haven’t had to. Proving one’s identity as an Aboriginal person would have been a nonsensical notion two hundred and fifty years ago – because there was nothing else to be. Self identification is entirely a modern concept, firmly rooted in the modern world.  Garry proposes that anyone who claims to be Aboriginal but isn’t known to the Community should be expected to provide bona fides for their claim.

He despairs that “everyone in Tasmania can now lay claim to being Aboriginal.” He refers to the relatively recent decision by Justice Merckel that any challenge to someone claiming to be Aboriginal must be able to prove conclusively that the claimant is not Aboriginal. The claimant need do nothing. In effect it means that anyone can claim to be Aboriginal and will be considered to be such until it can be conclusively demonstrated that he or she isn’t. As all people are presumed innocent until proven guilty, so all people are presumed to be Aboriginal until proven otherwise. Because Aboriginality informs much of his world-view as a contemporary Tasmanian Aboriginal person, he believes that the source of much of his frustration is political correctness gone haywire. His life-view is completely dominated and informed by his Aboriginality, the product of the Bass Strait Islander Aboriginal experience. And more than anything else it is his experience as a member of the Stolen Generations that forms the keystone of how he sees the world.

We know that life for Aboriginal people who were removed from their families as children continues to be difficult as they become adults: imagine growing up forcibly removed from your culture as well as your family and friends. It is a measure of the man that Maynard has nothing but praise for his adopted parents and maintains a close and caring relationship with them. For him it never was a case of either/or – he can’t see any reason to decry the people who raised him, even though he resents having been taken from his natural family. On the other hand, he is determined that his sons will grow up in a secure and loving environment. The boys run around in the paddocks, muck around in the bay, play sport and fight with each other. They’ve been to Cape Barren Island to see where their Dad grew up. They know why his photo is in the newspaper and his face on the TV, but to them he’s just Dad. For Maynard as it is for most Indigenous people, family is the be-all and end-all. Family is the heart of the culture. As to the man himself, he knows who he is: a Tasmanian Aboriginal man and for that he needs no recompense.

And no one will steal his children.

2 thoughts on “Tasmania’s Stolen Generation”

  1. Pykefel!

    (Or, for the English-speakers:This gave the the shivers…)

    And these disgusting practises still go on. Just have a look at the US.

    Do the governements care on what it does to the children? Do the care on what it does to the parents?
    No, they dont. Because it is all politics. And what are humans in politics? Nothing.

    I am really happy you wrote this article to bring the “Stolen Generation” up for talks.

    Well done Andrys!

    (Would you mind if I send this link to a friend of mine in Oz?)

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