The Last Protector, William Richard Penhall, removal of Aboriginal children

The Last Protector

The Last Protector, The illegal removal of Aboriginal children from their parents in South Australia.

By Cameron Raynes

The Last Protector is the first book-length analysis of the removal of Aboriginal children from their parents in South Australia. It deals with the period from 1836 to the 1950s but focuses mainly on the work of William Richard Penhall, Superintendent of Point McLeay from 1927, last Chief Protector of Aborigines, secretary of the Aborigines Protection Board and finally head of the Aborigines Department from 1940 until 1953.

The Aborigines Act 1911 allowed the chief protector, the legal guardian of every Aboriginal and half-cast child, to keep them within the boundaries of any reserve, mission or Aboriginal institution. However the Aborigines Protection Board had to get the agreement of the Children’s Welfare and Public Relief Board to take Aboriginal children into care and remove them from their parents. This was not easily given. To make things it easier for the Chief Protector he could seek a court order on proof that the child was neglected. This, however, was not done too often as it would show that he, or the board, had failed to discharge its obligations as guardian. Under Penhall children were simply removed as the opportunity arose.

Penhall was willing to give effect to the government’s wishes regardless of the law. He was willing to treat Aboriginal children with astonishing harshness, despite the ostensibly beneficial purposes of the legislation he administered. He was an early example of that brand of public servant who conceives it his duty to implement government policy, rather than to administer the laws made by the parliament.

As if this was not bad enough he also added a dash of his own hard, punitive personality to the mix. He was prepared to deny food to Aboriginal parents if they did not agree to give up their children. He authorised the removal of children in full knowledge that to do so was beyond the Aborigines Protection Board’s legal power. He was not afraid to facilitate the illegal detention of Aboriginal children in mission stations run by church bodies and helped conceal the illegality from the children and their parents alike. In all fairness it should be pointed out that some protectors and sub-protectors did try to do the right thing. A good example is provided by J.P. Buttfield who was stationed at Blinman.

It is inconceivable that Penhall could have conducted the affairs of the board for so long in this manner if he did not have the unspoken support of the government and a majority of the population. Four years after his retirement, Aboriginal children were still removed as they had during his reign. Only one child, removed at the age of 13 in 1957 has been successful in suing the government forty years later. He was the only member of the Stolen Generation so far to have done so!

The book abundantly exposes deficiencies of the Aborigines Department under Penhall as its administrative head and how he exerted control over Aboriginal people through bluff and threats. The author has made extensive use of archival records of immense value and importance, the contents of which have never been previously made available to the public. In fact, the author was effectively banned from looking at Aboriginal records by the Attorney-General, Michael Atkinson in 2004. Everyone knew, and knows now that Aboriginal children were taken from their parents. Until now, no-one has been able to show that this process was in fact contrary to the legislation and therefore illegal.

One of the reasons that missions such as the United Aborigines Mission or the Lutheran missions did not often object, and in fact often colluded with Penhall, was that they received a subsidy from the Aborigines Department, Commonwealth Child Endowment and a large percentage of their wages when they were sent out to work. Those Aborigines who were employed at the mission also formed a very cheap pool of labour.

Whereas the United Aborigines Mission was at times oppressive, the Lutheran Mission at Koonibba was even more so, especially during the time when Pastor R.K. Traeger was in charge. He was vindictive and ruled the mission and its Aboriginal inmates with an iron fist, showing even less regard for their rights and benefits than Penhall. Needless to say that both shared the same opinion about removing children from their Aboriginal parents.

Reading The Last Protector, with its assembly of archival voices taken directly from the government’s own records, will not only unlock this history but also make one feel horrified for the grief and pain Aboriginal people have been subjected to during all these years by people and institutions whose job it was to protect them.

Review by Nic Klaassen

The book, written by Cameron Raynes, with a Foreword by Julian Burnside QC
@ $22.95 is available from
Wakefield Press

Telephone 08 8352 4455

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