The Stolen Generations: Fearing for Children’s Future

A young Aboriginal Australian woman.
Traditional baskets weaved by Aboriginal Australians and a boomerang.
Aboriginal Australian cattleman.
Illustration based on Aboriginal Australian-style dot painting.

Australia’s indigenous population, historically, was relatively materially poor and technologically nonprogressive. In contrast, the British settlers who arrived in Australia in the 18th and 19th centuries were much more developed in these fields. As a consequence, when the British began pushing indigenous Australians off their traditional land, Australia’s first peoples could do little to resist. Instead, as it turned out, many members of these peoples succumbed to displacement, massacres and diseases brought about by European settlers. Summing up their misfortune, in all, an estimated indigenous population of 750,000 at the time of the first British settlements Down Under in 1788 had been reduced to about a hundred thousand people by the year 1900.

A plan to save children

In observing the population decline and what they interpreted as an indigenous people clinging to a primitive culture, the Euro-descended Australian government believed that Aboriginal Australians and Torres Strait Islanders were slated for extinction in the emerging modern world. For this reason, around the year 1900, governing bodies made a plan to save children of these peoples. The plan, in place until around 1970, consisted of removing a significant number of indigenous Australian children from their families and placing them in institutions controlled by the government or churches. Isolated from their culture, the children were then to be taught English, Christian values and useful vocational skills.

Knowledge of English and other competences, which the indigenous children learned in their institutions, surely were useful in modern Australian society. Even so, as explained in the next chapter, teaching these skills to children through institutionalization came to have severe destabilizing effects on the indigenous Australian people as a whole.