There’s no way of knowing exactly how much the state and the pastoralists enriched themselves off stolen Aboriginal wages. In Queensland alone, the estimate is half a billion dollars taken, but it’s impossible to put a number on the unpaid labour, the abuse and the suffering at the heart of the Stolen Generations. A decade after the Unfinished Business inquiry into stolen wages, most survivors have been offered insultingly small sums as “compensation”, or none at all.
The film Servant or Slave tells the story of five Aboriginal women who were forcibly removed from their families by the Australian government. They were told lies about their parents and fed racist justifications for the Aboriginal Protection Board’s genocidal project. Then they were put to work on farms and in homes as domestic servants where most of their wages were stolen and they were frequently abused.
Aunty Adelaide is one of the women whose time as an inmate at Cootamundra Domestic Training Home for Aboriginal Girls is depicted. She was four and a half when she was kidnapped by the Aboriginal Protection Board and taken from her parents, Lily and John Wenberg. She was too young to remember that day, but her brother, who was also snatched, remembered it vividly. Speaking to Red Flag, she recalls how he described it:
“When the welfare officers were standing there, and the judge was allocating us to different homes, the boys go to Kinchela, older girls go to Cootamundra, which was me and the other two sisters, the baby sisters sent down to Bomaderry. Gus said he could always remember Mum was there, she went to grab us and they pushed her away.”
Inmates at Cootamundra Home
Adelaide and two of her sisters were sent to Cootamundra, where they were watched constantly, slept in dormitories – 14 girls to a room – and were often beaten. Cootamundra and other homes like it were mass training facilities for the thousands of Aboriginal girls who would be taught to clean and cook, churn butter, collect coal, milk cows and care for children, to prepare them for a lifetime of domestic slavery.
“We were watched like hawks in that home. The matron came and picked us up in the army truck – which the government gave her – took us to school, and we had a headcount and we all came out so they could see if we were all there.”
At Cootamundra, she was beaten by an officer with a type of whip that farmers used on cattle. “She had this cat-o’-nine-tails and she hit me right across the back where my kidney was. Bang. Not just once, but about five times. I was doubled up in pain. I didn’t cry, I wasn’t going to give her the satisfaction or let her see me cry.”
Several years later, after suffering from chronic pain, Adelaide needed her kidney removed as a result of the injuries. The damage was so severe the doctor asked if she had fallen out of a tree or off a horse.
Like most Aboriginal children stolen from their families, Adelaide was told lies about her parents and why she was in the home.
“We were told that our father was a drunkard and mother just walked off and left us all with him. Off course he couldn’t get us kids back.”
In reality, her father had put up a fight to try to win his children back. John Wenberg, a private serving in World War Two, left behind a paper trail of letters demanding the return of his children. In one letter he wrote, “I would like to get them home for Xmas. I may be transferred to Darwin. I’m only 41. I’m in the garrison 12 months also with the 2nd A.I.F. listed in last war 1917. I should think it’s only fair to have my children”.
At fifteen Adelaide was sent to work. She escaped from the first two farms she was sent to. Each time she was picked up by police and brought back to the Cootamundra Home. The first place she worked at was a sheep farm, where she slept with a wardrobe against the door after being threatened with rape by the farm owner’s father.
The second place was even worse. “I never liked that place, never liked it one bit. They segregated you. You weren’t allowed to eat anywhere near their dining room, they made you sit in the laundry and eat. And when you had your bath, it was muddy water.”
Physical and sexual abuse was widespread among all the homes and workplaces that young Aboriginal women were forced into. “The majority of them went out to domestic work on farms, a lot of them ended up pregnant too. That was covered up. As soon as they found out one of the girls was pregnant to one of the farmers, they bunged them off to Sydney or somewhere else to have their babies so no one would know.”
When Adelaide escaped from a farm the second time and was sent to the Cootamundra Home, the matron tried to send her back. “I said, ‘I’m not going to stay there with those people, they treated me like a slave’, and matron said, ‘Well, that’s what you’re supposed to be’. I said ‘Not for me, I’m not a slave to anybody’.”
Servant or Slave exposes the untold history of slavery in Australia which propped up profits in agriculture and other industries until as late as the mid-1970s.
It wasn’t easy for Aunty Adelaide to share her story at first, but now she wants everyone to know. “I didn’t want to talk about it because it was hidden all the time. It was in the back of my head, but I just didn’t want to go back there. What is very important about the film is to tell people exactly what went on, ’cause it’s been covered up a long time.”
Marxism 2017’s Radical Reels will feature a special screening of Servant or Slave – a 2015 film featuring personal stories of Indigenous women, stolen and forced to work as domestic servants. The screening will be introduced by Aunty Valerie Linow and Aunty Adelaide Wenberg, who both appear in the film. For more details visit www.marxismconference.org.