‘I’ll start with the woman who gave birth to me. I never knew her, never heard her name, didn’t know who she was. But I knew my grandmother.’
During Martha’s early childhood she was raised mostly by her European grandmother in regional New South Wales. She did not see her Aboriginal father often as he worked away from home, but he paid child support.
With the Second World War underway ‘maybe my grandmother could not manage, because my grandfather had deserted her and she had three other children plus me, and all two years apart’. It was decided Martha would be placed at an Aboriginal mission in Queensland with another family.
‘I was sent 3,000 kilometres away from home, and I grew up in a European home ... It was horrifying to be amongst a whole heap of full-blood people. Black, black people. And in these faces, I tried to look for my father, but no, he was never there.’
It was the late 1940s, and Martha was around eight years old. ‘I wasn’t there very long when I was actually raped by a man there named Abel Latham.’ When her foster mother came home ‘I was just sitting there with blood on me. She asked me what happened. I told her what happened’.
Her foster mother worked as a domestic, and took Martha to see the woman who employed her. She remembers this woman ‘grabbing my legs and looking between my legs and said, “Oh, that’s nothing”. And nothing was done about it. From then on I was just called a dirty little girl, and shoved into the girls’ dormitory. And then I was ridiculed, everyone called me a dirty little girl, because his sisters and everything was there in the dormitory.
‘And this is what I had to live with. Anything went wrong in the dormitory, I was blamed, I was flogged’.
The superintendent was ‘a very cruel man. The first time I seen a public whipping, a public flogging. If a girl did something wrong, like jumped a fence for the man she loved, she was stripped, the bell would ring ... Everybody had to come. Man, woman, and child, and watch. They stripped her clothes, they beat her relentlessly, put a sack-bag on her, and put her into jail. And she had to wear that sack-bag as a mark of shame, and she had to go to church with that sack-bag on ... That was like a mark of shame to an Aboriginal. To these white people you know, this is what they do, these so-called missionaries’.
Martha knows of other girls who became pregnant to the white missionaries – ‘They left their seed behind’.
At 12 Martha left the mission and was placed with the Cooper family. Mr Cooper was a former mission dormitory master, and an elder of the church which ran it.
‘This is when my life became like a prison. Because all this man wanted to do was interfere with me. He would play with me. He would make me stand there and watch him masturbate ... Then when I turned 14 he actually penetrated and raped me. And that’s when I told Aunty Edith, his wife. Well when she fronted him he flogged me so bad, and flogged her too.’
The Coopers’ son-in law was living with them, and asked Martha why she had been flogged. ‘And I told him what he’d done to me.’ He arranged to meet with her secretly at the police station (‘he didn’t tell anybody, he didn’t tell a soul’), and they told the police what Mr Cooper had done.
‘The police rang the mission, and nothing was done. Nothing was done to him. Nothing at all. I was never seen by a doctor, I was never asked any questions. I was just sent back.’
Martha has since received her records, where an officer has noted that Mr Cooper ‘was found to be acting indecently and indiscreetly with regards to the girl. This plus the fact that Martha was beyond his control, and getting into bad company, led me to have her returned to the mission’.
She commented however ‘that I was out of his control is so wrong, we had no freedom. I could not talk to anybody. I had no friends. And I’m still like that today. I have no friends. I don’t need them’.
Back at the mission it was arranged for her to marry. ‘I didn’t want to get married, I was 17 years old. I wanted a life. But then came the children. And then I walked away. Because the children seemed to come from marital rape. And I walked away. I left my children for eight years and I went back to my father.’
When she left she was pregnant, and she gave birth after moving interstate. She and her newborn son lived with relatives. One day she came home from work ‘and my baby was gone’ – her husband had been persuaded to sign their son away for adoption and he had been removed. He was ‘sexually abused continuously’ during his childhood, later dying in suspicious circumstances. After Martha was reunited with her other children, she worked three jobs to support them.
During her career Martha has worked with children who have been in contact with Welfare or other authorities, many of whom have been sexually abused. She spoke of the position of Aboriginal people in Australian society, and the history of violence against them by white people.
‘Aborigines back then, there was about 500 on that mission. And just a handful of white so-called missionaries. And they could revolt, but they knew what happens. You see, my father-in-law, he came out of the massacres ... He was a man that spoke no English. And now you wonder why I’m such a cultural, tribal woman ...
‘I learned the Aboriginal way, the laws of the Aboriginal people. If those laws were applied today you would never see a black man or woman in jail, no. I apply those laws on my children ... Aboriginal people don’t believe in child molestation, it’s not part of it.’
She has visited the site of the mission in recent years, and told the Commissioner, ‘Today, the place is cursed. It’s so dry, barren and desolate. There’s no wildlife or anything on that place. Where it used to flourish, there’s nothing.’