By 1860 Australia was divided into five separate colonies each with its own elected parliament which, however, was answerable to the Governor-General, and thereby to the mother country. But self-government of a sort had been conceded and the course shaped for Federation in 1901.
The foundation for elected representatives was the renowned Australian Colonies Government Act of 1850 according to which “elective franchise (was) granted to the 10£ householder” (1). This Act, which followed in the wake of the decision to abolish the convict system, was the result of much heated debate that bore on political issues in Australia as well as in England. At the core of the problem was the lack of (cheap) labour in Australia. The rich landowners, the squatters, who were most affected by the shortage of labour, generally wanted a resumption of transported labour; they were strongly opposed to elections, and spoke in favour of a strong central government as they feared that their time-honoured power would be undermined by the democratic rabble. Other, more liberal, groups in Australia disagreed fiercely and wanted the “convict polluters” substituted with a more “moral and industrious working class” (2). In other words, they wanted more free immigrants and political influence. England also saw migration as the solution to the problem, and in various ways tried to lure people to “the working man’s paradise” as Australia was now called. The idea was to get rid of an ever growing class of paupers and politically “unsound” elements, such as socialists, Chartists, and radicals in general. In 1850 alone 12,000 people from Great Britain went to Australia and New Zealand, partly through the introduction of free immigration. The Government Act, as we have seen, struck a compromise in making franchise dependent on financial circumstances.
This compromise, and the debate leading up to it, are of general importance as they bear witness to a splitting up of Australian society and culture that would gain momentum in the decades to come. On the one hand we have a reactionary, financially strong group (“the Squattocracy”) that wants strong ties with the mother country, not as it was at the time, but as it had been. This group clearly looks backwards and even models its lifestyle on a paragon that was becoming obsolete, “the English Squire”. On the other hand we have the “New Australians” who want to rely on their own values and to have a say in political matters. They want to dissociate themselves from the past, dilute the convict stain, and they point just as clearly forwards,to the turn of the century.
From state prison to melting pot. However important the year 1850 may be in the history of Australia, it must be remembered that the franchise conferred on Australians was limited, so, presumably, the social changes set in motion the following year were more far-reaching, and affected more common Australians than any political decisions would have done. When gold was found in New South Wales in 1851, and a little later in Victoria, the foundations were laid for an explosive growth in population and for drastic changes in the financial structure. In 1852 95,000 immigrants arrived in New South Wales and Victoria, and by 1860 the total population had passed 1 million – an increase of more than 600,000 in the course of ten years! Huge fortunes were made, but often changed hands overnight, and the repercussions in the class-ridden social structure were considerable. The gold rush spelt upheaval on a large scale, and with the influx of a great number of different nationalities, Australia underwent a fundamental change from British state prison to the new melting pot of the world.
The Gold Rush. It was an old 49’er, Edward Hargraves, returned from California, who found gold in 1851 (near Bathurst), and within a remarkably short time a big percentage of the work force in Sydney flooded into the gold field, and the world’s attention was shifted from America to Australia. People of all nationalities went “down under”, and present day Coober Pedy in South Australia must be quite close to the atmosphere of the gold fields of a hundred and forty years ago. For acres and acres the ground has been churned up to find the valued opals, and more than 30 different nationalities trample the dusty streets. Housing covers the whole spectrum from ramshackle sheds to rather elaborate dwellings and marvellous churches built in rock caves. (see Appendix 8).
The most conspicuous of the diggers that swarmed to the newly opened fields were a great number of Chinese from whom we have inherited the rather strange phrase “fair dinkum” – presumably a distortion of the Chinese word for a gold nugget. However, the Asian legacy is far more substantial than the odd linguistic curiosity, and during the years wave upon wave of immigrants from Asia have made important contributions to the Australian population. Despite sporadic racial frictions, modern Australia in many ways gravitates more towards Asia and the Pacific region than towards far-away Europe.
