• Uncle Jack Charles is one of the first Elders to address the Yoorrook Commission (Distributor)Source: Distributor
The legendary actor delves into his family history, and says it's time Australia had a reckoning with its past too.
Dan Butler

6 Jul 2021 - 6:29 PM  UPDATED 7 Jul 2021 - 10:22 AM

Uncle Jack Charles is a wanted man.

“Very much so, in the right way this time!” he chuckles.  

Our time is running out quickly and he has to jump straight into another publicity interview for an upcoming appearance on SBS.

As a famous former convict with several jail stints under his belt, it’s a much more welcome kind of attention he’s receiving these days.

“I’ve been wanted for many years in the past. I remember being one of Melbourne’s most wanted people, it was written up in The Age," he said.

“It was a dubious honour, but I’m glad to be able to tell those tales, now I can reflect on where I’ve been and how I got out of that quagmire, and gotten to where I am now.”

It’s a tale well-known by now: one of the country’s most famous Aboriginal actors falls on hard times, becoming addicted to heroin, sleeping rough and repeatedly thrown in jail for petty crimes. 

Now, he’s a respected Elder in the community who mentors troubled young men like himself; a star of stage and screen all the more beloved for the trials he overcame. 

After appearing as the central character in the documentary Bastardy, writing a book and penning music, doing Ted Talks and tireless advocacy, the Charles story may seem to have been told already. 

But a forthcoming episode of Who Do You Think You Are?, the television series that delves into celebrities’ genealogical roots, blows that idea out of the water. 

“It’s causing me to lose sleep. But that’s par for the course for a member of the Stolen Generation."

“It was a fortnight of filming here in Melbourne and also across the waters to Tasmania… the Who Do You Think You Are?  mob discovered that history going back generations and generations. I never would’ve been able to do that,” he said.

The show is often emotional; delving into the past almost always is. But for an Aboriginal man, and moreover as a member of the Stolen Generations, that was especially true for Charles.

"(I’m feeling) overwrought, and a profound sense of loss. I’m really peeved," he says. 

“It’s causing me to lose sleep. But that’s par for the course for a member of the Stolen Generation. If I didn’t have such a high profile, I would have never learned this, I would have remained in ignorance, that I was Wiradjuri man on my father’s side.”

Charles’ family story reveals a history of activism and resilience in the face of the brutalities of colonisation. But an unknown connection to the peoples of Tasmania on his mother’s side revealed a truly remarkable, and tragic family history. 

Charles is descended of an august line; his five-times great grandfather, Mannalargenna, was a highly respected Elder of his people, and acted as ambassador and emissary to surrounding clans.

As relations with the invading British worsened through the early 19th Century, he brokered a marriage between an Englishman and his daughter (Charles’ four-times great grandmother), Woretemoeteyenner, in the hopes of encouraging cooperation.

“Woretomorteyena, yes... What an amazing woman. To be the first [Indigenous] world traveller! Ended up in Mauritius of all places,” Charles laughs. 

But her story took a tragic turn. Her husband abandoned her and their children, and eventually she, along with her father and most of their community, were transported to Flinders Island, off Tasmania’s north-east coast. 

“I hear about the suffering of the women in particular... This is what keeps me awake.”

It was essentially a prison, and death camp. These revelations have been a heavy burden for Charles since filming ended.  

“In some ways, I’ve been retraumatised, and you can’t blame me for having [that reaction] and losing a bit of sleep over it,” he says in his somber baritone. 

“I hear about the suffering of the women in particular in the push to kill all the blacks. 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.”

It’s also a cruel reflection that, with Charles’ record of time spent in prison, he has been in the same position, at the mercy of the carceral system, as his ancestors 200 years ago.

As is his wont, the experience has spurred him to action, both creative and political. 

“It’s prompted me now to write another book, and even a performance piece,” he says. 

“(I’ll be) seeking an audience with our premier Daniel Andrews, and the education minister… to have a serious discussion, aiming towards addressing the lack of living history.”

“Each state... has a unique history to tell. We’ve got a unique history. And it should be put onto our state school curriculums.”

Charles is encouraged by recent moves in his home state of Victoria: last year’s acknowledgement by the Andrews government that the experience of the Stolen Generations amounted to genocide, and the redress scheme aimed at compensating those who suffered through it. 

The country’s first truth-telling commission is getting underway right now in Victoria. Charles will be on hand to give evidence when the time comes. But he says the country has a long way to go. 

“(I hope) it becomes a drive towards having truth in history,” he says.  

“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.”

Until a more honest telling of Australia’s history is accepted, and the stories of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ ancestors are given the same reverence as the ANZAC myths, Charles fears the recurrence of traumatic stories like his own. 

It’s something he witnesses as an Elder on the council of the Archie Roach foundation, advocating for young men caught up in the prison system. 

“Oh yes, I'm still passionate (about advocacy)... One of the teachers at a youth detention centre took my book in and read it out aloud to the kids and others, and as they were reading it, they noticed sections of their own lives unfolding.”

It's a similarity, shared between those boys and Charles, between Charles and his ancestors, that he'd like to prevent happening.

Charles has experienced more trauma than most, but still finds the motivation to persist in his pursuits, activist and artistic. It’s easy to wonder how. 

“I do it because I’m a show off!” he says. 

‘I’m a tall poppy, totally up myself and I’m driven. I’m a man that has lived a dark past..

“I put [my story] out there, and I’m glad it’s impacting on other people, black, white, whatever.”

“It’s just fortunate that I’ve got this profile; this notoriety."

For decades, audiences have been fortunate enough to enjoy his profile too.

It doesn't look like disappearing soon.

Uncle Jack Charles explores his family history on Who Do You Think You Are?  Now Streaming on SBS On Demand: