Transcript

Native Authorities with Ben Silverstein

10 October 2008

ben-silversteinBen Silverstein

You can also listen to the interview [MP3 11 Mb].

Matt:

This is the La Trobe University podcast, I'd be your host Matt Smith and joining me today is PhD student Ben Silverstein from the history program. He's here to talk to us about native authorities and settler governments. Let's give him a big round of applause, how are you doing today, Ben?

Ben:

Yeah, good thanks, Matt.

Matt:

Thanks for joining us today. You've been looking at the influences that early administration policies had on the Aboriginal population.

Ben:

Yeah, what I've looked at primarily is Aboriginal administration in the Northern Territory, what I'm mostly looking at is the period of 1920s, 1930s and 1940s, and the way that that was influenced by what was going on elsewhere in the British empire, particularly in the British African colonies. What I'm looking at specifically at the moment is the 1939 policy for the administration of Aboriginal people in Australia which was called ‘The Aboriginal New Deal' so it speaks of an American influence there, the language of the new deal. But I think it's more useful to locate it, in a sense you could locate the U.S. in the British Empire of the time I guess, I find it more useful to look at it as to how it was influenced by what was going on in British Africa.

Matt:

When you say someone who's Aboriginal you mean someone who is native to a land, not necessarily the Australian one that we're familiar with.

Ben:

Oh, sure. What was going on in the time is that there was a developing standard of ‘this is how one administers aboriginal people' within the British empire and the British who were then ruling colonies around the globe, were ruling indigenous peoples all over the place. It was described as native administration back then.

Matt:

Well how did they administer native people? Can you give us an example of a few things the policies said?

Ben:

Sure. In Africa the main system that was developed was called indirect rule. It was primarily developed in Nigeria, in Northern Nigeria first and then spread with the amalgamation of North and South Nigeria into the one colony or protectorate. It then developed and spread across the territories that were ruled by Britain across the African continent. ‘Indirect Rule' was this scheme by which indigenous people, African people were ruled through by what the British described as indigenous authorities, or native authorities or African authorities. They would say ‘here, we recognise this tribe, we recognise the chief of this tribe', and this chief rules according to this traditional law or custom. In this process all of these things, the chief, the tribe, the law, the custom, were completely reinvented in the colonial experience. Sometimes they reflected what had existed before colonisation, sometimes they didn't at all. But that was how they would govern indigenous people, or African people in most of the African colonies. Not everywhere, but certainly in what would be described as tribal areas, that was how they would govern.

Matt:

So what did it consist of? It kind of sounds like they were left to their own devices as long as they were reporting to the settler government.

Ben:

This was the idea. There would always be what they'd call a District Officer, or a British Resident who would be there theoretically providing minimal advice, [but] in practise being quite interventionist and essentially at times governing through the immediate person of the chief. Theoretically it was this peaceful amalgamation of indigenous authorities and indigenous peoples into the structures of colonial government. So they said they were delegating the functions of local government to Africans.

Matt:

So that sort of thing you said it was applied throughout British colonies so was that sort of thing extended to Australia and maybe to America as well?

Ben:

In different forms it existed all over, in Fiji probably the earliest, …. in [the] 1870s under Governor Gordon. In India you've got the example of the native states, what were called the native states, the princely states where Indian princes, the maharajahs and so on were governing states that were sort of separate from British India, and then Africa, all over Africa. In Australia it had some influence, it hasn't been considered to have any influence by most historians, but what I've looked at is it became such an almost default method of administering what they'd call native peoples, it totally structured the debates around how to govern Aboriginal people in the 1930s at least, particularly in relation to the Northern Territory.

Matt:

What sort of things have you found out, what sort of effects have you found?

Ben:

Well I've looked at tracing back from the 1939 policy which I think is quite heavily [influenced by indirect rule], ‘The 1939 Policy for the Administration of Aboriginal People in the Northern Territory' to use it's full unwieldy title, looking back from that, from the mid 1920s different groups in Australia, humanitarians, mostly white people were suggesting changes to Aboriginal administration. So there was one plan from the Aborigines' Protection League which did involve some Aboriginal people although none from the Northern Territory. The league proposed the plan of establishing an Aboriginal state in Arnhem Land. So it would be a state just like Victoria, like New South Wales.

Matt:

Where's that?

Ben:

In Arnhem Land? In the top end, the northern bit of the Northern Territory, so sort of east north east of Darwin.

Matt:

Right. Well that never happened, clearly.

Ben:

It never got off the ground. It became quite popular, the group was based in Adelaide and they had huge support within Adelaide and they also presented a petition to [Commonwealth] parliament and that gathered a lot of signatures.