Eureka Stockade and beyond – urbanization. It was, however, the diggings at Ballarat, near Melbourne, that passed into history as a symbol of the way gold changed the population structure of Australia. Not only did Victoria attract more immigrants, but the rebellion against the “bloody licence tax” (1 £ a month to be allowed to dig), and the armed stand at Eureka Stockade, where the Southern Cross flag was hoisted to defy the Union Jack, reverberated in all corridors of Australian politics. Eureka Stockade is described in the excerpt from Manning Clark, A History of Australia (see p. ), but the most important implications of the episode must be summarized in this historical survey. Though the rebels were defeated, amnesty was given to the supposed leader, Peter Lalor, and the tax system revoked. Since the abortive Irish attempt in 1804 at overthrowing hateful authorities (see pp, 7-8) there had been sporadic mutinous risings in some of the penal colonies (i.a. Norfolk Island); but Eureka was the first success, the first realization that you did not have to put up with the exertion of a power you felt to be deeply unjust. The tax collectors were accused of abuse of office, often rightly, and of lining their own pockets (see Appendix 9).
There is good reason to assume that the political consequences of this success, which comprised social and national differences, were more far-reaching than the elective franchise granted a few years before. The spirit of solidarity behind the palisades is also symbolic of the blow which the quick acquisition of wealth directed against the old class system. Even the “convict stain” of the “old crawlers” (i.e. ex-convicts) could be tolerated in the hotch-potch of the gold fields, and with money to spend in the cities.
Life in the diggings could be rough, and even though writers later romanticized the concept of “mateship”, there is no doubt that whatever the ethics of the fields they were heavily tainted by “grab and go”. Small scale, provincial Australia found it hard to cope with the massive waves of immigrants, and during the peak years of the gold rush Australia was faced with a large contingent of ill-adapted, poorly housed city dwellers. In the second half of the 19th century Australian cities grew explosively, not least “Marvellous Melbourne”, and urbanization gradually counterbalanced the colonial backbone of country people.
In the wake of the gold rush the demographic map of Australia was extended so that the rural conflict between “Squattocracy” and smallholders is echoed by an urban conflict between “Slumocracy” and bourgeoisie.
The Bushrangers. Bushranging, which reached a peak in the late 1870’s with the Kelly gang, is basically an accentuation of the social upheaval of the gold rush and the new sense of self-assertiveness. Bushrangers had since the early years of the colony been a concomitant factor of the penal system. Runaway convicts, “the absconders”, had to fend for themselves. A few went to live with the Aboriginal people (see texts ), but the majority took to plundering government stores and rustling cattle from rich landowners. To survive they had to seek shelter with ‘right-minded’ emancipists or landowners who, for one reason or another, bore a grudge against the British authorities. In this way the politically subversive undertones are audible from the very beginning, and in the decades to come the bushrangers were mythologized into Australian folk heroes. They (for example Ben Hall and Bold Jack Donahoe) were celebrated in ballads which at the same time became early protest songs against the system:
“He had scarcely served twelve months in chains upon the Australian shore,
When he took to the highway as he had done before,
These were the true companions of bold Jack Donahoe.
“Bold Donahoe was taken for a notorious crime,
And sentenced to be hanged upon the gallow-tree so high-
But when they brought him to Sydney Gaol he left them in the stew,
For when they came to call the roll, they missed Jack Donahoe. “Nine rounds he fired and nine men shot before the fatal ball
That pierced his heart and made him smart and caused him for to fall-
And as he closed his mournful eyes, he bade the world adieu,
Crying ‘Convicts all, pray for the soul of bold Jack Donahoe’” (3)
Songs like this can, of course, be seen as early attempts at a genuine Australian literature in its own setting, and in the 1870’s and 80’s the source for artistic inspiration grew noticeably stronger. Ned Kelly was a colourful person, and his last stand in his flamboyant self-made coat of armour has become a staple subject in Australian literature and painting (see colour-plate, p. ). The gold rush rather widened the scope for bushranging , and attention was gradually shifted from the cattle runs of rich graziers to the more lucrative plundering of state gold transports. With the strong opposition to the way the state administered the gold fields (see “bloody licence tax” p.14), it stands to reason that the bushrangers grew in public stature – they were even accredited with Robin Hood qualities! This may well be wishful thinking, but bushranging, given the framework of this anthology, remains important for three reasons: 1) as mythologized heroes the bushrangers counteract British cultural dominance; they point forward to a more genuine national character. 2) The bushrangers are by and large of Irish descent and thus bear witness to the transplantation of Old World problems to Australia where they become intensified and warped out of original proportions. 3) Bushranging has helped glorify the vast Australian bush: Australia is the last continent that offers, not only a hiding place, but also the post-romantic possibility of losing oneself in nature:
“For, ere the early settlers came and stocked
These wilds with sheep and kine, the grasses grew
So that they took the passing pilgrim in,
And whelmed him, like the running sea, from sight”.(4)
Exploration – Terra Firma. The beginnings of Australia’s European history were marked by quests for a Terra Firma (see Introduction p. 3 ), and these endeavours at establishing a foothold in strange awe-inspiring surroundings were repeated in the middle of the 19th century when explorers, driven by curiosity, ambition, and “the American fallacy”, set out to find new tracts of land where “the grass was greener”. Similar in extent to the United States of America, and with a mountain range at either end of the continent, Australia was believed to hold in its interior flowing rivers, big lakes and land of surpassing fertility. This, of course, turned out to be blatantly wrong (5) – there was simply nothing in there! (or, from an Aboriginal point of view, everything!) Later in the century another instance of what we may term “the American fallacy” was irrigation. Experts from America were called to the Murray River, and as a consequence the vulnerable waterways were ruined. In many cases irrigation made the salinity of the ground (old sea floor) rise to the surface which rendered the soil completely arid ! Blown-up myths about “The Promised Land” induced the newly founded states, New South Wales, South Australia, and to a lesser degree Victoria, to compete for ascendancy by extending their agricultural possibilities, and numerous and expensive expeditions were mounted to fulfil that wish.
