“Rabbit-Proof Fence” as an example of how Australian Aborigines were treated by the British colonial power

Pre-University Paper, 2009

27 Pages, Grade: 13 Punkte



1 Introduction

2 British colonisation in Australia and its impacts on the Aborigines
2.1 British rule
2.2 The “Half-Caste” Problem and the “Stolen Generations”

3 “Rabbit-Proof Fence” – the book
3.1 The author and an introduction of the book
3.2 Abstract of the story
3.3 The importance of the book/Noyce’s film

4 Selected scenes from the book/film and where they meet reality
4.1 The takeaway
4.2 The living conditions
4.3 The punishment
4.4 The selection

5 Conclusion
5.1 Summary
5.2 Reactions of the Australian Government and other institutions
5.3 The current situation of the Aborigines
5.4 The Future “Dreamtime”

6 List of Literature and Sources

1 Introduction

1.1 “So let us turn this page together: Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians, Government and Opposition, Commonwealth and State, and write this new chapter in our nation’s story together”.[1] This quotation is the conclusion of a speech made by the Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd on 13th February 2008 with which he apologized to Australian lawmakers and Aborigines for wrongs in the past between the years 1910 and 1970.

During this time up to 100,000 Aboriginal children - especially those of mixed Aboriginal and European descent - were taken forcibly from their families by police or welfare officers, because of a Federal and State Government edict. The main motive was to ‘assimilate’ Aboriginal children into European society over one or two generations by denying and destroying their Aboriginality.2

This issue is also discussed in the novel “Rabbit-Proof Fence” by Doris Pilkington, which tells a story about three girls who were also uprooted from their community and taken to a state settlement about 1,500 miles away from their home. In this reality-based story the girls escaped from their internment camp and tried to run back home by following the rabbit-proof fence.

1.2 The rabbit-proof fence which is shown in the book has really existed. Today it is better known as the “State Barrier Fence of Western Australia”. It was built between 1901 and 1907 to keep rabbits and agricultural pests out of Western Australian areas. There are three fences: The original No. 1 Fence crosses the state from north to south, the No. 2 Fence is smaller and further west and the No. 3 fence is smaller and runs east-west. The whole rabbit-proof fence which includes all three fences extends 2,023 miles (3,256 kilometers) and is therefore the longest fence in the world.3

1.3 My term paper is divided into four chapters. In the first one a short outline of British colonisation in Australia and its impacts on the Aborigines will be given. The second chapter is about the mentioned book and its author and the third part of this term paper analyses some extracts from Doris Pilkington’s novel and proves their verity with historical documents until it finally comes to its conclusion in the last chapter which tells us something about the current situation of the Aborigines and the reactions of the Australian government.

2 British colonisation in Australia and its impacts on the Aborigines

2.1 British rule

In 1770, the English Lieutenant James Cook, who is said to be the discoverer of the Australian continent, charted the east coast of Australia and claimed the island on behalf of Great Britain.4 But at that time, the land was already inhabited by the so-called Aborigines, who had come to Australia approximately 62,000 years before European settlement.5

The British didn’t care about the Indigenous. So Captain Arthur Philip arrived in 1788 with around 1,350 people, among them were 759 convicts, and established the first English colony in Australia, which marked the beginning of European settlement.6

Initially, the British and the Aborigines had friendly relations. But due to the mistreatment by the new settlers, who took away the land and the food resources (and even the being of a nomadic life) from the Aborigines, the relations became hostile, until it finally came to fights between these two cultures.

Lachlan Macquarie, who became governor of the colony in 1810, created laws to get Aboriginal people under British control to change their Aboriginal lifestyle into the European one. He also tried to send Aboriginal children to school and to teach the indigenous people farming and building techniques, but they did not like doing that.7 Because of fights with the colonizers, the loss of land and people and by bringing alcohol and new diseases to Australia, the Aboriginal population was reduced from estimated 300,000 to 900,000 in 1788 to 70,000 in 1930.8

2.2 The “Half-Caste” Problem and the “Stolen Generations”

Due to the European settlement, more and more sexual encounters between Aboriginal women and European men occurred in the first decades of the 20th century. Based on the Darwinian social science, it was believed that inferior races like the Australian Aborigines could not survive the contact with higher cultures like the Europeans. The government wanted to eradicate the Aboriginal race to keep ‘White Australia’ pure - a decision which was concluded at the “Federal Government Conference on Native Welfare” in 1937.

