Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 23, 2016

The Last Protector (2009), by Cameron Raynes

The Last ProtectorReading this book made me angry, and like other books revealing Australia’s Black history, it should make other readers angry too.  The Last Protector, the illegal removal of Aboriginal children from their parents in South Australia shows that even when legislation deliberately curtailed administrative power to prevent the removal of Aboriginal children from their families, the Chief Protector in South Australia flouted those laws anyway.

Cameron Raynes is a name that may be familiar to readers: he has turned his hand to fiction and his book The Colour of Kerosene and Other Stories, and his recent YA novel First Person Shooter have been offered as giveaways on this blog.  But The Last Protector arises from his PhD on what the blurb calls ‘the moral subtext’ of Aboriginal oral history, and it has the imprimatur of Julian Burnside QC who wrote in the foreword:

This book is the history of a dedicated but deeply flawed public servant who put personal beliefs above humanity, and policy above law.

How could it have happened that Aboriginal children were illegally taken from their parents between 1939 and 1953?  The history of the Stolen Generations is a tragedy which still reverberates in families across the nation, but in South Australia, it was recognised as morally wrong as far back as the 1920s.   The Aboriginal (Half Caste Children) Bill was drafted to allow for the simple, quick removal of an Aboriginal child from his or her parents but when it was debated in parliament it was recognised for what it was and thrown out.

In parliament, Henry Tossell, the Liberal member for Yorke Peninsula, called the bill ‘one of the cruellest things I have ever heard of’.  Even Malcolm McIntosh, the liberal member for Albert, who was to have ministerial responsibility for the Aborigines Department […] opposed the notion of taking ‘half-caste’ children from their parents. (p. 6)

In the Legislative Council, Liberal pastoralist Thomas McCallum also spoke against the Bill:

I have great respect for family life and that should not be broken up… Those people have the same love for their children as have the best of the white population. (p.6)

But the old State Children Act 1895 was considered cumbersome because removal for ‘neglect’ required evidence in front of a JP, and there were those determined to amend the Act to give the Chief Protector power to remove children more readily.  Parliamentary Papers recorded the following exchange:

Allen: The greatest care should be taken in a matter of this kind, and this amendment is not likely to make matters much better from the native mother’s point of view… I hope the Minister will have the clause so safeguarded that only in extreme cases will it be put into operation.
Gunn: Who is to operate the power of discretion?
Hague: The Chief Protector of Aborigines.
Gunn: If he only has to satisfy himself that there is neglect it is certainly an extensive power to place in the hands of one man.
Hague: He will not be very anxious to take away any child.
Gunn: We know what happens when we give power like this. (p. 7)

The upshot was that, in South Australia, the Children’s Welfare and Public Relief Department could only remove children with the authority of the Aborigines Protection Board.  But in practice, it turned out that one man, William Richard Penhall, succeeded in using lies, disinformation, and bluff to conceal the fact that he was flouting the provisions of the Act, to remove children from their parents.  He circumvented the safeguards by refusing to release children who were already in some sort of institutional care such as missions or hospital admissions, and bullied parents into cooperating by refusing them child endowment payments and rations.  In response to heartfelt letters pleading for the release of Aboriginal children, Penhall denied that they had been taken.

Raynes’ makes the point that these actions cannot be excused because they represent attitudes of a different era:

It is not that the standards operating in this era were so different as to preclude us from now judging the actions of the department and its staff.  The department failed in its fundamental responsibilities, not only by our present-day standards but by those of its own era.  Evidence for this comes in the form of occasional complaints about the administration, and the plight of Aboriginal people, made by various interested individuals. There would have been more of this but for the fact that complaint and dissent were stifled by the deliberate policy of limiting the information made available to the general public.  Most South Australians simply did not know what was going on.  (p. 33)

Raynes does what he can to humanise Penhall, citing some examples of generosity with rations to some individuals, and he attempts to provide a rationale for his actions, suggesting that his Methodist world view may account for his belief that children might be better off.  But there is also disquieting evidence that Lutheran missions took advantage of long-term child removal to access unpaid labour, siphoning off child endowment payments and then blaming Aboriginal parents for failing to provide adequately for their children.

The book is not easy-reading popular history: not including the endnotes and bibliography, it’s only a short book of 76 pages but in places it’s a bit dense with facts and quotations, and I had to re-read sections of it to make sense of the differences between the bills and the legislation and which Acts were in operation.  It becomes easier to read once past the opening chapters about legislation and the ins and outs of board appointments.  Quotations from Aboriginal correspondents beseeching Penhall to release their children give the latter chapters emotional resonance, but these letters also confirm that parents did not give consent for the removal of their children.

This is an important book, distinguishing the history of South Australian Stolen Generations from practice in other States of Australia.  Its publication by Wakefield Press shows the importance of small independent publishers who are willing to publish books for their intrinsic value rather than just to make a profit.

For a more scholarly review than mine, please visit this site at the ANU.

Author: Cameron Raynes
Title: The Last Protector, the illegal removal of Aboriginal children from their parents in South Australia
Publisher: Wakefield Press, 2009
ISBN: 9781862548046
Review copy courtesy of the author.

Fishpond had a second-hand copy on the day I looked, see The Last Protector: the Illegal Removal of Aboriginal Children from Their Parents in South Australia.


  1. Lisa, I would prefer heartfelt over scholarly any day! Thankyou for another great review (and anyway you do scholarly too when it suits).


    • Ah, you are kind… but when it comes to history books, historians who know the field have something to contribute. I can discuss whether the book is good to read, interesting, topical, whatever, but I can’t comment on issues I don’t know about or contested facts.


  2. Reblogged this on Up the Creek with a pen … and commented:
    Lisa Hill has an amazing blog promoting Australian literature. She ensures many voices are heard especially those of Aboriginal authors, also books that throw light on Australia’s shameful past.

    The illegal removal of Aboriginal children is one issue that needed to be acknowledged, condemned and apologies made.

    The media, politicians and public talk about The Stolen Generation but it is only through the personal narratives and explanations of the history in a book such as Cameron Raynes’, The Last Protector, the illegal removal of Aboriginal children from their parents in South Australia, that we will even begin to understand and appreciate the grave injustices visited upon Australia’s indigenous population.


    • Thanks for helping to spread the word, Mairi!


  3. Cameron Raynes’ text seems to provide an important perspective on the forced removal of Aboriginal children. As mentioned in one of the blog post responses, the stolen generation plight has been explored in many memoirs by Aboriginal writers as well as some historical texts by non-aboriginal writers. However, more Aboriginal writers and scholars are conducting more projects, providing more resources, and creating legal initiatives to thoroughly examine the obscure or uncovered accounts of the stolen generation. Reclaiming the authentic stories, testimonies, and writings serves as a very important contribution to Australian history.


    • One of the things I didn’t mention in my review was that the evidence was used in a court case by one of the children, now an adult. But there are still files that can’t be accessed for research, apparently…


      • The imprint of legal displacement still lingers. Lisa, apart from the Macquaire Anthology of Australian Aboriginal Literature edited by Anita Heiss and Peter Minter, are there any collected texts featuring oral and textual testimonies by children and parents of the stolen generation. That would be a compelling text for all people to read and become informed by.


        • I’m sorry, I don’t know. I’m just a general reader with an interest in our Black history, but I don’t have any expertise in locating testimonies. Maybe other readers can help?


  4. Yesterday there was a very interesting article in The Guardian about Stan Grant covering the same kind of territory. He’s got a book out called Talking To My Country which looks really interesting. I wonder if you’ve read it or heard much about it?


  5. Very interesting and educational for me.

    Liked by 1 person

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