Exploration, naturally, had been part and parcel of colonial Australia – Wentworth and Blaxland had crossed the Blue Mountains; Hume and Hovell had found the Murray River and pushed further south to the coast; Flinders had explored the coastal regions; and Eyre had struggled west beyond the Blue Mountains. The list is long, and just like the bushrangers, the explorers were subject to mythogenisis, albeit of a somewhat different hue. Perhaps the most noticeable figure in this respect is the German explorer, Ludwig Leichhardt, who set out from the east coast and together with his men was lost in the interior (1848). Succeeding explorers went looking for Leichhardt, but “the vast Australian bush” refused to yield any clues, and the myths about the man and his fate grew – he is for example the inspiration behind Patrick White’s famous novel Voss (1957).
Stuart vs. Burke – going with or against the grain One phase in the exploration of the interior, however, deserves special attention as it epitomizes two diametrically opposed ways of dealing with the Australian continent: working with the country (i.e. on the premises laid down by the landscape and the indigenous people) and working against the country (i.e. along imported, misleading lines set down by the anglophiles). The one spelt success, the other disaster!
In the early 1860’s South Australia and Victoria were engaged in a competition to be the first to cross the continent from south to north. John McDouall Stuart set out from Adelaide and relied on a small expedition force which travelled light and used bushmanship. Burke, who together with Wills was in charge of the expedition that left Melbourne, set about his business in an entirely different manner. With camels imported from British possessions in India and a veritable army of uniformed horseriders, camel grooms, and transportation workers he laboriously clambered north, most of the time encumbered by too much gear and vain squabbles over (the formalities of) leadership.(6) If McDouall Stuart had been made leader because of his superior bushmanship, then Burke’s main asset was that he was “the right sort of gentleman” which should boost the image of Marvellous Melbourne. In this spirit the departure from Royal Park became a massive demonstration of Victorian gentility and power: “No Australian expedition... had ever started under such favourable circumstances. The people, the government and the Exploration Committee had done all within their power to make the expedition a success... To the tune of ‘Cheer, boys, cheer’ played by a band of volunteer musicians, they headed through its south gate...the most ‘magnanimous and heroic’ episode in the brief history of their colony...(to) prove both to the world and themselves that they were more than a ‘community of speculators overlying convicts.’” (7 – see Appendix 10)
In the interior McDouall Stuart survived as he knew how to get along with the Aboriginal people and procure “bush tucker”, whereas Burke’s ingrained paranoia and military conduct involved him in skirmishes with the natives. Alongside Wills and many of his men he died a miserable death of exhaustion and starvation on his return journey from Carpentaria. McDouall Stuart made it back to Adelaide, and his exploration resulted in the overland telegraph, and, later, the Stuart Highway from Adelaide to Darwin.
So much for sticking with old values (“the English fallacy”), or developing the budding talents of New Australia! Sterling vs. Currency! (see p. 7 )
The Centenary celebrations.
