English settlers claimed Australia as a British colony in the late 1700s, marking the beginning of a long and insidious process of displacement and extermination for Australia’s indigenous people, the Aborigines. In Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence, Doris Pilkington writes that in the early days of colonization many Aboriginal tribes believed their colonizers to be spirits (or gengas) rather than human beings, and thus underestimated or failed to understand what a grave threat colonizers posed to their land, culture, and lives. British colonizers not only killed and enslaved Aboriginal people systematically—they also systematically laid waste to Aboriginal culture, forbidding Aborigines to speak their own languages, practice their own traditional laws, and perform their tribes’ sacred rituals. In examining the effects of racism and colonialism on her own family’s history, Pilkington shows how the English tried repeatedly to skew their actions as beneficial to Australia’s indigenous population. This attitude led to the creation of government settlements like the one described in Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence, where half-castes (Aboriginal children of mixed racial descent) were held in captivity with the intention of being forcibly assimilated into white society.
In their writing, English colonizers frequently described the ways in which they deprived their “black servants” of wages and dignity, paying them “little more than rice” and assuring both themselves and one another that the Aboriginals were “grateful for small things.” One newspaper article from 1861 described the annual distribution of blankets to Aboriginal people as an “insult”—an insufficient and degrading means of making “reparations.” Yet the article stated that “the scanty supply of food doled out to this miserable remnant of a once numerous people is received by them with the most lively gratitude.” This destructive line of thinking—that the dispossessed and bereaved Aboriginals were grateful to accept these meager handouts in recompense for the decimation of their people—led directly to the creation of “government settlements” (in practice, internment camps) such as the Moore River Settlement, where Pilkington’s mother Molly, along with her sisters Daisy and Gracie, were sent as young girls. The children of this “Stolen Generation” (as well as Pilkington’s own) were constantly being surveilled by officials from the Department of Native Affairs, who saw the “ever-increasing numbers of half-caste children” in Australia as a threat to white supremacy. As a result, government officials separated as many part-Aboriginal children from their families as they could, forcing them into settlements where they would be “educated” and distanced from their Native roots.
The devastating effects of racism and colonialism are encapsulated in this vicious system. White settlers came to Australia, conquered the Aboriginals, and often raped Native women or otherwise coerced them into exploitative sexual relationships. As for the mixed-race children who resulted from these unions, the British soon contrived an elaborate bureaucracy whose sole purpose was to assimilate them into white society. A.O. Neville, Chief Protector of the Aborigines (an ironic title indeed), made his dreadful purpose even clearer; he hoped to “merge [mixed-race children] into our white community and eventually forget there ever were any Aborigines in Australia.”
Pilkington writes about her mother and aunt’s escape from the settlement and their return home, after which A.O. Neville wrote a letter in which he stated, “it’s a pity that those youngsters have gone ‘native’ […] They were attractive children, and ought to have been brought in years ago.” Neville’s letter highlights the sinister ways in which white Australians masked the violence of their actions, hiding behind titles like “protector” and feigning benevolence and “pity” even as they express feelings of ownership of and disgust for the Aboriginals. Racist attitudes such as these perpetuated the mechanisms of Aboriginal oppression and internment until the mid-1970s, still just seven years after Aboriginals were granted equal rights in 1967.
The racism faced by Doris Pilkington’s family (and virtually all other Aboriginal people) at the hands of white Australians is rooted in the colonialist practice of exploiting and eventually eradicating entire peoples and cultures under the banner of “civilization.” This process is made possible by the false idea that colonizers are somehow “protecting” or “helping” the people they oppress, saving them from their “primitive” ways. By writing about the racism her family encountered under colonial rule, Pilkington situates the far-reaching effects of racism and colonialism within the history of Australia, and the much longer history of the Aboriginal people.
Racism and Colonialism ThemeTracker
Racism and Colonialism Quotes in Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence
The Nyungar people, and indeed the entire Aboriginal population, grew to realize what the arrival of the European settlers meant for them: it was the destruction of their traditional society and the dispossession of their lands.
The white settlers were a protected species; they were safe with their own laws and had police and soldiers to enforce these rules.
As a further insult by the white invaders, an act of goodwill in the form of an annual distribution of blankets to the Aboriginal people was established. This generally occurred on Queen Victoria’s birthday. The Illustrated Melbourne Post of 20 August 1861, page 9, described this event as “a sorry return for millions of acres of fertile land of which we have deprived them. But they are grateful for small things, and the scanty supply of food and raiment doled out to this miserable remnant of a once numerous people is received by them with the most lively gratitude.”
Molly grew into a pretty little girl. Her mother was very proud of her and her father brought her gifts of clothing and pretty colored ribbons. […] As she grew older, Molly often wished that she didn’t have light skin so that she didn’t have to play by herself. Most of the time she would sit alone, playing in the red dusty flats or in the riverbed depending where her family had set up camp. The dust-covered child stood out amongst her darker playmates. The Mardu children insulted her and said hurtful things about her. Some told her that because she was neither Mardu or wudgebulla she was like a mongrel dog. One morning, her mother told her some exciting news. Two of her aunties had babies, little girls, and they were both muda-mudas like her. Molly was very happy. Now she had two sisters.
Molly and Daisy had just finished eating when all the camp dogs began barking. All eyes turned to the cause of the commotion. A tall white man stood on the bank above them. Fear and anxiety swept over them when they realized that the fateful day they had been dreading had come at last. They always knew it would only be a matter of time before the government would track them down. When Constable Riggs, Protector of Aborigines, finally spoke his voice was full of authority and purpose.
“I’ve come to take Molly, Gracie, and Daisy with me to go to school at the Moore River Settlement.”
The rest of the family just hung their heads refusing to face the man who was taking their daughters away from them.
“You should have seen the other ones who were locked up for running away,” [Martha] said. “They all got seven days punishment with just bread and water. Mr. Johnson shaved their heads bald and made them parade around the compound so that everyone could see them. They got the strap too.”
When the sons and daughters of the landed gentry and businessmen and professionals such as doctors, lawyers and politicians, were sent away to boarding schools to be educated they were likely to be given pleasant rooms that would be theirs for the duration of their schooling. Instead of a residential school, the Aboriginal children were placed in an overcrowded dormitory. 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 no colourful curtains, just wire screens and iron bars. It looked more like a concentration camp than a residential school for Aboriginal children.
Watching the three girls disappear into the open woodlands, [Mrs. Flanagan] said loudly to herself, “Those girls are too young to be wandering around in the bush. They’ll perish for sure. They don’t know this part of the country. And the three of them with just dresses on. It’s a wonder they didn’t catch cold. I’ll have to report this to Mr. Neal for their own good before they get lost and die in the bush. It’s my duty. When she had made her decision she went inside and lifted the earpiece of the telephone.
There was much excitement when the girls at last reached the rabbit-proof fence. The fence cut through the country from south to north. It was a typical response by the white people to a problem of their own making. Building a fence to keep the rabbits out proved to be a futile attempt by the government of the day. For the three runaways, the fence was a symbol of love, home and security.
“It’s a pity that those youngsters have gone ‘native,’ but it cannot be helped. They were attractive children, and ought to have been brought in years ago. This emphasizes the necessity for Police Officers to report the presence of half-caste children in the bush. I know this is done now, but it seems to have been neglected in some districts in the past.”