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Analyzing the “Australian Mission”

by Nia Williams

Image: “Australian Mission”

Film is a vital primary resource because it has the ability to capture power, which is central to the study of incarceration. Power, being the structure that propels colonization and racial capitalism, is essential to understanding 20th century Australia’s forced separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families by both state officials and church missionaries, in an era now known as “The Stolen Generation”[2].

In a Getty Images album titled, “1909-1969: Australia – The Stolen Generation”, an unnamed photographer captures striking moments during this part of history. One image in particular, named “Australian Mission”[3], stands out. Taken on July 21, 1960 in the Northern Territory of Australia, the photo depicts a Roman Catholic missionary named Father Cosgrove posing in the center of four Aboriginal boys. Cosgrove, a superintendent of the Daly River Mission, is dawning a white shirt and black glasses with his arms around the two boys in the front, who appear younger than the boys in the back. All of the boys are smiling at the camera, while the man has a more subtle, yet still positive, look. There is a building in the background, presumably a church, that clearly situates them in a religious context. The two boys in the front are holding what look to be hair combs- perhaps this was taken in the morning when they were getting ready for the day.

The caption beside the picture states that the “mission provides education, medical care, food and entertainment for several hundred aborigines in the area”[4], framing the situation in an altruistic manner. The fact that the children are eagerly smiling creates a positive mood for the viewer, signifying that the image was most likely intended for white Australian audiences, as it reflected their patronistic attitude towards Aboriginals. Despite the fact that this is unequivocally an era of Aboriginal Genocide, many Australians felt that they were “bettering” Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders by assimilating them into whiteness and stripping them of their culture[5]. This idea was particularly applied to mixed-race Aboriginals, derogatively called “half-castes”, for white Australians thought it was easier to erase their Aboriginality[6]. For example, in 1927, Dr. Cecile Cook, the Chief Protector of Aborigines in the Northern Territory, ordered that “full-blooded” Aboriginals be segregated from “half-castes”, in an attempt to prevent the “‘[absorption of] the white population of the Northern Territory [into the Black population]’”[7]; furthermore, “half-castes” were to be “‘reared at European standards and given statutory state-school education’”[8]. Though it is not clear how long these specific policies lasted and whether or not the Daly River Mission, a Catholic institution, took part in the aforementioned schooling, it is reasonable to assume that the values of this mission were driven by the same values of this era.

Despite the positive, happy-go-lucky depiction of these missions, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders were often brutalized, as they were mentally, physically, and sexually abused; exploited for their labor; and “denied any connection to their Aboriginal lands”[9]; this reveals how Anglo-Australians were largely unconcerned with the humanity and livelihood of Aboriginal children, contrary to what the language at the time often decreed. What this illustrates is that underneath the public desire to “absorb” Aboriginality as a means of creating a more “civilized” society lied the colonial appetite to land ownership and resource exploitation. In other words, the Aboriginals’ connection to the land was an obstacle to capitalist expansion, meaning that cultural assimilation was not just a matter of “whitening” the people, but a matter of destroying Indigeneity itself- it was an economic tool[10]. This unveils a much more insidious background of the photograph, as the conveyed positivity morphs into something dark and painful. In fact, there is a trigger warning for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people before viewing the photo album, clearly displaying the persisting harm this era has caused.

With this information in mind, the photograph becomes a larger depiction of racial capitalism’s role in carceral systems predicated on white supremacy. Much like African-American youth in the U.S. Jim Crow South’s juvenile reformatories[11], Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander youth were treated as objects to further white capitalist expansion, which was done by stripping them of their resources and land while justifying racial ideologies. In a way, both systems cloaked their goals under the guise of “modernity”[12], as if progress towards some human-made capitalistic pursuit mattered more than the lives of other human beings. Perhaps this was so natural for both Anglo-Australian and white Southern societies because the concept of race created a perceived hierarchy among humans that allowed them to justify such cruelty. After all, capitalism and race are so intertwined that the advancement of one idea further propels the other. In this case, economic expansion paved by erasing Indigeneity brought forth the widespread idea of “full-blooded” versus “half-caste” Aboriginals that was cemented by legislation that designated differential treatment between the two social groups; this parallels how juvenile reformatories in the Jim Crow South further propelled racist notions of Black Americans, and were created as a means for economic gain in the South by seating them closer to the North’s concept of “modernity”[13]. So too were these reformatories painted as forgiving places for Black youth, when in reality they often abused the children they housed[14].

Thus, the image titled, “Australian Mission”, becomes a proxy for analyzing racial capitalism’s role in the era of Australia’s Stolen Generation. Though missionary schools, like Daly River Missionary, were not prisons; they were certainly carceral sites, as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children were stolen from their families and their land to attend these institutions, and oftentimes abused and exploited for labor. Interestingly enough, many argue that this era has not ended; as contemporary “child protection” practices eerily parallel the language and actions of those during the era of The Stolen Generation[15]. Such news is unfortunately not surprising given that racial capitalism is still expanding through the veins of neoliberalism. Perhaps justice for Aboriginal Peoples is truly not conceivable in a capitalist society.



[1] “Australian Mission.” In Getty Images – 1909-1969: Australia – The Stolen Generation. Seattle, WA: Getty Images, 1960. https://search.alexanderstreet.com/view/work/bibliographic_entity%7Cdocument%7C2684146.

[2] Leticia Funston, Sigrid Herring, and ACMAG, “When Will the Stolen Generations End? A Qualitative Critical Exploration of Contemporary ‘Child Protection’ Practices in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Communities ,” Sexual Abuse in Australia and New Zealand 7, no. 1 (June 2016): pp. 51-58.

[3] “Australian Mission.”.

[4] “Australian Mission.”.

[5] Margaret D. Jacobson, “Designing Indigenous Child Removal Policies,” in White Mother to a Dark Race: Settler Colonialism, Maternalism, and the Removal of Indigenous Children in the American West and Australia, 1880-1940 (Lincoln: Univ. of Nebraska Press, 2009).

[6] Funston, Herring, and ACMAG, Stolen Generations, 52.

[7] Jacobson, White Mother, 34.

[8] Jacobson, White Mother, 35.

[9] Funston, Herring, and ACMAG, Stolen Generations, 52.

[10] Jacqueline Allain, “Stealing Indigenous Children: Canada, the US, and Australia,” (Lecture, Duke University, July 27, 2020).

[11] Annette Louise Bickford, Southern Mercy: Empire and American Civilization in Juvenile Reform, 1890-1944 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2016).

[12]  Jacobson, White Mother, 25-26.

[13] Bickford, Southern Mercy, 6.

[14] Bickford, Southern Mercy, 150, 152-154.

[15] Funston, Herring, and ACMAG, Stolen Generations.