Span 37

Journal of the South Pacific Assoc for Cwlth Lit and Language Studies
Number 37, 1993
Yorga Wangi:
Postcolonialism and Feminism

Edited by Anne Brewster, Marion Campbell, Ann McGuire, Kathryn Trees

Blackbirds and Lost Babies: Narrative of Child-Stealing in Australia and the Pacific Islands

Kay Torney

Like a recurrent nightmare, the fantasy of the all-purpose child haunts the construction of mothering and families in Australia. Australian narratives of mothering and family production deal with it, over and over again. Inscribed most brutally on the bodies of nineteenth and early twentieth-century black mothers and their brown babies, the fantasy of the state-created child, free-floating, without inconvenient genealogical ties, is both exaggeratedly under the control of the law and outside, or unable to draw on, its protection. The one in six Aboriginal children taken from their black families has been conscripted to enact the state's fantasy of the mother as incidental to the creation of her child, the father as invisible, the child as the property of the state from conception, available for white middle class families who most comfortably represented the state's fantasy of itself to use as they please.2 What is the meaning of this patterning? We know that if the repressed always returns, it returns not in its original form, but as a symptom. What is the image of the kidnapped child a symptom of? I want to consider this question and the recurrence, the cultural attractiveness, of the idea of the child without a family, by looking at some Australian narratives of child-stealing.

Australia's long history of theft begins with the theft of a land. From first European settlement in 1788, until 1992 and 1993, the vicious legal fiction of Terra Nullius - nobody's land - underpinned Australian property law. If no body owned the country in the first place, then taking it would be no theft. To hold this position, recourse might be had to definitions and types of land ownership, for instance that land could only be deemed 'owned' if it were used as a transactible commodity. Contortions of this sort are never comfortable: the easier course is to make the land genuinely no one's; and this can be done in various ways: most directly, you can kill the inhabitants, by straightforward assault perhaps, or by disrupting food supply, or by rupturing indigenous culture, and causing lethal depressions, or by introducing exotic diseases. A more sophisticated approach is to interfere in genealogy, so that it can be argued that there are no longer any legitimate heirs to the land. So, following the theft of land, must come the theft of family, the insistence that the State constructs relatedness, that only legitimate male heirs, English style, are family. The more modifiers, the better for this argument: 'legitimate', 'heirs' all then become available for State definition.

Nineteenth and twentieth century Australia has enacted all these strategies on the bodies of its indigenous peoples at different times, and typically in a sort of progression, where massacres begin and child-stealing completes the elaboration of a fantasy of a land which belongs to no one. In this paper I want to discuss child-stealing in some of its excitingly postmodern manifestations as well as its brutal colonial enactments. Because at the centre of the idea of Terra Nullius, land owned by no body, is a belief that the State may decide what constitutes a body as well as what constitutes ownership. Indeed, the concepts probably run together, so that only a State approved body may own, including, logically enough, that body's body. Female bodies, black bodies, child bodies are traditionally deemed to have no existence within the law, and thus a black woman's ownership of her body or her foetus provides the most extreme example of the extra-legal body's control of such bodies, creating a sort of Corpus Nullius to go with Terra Nullius.3 This idea is neatly corroborated in the grisly North American phenomenon of court-ordered Caesareans, most often for unmarried women of colour.4

In a sort of parody of procreation, then, the principle of eugenics intersects with the desires of Terra Nullius to produce as its most outrageous transgressor the nineteenth century black mother of a white baby. The brown body of a baby is so useful for the colonial master-project of simultaneously deconstructing indigenous heritage and providing for the construction of a slave caste that the question of whether, and why, these children were conceived as the result of systematised rape is not much at issue. The effects of mass rape can be clearly seen in Tasmania, where the tribal population was wiped out in a century, leaving a sizeable population of mixed-race Aboriginal people created by the 'grabbing' of women by the nineteenth century sealer-sailors of Bass Strait.5 I was taught at school in Victoria in the 1960s that there are no Tasmanian Aborigines today; and to this day, the Tasmanian government refuses to acknowledge the Aboriginality of these people. In these circumstances, mass rape (such as we have witnessed in Bosnia) is a form of "ethnic cleansing," a grotesquely simple way of disinheriting a race. In colonial and early twentieth century texts, mixed race Australians, such as the Aboriginal detective Bony in Arthur Upfield's early work, were generally represented as genetic sports and embarrassing hybrids.6

