The Sins of the Fathers


On the day after so many Australians said they were sorry, I wrote to the Sydney Morning Herald. They didn’t print my letter, so here it is:

"I don’t want to detract from Australia’s happiness yesterday, but Valerie Linow’s story and the racist rationalisations of Baldwin Spencer compel me to point out the obvious. The fathers of ‘half-caste’ children were all non-Indigenous men. Removing the children meant removing the evidence of who had made Indigenous women in camps, on farms, in missions, or in towns pregnant. Not a few squatters and their wives would have been happy for the evidence to disappear, to say nothing of missionaries, policemen and others who coined the term ‘black velvet’ for Aboriginal women."

Professor Baldwin Spencer of Melbourne University, who was Chief Protector of Aborigines in the Northern Territory in 1911-12, advocated leaving no "half-caste" children in native camps, but taking them away to "breed out" their colour and low intelligence. But Spencer was applying a pseudo-scientific, social Darwinian gloss to a fact that was rarely mentioned in polite society: that half-caste children were evidence of white male immorality. He was rationalising the removal of the evidence.

An Indigenous woman, who objected passionately that Brendan Nelson had cited her story incorrectly without her permission, told ABC radio today that her father was a local grazier, who also had two other children by indigenous women.

Henry Reynolds has written of the "whispering in our hearts" about our treatment of Aborigines. The shame of fathering children out of wedlock didn’t whisper in outback Australia, it shouted; because the evidence was visible to everyone. Aboriginal women were shamed, and so were their husbands, no matter how much they loved their mixed-race children. Settler society was shamed because there was such contempt for miscegenation and such store was set by racial superiority. Settler wives were shamed by their husbands’ infidelity. Hence the big cover-up; hence the whispering.

And you can’t tell me it was just lonely shearers and jackaroos who fathered the children. What about the priests and laymen (great term) in the missions? What about the policemen and itinerant officials, storekeepers and publicans? It is so obvious that I can’t believe how silent we still are about this, even when we have heard so many painful stories.

Instead, we find the stories in novels, opera, and film. Many French colonialists merged into Vietnamese, Tahitian, and Noumean society – see Indochine – as if they really did believe in equality. The British imperialists, who didn’t, had strict rules against socialising with the natives. The penalty was shame and ostracism, as EM Forster showed in A Passage to India. When the wives went up to the hill stations in the summer, the men broke the rules, of course. (Harry Flashman, in George McDonald Fraser’s yarns, broke them all the time). Hence the 11th commandment: thou shalt not be found out. The 12th was: don’t fall in love with her, and if she’s pregnant, leave her.

Of course, Chinese men could and did marry Indigenous women in Australia without secrecy or shame, and founded some very successful families. Some, like Quong Tart, married Englishwomen. But it was different for the Aboriginal heroine in Katharine Susannah Prichard’s novel Coonardoo (1928) who has a squatter’s child and is killed. ‘Eccentric’ white man Roger Jose, in Nicholas Jose’s factual story Black Sheep (2002) on the other hand, lived in childless contentment for 50 years with his Indigenous wife and her sister in Borroloola, and was classified as "half-caste".

We search obsessively for the causes of accidents and diseases, but we rarely talk about that fact that most homicides and violent attacks are done by men. We still tend to prosecute female prostitutes but not their male clients. We have just had an orgy of talk about the Stolen Generations, but we still don’t say it was always men who fathered them, men who took them away, and men who justified it.

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