A prevailing theme in this historical survey, and in the anthology as such, is the oscillating conflict between Old and New World values, and the Centenary celebrations in 1888 may be a good occasion to take stock and gauge the extent to which Australia was still enmeshed in conservative British modes of thinking. Here are two incisive quotations – the first from Manning Clark:
“Henry Parkes (8) knew what he wanted to say about life. For him Australia was ‘the
mistress of the Southern Seas’. For him England’s name was ‘the magic still’. For him as for other bourgeois public men, England was still ‘Fatherland, our Fatherland’.
On 28 June 1887, in the afterglow of the Queen’s jubilee, he laid before Parliament his proposals for the celebration of the centenary of the foundation of New South Wales. He suggested the conversion of the Lachlan Swamp in Sydney into a Centennial Park, in which would stand a pantheon to house the mortal remains of Australia’s mighty men of renown. The time had come to wean the people away from false gods, false heroes such as bold Jack Donahoe, Ben Hall, Ned Kelly; the time had come to rid the minds of the people of the legacy of convictism, bush barbarism, male supremacy and brutality. This proposal was mocked at so savagely as a stunt for the glorification of ‘St ‘Enery’ that he was obliged to drop the idea of the pantheon, while keeping Centennial Park. Undismayed he came back with the idea that New South Wales should be renamed Australia. This plunged Victoria into a state of ‘muttering irritation’. (9)
Here is the second one, from Robert Hughes:
“Australian politicians conceived and ran the Centenary as a lavish feast of jingoism, a tribute to the benevolent, all-embracing British Empire. Without Britain’s market, Australian business could not survive, without her institutions, especially the Monarchy, Australian morality would decay; without her dreadnoughts, Australian blood would be yellowed by hordes of invading junks. Bunting, flags, parades, speeches and more bunting were rammed down the popular throat, and only republicans gagged on them.
The organ of their protest was The Bulletin, that anti-imperialist paper, which excoriated the whole idea of the Centennial as a slavish feast of Australian dependence. Australia, it argued, began its first hundred years as a penal colony, but was finishing them as an economic and political one. Its irons had been struck off but nothing else had changed. One of its cartoonists made this point with a pair of drawings: the first, labelled 1788, of an Irish convict dancing a jig in his chains for the amusement of an English officer; the second of a modern bush-settler in his cabbage-tree hat, doing the same dance for John Bull in 1888.” (10)
The two quotations speak largely for themselves, and the inherent conflicts are, to a certain extent, resolved in the literary “naissance” of the 1890’s, and the political Federation of 1901.
The Heidelberg School – Australian painting. Behind the ostentatious, jingoistic nationalism of the Centenary celebrations a new kind of nationalism was materializing on canvas at the Yarra River, near Melbourne. Tom Roberts, an English-born Australian painter, had returned from France where he had studied the techniques of impressionism. Instead of just imitating the French painters ‘on foreign soil’ he wanted to employ the new technique of brightness, light and colour to pay homage to the native Australian bush. Together with like-minded painters, i.a. Frederick McCubbin, Arthur Streeton, and Charles Candor he set up an artists’ camp at Eaglemont, Heidelberg, and they all endeavoured through a “modified form of impressionism ... to capture the essence of Australian light and colour”(11), and thus they relocated landscape painting to a genuine Australian setting. (see p. 12). In doing so the Heidelberg School is a clear departure from the “gentleman’s park” described on page 11 , and its members dissociated themselves from “all previous landscape painters (who) had done their wrist work with the images of European scenery still coming between them and the local scene.” (12)
Of course, Aboriginal people had continuously expressed themselves in paintings, irrespective of white striving for cultural ascendancy, but this was exclusively done in a tribal context that was either closed to or uninteresting for a white audience. It is not until rather late in this century that Aboriginal art becomes commercialized and artefacts and paintings become collectors’ items. So with this limitation in mind, Roberts was rightly hailed as the ‘father of Australian painting’, and in so far as the Heidelberg School inaugurates a new period of artistic self-reliance and political independence, it is only apt that it was he who painted Opening of the FederalParliament of the Commonwealth of Australia (which hangs in the High Court of Australia in Canberra).
After a successful exhibition “9 x 5” (all exhibits were painted on cigar-box lids) new members joined the group, for example Norman Lindsay, and the second Heidelberg School was established in 1890. To a large extent they stuck with the tenets laid down by the first school and played an active and influential part throughout the 1890’s.
