The stolen children

The Guardian, May 25 1996

When Archie Roach was a small child in the early 1950s, he lived in a place called Framlingham, a short row of tin shacks and little brick houses which stood on a dusty, dry plateau near the edge of a gorge about 300 miles west of Melbourne. Once, his family had lived by a riverbank, where they could hunt and catch fresh fish, but the white people had come and ordered all of them – Archie and his six brothers and sisters and their parents – to move into this bleak place. They said it was for their own good, so they could teach them how to read and write and pray.

They tried to live in their own way, but too many things had changed. They could no longer roam or live off the land and they had to find cash to buy their supplies. Archie’s father used to go off and work as a tent boxer, taking on the fists of all-comers; his mother picked pears and peaches on the white men’s farms. Still, they managed to hold on to some of their own ways of thinking and to trap some of their own food and cook it on an open fire.

One dark day in Framlingham, when Archie was three or four years old, some people from the Aboriginal Protection Board came with a policeman and told his parents that they were taking their children away, so that they could be brought up properly by white folk who would teach them how to be real Australians. Archie has some memory of his father running from the fields to protect them and of his cousins trying to hide him out the back under sticks and leaves and of the white people finding him and telling him that he was going on a picnic, and his mother weeping, then they took him away.

They took all of his brothers and sisters, too, except for the oldest, whose name was Johnnie but who was so big that he was always known as Horse. It was his size that saved him; he was only 15, but the white people thought he was an adult so they let him stay. Then they split them up – sent his other brother and his two older sisters off somewhere on their own and took Archie and his two youngest sisters, Gladdie and Diana, to a Salvation Army orphanage.

For days, the three of them were waiting to be taken back to Framlingham. Archie kept asking what had happened to the picnic. The white people didn’t explain, they didn’t tell him that he would never see his mother and father again, they just worked on him – made him wear shoes, sent him to speech therapy so he wouldn’t talk like an Ab any more, and kept combing and combing his wild frizzy hair trying to straighten it out, so hard that he’d find plastic teeth from the comb broken off among his curls.

The boy was left to guess what had happened to him and to guess, too, what could happen next. He had no idea that the same thing was happening to tens of thousands of Aboriginal children all over Australia. He had never heard of the policy of assimilation, the federal government’s final solution to the “Aboriginal problem” – take the children away, rear them as whites, wipe out the culture, the life-style, the entire racial existence of the Aboriginal people. It was for their own good, the government said.

Forty years later, the scale and depth of this emotional holocaust are finally surfacing in the conscience of white Australia: in city streets where some of the stolen children, now adult, lie like crumpled litter with their bottles; in the Aboriginal settlements where men and women piece together the fragments of their broken families; in the high court in Sydney where eight Aboriginals who were snatched from their parents are now suing to exhume the truth about some 200,000 stolen children; but perhaps most poignantly in the voice of Archie Roach.

From the moment he was taken, he was pitched into a life of chaos and pain from which he emerged quite unexpectedly as a singer and song-writer of unique power, twisting together all the broken threads of his life – his Aboriginal culture, his exposure to white music, his profound emotional turmoil – to become an Australian icon. It is a life of such extraordinary intensity and incident that it has created in Archie Roach a kind of everyman, whose music has a universal reach, feeling out emotions in people of utterly different backgrounds.

He and his two young sisters did not stay long in the orphanage. As soon as they had soaked up enough Christian discipline, they were deemed ready to live with a white family and the three of them were shunted off in different directions to start a new life with foster parents. Archie asked to stay with his sisters, but he was told that he was just making trouble. “All these other children are happy,” the Christians said.

It didn’t work out with his first foster family. They were a young couple and the mother spent all her time freaking out and crying about something, so Archie was moved. It didn’t work out with his second family either. They were farm workers. and years later, he still won’t talk about what happened. There was a lot of violence used against him and he was kept on a diet of raw potatoes until eventually, far too late, the social workers intervened to release him from his silent vault, and he remembers his foster parents being taken to court for what they had done.