So the increase of the part-Aboriginal children, the so-called “half-castes”, became a social problem for the white population.9 In 1918 the Australian government created laws to segregate the Aborigines from the white population to reduce the number of mixed children. At the end of the 1920s, after the last known massacre of Whites to Aborigines, the authorities argued that the Aborigines were in danger of extinction, anyway, but they said, everyone with white blood had to be saved.10

Therefore a policy of “Removing part-Aboriginal children” was initiated. Until the 1960s tens of thousands of mixed decent children and babies were removed from their families by government officials and representatives of the church and either adopted by white people or taken to foster homes or institutions,11 where it came to abuse of all kinds.12 There they grew up without the

knowledge of their Aboriginal inheritance to find jobs as workers in the lower social class.13 Some children were removed forcibly and some were taken without force because their parents were told that their children will get a good school education and so it was thought to be good for them to go to such a settlement.14

But the main aim of this policy was to get the black blood out. This could be achieved over at least three generations by permitting relationships for ‘half-castes’ only to Whites. The ‘breeding out of the color’ was just thought to be possible because it was believed that the Aboriginal race was more related to the Caucasian or Aryan one than to the Black race. And it was legal because the guardianship rights over all indigenous people up to the age of 21 were given to the Aboriginal protectors at the beginning of the 20th century.15

The period between 1910 and 1970, in which these children were abducted, is known as the time of the “Stolen Generations”. This phrase was coined in 1981 by Professor Peter Read, when he published his book “The Stolen Generations“, which comprises stories of stolen individuals.16

The impact of the policy on the Aborigines was disastrous. As children the Indigenous endured all kinds of mistreatment but as adults, many of them had depressions and the feeling of worthlessness or were suicidal and addicted to alcohol and drugs.17

As in the early 1990s a high rate of Aborigines committing suicide in jail was noted the Federal Government got alarmed. It was discovered that 43 percent of the Indigenous, who had killed themselves, had been victims of the child removal policy. So in May 1995 the HREOC18 was assigned by the government to investigate the whole children-removal policy. On 26th May 1997 the enquiry commission published its results in the 689 pages long report with the title “Bringing Them Home”. The main outcome of this report was the judgement that the forcible removals stand for an act of genocide contrary to the “Convention on Genocide”.19

3 “Rabbit-Proof Fence” – the book

3.1 The author and an introduction of the book

In 1996, one year before the publishing of the “Bringing Them Home”-Report, Doris Pilkington made the human tragedy accessible to the public, when she published her reality-based novel “Rabbit-Proof Fence”, which describes the escape of three displaced Aborigine girls, among them is Pilkington’s mother Molly Craig, out of a churchly home across the desert back to their homeland.

Doris Pilkington herself was born as “Nugi Garimara” in 1937 at Balfour Downs Station approximately sixty kilometres northwest of Jigalong in Western Australia. Because of her Aboriginal background she was taken to the same place as in the book, the Moore River Native Settlement, at the age of four, where she spent her life until she was eighteen.20

Pilkington did not know anything about her mother's captivity at Moore River and her escape until her aunt Daisy told her the story after the reunion with her family in the 1970’s.21 All the details, her aunt could not remember, were told by her mother, after Doris had promised her not to talk about things, which are not allowed to be appointed or inscribed in Aboriginal tradition. After repeating the story at an event in Perth, where she got documents about the case from an attendee, she based a first draft of her book.22

The biggest challenge for Doris Pilkington while writing her book was the reconstruction of the time of the story. For one thing both her mother and her aunt are illiterate and for another thing numbers or dates have little or no relevance in the traditional Aborigine society. Nature was their social calendar and everything was measured by events or seasonal changes. So Pilkington could only recount the time of the escape because her aunt Daisy mentioned, that they chased emu chicks, which were striped black and white, on one of their first days away from the camp. By researching she found out that emu chicks have that sort of plumage only in August and September.23

3.2 Abstract of the story

In 1930 Constable Riggs gets the order from the current Chief Protector of Aboriginals A. O. Neville to take the 14-year-old Molly Craig, her two years younger sister Daisy and their ten-year-old cousin Gracie Fields away from their family in Jigalong and to bring the three girls to Moore River Native Settlement, which is an institution of the church, where they should live in European lifestyle to become domestic servants for white people.