The 1890’s – a literary ‘Naissance’
The 1890’s is not only a very prolific decade in Australian art and literature, but presumably it is also the most written about. Generation after generation of men-of-letters and critics have examined the output of the period and often disagree widely as to the intrinsic values. Here is Leon Cantrell from 1977: “The legend of the nineties has insisted that their triumph was to throw off the shackles of an imported vision, which had recoiled from the strangeness of the local scene, to show us ourselves and our land, whole and clear.” (13) Cantrell clearly warns us against jumping to conclusions, and it is also true, as several writers have pointed out, that the mainstream of anglophile literature continued unabated. But given the publication policy and the circulation of the Bulletin and other literary magazines, I think some basic assumptions may be safely ventured: 1) There appears to be a consensus that subject matter and topics that had hitherto been barred from the realms of art were now not only acceptable, but desirable for their very Australianness. “Like the writers of the 1890’s, the Heidelberg artists became increasingly nationalistic, seeking out subjects of national interest and significance. Although they were not concerned exclusively with the bush ... the Australian impressionists forged their closest links with literature when they emphasized the bush and incidents from bush life.” (14) As there is no Australian painting or literature to be invigorated or reborn (apart from Aboriginal art), the term “Australian Naissance” is often applied to the period (a play on the time-honoured word “Renaissance” about the peak of European culture). 2) If a sufficiently great number of popular writers and artists agree on a culturally unbiased description of a local setting, the common people are offered ample opportunity to understand and appreciate human beings in an environment where the grass is exactly as green as it is! By dealing with the grass in the present tense, mind-numbing comparisons are virtually made redundant – this is where you are; this is where, for better or worse, you have your life. Thus the quest for a TerraFirma, which was the point of departure for this survey (see. p.3 ), has been brought to some sort of an end, and literature and art have been transformed from models or escape routes to a means through which the reader can analyse his own situation. 3) It is not only the green grass that can now be dealt with in the present. Another common feature of the period is an agreement that Australia’s national past (as opposed to English history) must be dealt with and related to the here and now. This drift goes deeper than a wish to find one’s personal roots; it is a collective urge to regain all the lost areas that had been too raw and painful to cope with at the time (cf. historical amnesia, p. 8 ). Thus we have Marcus Clark and Price Warung coming to grips with the convict past, and other writers have been equally diligent to mirror the present in lost pockets of the national past. This preoccupation with bygone events became a strong trend in Australian literature, witness the many historical novels and short stories in the anthology. In the 1890’s and later there may well have been a tendency to mythologize and romanticize, but this does not seriously affect the fact that the emphasis was shifted from the great men of the Empire to more domestic heroes.
At the very foreground of the 1890’s we have “life in the bush”. As it will become apparent from the texts and the paintings of the anthology, there are two clearly distinguishable ways of dealing with this subject: there are those who romanticize and extol life in the bush – first and foremost the Sydney solicitor, Andrew Barton, who under the pseudonym Banjo Paterson “became a literary celebrity after the rapturous reception of The Man from Snowy River andOther Verses” (1895) (15). Another great popular favourite was Steele Rudd’s On Our Selection (1899). The majority of writers, however, chose a more realistic approach and concentrated on the hardship of bush life. In their prose (predominantly the short story) and verses they probed the impact that harsh conditions had on the human psyche. In this group we find Barbara Baynton, Henry Lawson (though his praising of ‘mateship’ is slightly off-key), Henry Kendall; well, in fact the majority of the writers that we associate with the period – “The truth is that bush life is most frequently depicted in our literature of the 1890’s as harsh and destructive of all but the basic urge to survive. Or, if Arcadian, as belonging to a bygone age, now lost. Equalitarian mateship is less common than loneliness and betrayal. Failure is more real than success.” (16) These two approaches to the Australian bush continue into the literature of the 20th century, where we have a clear contrast between Jon Cleary’s cheerful and optimistic novel The Sundowners (1952) and Patrick White’s more austere analysis of human survival in The Tree of Man (1965).
What has made the 1890’s stand out so monumentally is undoubtedly the fact that literature and painting had worked basically on the same themes. We thus have McCubbin’s painting TheLost Child that illustrates Marcus Clark’s short story Pretty Dick, another of McCubbin’s paintings Down on His Luck evokes the unfortunate swagman from Lawson’s stories and poems, and Kendall’s poem ADeath in the Bush is echoed in the painting Bush Burial. The list of this more or less intended collaboration is long, but artistic expression in the 90’s clearly worked within “the tradition of ut pictora poesis, that is, that poetry aspires ideally to emulate the qualities of painting, and painting to be a ‘speaking picture’” (17).
