Mother England as much to blame


By Geoffrey Robertson*


THE HISTORIC apology offered by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd to the stolen generations was a crucial step for Australia, as novelist Richard Flanagan wrote this week. But it does not make amends for the role played by the British in the destruction and degradation of the Aboriginal race. Initially soldiers, convicts and settlers killed Aborigines as if they were animals threatening the crops. Later, in the 20th century, Fabian socialists provided the intellectual justification for the eugenics policy that led to the stolen generations scandal.


The British exterminated the Tasmanian Aborigines, leaving only 40 survivors who were placed on an offshore island gulag. The governor's wife led the hunt for their skulls to decorate London mantelpieces. At least there was a parliamentary inquiry, which reported in 1836 that “not a single native now remains upon Van Dieman's land ? the adoption of any conduct, having for its avowed or secret object the extermination of the native race, could not fail to leave an indelible stain upon the British government”. That “indelible stain” was, a century later, termed “genocide”.


We castigate the Turks for pretending the Armenian genocide never took place, but we are apt to forget the Tasmanian genocide. Last year the National History Museum had to be taken to court to stop it experimenting on the skulls of victims.


Rudd's apology was directed at the policy that produced the stolen generations ? Aboriginal children, mainly girls, snatched from their mothers for “assimilation” into white society. Its intellectual origin was the English eugenics movement, which held that “feeble-mindedness” and other “degenerate” traits could be eliminated by social engineering measures such as compulsory sterilisation of the “unfit” and by “breeding out” what were described as “degenerate” racial traits.


A. O. Neville (played by Kenneth Branagh in the Phil Noyce film Rabbit-Proof Fence) held the title chief protector of Aborigines in Western Australia and was the leading proponent of the policy. He was an Englishman who, inspired by eugenics, took very young girls from Aboriginal settlements and had them trained for domestic service with white families, relying on miscegenation ? and rape ? to produce by the third generation an acceptable skin colour and a lack of any distinctive Aboriginality. His aim was to “merge the blacks into our white community” so that “we could eventually forget that there ever were any Aborigines in Australia”.


Much as white Australians may castigate themselves today for their deluded assimilation efforts, it is necessary, as with every genocide, to sheet home responsibility to the intellectual authors of the policy. These were the Fabian socialist heroes who believed eugenics principles could be applied to produce a “superior” society. Sydney and Beatrice Webb, John Maynard Keynes and Bertrand Russell all supported this cause. George Bernard Shaw argued for humane extermination of “the sort of people who do not fit in”. Marie Stopes publicly pleaded for the sterilisation of the “hopelessly rotten and racially diseased”. Virginia Woolf and D. H. Lawrence privately urged that the state should eradicate “imbeciles”. Their slogan was the vile aphorism of Oliver Wendell Holmes: “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.”


Against this background, Neville's “absorption” policy, adopted in 1937, was regarded as progressive. It was in line with modern thinking in the UK, where a Department of Health report had in 1934 recommended compulsory sterilisation of the “feeble-minded”, a class comprising “a quarter of a million mental defectives and a far larger number of the mentally subnormal”. It was not implemented, mainly because of opposition from Labour MPs, who feared working-class people would be the real victims of the Fabian intelligentsia.


Historical wrongs cannot be put right by belated apologies unless there has been a genuine attempt to understand ? then remember and condemn ? the thinking behind the policies that have had such appalling results. This is why we establish truth commissions, and why international courts now try the “intellectual authors” of widespread and systematic atrocities.


For that reason, the UK Government should find a way to endorse the apology to Australian Aborigines, for whose sufferings Britain has been in part responsible ? not only for the massacres and the introduction of disease and alcohol that further ravaged the indigenous population, but by a much later and more insidious dose of eugenics theory. Every Holocaust Day we should remember the Tasmanians, and ask how it came to pass that the finest minds in the socialist pantheon were incapable of imagining the inhuman cruelty entailed by their plans for a Fabian utopia.


*Geoffrey Robertson, QC, is a human rights lawyer, academic, author and broadcaster.