The issue of race allows the purest, most brutal form of this construction of the child without genealogy, but it is not the only, or even perhaps the fundamental determinant of it. The stealing, in the nineteen forties and fifties, of considerable numbers of white British children is a further example of the Australian desire for de-genealogised child fodder.7 Australia may have shown a meek colonial readiness to help with Britain's difficulties in this matter, as it did in the matter of the devastation of tribal land when British nuclear testing at Maralinga was permitted in the 1950s, but, also as at Maralinga, colonial obedience neatly serves a desire for a Terra Nullius. The explosions at Maralinga defiled and contaminated occupied, sacrilized tribal lands, but under Terra Nullius, ideas like 'tribal lands' are non-sequiturs. The stolen British children, a resettled group whose genealogy was often hidden from them, could be made available to re-populate the depopulated land with racially approved bodies without ethical discomfort if the land was thought of as empty. Adoption policies in Australia, especially in the fifties, sixties and early seventies, show a bureaucratised extension of this wish, in this case for the transfer of children from wild sexual working-class 'girls' to respectable chaste middle-class matrons. They also provide the punishment and a fantasy of the extermination of that traditional enemy of the bourgeois State, the working-class slut.

These crude tactics are now uncommon. As everywhere in the developed world, few babies are now relinquished in Australia and Aboriginal children are no longer openly kidnapped. It is sometimes argued that third-world adoption provides a sort of off-shore source of de-genealogizable babies to remove from their non-European mothers. The strenuous Australian government controls designed to prevent individual or entrepreneurial inter-country adoption would seem to suggest that this is indeed feared.8 I want to argue, however, that kidnapping can disappear exactly because it is no longer as necessary as in colonial times. It can be replaced by high-tech possibilities (or at least this can be the object of desire), where the assignment of the child's identity is argued to be absolutely a matter for the medical branch of the state. Australia has been extremely successful in the production of the high-tech child: IVF Australia is a successful franchise in the United States today. Australian women are entitled to six state-funded attempts at IVF under Medicare (the national Health scheme), and there is a push by the leading specialists in the field to have the limit lifted, so that women could have as many 'free' IVF attempts as they wanted.

Under this regime, medical fantasy converts men and women from potential mothers and fathers into genetic providers under the benign control of the state. On March 29 of this year, the headlines of the Melbourne Age proclaimed rather tiredly, ANOTHER IVF MIRACLE BABY. Joshua Sipek was born in Adelaide on 12 February 1994 after the micro-injection of a single sperm into an ovum; this procedure allowed his father to provide genetic material though he had mostly immotile sperm. In the case of baby Joshua, though his mother was in fact anxious to bear that particular baby, paternity is state-guaranteed, state-assigned. The post-modern possibilities of State-created child history and parental obsolescence suggest themselves: paternity can be nailed to the very last sperm; phallic power, microscopically represented, depends more on state-sponsored technocracy than on physical strength and aggression, such as might be necessary in rape or child abduction.

In short, then, I imagine a sort of progressive refinement of the process of child-stealing in Australia, the reconsignment of identity which replaced the simple policies of massacre and infanticide in the early Colonial period: first we have the 'classic' slave-trading known as 'blackbirding' where, as late as the 1880's, Melanesian boys were kidnapped from their homes and used as slave labour on sugar plantations,9 producing today a population sometimes marginalized as neither white nor indigenous. Second, mixed-race children were produced, perhaps deliberately, by the rape of black women,10 and the mothers then designated unfit to raise these babies, who are forcibly removed by the State and institutionalised, often never seeing their families again. Thirdly, numbers of British children whose working-class families were, sometimes temporarily, unable to care for them, were shipped to Australia, often after being lied to about their family's existence. Fourthly, young pregnant women were misinformed of their rights, denied state support, and frightened or forced to relinquish their newborns to the state for reconsignment to more deserving couples. Fifthly, Repro-tech produces children envisioned as endlessly reinventable, neutral, recurrent genetic material to be combined and used as science and, the state decides. This final development is, I believe, a logical evolution of the 'blackbirds and half-caste' theories: bodies, particularly the bodies of women and children, are inherently alienable, inherently available for the state and its technologies to invent.

