Prominent Aboriginal elder and actor Jack Charles told the Victoria Truth Commission he was a guinea pig in a “social experiment” to assimilate into white Australian society.
The Yoorrook Justice Commission opened public hearings on Tuesday, with Uncle Jack as its first witness.
He described how he was taken from his mother Bunurong when he was four months old after he was discovered at Daish’s Paddock, an Aboriginal camp near Shepparton.
He was eventually moved to Box Hill Boys’ Home, where he was abused – sometimes sexually – by staff and other boys during his 12-year stay.
As the only Aboriginal child registered at home, Uncle Jack was mocked for the color of his skin, criticized because “Captain Cook was killed by blacks” and “whitewashed” by his family and of his race.
‘I wasn’t even told I was native – I had to find out for myself,’ Uncle Jack told the inquest.
“I don’t recall any other Native-looking kids with me in that house, and in reflection, I think it would have been considered a failed social experiment sooner…if other black kids had moved in with me. . “
In his testimony, the respected elder gave a full rendition of a tune he used to sing at the home run by the Salvation Army, referring to all who lived in “joy” at because of the arrival of the white man in Australia.
His troubles didn’t end at the age of 14 when he was placed in the care of a woman who told him he was an orphan, a claim he learned was a lie.
At 17, he was told by family connections at a local pub that his mother was alive and living in Swan Hill.
He told his adoptive mother about it and was surprised that she didn’t share his joy.
“She said ‘Oh these people are going to tell you everything, you can’t believe them’. I put my arm up and said ‘Yeah well I believe them’ and I could see the fear in his eyes,” he said.
He put on his pajamas to go to bed but was called to the front door, where a divvy cart was waiting to take him to a home for juvenile offenders.
“I remember crying myself to sleep,” Uncle Jack said.
It was the first of 22 incarcerations for him.
At 18, he reconnected with his mother, but it wasn’t until last year that he learned the identity of his father, Hilton Hamilton Walsh, in an episode of the SBS show Who Do You Think You Are. ?
Uncle Jack said he was lucky to be in a unique position where people were “tripping over themselves” to trace his family history.
He never had the chance to meet his father Wiradjuri before his death, but was proud to find that he was following in his footsteps as a mentor to many in the community.
Genealogists have also linked Uncle Jack’s family tree to Tasmania, with his five-time great-grandfather, Mannallargenna, a chief of his people.
He said Mannallargenna had been conned into convincing his people who had not been killed or married into white society to move to a camp on Flinders Island, run by George Augustus Robinson.
“It was a death camp. The soldiers were there to make sure no one left. You put a church in that death camp, it becomes a mission,” Uncle Jack said.
The commission was tasked with establishing an official public record of Aboriginal experiences from the beginning of British colonization.
It will recommend reforms and reparations by June 2024 and the findings will guide the Treaty of Victoria negotiations.
Australian Associated Press