The girls were forced to speak English instead of their native language and to go to church to pray. After regular stays in solitary confinement Molly decides to escape, although she has seen how runaway children are retracted and locked up alone in a shed for punishment. Gracie and Daisy are afraid but they get persuaded to follow the older girl, who tacitly takes the responsibility. As soon as their absence is noticed, the police is called and a professional tracker, who himself belongs to the Aborigines, is issued the command to bring the three girls back.

Molly is geared to the “Rabbit-Proof Fence”, because she knows that Jigalong is near this fence. Week after week she leads Gracie and Daisy along the fence, and she manages to outflank the tracker and to hide from the policemen. Every now and then the girls get something to eat, but they are also betrayed and then they have to go further hastily. It does not take long until A. O. Neville conceives what the runaways have in mind. But Molly is cautious and escapes the guards who have been positioned along the fence. She also does not believe the hunter, they come across on their trip, who tells her, that Gracie’s mother has moved to Wiluna. Just Gracie is hoodwinked by the Chief Protector’s intentionally spread rumour – and gets caught again.

After nine weeks Molly and her little sister achieve Jigalong. At command Constable Riggs searches there after them, but he shies away from the Aborigine women, who have gathered together, sing together - and protect Molly and Daisy.24

3.3 The importance of the book/Noyce’s film

In 2002 Doris Pilkington’s book was made into a film by the director Phillip Noyce, also entitled “Rabbit-Proof Fence”. Both the film and the book are a powerful testimony of the suffers of the “Stolen Generations”. As the film was translated in different languages and thus shown in many countries, it was seen by a lot of people from all over the world.25 It was the first movie about the fate of the ‘half-castes’, which attracted worldwide attention, and due to that one chapter of Australia’s history, which had been concealed for a long time, was brought to a wide audience.

In 2003 Doris Pilkington was honored for her novel “Rabbit-Proof Fence” with an “Intermix Positive Contribution Award”, which has been created to officially recognize those, whose efforts have made a positive contribution to a better world.26

Today the book, which has now been translated into 11 languages,27 is being used in many schools, also in some German ones, as a text for teaching about the broader issue.28 Therewith the students should gain a stronger understanding of human rights and their necessity in our everyday lives.29

4 Selected scenes from the book/film and where they meet reality

The book “Rabbit-Proof Fence” is subtitled with the words “The True Story of One of the Greatest Escapes of All Times”. This chapter of my term paper parses scenes out of the novel and demonstrates their authenticity with historical documents to show that scenes like the following ones happened in reality and thus the book has its subtitle with justification. The following quotations refer to Doris Pilkington’s novel and will just be given here with the book pages.

4.1 The takeaway

“Patrol officers travelled far and wide removing part-Aboriginal children from their families and transported them hundreds of kilometers down south. Every mother of a part-Aboriginal child was aware that their offspring could be taken away from them at any time and they were powerless to stop the abductors” (p. 40).

For protecting the children their relatives covered them with black powder to darken their black skins so that the children looked like full-blood Aborigines and would not be taken away (p. 41). But nevertheless most of the children were removed one day, so that day also came for the three girls from Jigalong.

“When Constable Riggs, Protector of Aborigines, finally spoke his voice [he] was full of authority and purpose. [He said:] ‘I’ve come to take Molly, Gracie and Daisy, the three half-caste girls, with me to go to school at the Moore River Native Settlement,’ he informed the family” (p. 44).

First he just found Molly and Gracie, but later at another camp he also grabbed Daisy. Then he took the three girls to his car and drove with them to the settlement (p. 44ff.).

“As the car disappeared down the road, old Granny [grandmother] Frinda lay crumpled on the red dirt calling for her granddaughters and cursing the people responsible for their abduction” (p. 48).

