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  • "Homes Are Sought for These Children":Locating Adoption within the Australian Stolen Generations Narrative
  • Shurlee Swain (bio)

In 1838 a child known as Mathinna was removed from the settlement for the remnant of the Tasmanian Aboriginal people on Flinders Island and taken to Hobart to live in the house of the lieutenant governor. Sir John and Lady Franklin, the historical record recounts, were impressed by her intelligence and wanted to bring her up as a companion to their own daughter. However, when they were recalled to Britain five years later, Mathinna was left behind. Initially sent to the Orphan School, she was later returned to live amongst her people and reputedly died at a young age while under the influence of alcohol.1 Mathinna has been memorialized in art, dance, literature, and children's books primarily as the tragic victim of a failed experiment in the contest between savagery and civilization, but hers is also a story of adoption that encompasses within it much of what would bedevil attempts to adopt Indigenous children in Australia over the next 150 years.2

When James Bonwick, one of the earliest historians of European Tasmania, set out to tell the Mathinna story, claiming as his source a colonial official responsible for managing the Indigenous people, he focused on what he saw as the core problem: How could a black body find a place in white society?

The age of early womanhood found her attractive in mind and body. But for whom were these charms to bud? On whom could she bestow her affections and preserve her virtue? Could she, who had been indulged in the drawing-room of the Governor, who had become used to the luxuries of civilization, be content to be the bride of ever so handsome a Black? Dare she hope to be the mate of an Englishman whose tastes and education were equal to her own?3 [End Page 203]

Although the abandoned Mathinna was but eight years old, her black body is retrospectively sexualized and positioned as a threat to the purity of the race. This core question has been repeated by generations of scholars who have studied the adoption of Indigenous children into non-Indigenous families: Where did the transplanted child belong?

The forced removal of Indigenous children, a practice common to many settler colonies, has attracted particular attention in Australia. Historians collaborated with Indigenous people to bring the subject to public attention in the latter years of the twentieth century. Their joint efforts resulted in an inquiry conducted by the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, whose report, Bringing Them Home, brought the issue onto the public record and gave currency to the collective term "Stolen Generations."4 Indigenous adoptees have been marginalized both in the story of the Stolen Generations and in the history of adoption in Australia. Minorities in both categories, they are the subject of much generalization but little detailed study. Their story is difficult to retrieve, but it is also more complex and contested than that of the children subject to cruelty and abuse in institutions and mission dormitories. In the Stolen Generations literature, adoptees are acknowledged but rarely represented amongst the stories used to characterize the experience.5

The secrecy surrounding legal adoption means that there is little agreement as to how many of the Stolen Generations were ever adopted. Anna Haebich, whose research focuses on the west of the country, concludes that "numbers remained fairly low over time."6 Christine Cheater, who is more familiar with the experience in the more closely settled states of Victoria and New South Wales, estimated that the adoptees constituted a little less than 17 percent of the total number of removed children, most from the 1950s through the 1980s.7 Link-up, the Aboriginal organization established to facilitate reunions of Aboriginal families fragmented by child removal policies, is reluctant to validate such estimates, preferring instead to emphasize the 100,000 Australians unaware of their Indigeneity because they are the descendants of children removed and brought up in the non-Indigenous community.8

Even the highest of these estimates would be minuscule in proportion to the total number of non-Indigenous children separated from their...


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pp. 203-217
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