Federation The 1890’s was also a period of great economic and political unrest. Bank crashes in the early 90’s sent waves of shock throughout the colonies. Borrowing from London became increasingly difficult and unemployment, especially within the building sector, caused a lot of anxiety. At this time trade unions had become a decisive factor in colonial Australia, and throughout the decade numerous strikes, organized primarily among miners, agricultural workers, and dockers, added fuel to the political debate. ‘Reformers’ wanted to solve the problems in a slow evolutionary way, whereas ‘revolutionaries’ called for more immediate and radical changes. The nation was split into “preservers” and “destroyers”. Another major issue,which divided Australians, was England’s war in South Africa, the Boer War (1899 – 1902). On the one hand patriotic feelings swept the country, volunteer regiments were recruited, and local communities competed to show their solidarity with the British Empire. On the other hand, many people (for example Henry Lawson) felt that England’s aggressions in Africa were morally tainted and reprehensible. Australia was under no obligation to the mother country and should mind its own business.
So for a number of reasons it became a decade of cultural, political and nationalist turmoil, and the outcome was that on January 1 1901 the Commonwealth of Australia was inaugurated. The six Australian colonies were given status as a nation headed by a federal government,and in 1902, electoral franchise was extended to include women. However, the secession from England was a very tentative one. Australia continued to pay allegiance to the English Crown (through the General-Governor), and any law passed by the Federal Government could be overruled by Westminster, just as the courts of appeal still rested with the English judicial system. The Prime Minister and the elected representatives tended to be cautious, and, as Manning Clark concludes, “they were politicians in an age sympathetic to reform within the system” (18). It seems as if the “preservers” got the better of the “destroyers”, and it was a long time before “the last vestiges of colonialism would disappear.” (19)
In the beginning the seat of the Federal Government alternated between Sydney and Melbourne, but in the long run the rivalry between the two major cities was felt to be untenable, and in the 1920’s the Parliament House was built in Canberra on the axis between Sydney and Melbourne. In the local Aboriginal language Canberra means “meeting place”, which of course is very appropriate for the seat of the Federal Government. But the more sinister implications of a white Parliament House on old Aboriginal meeting ground (see cover photograph) are evidence of the unremitting process of dispossession.
Quoted from Robert Hughes, The Fatal Shore, pp. 238-39
From Henry Kendall, “A Death in the Bush” (Quoted from The Penguin Book of 19thCentury Australian Literature, ed. Michael Ackland, p. 37)
Cf.-”Space, in America, had always been optimistic; the more of it you faced, the freer you were – “Go West, young man!” In Australian terms, to go west was to die, and space itself was the jail.” Robert Hughes, The Fatal Shore, p. 596
The competition between McDouall Stuart and Burke, and the way they acquitted their tasks, have many parallels to Amundsen’s and Scott’s race for the South Pole in the beginning of the 20th century.
Tim Bonyhady, Burke & Wills – From Melbourne to Myth (David Ell Press 1991), pp. 79-80
Henry Parkes: politician, member of the first Legislative Assembly in 1856, and later called “the Father of Federation”.
Manning Clark, A History of Australia, p. 424
Robert Hughes, The Fatal Shore, p. 598
The Oxford Companion to Australian Literature, p. 653
Manning Clark, A History of Australia, p. 382
Writing of the Eighteen Nineties, ed., Leon Cantrell (University of Queensland Press 1977), p. xv
The Oxford Companion to Australian Literature, p. 357 (My italics)
Ibid., p. 608
Writing of the Eighteen Nineties, ed. Leon Cantrell, p. xx
The Penguin Book of 19th Century Australian Literature, ed., Michael Ackland, p. xv
Manning Clark, A History of Australia, p. 461
Ibid., p. 654
IV The 20th Century – Some Guidelines
The Aboriginal people – from dispossession to
In the preceding chapter we have seen that Australia was one of the first countries in the world, in 1902, to give their women the right to vote. When during the debate, the indigenous population was brought up it was averred that “there was no scientific evidence that the Aborigine was a human being at all” (1) , and franchise was not conferred until 1967, a few years after they had been given the right to work for equal wages.
