Australia Apologizes For Kids Shipped To Colonies

Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd issued a formal apology Monday for his country's role in Britain's colonial history. Over the course of three centuries, Britain sent tens of thousands of children involuntarily to the colonies. Although they were promised a better life, many were the victims of abuse and neglect. British historian Stephen Constantine says the essence of the policy was to boost Australia's white population.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Im Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And Im Robert Siegel.

Now, an apology in Australia. So much is written about the offenses that imperial powers committed against their colonized subjects, it is bracing to confront the crimes they also committed against their own colonizers. Over the course of more than three centuries, Britain dispatched more than 150,000 children, involuntarily, to the colonies.

In Australia, where the practice continued through much of the 20th century, theyve become known as the Forgotten Australians. And today, a group of them gathered to hear Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd apologize on behalf of their country.

Prime Minister KEVIN RUDD (Australia): We are sorry. Sorry that as children you were taken from your families and placed in institutions where so often you were abused. Sorry for the physical suffering, the emotional starvation and the cold absence of love, of tenderness, of care.

SIEGEL: Stephen Constantine is an historian who lectures at Lancaster University in Britain.

Welcome to the program.

Dr. STEPHEN CONSTANTINE (Senior Lecturer, History Department, Lancaster University): Thank you.

SIEGEL: And tell us first, why did Britain send so many children overseas?

Dr. CONSTANTINE: I think the instant point is actually your use of the word overseas. Of course, it is overseas going to Australia. But this, remember, was even into the 1950s, Australia was simply regarded as part of the British world, just as Canada was and just as New Zealand was. So in that sense, the practice of sending British children overseas to the empire is felt actually like moving to one part of home to another part of home.

SIEGEL: These children would have typically been from very poor families, possibly abandoned, possibly children of single mothers.

Dr. CONSTANTINE: That's exactly right. Some of them would be legitimate. Some, their parents might have died. Sometimes the parents, if they lived, simply could not manage to keep them appropriately and put their child into care.

SIEGEL: Many stories have been related in recent years of children who were placed in institutions in Australia, some abused, many neglected. Do you find those stories typical of the experience of children who were sent off to Australia?

Dr. CONSTANTINE: I think it's very hard to make judgments on this. Most children probably survived this reasonably intact, but with one big reservation I'd always make about that: We have to think of these children, before they reached Australia, had already been children who had been deprived in some fashion or other. Then they find themselves in a place like Western Australia, out there in the bush, miles from any kind of urban environment.

Then if on top of that, you do get these cases in which very clearly the evidence is overwhelming that some children are subjected to very serious psychological, physical and sexual abuse, you can imagine the kind of states in which these children are left, and that will never go away.

SIEGEL: These far-flung provinces of empire, from what you're saying, served as a sort of safety valve for some social and economic problems back home in Britain. But they also - there was a racial dimension to this. They were being sent off to provide, the phrase that I've seen is good, white stock to those places.

Dr. CONSTANTINE: That is absolutely the case, yes. The whole essence of the Australian policy is to recruit as many people of white, Anglo-Saxon/Anglo-Celtic stock as they could get their hands on in order to boost Australia's white population. The emphasis is consistently on the need to maintain Australia's white dimension.

SIEGEL: As youve said, Australia welcomed this for a long time; it gave them a supply of kids. And frankly, it gave them a supply of the white kids whom they wanted.

Dr. CONSTANTINE: Mm-hmm.

SIEGEL: So it's appropriated that Prime Minister Rudd should apologize on behalf of the Australian nation. But it was Britain that was sending. And I gather there's an apology in the works coming soon from Prime Minister Gordon Brown, as well.

Dr. CONSTANTINE: Yes, thats my understanding as well. I think it has now been in British government announcement that in the New Year, Gordon Brown will himself offer apology on behalf of British governments in past and present.

SIEGEL: Stephen Constantine, thank you very much for talking with us today.

Dr. CONSTANTINE: Thank you.

SIEGEL: Stephen Constantine is an historian at Lancaster University in Britain. He spoke to us from Blackburn, Lancashire in England.

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