Matt:

What kind of plan was it? Was it a plan to benefit the Aboriginals or moreso one to keep them all in one place so we know where they are and can keep an eye on them, or was it something the Aboriginal backed as well that they were in support of?

Ben:

It was a bit of the first two. There was never, in terms of the Aboriginal support there was some Aboriginal support in the south east, in Adelaide, Sydney and Melbourne, and also in rural areas of the South east. They never spoke to or consulted with Aboriginal people living in Arnhem land who would have lived in this state, which is reflective of the colonial politics at the time. It was both a scheme for Aboriginal rights and a sort of repressive scheme. They framed it in terms of rights, as did Lord Lugard in Nigeria who was the great evangelical of indirect rule. They said that this was the best way to govern indigenous people for themselves, this is the best way for them to develop, for Africans or Aboriginal people to develop, this doesn't interfere too much with their mode of living, it protects them from settlers, and in the case of Arnhem Land it certainly would have protected Aboriginal from reprisals and massacres and various things, fairly extreme violence going on at the time. So a scheme such as this would have protected Aboriginal people. At the same time it frames Aboriginal rights in terms of ‘How can the settler colonial state best rule Aboriginal people. It's not a liberationist aim, it's not what the Aboriginal people of the north were arguing for, or indeed many Aboriginal people in the south east. This is time of growth of movements in the south east, in Sydney and Melbourne in particular, particularly in Sydney in fact, of Aboriginal people arguing for self determination, for example, arguing for the abolition of the Aboriginal Protection Board in New South Wales, arguing for an end to child removal policies and for land grants. And the way many white humanitarians interpreted these are in a call for indirect rule, which isn't particularly faithful to what the Aboriginal people were arguing for.

The model state would be governed by… I forget the exact words but they said ‘the tribes now living in that territory', and they would govern it according to their traditional laws and custom. So this state would be ruled by the native authority as it was conceived of in Africa. It was a very similar scheme, they were reading Lugard who was then retired to England but still exercising an influence on colonial policy, they were reading Smuts from South Africa who had been Prime Minister of South Africa and was again to become prime minister of South Africa. He also wrote in similar terms how to best administer African people. They were well read in this, and this is the plan that they came up with.

There were also other groups who looked particularly to Papua which was then an Australian territory, an Australian colony governed by Sir Hubert Murray, an Irish Australian governor, and he also implemented what he described as indirect rule and people would look to his scheme and they would say ‘we should employ this to govern Aboriginal people', again in the Northern Territory. None of the white people in Australia considered this scheme appropriate for the south.

Matt:

So that was a proposal that never went through, was anything ever acted on that had lasting effects at all?

Ben:

Yeah, well the policy in 1939 which was in a sense a culmination of many of these suggestions… it wouldn't be recognisable as indirect rule in Africa, but it was certainly structured by similar concerns in Africa. There were these people who were arguing for Aboriginal rights in these terms. There was also at the time in the Northern Territory the problem of labour, in a sense. Pastoral settlement was quite sparse, there weren't enough white labourers, there was a need for Aboriginal labour and a complete reliance, which was a very different situation to that prevailing in the south and elsewhere in Australia, so there was a need for Aboriginal people to exist and to work which didn't necessarily exist at the time elsewhere. In that context there was this concern of how to make sure that there's enough Aboriginal people. There was the problem of Aboriginal people were being killed at the time. They were also defining what was described as ‘half-castes', so Aboriginal people who had a non-Aboriginal parent or were of lighter skin were defined as ‘half-caste' and therefore defined as non-Aboriginal. So there's these problems of a lack of labour.

Matt:

It seems like they were treating them like a resource!

Ben:

Absolutely. So how did they solve this problem, how did they make sure there was a continuing Aboriginal community? The policy that they settled on in 1939 was to establish in a sense ‘reserves', where they would say ‘here is a coherent Aboriginal community, they will live, they will govern themselves', it is very much structured by the same concerns as indirect rule, and through that they hoped to, I think they said, ‘preserve an Aboriginal race' was the terms they put it in, and this was the way they tried to achieve it.

Matt:

Okay, sounds like they tried to justify slightly shady motives.

Ben:

Oh, absolutely. These Aboriginal people were there, they wanted land, so this was a very minor win for the Aboriginal people of the Northern Territory, but the people who were imposing this system were more interested in labour, they were interested in cheap labour. They were either paid in rations or they were paying very low wages.

Matt:

Ben Silverstein, thankyou for your time today.

Ben:

Thanks very much, Matt.

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