The Aboriginal population, which had reached a low ebb of about 60,000 people at the turn of the century, was kept in place through a rigorous apartheid policy. Those who did not live in the old tribal way, and that was the majority, were kept in reservations, sometimes referred to as settlements or missions, the latter suggesting the no doubt well-meant attempts to “humanize the backward savages”. The legislative work lay centrally with the Ministry of Aborigine Affairs, but the laws were administered regionally by Aboriginal Departments. At the head of each department there was a Chief Protector of Aborigines, in hindsight a somewhat ironical title as the indigenous people fared badly under white administration, for a number of reasons.
Reservations and mission schools
From vast tracts of land the Aboriginal people were rounded up and forcibly taken to government reserves, sometimes in chains. To a tribal Aborigine land and location are of vital importance. Deeply rooted in Dream Time notions is the belief that you are an integral part of ancestral, tribal land, and compulsory transfer to a foreign spot with strangers that are not tribally related was a disruptive blow to personal integrity. As Jean A. Ellis has pointed out “to die outside one’s area was tantamount to losing one’s soul.” (2) Modern day Alice Springs that covers an intersection of three tribal territories has suffered greatly from this sense of personal disintegration and tribal clashes. It has one of the highest crime rates of all of Australia. Sometimes the government had to strike a deal with the big station owners who felt that the setting up of reservations was an infringement upon their rights – often an agreement was reached so that they retained the grazing rights. These and other more blatant examples of dispossession led to the fight over land rights in the 1970’s.
In the first decades of the 20th century the Aboriginal population started picking up again, and by the 1940’s more than three hundred and fifty government reserves had been set up. The intention was to provide the inmates with the basic necessities of life, inclusive of rudimentary schooling, but in all essentials the camps were run on the lines of prison camps. The Missions were grossly overcrowded and little room was given for privacy. The inmates had at all times to carry identification papers, “dog tags” (see Appendix 11), and favours and punishments were given in an arbitrary way. The old tribal rituals and sacred ceremonies were forbidden as heathen practices, and in some camps “the speaking of one’s former language was a punishable offence” (3). In that way the Aboriginal people were left in a cultural void – “Civilization had robbed (them) of their own philosophies and left them on the way to become spiritually destitute.” (4) The most abominable aspect of settlements and missions was the belief that tribal parents were morally incapable of raising their own children. Thousands and thousands of children were taken away and brought up in mission institutions, some never to be reunited with their parents! This practice was kept up into the 1950’s, and is the bitter subject matter of Sally Morgan’s widely read biographical books (see texts ).
Miscegenation, as we have seen in one of the previous chapters, was a major problem in colonial Australia, and the mixing of the races continued into the 20th century, although on a less exploitative basis. The population increase was partly due to a substantial number of “yella-fellas” or “narda-nardas”, and the authorities eventually had to face the problem of mixed origin. The general idea was to integrate as many as possible into white society, and a painful account of this is given in Thomas Keneally’s book The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (1972). At the bottom of the integration policy lay a classification system which, with respect to physical appearance and general conduct, divided people into two groups. Mobility between the two groups was ensured through an Exemption Act: after initial classification the person in question could after a probation period earn or forfeit his rights as a white citizen. During this period it was essential that the applicant refrained from social contact with Aborigines!
So in many ways the Australian way of dealing with the indigenous population was similar to the Apartheid system in South Africa. Many middle-aged Australians, who during their university days took an active part in anti-Apartheid demonstrations, realized as a shock that exactly the same things had been taking place on their own doorsteps. Aboriginal affairs had not found their way into the history books of mid-century. The emphasis was still on Empire and white Australians, and in the 1960’s Manning Clark broke new ground by including all Australians in his epoch-making A History of Australia. During the Bicentenary celebrations in 1988 a ‘traditional’ history book, written for the occasion, was symbolically chucked into Sydney Harbour to direct a final blow at historical distortion and amnesia (see p.8 ).
On the whole the 1960’s saw great improvements for the Aboriginal people. Missions and settlements had been phased out, and in addition to franchise and the right to work for equal wages, the Aborigines were now given the right to bring up their own children! On paper at least, the indigenous people now had the same rights as other Australians – pensions, judicial protection and education, and in the 1970’s an elected Council for Aborigines was set up to advise the Minister of Aboriginal Affairs. The redressing of past wrongs is, of course, a slow and difficult process, and Aboriginal people still bear a heavy burden of high unemployment and crime rates, just as excessive drinking and destitution are very conspicuous in many Aboriginal communities. Given their family background it is no wonder that many Aborigines find it hard to adapt; their social aspirations are often thwarted by racial discrimination, and they are caught on the wrong foot, so to speak, between two cultures.
