“Good White Stock”: Child Refugees of the British Empire

By Michelle Chen Nov 26, 2009

Forced migration, displacement, and racial social engineering are ugly modern phenomena that we typically associate with the denigration of oppressed racial and religious groups. But we recently got a glimpse of a colonization effort that in some ways inverted the brutality of the imperial project. From the 1940s through the 1960s, the British government sent thousands of children—many of them from poor and distressed homes—to Australia in a program that blended social reform with manifest destiny. The massive migration was part of a scheme to transplant“good white stock,” to outer territories, including New Zealand, Canada and Rhodesia. Because, as one clergy official reportedly explained, “we are terrified of the Asian hordes.” In a personal narrative on the “Lost Children of the Empire,” Eileen Fairweather recounts stories of forced migration in language that smacks of the child welfare crisis in communities of color:

Only a third of the child migrants were actually orphans – the rest had been abandoned by their parents or effectively stolen from them. As was common at the time, some parents put their children into care during hard times – a situation they hoped would be temporary. But when they returned for them, they were often told the children had died. To make matters worse, the young migrants’ documents were frequently destroyed, so they did not even know their parents’ names and had no way back into the lives from which they had been ripped…. Michael’s worst tormentor enjoyed holding him naked upside-down over a river while beating him, so that the water drowned out his cries. ‘He told me it was easy to drown and accidents happen all the time.’ Another enjoyed setting his dogs on him. So this was where Britain’s great experiment in replenishing the colonies had led. It was a brutal yet predictable outcome for the little boy abandoned to predatory priests.

The wholesale removal of children from their communities and into alien homes condemned many to devastating physical and sexual abuse. They were captives in a land to which they were supposed to deliver civilization and the great white hope. We’ll never know exactly how many children and families were harmed. But the Australian government’s recent, long-awaited apology for inflicting this trauma (coupled with apologies to others institutionalized by the country’s cruel, discriminatory child welfare policies) suggests that the scope of the injustice, generations later, has barely begun to come to light. As with other struggles to redress historical grievances, demands for reparations haven’t brought recompense for survivors. The child migration system reveals the monstrous consequences of British imperialism’s white-supremacist ideology, not only for indigenous peoples but for the colonizers’ “own kind” as well. Mythologies of race privilege corrode society from within and dehumanize everyone–even “good white stock”–in the name of the grand hypocrisy of empire. Image: "Boys from the Barnardo’s homes for orphans and homeless children being examined by Major Maurice, medical officer to the Australian government, before they left England for a new life in Australia" (dailymail.co.uk)