I want to 'flesh out' these issues by considering some Koori and Nyoongah autobiography as well as some IVF and adoption tales to explore the implications of child reconsignment. What bodies are involved in such procedures? Where is the father's body? What has happened in Australia that promotes these attitudes to women and children? It seems to me that the process of producing a Terra Nullius to conform with the concept, that is of emptying the land, produces a fearful stress in the inhabitants: Australian landscapes are said to be vast, silent, empty and the Australian outback is referred to as the Dead Heart. Like all metaphors and fantasies, this is not an idea with much actuality behind it. Like all landscapes, Australian landscapes are noisy and alive: I want to suggest that the perception of a great Australian Silence is in fact a guilty response to living on the site of innumerable massacres; it is of course more obvious in the Outback just because no neutral, noisy urban organisation has replaced the silence of the murdered tribal inhabitants. Living in what Deborah Bird Rose has named a Deathscape, a space produced by exterminations,11 inevitably produces psychic strains, and one of the first might well show up as an intolerance of liveliness and generativity. The activity of slaving, 'blackbirding,' is metaphorically congruent with this: over the maimed or dead bodies of indigenous people, healthy exotic teenage blacks are introduced as labour via the deathspace of the slave ship, full of excrement, vomit and fouled food. Blackbirding shows an effort to reproduce and work through the wish to humiliate and control in situations without massacre, and indeed to provide a black population to feud with the remnant indigenous people. In a grotesque fantasy, two black races warring in a late colonial deathscape, lets the colonisers off the hook of genocidal hook.

How else do we respond to spontaneous living bodies in a space produced by massacre? One answer is to deaden and deny the maternal body which produces life, to deny motherhood as a site for any other activity than contagion. Like the debates that rage today about whether an HIV positive mother should nurse her baby before its HIV status can be determined, nineteenth-century Australian debates focused on the Aboriginal mother's capacity for infecting her half-caste child with dangerous racial and cultural conditions, from heathen religious and filthy food practices to leprosy and TB. Fair-skinned Koori children were targeted for reconstitution as low-grade whites in dormitory institutions to avoid the danger of "a race of nearly white people living like aborigines"12 In 1917, Margaret Tucker was taken from her screaming mother with her second sister; her youngest sister, Geraldine, six years old, missed the police pick up because she was in transition between hospital and home that day.13 In her controversial autobiography, My Place, Sally Morgan ascribes most of her family's difficulties to what she represents as a primal act of thievery where her uncle Arthur, his little sister Daisy, and Daisy's daughter Gladys were stolen on separate occasions from their mothers. Arthur, "eleven or twelve" years old, never saw his mother again.14 Gladys was three years old when she was sent to the Parkerville Childrens Home.15 Behind this ostensibly primal horror, there is an even darker one, mostly subtextual; My Place implies that the most horrible aspect of the family tragedy is in Daisy's story, which she refuses to divulge in any completeness. Gladys cannot be told what happened to her older sister or who her father is: the unspoken fear in the autobiography is that Gladys' father is also Daisy's father, the white squatter who raped Daisy's mother. Daisy, turned as she says to 'dirt' by her history, refuses to reveal the truth. In these stories of stolen fair-skinned children, the role of the father is obliterated; children are conceptualised by the state as products of maternal wilfulness, or dumbness, so that the true paternal presence is the state, into whose care they are returned when it is deemed necessary. It may be speculated - Morgan's work does not provide enough material to judge - that the white father's fear of incest disappears when the mixed race child is deemed to be 'fathered' by the state.

To conceptualise such children is difficult; they remain 'dis-remembered,'16 dismembered, silenced within the deathscape. Margaret Tucker's autobiography falls into two sections: her account of herself as child, speaking "the language" eating bush food, learning bushlore, knowing her mixed genealogy in precise detail, loved and loving; and her account of herself as institutionalised slave, who worked for nine years and earned 80 pounds in wages, who had to be fed by the white children she tended because she was starving, who marries a white man who is ashamed of her, and has white great-grandchildren. Tucker's narrative splits as her psyche does: there is a strong, poetic Koori part, and a conventional inarticulate enslaved part. When she is working in the deathscape as a nanny to the people she thinks of as having stolen her country; she is dehumanised, flat unthinkable even to herself, just an inconvenient, bad black girl with a flat nose whom nobody could love: "I felt we were not the lowest in intellect, but perhaps the least advanced of coloured people . . . the thought came to me to "marry a white man" so that my children will be light-skinned . . ."17 When kidnapped from her family and culture, she can represent, even to herself, as can Daisy Corunna, the 'nobody' of Terra Nullius.