Land rights In the 1970’s a new phase in Aboriginal history was launched when the Fraser government “advanced Aboriginal rights by passing a law ... which recognized Aboriginal land rights in the Northern Territory.” (5) This was a major concession, and The Land Rights Act of 1976 in many ways went against the grain of mining and agricultural policies which made up the backbone of Australian economy. Since then the claims for tribal land have proliferated, and the struggle for land rights has become a pre-eminent Australian issue (6). The interests of many white Australians have been seriously threatened, and they find it hard to accept the justice of a legislation that reaches back to a period of time before they or their ancestors laid claim to the land – “The land rights issue is not widely understood by non Aborigines, and the push towards this goal has been fraught with difficulties. From an Aboriginal perspective the term land rights simply means the (non-restrictive) return of viable land bases where the Aboriginal people of each area can work to regenerate their communities, economies and culture and be self determining in their religious and social choices.” (7) The complexity of the land rights issue is amply illustrated by the case named after Eddie Mabo.
Eddie Mabo, a Torres Strait Islander, worked in the 1970s as a gardener at the James Cook University in Townsville. While at the University he also studied anthropological literature associated with the Torres Strait, from which he had been absent for more than 10 years. However, he was not worried about his native land – everybody on the island knew it was Mabo land, and he was convinced the people there would take care of it. So it was a great shock to him when he learned that, according to white Australian law, he did not own any land, that actually it was all Crown land. In an attempt to claim land rights he applied for official permission to go to the islands and record their history, but the Queensland Government turned him down. It was this realization that he was in fact an exile that began the momentum towards taking the issue to court.
In 1981 the students at the University called a conference on land rights; experts and interested parties were invited, and it was decided that the issue of a land claim by the Torres Strait Islanders should be taken to the High Court. However, the Queensland Government acted quickly and hurried a bill through the House according to which “any rights that the Torres Strait Islanders had to land after the claim of sovereignty in 1879 are hereby extinguished.” (8) The bill clearly contravened the Racial Discrimination Act of 1975, and this started the Mabo case. The case went back to the Supreme Court of Queensland, and after much wrangling it ended up in the High Court which in June 1992, after Eddie Mabo’s death, reached a historic decision. By a six to one majority it ruled that “Eddie Mabo had been right, that he did own his land, not because he held a title from the Crown, but because his family and his ancestors had owned the land at the time of claim of sovereignty. … He owned the land according to traditional custom which still ran in the Torres Strait.” (9) In addition the Court ruled that the principles of its decision applied to all of Australia.
An assessment of Mabo
The implications of the ‘Mabo Judgement’ are far-reaching. First of all it overturned the old doctrine of Terra Nullius (see p. ) – where there is no title it must now be assumed that the owner is Aboriginal! Before Mabo, if Aboriginal communities were to claim land rights, they had to establish that they were the traditional owners. This was also the idea behind the Land Rights Act of 1976. After Mabo it has to be assumed that Aboriginal ownership survives unless the Crown can show that it does not. The onus is on the Government to prove the case, not on the traditional owners.
The Aboriginal people can now claim a reasonable compensation for land taken in a questionable or an illegal manner in the past. This compensation is to be assessed at today’s values. In this connection it has also been ruled that property passes down the generations. It is only when people have forgotten their tradition and have lost their links that they lose their Native Title.
Approximately 60% of Australia is leasehold land. Many of the leases possessed what was called an “Aboriginal Reservation” which gave the Aboriginal people the right to use the land (hunting grounds, sacred sites etc.). This goes back into Australian history, but before Mabo the “Reservation” tended to be overlooked. Today, however, much attention is paid to this point, and the debate over land rights is not only a question of ownership, but also of the right of access to land.
Though the after effects of Mabo have not yet been sorted out, there is no doubt that the impact has been tremendous. In 1993 Peter Yu summed up the situation: “Mabo … presents Australia with an opportunity to heal itself of the … trauma of its violent birth and development which, in all sorts of ways, has continued to tear at the nation’s soul. More importantly, the Mabo judgement gives Aboriginal people the legal power to …. achieve political and economic autonomy … Mabo is much more than an issue of land ownership and management. It is also about human rights.” (10)