“People would say it was for your own good, but my own good was to stay with my mum.” Ruth shares how it felt as a 4 and a half year old child to be separated from her mum on Cherbourg mission.
Ruth arrived at Cherbourg mission when she was 6.5 months old. It was during the Depression and Ruth’s mother had taken her parents to Cherbourg where she was told they would be cared for. But Ruth and her mother were not allowed to leave the mission, and what was intended as a temporary visit became years of separation and control.
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Initially Ruth stayed with her mother in the women’s dormitory, where the single mothers were sent. But sooner or later, the children were removed to a separate dormitory. “Once you were taken from your parents, you had no more connection with them,” explains Ruth.
Although they were separated, Ruth saw her mother across the shared dining hall everyday, where children were made to sit on one side and grown ups sat on the other. Ruth recalls how, as a four and half year old, she would try unsuccessfully to get her mother’s attention, and was instead punished and forced to stand on one leg in the centre of the room. Then, when Ruth was 5, her mother was sent away from Cherbourg and Ruth no longer saw her at all.
Ruth explains that the separation and control was all part of the government’s policy of protection. “They had their own idea about protection,” she says. “I don’t think we needed protection!… People would say it was for your own good, but my own good was to stay with my mum.”
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Living Under 'The Act"
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Australian governments introduced legislation to regulate the lives of many Indigenous people. This legislation is commonly referred to as 'protection Acts' because its stated intention was to 'protect' Indigenous people. The Act was enforced by ‘protectors’, who were often police officers.
This information has been sourced from Unfinished Business: Indigenous Stolen Wages, the report of the Inquiry into Stolen Wages by the Senate Legal and Constitutional References Committee in 2006.
About Cherbourg Reserve
Cherbourg Reserve was established on Wakka Wakka country in 1900 by a member of the Salvation Army. Originally known as Barambah, Cherbourg was was handed to the Queensland government in 1905.
Almost every aspect of life at Cherbourg was highly controlled. The Superintendent had authority over whether people entered or left the reserve, where they lived, who they lived with, where they worked and who they married. The threat of being further separated from family or removed to other communities (such as the penal reserve on Palm Island) was used as another form of social control.
Living conditions and facilities at Cherbourg were very poor and there was a very high death rate in the early years. Despite this, the population continued to grow due to the forced removals of Indigenous people from other areas across the state. Not only was the act of removal from country traumatic in itself, but removing someone from their traditional land meant removing that person from their source of meaning and identity. Not only were people forcibly removed from their own land, but at Cherbourg many of their children were further removed from their families to be brought up in dormitories.
Cherbourg had a dormitory system for children and for single women. Children living in the dormitories were usually orphans or children whose parents were considered unable to care for them. The dormitory system in Cherbourg remained operational until the 1970s.
This information has been sourced from Bambrick, H. 2003, Landscapes and Legacies: Cherbourg past to present, a thesis submitted for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy of The Australian National University.
Want to know more?
Watch Sharing Our Story Episode 2 to learn more about the Protection Era.
The complete Sharing Our Story series is available here.