When he was nine, he was sent to a third white family, a couple named Alec and Dulcie Cox, who had migrated from Scotland to Melbourne with their children and set up home in a north eastern suburb of the city called Lilydale. The first morning he was there, Archie had a strange experience.

He got up as usual, went through his normal morning routine and heard Mrs Cox call him for breakfast. “I’m ready,” he said, but stayed in his room. Mrs Cox called him again, and he shouted out again: “I’m ready”. Mrs Cox came and looked around his bedroom door and found the boy standing erect at the foot of his bed, which had been made with military precision, every corner square and the top sheet turned back at right-angles, while his pyjamas were folded neatly on his chair. Archie was ready for his morning inspection. And when Mrs Cox called her husband and both of them gently shook their heads, he thought they were cross with him because he hadn’t done a good enough job, but they explained that he really didn’t have to do that, he just had to get out of bed in the morning and come and eat with them and for the first time in six years, he caught a glimpse of parental love.

Mr and Mrs Cox became his father and mother. His life took on a kind of stability. He went to school and made friends and, as the time passed, his memory faded. Soon, he forgot about Horse and the brothers and sisters he had known in Framlingham, he even forgot about Diana who had been with him in the orphanage though he still clung to a vague knowledge of Gladdie who had been his protector and used her pudgey fists to defend him if ever he was attacked.

His amnesia went even deeper. One day, when he was eleven, he brought home a new friend from school and introduced him to his mum and dad and, a little later, when the two boys were alone together, his friend looked at him and said: “How come your parents are white?”


“Yeah, they’re white and you’re black.”

“Am I?” said Archie.

He had noticed he had dark skin, but, in his mind, that was nothing special – just like another kid might have light hair or wear glasses. He had never really given it a second thought. Now he went to find Alec Cox and asked him straight: “Am I black?”. Mr Cox leaned down and hugged him and told him the truth as he knew it, that Archie was the sole survivor of an Aboriginal family who had been killed in a house fire – that was what the Coxes had been told – and he asked him not to trouble himself about such things, and so Archie got on with his life. And in its artificial way, it was a good life.

Alec Cox, who was an easy-going man who had spent his life at sea, prized the boy and taught him everything he knew. The two of them spent hours together in the back yard, banging a soccer ball backwards and forwards. Cox told him all about Scotland and the life he had once led there and, quite naturally, with no suspicion of the destiny he was shaping for him, he introduced Archie to music. He sang him old Scottish folk songs about the lowlands and the highlands and the road to Dundee, and he played him his precious recordings of bagpipes, and the sounds and the moods of this music sank deep into the Aboriginal boy so that 30 years later, Archie can still sing the old songs and recite Robbie Burns and feel tears in his eyes at the sound of the pipes.

And in the same unconscious way, the Coxes’ natural daughter, Mary, who was more than ten years older than him, started playing the piano in the front room for Archie, singing him old gospel songs, playing Mahalia Jackson records – the like of which Archie had never dreamed of. All this started working inside him, like yeast in dough, and then one day, when he was 12 or 13, a friend persuaded him to go to a pentecostal church with him and, for the sake of being friendly, Archie went along and sat polite and bored while the service went on until a woman appeared with an acoustic guitar and sang an old Hank Williams song. And there and then, as the music gripped his imagination and filled his heart, he knew this was what he wanted to do.

He started learning to play acoustic guitar with Mary, singing Hank Williams and George Jones and any other country music Mary could lay her hands on, and so he might have continued for years, slowly drifting away from his own past, if it had not been for one of his older sisters, Myrtle, who wrote him a letter. He was 14 or15 by now. She sent it to his school in Lilydale, and they put out an announcement that there was a letter for Archie Roach. By now, Archie had forgotten his own name along with everything else and he knew himself only as Archie Cox but he knew, too, that he was the only Archie in the school, so he went and collected the letter. He showed it to his best friend, Glen McKinnon, who said it was obviously for someone else. It mentioned all these family names that Archie had never heard of. And who was this Myrtle? But there was one name he knew. Gladdie. He still remembered Gladdie. So, unlikely as it was, he knew the letter was for him. And when it said that his mother had died last week, he knew this was sad news.

