From the early days of European settlement of Australia relations between the Europeans and the indigenous Australians were contentious. The first British settlers, unable or unwilling to negotiate treaties with decentralized Aboriginal groups, declared the land “Terra Nullius” (essentially, land with no owner). European settlers brought diseases Aborigines had never encountered–the 1792 and 1822 smallpox plagues were especially devastating–and subjected the Aboriginal Australians to a seemingly never-ending series of forced re-settlements and other more lethal occurrences.
From the late 1860s until the late 1960s Australian colonial authorities were legally allowed to remove Aboriginal children from their families and send them to be raised in church missions or with European-descended foster parents. Record-keeping was poor and there is dispute over numbers, but estimates indicate that anywhere from tens of thousands to a hundred thousand Aboriginal children, mainly under five years old and mainly those that were mixed race–approximately 10% of the Aboriginal population–were taken from their families in this way. They now compose what have come to be called “The Stolen Generations.”
Australian Authorities claimed the removals were in the best interest of the children–they cited examples of neglect–though there was also a rationale, sometimes spoken and sometimes not, that placing mixed race Aboriginal children with white families who raised them with little or no consciousness of their origins would facilitate the extinction of the Aboriginal people. The practice officially ended in 1970 and only came to real public light in 1997 with the Australian Human Rights Commission’s publication of “Bringing Them Home: Report of the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from Their Families.” Since then there has been some debate over the extent and effect of the removal policy, but eventually the local territorial governments began to extend formal apologies and even toy with the idea of compensation. In 2008 the then-prime minister of Australia, Kevin Rudd, offered the federal government’s first official apology, in which he said, “We apologise for the laws and policies of successive Parliaments and governments that have inflicted profound grief, suffering and loss on these our fellow Australians. We apologise especially for the removal of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families, their communities and their country. For the pain, suffering and hurt of these Stolen Generations, their descendants and for their families left behind, we say sorry.”