That this scene was written authentically is reflected on the official internet page of the Australian government in the apology by Australians Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, with which he apologized to the Aborigines for the child removal policy in the past. Herein he mentioned the fate of Nanna Fejo as an example for the outrages of these policy.

“[She] was born in the late 1920s. She remembers her earliest childhood days living with her family and her community in a bush camp just outside Tennant Creek. She remembers the love and the warmth and the kinship of those days long ago […]. But then, some time around 1932, when she was about four, she remembers the coming of the welfare men. Her family had feared that day and had dug holes in the creek bank where the children could run and hide. What they had not expected was that the white welfare men did not come alone. They brought a truck, they brought two white men and an Aboriginal stockman on horseback cracking his stock whip. The kids were found; they ran for their mothers, screaming, but they could not get away. They were herded and piled onto the back of the truck. Tears flowing, her mum tried clinging to the sides of the truck as her children were taken away to the bungalow in Alice, all in the name of protection.” 30

Compared with the real example it is shown, that the process of the ‘takeaway’ is described very realistically in the book. Even the time is almost the same as the one in the book. In the book the ‘takeaway’ happened in 1930 and the removing of Nanna Fejo in 1932. Both families had dreaded the day of the removal and therefore they concealed their children. In “Rabbit-Proof Fence” the relatives covered their children with black powder to darken their black skins and Nanna Fejo’s family “had dug holes in the creek bank where the children could […] hide”, so that their offspring would not be taken away. Despite the encryption in both stories the children were found and taken along. In the novel the protector first just found Molly and Gracie and only a short time later he grabbed Daisy before he took all three to his car and in the real story the white welfare men, who brought his stockman along, found the kids while they were running to their mothers, took them and brought them into his truck. The mourning was also similarly deep in both stories. The grandmother of the three girls in the book “lay crumpled on the red dirt calling for her granddaughters” and at Nanna Fejo’s “takeaway” tears were flowing.

4.2 The living conditions

The children at the settlement had no easy life. During the day, they had to go to school (p. 76) or to church and obey the orders of the attendants and for the night “they were placed in an overcrowded dormitory” (p. 72). They had to forget their native language and to “talk English all the time” (p. 72) instead.

“The inmates, not students, slept on cyclone beds with government-issue blankets. There were no sheets or pillow slips except on special occasions when there was an inspection by prominent officials. Then they were removed as soon as the visitors left the settlement and stored away until the next visit. On the windows there were colourful curtains, just wire screens and iron bars. It looked more like a concentration camp than a residential school for Aboriginal children” (p. 72).

The third chapter of the “Bringing Them Home”-Report contains experiences of children who lived in such settlements. Their statements are examples to show that the living conditions in these settlements had really been that bad. In the report it is not mentioned who gave these statements - each has just an evidence number.

Confidential evidence 170, South Australia:

“Y'know, I can remember we used to just talk lingo. [In the Home] they used to tell us not to talk that language, that it's devil's language. And they'd wash our mouths with soap. We sorta had to sit down with Bible language all the time. So it sorta wiped out all our language that we knew.”[31]

Confidential evidence 109, Queensland:

“Dormitory life was like living in hell. It was not a life. The only thing that sort of come out of it was how to work, how to be clean, you know and hygiene. That sort of thing. But we got a lot bashings.”[32]

Confidential evidence 549, Northern Territory:

“There was no food, nothing. We was all huddled up in a room ... like a little puppy-dog ... on the floor ... Sometimes at night time we'd cry with hunger, no food ... We had to scrounge in the town dump, eating old bread, smashing tomato sauce bottles, licking them. Half of the time the food we got was from the rubbish dump.”[33]

The comparison of the described living conditions in the novel with the ones told in these three statements shows accordance. The ban of the Aborigine language in “Rabbit-Proof Fence” is comparable with the Nr. 170-statement in which the person was even abused by washing out his mouth. In both stories the children had to obey the attendants. The children at Moore River Native Settlement first of all had to go to church and school and in the Nr. 109-statement it is said that “the only […] come out of [Dormitory life] (it) was how to work […] [and] clean. In the book the Aborigines “were placed in an overcrowded dormitory [and had to sleep] on cyclone beds” without any sheet or pillow slip, and the narrator of the Nr. 549-statements stated that they were “all huddled up in a room … like a little puppy-dog … on the floor”. It is also said that they were “eating old bread” and licking “tomato sauce bottles” because “there was no food”, so the statement gives an even more horrible description of the living conditions in the settlement.

