Censoring Tettawonga

Topic: Making a Nation
Learning Activity
Schools & Teachers
Stage 5
Australia and Asia

Students investigate the removal of a section of text from Ethel Turner's 'Seven Little Australians' between 1897 and 1994, and consider why this may have happened and what it meant in the context of contact between European settlers and Indigenous Australians.

Key inquiry question #1

Why was Tettawonga's story removed from the original edition of 'Seven Little Australians' and what does this tell us about the nature of European contact with Aboriginal people in Australia?


The extension of settlement, including the effects of contact (intended and unintended) between European settlers in Australia and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples (ACDSEH020).


  • use a range of sources to describe contact experiences between European settlers and Indigenous peoples


Background Notes for Teachers

Learning intention  

Students are learning to: 

  • Apply an understanding of historical context to interpret the motives and actions of past individuals and groups  
  • Analyse historical sources and use evidence from these sources to better understand the history of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ struggle for rights and freedoms  


Success criteria 

Students will be successful when they can: 

  • Demonstrate an understanding of the way in which historical context is reflected in the popular culture of the time, through thoughtful analysis of the creative works of literature under examination, and how these reflect policies enacted on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people  

Australia in the 1890s

A snapshot of the population and some popular culture events in Australia from the time of the publication of Seven Little Australians:

  • Australia was pre-Federation, consisting of six separate colonies with a combined population of approximately 3 million people who were predominantly of European background. 
  • For the first time in its post-colonisation history the majority of Australians were born in Australia. 
  • The population of Indigenous peoples had reduced from approximately 700 000 in 1788 to around 93 000. 
  • Legislation for the ‘protection’ of Indigenous peoples was in place across the colonies, controlling every aspect of Indigenous peoples lives, this included Protection Boards which were allowed to remove children from their families. 
  • Female suffrage was gaining momentum, with South Australia being the first state to grant women the right to vote and stand for Parliament in 1895. 

The removal of Tettawonga's story

In the original manuscript of Seven Little Australians, and the first five editions of the publication, an episode appeared in the narrative in which Mr Gillet (the store and book-keeper at Yarahappini station) recounts to the children an Aboriginal story about why the kookaburra laughs. In the original manuscript, this episode went over a number of pages. 

Clare Bradford (2001) argues the following regarding this omission:

Sometimes omissions and absences are as telling as what is present, as in the case of the Aboriginal narrative that disappeared from Seven Little Australians between its publication in 1894 and its 1900 edition – an alteration sustained in all subsequent editions. In the book’s first edition, the Woolcot children…listen to Mr Gillet’s telling of an Aboriginal story about why the kookaburra laughs, a story ‘got at second-hand’ from Tettawonga, the station’s Aboriginal stockman…In the 1900 edition, this narrative is omitted. The main effect of the omission of Tettawonga’s story is, I think, to achieve a less problematic version of the Australian past than the one which prevails in the book’s first edition...Pip’s interruption of Mr Gillet’s introduction at once displays impatience at the teasingly elevated style of the narrative, and cuts short the narrator’s reference to the effects of colonisation upon Tettawonga’s people. The descriptors ‘younger’ and ‘more beautiful’, referring to Australia before white settlement, and the strength of the phrases, ‘their worst nightmare’ and ‘so evil a time’, contradict a key tenet of Seven Little Australians – that Australian children, living in a sun-filled land without a history, are thereby more joyful, more spontaneous and less constrained than their British counterparts…The omission of the kookaburra narrative, and especially of Mr Gillet’s introduction to it, works to silence any reference to the existence of an ancient indigenous culture, the illegitimacy of the colony’s beginnings and its ‘sorrowful history’ of displacement and death. Seven Little Australians, the book which, more than any other, is seen as the first authentically Australian work for children, thus slams shut the cupboard in which are concealed stories of Aboriginal history, positioning white child readers as natives of the country and promoting the white Australia of the Bulletin writers who were Turner’s contemporaries.

In general, regarding Tettawonga’s role in the text as a reflection of Australian society at that time, Bradford (2009, p. 288) argues:

The world of Seven Little Australians is that of the Anglo-Celtic, middle-class children implied as its audience. But the citizens of Yarrahappini include a 'bent old black fellow',Tettawonga, who had 'earned' a permanent home 20 years earlier, when he saved the baby Esther and her mother from bushrangers. The cattle station can be read as a metonym for the nation, incorporating a tame Indigenous presence which bestows legitimacy upon the squattocracy represented by Esther's father. Soothing the General to sleep and making 'a billy of hot, strong tea'for the children as they gather around the dying Judy, Tettawonga conforms to the colonial trope of the loyal black servant who demonstrates the benevolence of his masters.


Bradford, C. (2009). Australian children’s literature. In P. Pierce (Ed.), The Cambridge History of Australian Literature (pp. 282-302). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. doi:10.1017/CHOL9780521881654.015

Bradford, C. (2001). Reading Race: Aboriginality in Australian Children’s Literature. Carlton, Victoria: Melbourne University Press


Student Activities

Censoring Tettawonga

Students analyse two sections from the original manuscript of Seven Little Australians, and discuss the issues these raise in regards to the relationship between European settlers and Indigenous peoples at that time in history.

Number of set tasks:
seven little australians papers

A student:

  • explains and assesses the historical forces and factors that shaped the modern world and Australia HT5-1
  • explains different contexts, perspectives and interpretations of the modern world and Australia HT5-7
  • applies a range of relevant historical terms and concepts when communicating an understanding of the past HT5-9

Perspectives and interpretations

  • identify and analyse the reasons for different perspectives in a particular historical context (ACHHS72, ACHHS173, ACHHS190, ACHHS191)

Empathetic understanding

  • interpret history within the context of the actions, values, attitudes and motives of people in the context of the past (ACHHS172, ACHHS173, ACHHS190, ACHHS191)

Continuity and change: some aspects of a society, event or development change over time and others remain the same

Cause and effect: events, decisions and developments in the past that produce later actions, results or effects

Empathetic understanding: the ability to understand another's point of view, way of life and decisions made in a different period of time or society

Learning across the curriculum

  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories and culture
  • Ethical understanding
  • Difference and diversity