These children were stolen from their families as part of the Australian government’s plan to wipe out the entire Aboriginal race, to breed them white. The genocide ended as recently as 1970. The fight for justice has only just begun. Cathy Scott-Clark and Adrian Levy report.
The storm drove gullies into the red soil and drenched the Aboriginal mothers on the hill. They had gathered to bless the remains of 400 babies snatched at birth or shortly after, in the name of God and assimilation. All had died in the same children’s home located just a few miles away.
A single monument marked the grave site, carved from bluestone, the rock used to build the home’s 12ft walls, a towering perimeter that had kept the natural mothers out, and their children out of sight. The memorial was draped with the branches of a ghost gum tree, which the mourners set alight. The smoke would guide the spirits of the stolen children home.
The stone had been erected at the edge of a pioneers’ cemetery called Will Rook, where, more than a century before, Angus McDonald, a settler from Inverness, had stood grieving before the inscribed headstone of his daughter, Catherine. The Aboriginal monument placed beside it, bore no names or dedications. It was laid as a testament to two generations of infants whose bodies were secretly dumped. The plaque noted simply that beneath it lay the children who died after being taken from their families and placed in the care of St Joseph’s Babies Home, Broadmeadows, Victoria.
The burial ceremony, in August last year, followed a shocking discovery in the basement of a Melbourne house. Files dating from 1901 to 1942 recorded the deaths of 402 infants in the care of the Catholic Sisters of St Joseph. They showed that almost half were of Aboriginal descent and had been forcibly taken from their mothers and held until the nuns could arrange fostering or adoption with white families. None lived long enough to be placed. There was no indication of why or how so many children died, or why their bodies were secretly buried. The files came to light only because adopted Aborigines, searching for their relations, began contacting homes such as St Joseph’s. The results shamed Australia.
Larry Walsh, 44, an Aborigine who was taken from his mother at the age of three, represents the fifth generation in his family to be taken, and believes that some of his relatives are buried in Will Rook Cemetery. “Nobody knew they were here. The parents of these dead children never spoke about them after they were taken away. They were too ashamed – ashamed that a white person had taken away their child; ashamed they had done nothing to stop it; ashamed of their colour; ashamed to admit defeat.”
The removal of Aboriginal babies and babies from the northerly Torres Strait Islands, from their families by social workers and missionaries seeking to “save” them from squalor was brought to public attention three years ago, when 600 adopted Aboriginal men and women revealed how they had been taken from their parents by force. Some described how they were brought up as white, others how they stayed in the children’s homes, too dark-skinned to be wanted. “There was a sudden realisation that we had no history, nothing to pass down to our kids,” said Barbara Cummings, a social worker and Aboriginal activist. All are seeking compensation.
A national inquiry reported in May this year that between 1910 and 1970 as many as 100,000 Aboriginal children had been taken from their parents and either put in care or adopted by white families. Hundreds had been sexually abused. Many later committed suicide. There followed a period of national soul-searching. The Sydney Morning Herald wrote of a “dark stain on Australian history, which ranks with some of the 20th century’s most unforgivable systematic violations of human rights”.
Worse was to come. A second church in Victoria announced that it, too, had used a secret graveyard to bury Aboriginal children. Medical papers showed that black babies and toddlers had been used as guinea pigs: dosed with antidepressants, injected with experimental whooping cough and herpes vaccines. Aboriginal women told of being sterilised without their consent, and having their babies taken from them before they could even hold them.
Others told of children being snatched while their parents were at work; how mothers were falsely told their children had died; how adopted children were told their real mothers were whores and drunks; how the government of Australia had planned to breed out the blackness and create an assimilated race only of whites.
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