Molly Kelly
(Filed: 16/01/2004)

Molly Kelly, who died on Tuesday, probably aged 86, was forcibly removed as a child from her Aboriginal mother by the Australian authorities and sent, with her younger sister and a cousin, to a bleak government institution to be trained as a domestic servant; the story of her escape and her 1,200 mile-long trek home inspired Philip Noyce's acclaimed film Rabbit-Proof Fence (2002), starring Kenneth Branagh.

In one of the most shameful episodes in recent Australian history, from 1905 to 1971 some 100,000 indigenous children, most of mixed European and Aboriginal parentage, were removed from their natural families under laws aimed at assimilating Aborigines into mainstream life. The children were sent to spartan institutions to be trained as servants; if they had pale skins, they were passed off as Maltese or Italian orphans and put up for adoption.

Many of those who implemented the policy genuinely believed they were acting for the best, but there was no mistaking the underlying racism: "Are we going to have a population of one million blacks in the Commonwealth?" asked the Chief Protector of Aborigines in Western Australia, A O Neville (played in the film by Kenneth Branagh). "Or are we going to merge them in our white community and eventually forget that there ever were any Aborigines in Australia?" It was argued that separating a mixed-race child from its mother was no more cruel than separating a pup from a bitch, "no matter how frantic momentary grief might be at the time".

Molly was born Molly Craig, probably in 1917, at Jigalong, on the edge of the Gibson Desert, a depot on one of the fences that were being constructed across the continent to protect western Australian farmlands from a plague of imported European rabbits. Her mother was a member of the Mardudjara people; her father, Thomas Craig, was an English-born fence inspector.

In 1931 - when she was about 14, her younger sister, Daisy, eight, and their cousin, Gracie, 10 - "whitefellas took us from mother," as Molly recalled. A policeman bundled the children into the back of a car and, through the rear window, Molly watched her mother hurl herself on the ground and beat her head with a rock. The girls were transported to the Moore River Native Settlement north of Perth in Western Australia, a cheerless internment camp for mixed-race Aboriginal children where dormitory windows were barred and any child who attempted escape was punished with solitary confinement. Nevertheless, soon after their arrival, the three girls did manage to escape and begin their long walk home.

The journey took nine weeks and Molly found the way by leading, sometimes carrying, the two younger girls east from Moore River to the rabbit-proof fence, which, she felt sure, would lead her back to her mother. They followed the fence north across the Australian desert, sleeping in dug-out rabbit burrows and surviving on rabbits which they caught and cooked, wild vegetables and fruit, and anything they could scavenge. Gracie eventually lost faith and struck out on her own. The two sisters never saw her again.

That was not the end of Molly's troubles for, in 1940, by which time she was married to an Aboriginal stockman with whom she had two small daughters, she was again taken, with her daughters, to the Moore River Settlement. She ran away again in 1941, carrying her 18-month old daughter Annabelle, but leaving her four-year-old, Doris, in the care of a relative.

In 1943, Annabelle was taken away from her and sent to an orphanage. Told she was white, she refused to accept her Aboriginal origins and never saw her mother again. Doris was eventually transferred to a Christian mission, where she was brought up to believe that her mother had deliberately abandoned her. In 1962, she retraced her mother, discovered the truth, and subsequently wrote Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence, the book on which Noyce's film was based.

When it was released in 2002, the film provoked passionate debate in Australia about the "stolen generations" of Aboriginal children who had suffered enforced removal from family and culture. To date, the Australian government has refused to issue a formal apology for the policy, allegedly out of fear of costly law suits.

Molly Kelly is survived by her two daughters.