Indigenous elder and actor Uncle Jack Charles discovered who his father was after more than 70 years in moving scenes on TV series Who Do You Think You Are?
On this week’s episode of the SBS genealogy series, Uncle Jack travelled across Australian two weeks tracing his ancestors back two centuries.
The gay actor and musician is a prominent Australian arts figure, First Nations activist and survivor of the Stolen Generation.
Removed from his parents at four months old, Uncle Jack never knew his father. After more than 70 years, he finds out on the program his name was Hilton Hamilton Walsh.
Walsh was born in 1923 on Cummeragunja, an Aboriginal reserve on the Murray River in southern New South Wales.
From the 1860s onwards, colonial governments set aside such reserves to house Aboriginal people after forcibly removing them from their traditional lands.
Uncle Jack meets some of his living relatives for the first time, including a long-lost brother.
They tell him about his father and his subsequent career as a labourer. Walsh died in 1997.
Uncle Jack also visits his father’s grave at the reserve and pays emotional tribute.
He describes not knowing his father’s identity as “part of the missing jigsaw, the puzzle, that doesn’t make me complete within myself.”
“I do feel the connection now. I’m not a fatherless child. I’m not a bastard anymore,” he says.
“I would have loved to have known all this history, when I was younger.
“Family is one of the prized possessions that people have. I’m only [now] learning about this because I’ve never really known it.
“I don’t have pictures on my wall. People have pictures of their families on their walls but I’ve never done that.
“My story has been lost and with this story I’ve been healed again.”
Uncle Jack traces ancestors back to 1800s
Later in the program, Uncle Jack also traces his mother’s ancestors back two centuries, to Tasmania.
His five-times great grandfather, Mannalargenna, was a highly respected Elder of his people.
He acted as a type of diplomatic ambassador, Uncle Jack is told, between the numerous clans on Tasmania at the time.
After relations with the invading British worsened in the early 19th century, Mannalargenna tried to encourage cooperation.
He brokered a marriage between an Englishman and his daughter Woretemoeteyenner, Jack’s four-times great grandmother.
Sadly, she, her father and most of their community were later transported to Flinders Island, off Tasmania’s north-east coast.
Uncle Jack hears that at that time, the island was essentially a prison and death camp.
He explained to NITV News hearing of the conflict of the time had weighed very heavily on him.
“I hear about the suffering of the women in particular, in the push to kill all the blacks,” he said.
“Women were killed in the most horrific fashion.
“The men were killed, but the women suffered unspeakable cruel torturous punishments before being killed. This is what keeps me awake.”
Uncle Jack Charles wants truth-telling in Australian history
Uncle Jack Charles told NITV the experience of filming the show has motivated him creatively and politically.
“It’s prompted me now to write another book, and even a performance piece,” he said.
The Victorian will urge his Premier Daniel Andrews and other leaders for “truth in history.”
“Each state has a unique history to tell. We’ve got a unique history. And it should go into our state school curriculums,” he said.
“We know the sites of the massacres… Now that we know these things, it shouldn’t be kept quiet.
“We aren’t quiet about our history with Germany and Japan. Australia is way behind in that way.”
“But until we have [truth-telling], we two peoples, white Australia and Indigenous Australia will never, ever seriously come together as one nation.”
Without it, Uncle Jack says he fears his own traumatic life experiences will recur.
Uncle Jack has long shared his history of escaping homelessness, heroin addiction and stints in prison. Now, he mentors Indigenous inmates and those sleeping rough.
“I put [my own story] out there, and I’m glad it’s impacting on other people, black, white, whatever,” he said.
“It’s just fortunate that I’ve got this profile; this notoriety.”
Uncle Jack Charles’ episode of Who Do You Think You Are is streaming on SBS On Demand.
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