4.3 The punishment

Due to such living conditions it is just understandable, that some of the children felt uncomfortable and became angry. Some swore at somebody or decided to run back home instead of staying at the settlement.

But for such ‘bad children’ the attendants at the settlement had their own kind of punishment. Every child who had done something wrong was locked up in the “boob […] a place of detention once described as a small, detached concrete room with a sandy floor and only a gleam of light and little ventilation coming through a narrow, barred opening in the north wall” (p. 70f.).

On page 70 in the book a scene is described where Violet Williams, who is also one of the half-caste girls at the More River Settlement, is locked up in the ‘boob’ for “swearing at Miss Morgan, the teacher. She’s lucky, [because] she’s only in there for two days”. On the following page Molly, Daisy and Gracie are explained that this is just a slight punishment. “[People] who were locked up for running away […] got seven days punishment with just bread and water.” Their heads were shaved bald and they were made parade “around the compound so that everyone could see them.”

The authenticity of this scene can also be explained by comparing it with statements of the “Bringing Them Home”-Report. Its third part also contains statements about the kinds of punishment in those settlements.


1 Prime Minister, http://www.pm.gov.au/media/Speech

2 see: The Stolen Generations, http://www.eniar.org/stolengenerations.html

3 see: Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rabbit-proof_fence

4 see: European Discovery, http://www.cultureandrecreation.gov.au

5 see: NSW Parliament, http://www.parliament.nsw.gov.au

6 see: European Discovery, http://www.cultureandrecreation.gov.au

7 see: Consequences, http://www.skwirk.com.au

8 see: Leitner, 2006, p. 27f.

9 see: Tim Richardson, http://www.tim-richardson.net

10 see: Hagemann, 2004, p. 99f.

11 see: The Stolen Generations, http://www.eniar.org/stolengenerations.html

12 see: Hagemann, 2004, p. 102

13 see: The Stolen Generations, http://www.eniar.org/stolengenerations.html

14 see: Die geraubte Generation, http://www.zeit.de/2000/23/200023.australien

15 see: Tim Richardson, http://www.tim-richardson.net

16 see: Die geraubte Generation, http://www.zeit.de/2000/23/200023.australien

17 see: The Stolen Generations, http://www.eniar.org/stolengenerations.html

18 HREOC = Human Rights and Equal Opportunities Commission

19 see: Stolen Generations Alliance, http://www.sgalliance.org.au/qna1.htm

20 see: Long Walk Home, http://www.longwalkhome.de/lwh.swf

21 see: The free Encyclopedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Follow_the_Rabbit-Proof_Fence

22 see: Long Walk Home, http://www.longwalkhome.de/lwh.swf

23 see: Pilkington, 1996, p. xii f.

24 see: Der lange Weg nach Hause, http://www.dieterwunderlich.de/Noyce_lange_weg.htm

25 see: Long Walk, http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Long_Walk_Home

26 see: Intermix, http://www.intermix.org.uk/Events/awards_03

27 see: The arts, http://www.australiacouncil.gov.au/the_arts

28 see: Teaching notes, http://www.hreoc.gov.au/education

29 see: Information for Students, http://www.hreoc.gov.au/info_for_students

30 Prime Minister, http://www.pm.gov.au/media/Speech

31 see: Bringing Them Home, http://www.austlii.edu.au/au/special

32 see: Bringing Them Home, http://www.austlii.edu.au/au/special

33 see: Bringing Them Home, http://www.austlii.edu.au/au/special

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“Rabbit-Proof Fence” as an example of how Australian Aborigines were treated by the British colonial power
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rabbit-proof, fence”, australian, aborigines, british
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Benjamin Roßkopf (Author), 2009, “Rabbit-Proof Fence” as an example of how Australian Aborigines were treated by the British colonial power, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/282790


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