Filling the gaps of Indigenous history

An eloquent and fascinating storyteller, Professor Victoria Haskins is sharing the individual and intimate experiences of those who survived war, discrimination and social upheaval during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Victoria Haskins

Discovering a childhood photograph of her grandmother with an Aboriginal nursemaid led to Professor Victoria Haskins unearthing a surprising family link to the Stolen Generations. It also ignited what has become an ongoing research interest in the use of enforced domestic service as an Indigenous regulation strategy.

Victoria, then a history postgraduate, learned that the Aboriginal woman in the picture was one of several assigned by the state to work for her great-grandmother, Joan Kingsley-Strack. The middleclass housewife built a relationship with the women, which led to her becoming an unlikely advocate for Aboriginal rights and a rare white voice speaking out against the removal of children from Indigenous families in the 1930s.

“She became an activist,” Victoria proudly comments.

“Her history was the subject of my first book, ‘One Bright Spot.’”

Servitude and stolen years

Fortuitously, the late Kingsley-Strack left a comprehensive archive of personal papers, which helped Victoria write her doctoral thesis on NSW Aboriginal Protection Board domestic service policies. These were viewed through the personal narratives of her great-grandmother and the Indigenous women who worked for her.

In researching her PhD, Victoria learned that the forcible removal of Aboriginal girls as young as 11 and 12 for placement as domestic servants in white households was a key policy of various state governments under World War II.

“This is a lesser known but still very significant part of the Stolen Generations’ history,” she asserts.

“It was a very widespread and gender-specific form of social engineering by state governments as an expedient way of dealing with what they regarded as the problem of young Aboriginal girls on reserves.”

Victoria’s search for comparable government assimilation policies in other countries drew a blank – until she spent time at Harvard University on a visiting fellowship in 2005. While in the United States, she found archival evidence of a largely forgotten scheme called the ‘Outing program’, which involved placing Native American girls with white families to work as maids.

This discovery laid the foundation of Victoria’s successful bid for an Australian Research Council (ARC) Future Fellowship, awarded in 2009, to conduct a transnational study of state intervention and domestic service policies in both Australia and the United States.

“They can be understood as helping establish social hierarchies,” she suggests.

“These policies were about managing relationships between the races in a way that strengthened and legitimised the settler/colonial process.”

“On a superficial level, the idea was one of assimilation.”

“In reality, however, they were strategies of containment and control – not of inclusion.”

In 2012, Victoria convened an international symposium in Newcastle, titled ‘Domestic Service and Colonisation: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives.’ A few months later in October of that year, she released a book on the Outing scheme. The hardback, Matrons and Maids, was the first of its kind to comprehensively explore this facet of American race relations.

“This research is part of an important shared history between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people,” she explains.

“Part of my role is to be a memory custodian, and I feel it is essential that these experiences are remembered and understood.”

A further reach

In 2013, Victoria was awarded another prestigious Fellowship – this time with ArtsNSW. As the current NSW Centenary of ANZAC Commemoration (2014-2018) History Fellow, she’s exploring the diverse and distinctive ways WWI and the ANZAC experience impacted upon the lives of women in NSW.

“I have been researching a number of Australian females whose personal histories illuminate the Great War’s broader significance for gender relations,” the dedicated scholar elaborates.

“These include the stories of Australian Army nurses who served in India, pro-war women who established the Australian Women’s Service Corps, anti-war women who opposed conscription, and unique characters like 16-year-old Maud Butler from Kurri Kurri, a coalminer’s daughter who attempted to go to the front to fight.”

Though Victoria has a peer-reviewed article on Butler under submission with the journal ‘History Australia,’ she concedes the overall aim of this project is to engage with non-traditional audiences. Wanting to reach “very large” readerships for popular histories of war and provide them with information in “entertaining yet scholarly ways,” the esteemed educator has set up an exciting new blogsite through the UON.

“I like that digital technology allows me to share relevant digitised primary sources and direct my followers to other interesting online resources,” she smiles.

“I intend to publish a piece every 4-6 weeks.”

Fresh insight

Victoria is also working with Professor Lyndall Ryan on a research assignment that looks at the violent development of settler colonial cultures along the Pacific Rim. She’s collaborating with Professor John Maynard through the Purai Global Indigenous and Diaspora Research Studies Centre on two other projects as well.

“The first is on the history of the NSW Aborigines Protection/Welfare Board between 1883 and 1969,” she clarifies.

“This body held control over Aboriginal lives in the state for many decades, through policies of segregation, assimilation, child removal and wage withholding.”

“Along with Indigenous historians Lawrence Bamblett (Australian National University), Lorena Barker (University of New England) and Jaky Troy (University of Sydney), we’ll be producing a two-volume history based on extensive archival and oral history research.”

“Professor Maynard and I have just finished writing a book on the entangled histories of white people who lived with Indigenous people in early colonial Australia too.”

“These were runaways and shipwreck survivors, like William Buckley, Duramboi and Eliza Fraser.”

“It’s titled ‘Living with the Locals’ and will be published by the National Library of Australia later this year.”

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