There are innumerable accounts of these children trying to understand their position as anomalies, existing in a deathscape. Tribalised Wadjularbinna, who survived after her raped and furious mother exposed her at birth, and had to live with that loved mother's ambivalence, describes how she asked around for an answer to a poignantly mixed-race version of the child's question, "where do I come from?": "Granny, tell me, tell me why I'm like I am - half white?" One of her many grannies eventually decides to give her the truth: "it really bad, but I tell you. White men been come into our tribe and they take at gunpoint the women they want and use them."18 Veronica Brodle was reclassified as white after her marriage: her children were left in her care, but were fragmented bureaucratically and 'graded': "Margaret was one-sixteenth of an Aboriginal, Colleen was one-fourteenth of an Aboriginal . . . same mother, same father."19

In the deathscape, loving relationships become flattened, exhausted. Daisy Corunna is loved by her grandchildren, but her traumatised silence, her description of both herself and her loved country as dirt, her refusal to name her child's father, her refusal to pass on her history, fills them with rage and incomprehension. James Savage, drug and alcohol-damaged, on death row in a Florida Jail for the brutal murder of an American woman, was taken at birth from his fourteen year-old Koori mother and, after some time in institutions, consigned to a white Salvation Army family, who allegedly abused and humiliated him, and took him to the US where he ran away. In the deathscape a death row cell provided by the State is more appropriate than anything provided by the mother and her extended family. Dirt and poison, the contents of the blackbirding ships, fill up the psychic space of love.

In the more bureaucratised world of adoption girls apparently collude in relinquishing inconvenient babies just as despairing Aboriginal mothers brought the babies to the institutions, rather than having them removed by force. The repeated accounts of maternal grief and confusion continue a pattern of unthinkable bodies: women required to disown their newborns, babies consigned to non-relatedness. Looking for Lisa, a collection of adoption stories by both relinquishing mothers and their children, provides examples of how this material plays out. The story of Trish enacts the coerced, irrational side of relinquishment very strongly. Her youthful sexuality is treated with intense contempt by her family and the State: "Make sure when he sticks his fingers up ya to pretend it hurts," sixteen year-old Trish is advised before the police surgeon attempts to establish her virginity.20 Trish's mother is so confounded when she discovers her daughter's pregnancy that she is reduced for explanation to "the worst thing she could think of . . . she asked 'is he black?' . . . I didn't even know any black men."21

Aside from the fact that Trish's mother's racism exposes the familiar association of blackness and sexual crime, it is worth noticing that the idea of Trish's baby as brown and mixed-race, is advanced as relieving and explanatory: the baby can immediately be put in the relinquishable, that is, no-genealogy, basket. A 'black' baby need not be represented as related. Trish's hatred of her mother's sadistic control seems to be expressed via the relationship with the babies she relinquishes. Relinquishing the first baby causes intense pain but, like a symptom, is acted out again and again in various ways: by relinquishing a second child in a more controlled way, then by later bearing two other children to the same man as his wife. Such a state of agonised confusion in Trish might be thought to suit society very well: it is easiest to have young women bamboozled into providing their children for reconsignment when they are denied any dignified or joyful access to their sexuality. Free female and maternal sexuality must be made disgusting, unthinkable, 'dirt,' as Daisy Corunna experiences it, if young mothers are to relinquish their babies on a large scale.

In such transactions, babies must be represented as products, not people, it is easier to maintain this attitude when confronting a gamete than a newborn baby, as Mary Beth Whitehead and others have shown.22 Repro-tech can thus be seen to fit nicely, indeed triumphantly, with other sorts of child-stealing. It is a more genteel way of reconsigning human identity than the earlier trade in embodied flesh. The Victorian government currently seems keen to suggest that surrogacy or donation of genetic material forms an uncomplicated, indeed natural, progression from adoption. The opposing impulse, evidenced in a proposal to make information about their genetic origins available to children born of gamete donation once they turn 18, has caused confusion: a sperm donor who has provided 60 donations decides to stop. A Melbourne hospital spokesman complains that parental wish to be anonymous is clear in the case of gamete donation (as was once said about children relinquished for adoption). If we look forward from the gamete to the adult, with its own inconvenient, possibly irrational, desires, no more certain to be in line with his or her parents than we are with ours, or than any of our grown children are with us, it becomes impossibly difficult to sustain a belief in the all-purpose reconsigned gamete-child.

But if we stay for a moment with the gamete, the child as product for the deathscape moves closer in the world of Repro-tech. Dissected foetal egg donors may provide them; corpse gestaters may contain them: perhaps a combination would provide an ideal state-created child. Joshua Sipek, born of the union of ovum and a purposefully selected single micro-injected sperm, is very literally created as his father's child, although strictly speaking that lone sperm could have been provided by his father's identical twin or clone. The paternity of legitimated children is fetishized; the paternity of children for reconsignment is obliterated. Both fetishizing and disguising show the drive to put definition of the parental status with the state. 'Mothers' do not exist in the deathscape either; their role and identity is subsumed under the idea of incubator. In the deathscape, babies and children are conveniently thought of as fodder for social need. If medical science or a deserving couple needs an ovum, a dissected female foetus provides as good a 'mother' as any. The best mother in the deathscape might well be a nineteenth-century blackbirding ship or a twentieth-century petrie dish.

