Ruth arrived at Cherbourg mission when she was six and a half months old. It was during the Depression and Ruth’s mother had taken her parents to Cherbourg where she was told they’d be cared for. But Ruth and her mother weren’t allowed to leave the mission, and what was intended as a temporary visit became years of separation and control.
Initially Ruth stayed with her mother in the women’s dormitory, where the single mothers were sent. But sooner or later, the children were removed to a separate dormitory. “Once you were taken from your parents, you had no more connection with them,” explains Ruth.
"People would say [protection] was for your own good, but my own good was to stay with my mum."
Although they were separated, Ruth saw her mother across the shared dining hall every day, where children were made to sit on one side and adults on the other. Ruth recalls how, as a four and a half year old, she would try unsuccessfully to get her mother’s attention, and was instead punished and forced to stand on one leg in the centre of the room.
When Ruth was five, her mother was sent away from Cherbourg and Ruth no longer saw her at all. Ruth explains that the separation and control was all part of the government’s policy of protection. “They had their own idea about protection,” she says. “I don’t think we needed protection! … People would say it was for your own good, but my own good was to stay with my mum.”
Living under 'The Act'
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Australian governments introduced legislation with the aim of regulating the lives of many First Nations people. Commonly referred to as the 'Protection Act' , it was so named because it was intended to 'protect' First Nations people. The Act was enforced by ‘protectors’, who were often police officers.
About Cherbourg Reserve
Cherbourg Reserve was established on Wakka Wakka Country in 1900 by a member of the Salvation Army. Originally known as Barambah, Cherbourg was handed to the Queensland government in 1905.
Almost every aspect of life at Cherbourg was highly controlled. The Superintendent had authority over whether people entered or left the reserve, where they lived, who they lived with, where they worked and who they married. The threat of being further separated from family or removed to other communities (such as the penal reserve on Palm Island) was used as another form of social control.
Living conditions and facilities at Cherbourg were very poor and there was a very high death rate in the early years. Despite this, the population continued to grow due to the forced removals of First Nations people from other areas across the state.
The act of removing First Nations people from Country was traumatic in itself, but doing so also meant removing the person from their source of meaning and identity. In addition to people being forcibly removed from Country, at Cherbourg many of First Nations children were further removed from their families to be brought up in dormitories.
Cherbourg had a dormitory system for children and for single women. Children living in the dormitories were usually orphans or children whose parents were considered unable to care for them. The dormitory system in Cherbourg remained operational until the 1970s.
- 1.Commonwealth of Australia (December 2006) Unfinished business: Indigenous stolen wages [Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs report] Parliament of Australia website, accessed 2 February 2022.
- 2. Bambrick H (2003) Landscapes and Legacies: Cherbourg past to present [thesis], The Australian National University Open Research Library website, accessed 2 February 2022.