He went home and showed it to Mr and Mrs Cox, who began to cry. Archie saw their tears and he remembered the boy who had told him he was black and he thought of the fire that was supposed to have killed all his family and he looked at the letter, and he thought of his own mother dying without him – living all these years without him – and he was flooded with anger. And there and then, he blamed the Coxes. These were tears of guilt, he was sure. They must have lied to him. And a few days later when some man came to the door and told Archie he was his social worker, the whole bomb went off inside him, blowing away all the sturdy framework of his life. He wanted to hurt someone. At school, he started beating other kids, something he had never done before. He was disrespectful to the teachers and to the Coxes and he couldn’t care less if they were upset and he didn’t give a damn about this white life and he made up his mind to go out on the streets, to find his own people, his own family. So he ran.

He was 15, he had a guitar strapped across his back, he had no money. He headed out to find Aboriginal people, he found some who knew some of his family and discovered they were living 600 miles away, in Sydney. He set off along the road, stopping in towns along the way to find work to stay alive. It was the best part of a year before he finally made it to Sydney and when he got there, the trail had gone cold. His family had moved on again. Still bitter with anger, he took to the city streets, sleeping with the homeless and with wine-sodden wrecks. An old Aboriginal man took him under his wing, showed him how to survive, how to go to the mission and sit through the sermon to get the food they handed out at the end, how to swallow bottles of sickly sweet Brown Musket wine to take away the pain, how to use a false name so he wouldn’t get a record when he got himself arrested. So, Archie took the old man’s name, Brown, and called himself Phillip, and lived between his guitar and his bottle.

There was a whole group of them, mostly Aboriginals, who used to hang around the same pub, meet up in the same parks and alleys, and there was a particular woman he always noticed who had strange reddish hair, very unusual for an Aboriginal woman. One day, he was sitting in a pub and he was drunk enough to drown in it – too drunk to tell a lie, as they used to say – and this woman was there and she was drunk, too, and she started talking to him and when she asked him his name, the drink made him forget his alias. “Archie Roach,” he said. The woman looked at him and started asking him questions about his family – what all their names were. Archie had never met them but by now he had found out what they were called – from Myrtle’s letter and from other Aboriginals he had met on the street – so, in his sleepy, slurred voice, he started reeling them off.

As he spoke, the woman with the reddish hair stared at him more and more intently and as he dragged up more and more names of the kin he had never met, she started to roll her head and wave her arms around. Archie thought she was having a fit, then she leaned back, swung her fist in a wide arc and thumped him in the mouth so hard that he flew off his bar stool and onto the floor. She fell on him, screaming and crying. He tried to roll away, scared of being hit again, but then he heard what she was yelling: “Baby, my baby. I’m Diana. I’m your sister. You’re my brother.” And pretty soon, both of them were crying and swapping stories and she apologised for thumping him – she was just so pent-up she didn’t know what else to do when the truth hit her – and he apologised for hiding behind a false name, and the two of them became brother and sister again.

Archie Roach lost 14 years on the streets. Along the way, he discovered that his father and his beloved sister Gladdie were both dead; he followed the scattered clues to trace the remains of his family; drank himself to the point of poisoning; went tent-boxing like his father before him; had two children with a young Aboriginal woman, Ruby Power, who, like him, had been stolen from her parents; and, somehow, in amongst an agony of confusion, he played his guitar. He played almost every day in the parks, learning Dylan and Neil Young, picking up Reggae, just sitting down and starting to play, and people would come and sit round and give him a drink to keep him going. It was 1983 and he was 29 years old before he finally returned from the wilderness to make a home with his children.