As we might expect, Australia's success in Repro-tech is metaphorically congruent with its colonial origins and more recent history: invented families and fragmented babies proliferate through high art, popular art, autobiography and social policy. The figure of the kidnapped child, symptom of massive cultural repression of theft and genocide, insists on the conflict between the reality of origins and the State's hatred of it.

La Trobe University


1 A version of this paper was presented at the Pacific Rim Triangulations Conference, "Poetics and Politics of the Body" at the University of California at Santa Barbara, April-May 1994.

2 In Patrick White, The Vivisector, Hurtle Duffield Courtenay, the brilliant boy sold by a laundress to her mistress for five hundred pounds, is a rare representation of the White Australian version of the reconsigned child, the working-class genius who will revitalise a decadent bourgeoisie. Most significant in the terms of this essay is that as a white boy, Hurtle is destined to provide social, cultural and emotional 'muscle' for his new 'family' rather than the domestic or agricultural variety.

3 For a discussion of some contemporary ramifications of the way that black women as mothers come 'densely scripted' to public discourse and are assumed to be "not only or simply maternally deficient (but) rather 'natally dead'," see Valerie Hartouni, 'Breached Birth: Reflections on Race, Gender and Reproductive Discourse in the 1980s', in Configurations, 1994, 1:73-88. I am grateful to Sneja Gunew for directing my attention to this paper.

4 See Janean Acevedo Daniels, "Court-ordered Caesareans: a Growing Concern for Indigent Women," in From Abortion to Reproductive Freedom: Transforming a Movement, ed. Marlene Gerber Fried Boston: South End Press, 1990, 255-61.

5 Plomley, Brian, and Henley, K.A., The Sealers of Bass Strait and the Cape Barren Island Community, Hobart: Blubber Head Press, 1990, 5.

6 Arthur Upfield represents the confusions of this position in, for example, Winds of Evil, (1937) Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1961 when he describes a belief in the unnatural nature of most mixed-race Australians. A minority, like his hero, Bony, must be made out to be exceptions: "she was a half-caste, but like you had sharp features" says an apologetic informant of a murdered girl, "She was born white and didn't begin to colour till she was past twelve" 133. Bony himself disapproves of the mixing of race, and has married a woman of the same degree of caste.

7 These children, now middle-aged or older, are in many cases attempting to regain contact with their families or origin. A docu-drama about their history shown on Australian television in 1993. The Leaving of Liverpool, caused considerable popular and media interest.

8 In the United States, however, individual inter-country adoption is not uncommon, and has been the source of resentment and occasional rioting in some Latin American countries.

9 See, for example, Edward W. Docker, The Blackbirders: the recruiting of South Seas labour for Queensland, 1883-1907, Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1970.

10 "European men demanded (Aboriginal) women as part of their wages;" Deborah Bird Rose, Hidden Histories: Black Stories from Victoria River Downs, Humbert River and Wave Hill Stations. Canberra: Aboriginal Studies Press, 1990, 176.

11 Rose, Chapter 12.

12 Mattingley, C., and Hampton, K., eds., Survival in our own Land: Aboriginal Experience in 'South Australia' since 1836, Sydney: Hodder and Stroughton, 1992, 157.

13 Tucker, Margaret, If Everybody Cared: the autobiography of Margaret Tucker, Sydney Sydney, Ure Smith, 1977, 93.

14 Morgan, Sally, My Place, Fremantle: Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 1987, 182.

15 Morgan, 241.

16 Morrison, Toni, Beloved, London: Chatto and Windus, 1955, 275.

17 Tucker, 166.

18 Rintoul, Stuart, The Wailing: a National Black Oral History, Melbourne: William Heinemann, 1993, 144.

19 Rintoul, 316.

20 Harkness, Libby, Looking for Lisa, Sydney: Random House, 1991, 177.

21 Harnkess, 179.

22 Referring to Mary Beth Whitehead's change of heart after the birth of the child conceived by artifical insemination under contract, the New Jersey Supreme Court Decision, "in the Matter of Baby M" (February 2, 1988), observed "any decision [about the strength of the natural mother's] bond with her child is, in the most important sense, uninformed before the birth": cited in Phyllis Chesler, Sacred Bond, New York: Vintage Books, 1989, 198.

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