He came back in one sense simply because he went to a rehabilitation centre and managed to stop himself drinking but, more important than that, he emerged in one piece because he listened to his Uncle Banjo, who told him to stop singing other people’s songs and to write about his own life. So he sat down and wrote a song called Took The Children Away, the story of the day in Framlingham when he was stolen from his parents. The song was the beginning of a long and accidental therapy, in which he squeezed the poison out of his spirit and into his music. All the time that he appeared to be writing about other people, he was writing really about himself, with such force that he conveyed universal messages.

When he sang about how he had slept on the streets of Sydney or rolled drunkenly down the back alleys of Melbourne, he was touching anyone who ever felt lonely or lost. When he wrote about how Ruby and the children had left him because they couldn’t stand his drinking, he produced a song of weakness and despair. But in following the clues to his broken past, he had uncovered something so bitterly sad that it provided one particular image which recurred almost obsessively in his music.

The clue that began it all was that letter from his sister, Myrtle. How had she known where to send it? How had she known that he was at Lilydale school? She had been living hundreds of miles away. The answer dawned on him slowly. He discovered that an Aboriginal family named King had been living at Silvan Lake not far from Lilydale. He discovered that they were close friends of his own family. He discovered that his mother had been living with them. And he knew that Aboriginal people from Silvan Lake came into Lilydale to buy supplies. His mother had been there. When he was there. She must have seen him going to school. And known him for her lost son. That was how Myrtle had known where to send the letter.

But, if that was right – and Archie knew it was – then why hadn’t she said anything to him? Why hadn’t she run across the pavement and thrown her arms around him? His sisters thought they knew the answer: that their mother had seen Archie, happy and healthy and quite consumed by his new life as a white boy, and she had wanted him to be happy so she had forced herself to hold back, to let him be free of the past that had been taken away from him. He thought about that and the huge depths of mother love which it involved, to sacrifice her own affection for his safety, and he was filled with sadness for her. Then he remembered something else: that social worker who had come to the Coxes’ house.

As soon as he had heard that Archie’s family had been in touch, that social worker had come running. They would always come running. And they would never let an Aboriginal child – a ward of the state, no less – be taken back to its family. And his mother would have known that. If she had run across the pavement and thrown her arms around him, someone would have seen, and the social workers would have found out. And they would have taken him away from her again. That was what had terrified her, filled her with such fear that she had forced herself to watch him from a distance, to hold back, not to touch him, not to talk to him, not even to smile at him, in case they took her child away from her again. She had stood there with her tears. And he had never even known she was there.

Almost obsessively now, as he started to convert his feelings into music, he turned to this image which had been denied him in real life. He wrote Beautiful Child, about a young Aboriginal man named Lloyd Boney who had been arrested for drunkeness in a town called Brewarrina in New South Wales. Within hours, he had been found hanging dead from the bars of his cell. No-one could prove whether this was suicide or murder but the Aboriginal people had had no doubt and they had run riot through the town. Archie had seen the pictures on television but the song was not about the riot nor even really about the dead prisoner. The picture that had captured him was a fleeting sight on the television news of Lloyd Boney’s aged mother alone at her kitchen table, her head cupped in her hands, crying over a photograph of her dead son. She never gave an interview, she just shook her head and said “My beautiful child.”

He wrote Munjana, an Aboriginal word for ‘trouble’, about a man named Russell Whyman who, like himself, had been taken from his parents as a child and given to a foster family who had moved to the United States. There, he had run away, lived on the streets, fitted in with neither black nor white, become an alcoholic and a drug addict and finally exploded in a deadly rape attack on a woman. But the song was not really about him, so much as about his mother, whose life had been so dogged by trouble that she was known as Munjana. She had spent 20 years trying to trace her stolen child and finally she had discovered him when it was too late, when he was incarcerated on Death Row in Florida. Then she had managed to telephone him: “Hello, Russell, this is your mother calling. Please forgive me, I can’t stop the tears from falling.”

But most powerfully of all, he wrote Took The Children Away. The song was pure and strong and, even though he himself had no idea where he was heading, the song propelled him forward. He moved to Melbourne where a museum was preparing a tape of Aboriginal music to celebrate the 1988 Bicentennial of the founding of Australia. He played the song for them. A community radio station heard the tape and asked him to play it on the air. A television station heard the radio show and asked him to play the song in an Aboriginal current affairs show. A Melbourne rock guitarist, Steve Connolly, who was then playing with Paul Kelly, the Australian Bob Dylan, heard the song on the television and called Paul Kelly and persuaded him to let Archie Roach play an opening set at their next concert in Melbourne.

So it was that one warm night in November 1989, Archie Roach walked out alone on to the stage of the Melbourne Concert Hall in front of 2,000 people. He could not believe how many people there were out there. His hands were shaking with fear. He sat on a low chair, rested his guitar across his knee and, without any words of introduction, he began to play them Beautiful Child. Within seconds, he was pulled into the emotion of it all, and he struck his guitar and his voice rang out through the huge hall until he had finished and the last chord died and he knew he had done well and absolutely nothing happened. No-one clapped and no-one moved. He didn’t know what was going on, but he couldn’t stop now. So he leaned into his microphone and said: “This next song is about something that happened a long time ago.” Then, in his slow, dark voice, he told them about the children.

“This story’s right, this story’s true
I would not tell lies to you
Like the promises they did not keep
And how they fenced us in like sheep.
Sent us off to mission land
Taught us to read, to write and pray
Then they took the children away.
Took the children away.
The children away.
Snatched from their mother’s breast
Said it was for the best
Took them away.

“One dark day on Framlingham
Came and didn’t give a damn
My mother cried ‘go get their dad’
He came running fighting mad
Mother’s tears were falling down
Dad shaped up, he stood his ground
He said ‘you touch my kids and you fight me’
Then they took us from our family.
They took us away, took us away
Snatched from our mother’s breast
Said this is for the best
They took us away”

He came to the end of his song. But still there was no sound from the vast audience. Archie shrugged and said to himself “Well, bugger it, if they don’t like it.” And he stood up and started shuffling slowly towards the wings with his guitar in his hand and, as he walked, he heard someone somewhere starting to clap and then another and he could see Paul Kelly smiling at him from the wings and then he heard the roaring of applause and he stopped and turned and stood there blinking in the light as a mighty wave of affection swept down from all the corners of the hall and washed across the stage to engulf him.

His life was never the same again. With Paul Kelly’s help, he recorded an album, Charcoal Lane, which won two Australian Record Industry Awards and was distributed in Australia and the United States. He and his wife, Ruby, who recorded her own album, toured America with Joan Armatrading and shared a bill with Bob Dylan. Paul Simon heard about him and spent two days playing music with him at the little bungalow where he lives in north Melbourne. Since then, he has released a second album, Jamu Dreaming, and is now working on a third. He has toured the United States again, and Canada and Western Europe. He toured the UK, too, in 1994, and he has a distribution deal in London (though his music is almost impossible to find here).

It is only in retrospect that he has come to understand why his music appeals to so many: “We can’t measure the depths of each other’s suffering. When you suffer, that’s the worst suffering in the world. That’s what I try to talk about. When I first wrote Took the Children Away, I thought ‘Here I’m writing for my people – at last, a song that tells this terrible thing’. But non-Aboriginal people were coming up to me and saying it meant to so much to them, because they didn’t have to be Aboriginal to understand the emotion of being separated from your mother.

“If it hadn’t been for all that happened to me, I probably wouldn’t have been a musician. We are the sum total of our lives, of all that’s happened to us. A lot of things are sad but I would never ask to be different. Terrible things happen because of misunderstanding, but I know I would be a poorer person if I had not been through these things, if I had never met Mr Cox, that lovely man and his wife.”

For himself and for those who love his music, he is simply a man with his guitar and his feelings. Yet, some parts of white Australia are still trying to tell him where he belongs. Even today, if you walk into the big music stores in the middle of Melbourne, you can’t find Archie Roach’s music in the main display. You have to look in the side room, in amongst the Turkish folk dancing and the Masai chants, where he is filed away under ‘Aboriginal’.