The Palgrave Encyclopedia of Imperialism and Anti-Imperialism

Living Edition
| Editors: Immanuel Ness, Zak Cope

Australia’s Colonisation and Racial Policies

  • Gillian HewitsonEmail author
Living reference work entry



From the earliest contact, Britain’s view of Australia was underpinned by economic motives: extension of the Empire through possession, possibilities of trade and investment, as well as the protection of property, reduction of overcrowding in jails, and the relief of poverty at home. But more insidious than these explicit economic motivations was the way in which economic progress was understood in relation to different races or human types. The known peoples of the world were ranked within a hierarchy of civilisation, with the British race and its advanced industrial economy at the apex and the Aborigines said to lack precisely those attributes and capacities which explained Britain’s economic success. From this perspective, they were always a problem to be managed in one way or another by government authorities. From an indigenous perspective, Australia remains a colonising power, and Aboriginal people remain, on the whole, dispossessed. This chapter charts the history of that dispossession, but highlights the ways in which, despite this sorry story, the history of Australia’s colonisation has also been one of Aboriginal resistance and tactical use of the colonisers, their laws, culture, and institutions; and one of humanitarian feeling and support for Aborigines, even if some of that support was offered from within a Western frame of reference.

Introduction: the Colonisation of the Australian Aborigines

The violent transition to the capitalist system over the centuries preceding 1778, the date of the first British convict ship to arrive on Australian shores, produced new criminalities to protect property and create the dependence on monetary exchange required for the widespread creation of a wage labour force. Extreme poverty amongst those dispossessed by the enclosures of land maintained a steady rate of crime and hence a steady flow of criminals sentenced to transportation. Given the loss of the North American colonies in 1776, and a disastrous attempt to set up convict settlements in West Africa, the British government sought new possibilities of colonization for both the transportation of criminals and for the emigration of its impoverished working classes. Captain James Cook’s ‘discovery’ of Australia’s eastern coast in 1770 provided the opportunity to set up penal/settler colonies in New South Wales and Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania), followed by Western Australia and Port Philip Bay (Victoria). South Australia became a colony in 1834, and in 1863 the area of the Northern Territory was included within its boundary, to be ceded to the federal government in 1911. Queensland was declared a British colony in 1859. Granted self-government from the 1850s, the several distinct areas of settlement remained colonies of the British Crown until they united as states of the Commonwealth of Australia in 1901.

Cook had been issued secret instructions by the Lord Commissioners of the Admiralty to search for the continent that was thought to exist to the west of New Zealand. Such a discovery, the instructions suggested, ‘may tend greatly to the advancement of the Trade and Navigation’ of the British Crown (Lord Commissioners 1768). Upon discovery of the continent, Cook was, with the consent of the natives, to ‘take Possession of Convenient Situations in the Country in the Name of the King of Great Britain’, unless the land was uninhabited, in which case Cook was to ‘take Possession for his Majesty … as first discoverers and possessors’ (ibid,). Cook observed indigenous natives, the Aborigines, but believed them too few in number and too primitive in development to be able to lay claim to ownership of the land, and hence he did so for the British Crown. Thus, from the earliest contact, Britain’s view of Australia was underpinned by economic motives: extension of the Empire through possession, possibilities of trade and investment, as well as the protection of property, reduction of overcrowding in jails, and the relief of poverty at home. But more insidious than these explicit economic motivations was the way in which economic progress was understood in relation to different races or human types. Civilisation itself was an economic achievement consisting of a division of labour within production and within the family, property, and individual property ownership, and a political system which managed the protection of property and freedom of exchange (see e.g. the writings of Australia’s first chair of Political Economy Edward Hearn 1863, 1883). The known peoples of the world were ranked within a hierarchy of civilisation, with the British race and its advanced industrial economy at the apex. Early descriptions of the Australian Aborigines focused on their simple and primitive lives, including their tribal and communal existence, nomadic tendencies, lack of cultivation or herding, and the absence of mechanisms of governance. The Aborigines lacked, therefore, precisely those attributes and capacities which explained Britain’s economic success. From this perspective, they were always a problem to be managed in one way or another by government authorities.

Thus, while broadly similar (see McGrath 1995), the colonies’, and later the states’, administration of the Aborigines reflected a host of ninetheeth and twentieth-century discourses around civilisation, racial difference, and economic progress, all of which were underpinned by Western understandings of the civilised economic subject. Although in recent decades Aborigines have won some land rights and some semblance of self-governance, there remains within policy a strong element of this colonial problematic of the fit between Aboriginal people and the Western economic subject, evidenced most obviously in the management of the economic lives of the Aborigines of the Northern Territory under the so-called Intervention of 2007 and the Stronger Futures legislation of 2012 (see Harris 2012; Vivian 2010). From an indigenous perspective, Australia remains a colonising power, and Aboriginal people remain, on the whole, dispossessed (see, Cooke et al. 2007). This chapter charts the history of that dispossession, but it should be noted that despite this sorry story, the history of Australia’s colonisation has also been one of Aboriginal resistance and tactical use of the colonisers, their laws, culture, and institutions; and one of humanitarian feeling and support for Aborigines, even if some of that support was offered from within a Western frame of reference.

Governance of the Indigenous: Dispossession

The Aborigines’ failure to develop the land in ways consistent with Western ideas of economic progress provided the British government with an economic justification for its assertion of ownership over Australian territory. Despite this dispossession, however, from white settlement until the colonies were granted self-government from the 1850s, interactions between the settlers and Aborigines were, according to British policy, to be guided by respect and fairness. Governors of the colonies were instructed:

To endeavour by every means in his power to open an intercourse with the natives, and conciliate their good-will, requiring all to live in amity and kindness with them; and if any of our subjects should wantonly destroy them or give them any unnecessary interruption in the exercise of their several occupations, it is our will and pleasure that you do cause such offenders to be brought to punishment, according to the degree of the offence. (Colonial Office quoted in Reece 1974, p. 104)

In reality, the British government had little interest in the Aboriginal people until after the Reform Bill of 1832, which brought to office men of humanitarian sympathies (Foxcroft 1941, p. 22). And because all land had been decreed the property of the British Crown, Aborigines had no formal rights to remain within their traditional areas in the face of the expanding settlement as freed convicts were joined by British immigrants in demanding land grants. Frontier violence was rife, practised by both settlers and Aborigines (see Reynolds 1987). Such was the neglect of the orders of the Colonial Office that when the 1838 massacre of 28 Aborigines at Myall Creek led to the hanging of seven white men, following an initial trial in which they were found not guilty, the public was outraged (see Reece 1974, Chap. 4). Settlers felt entitled to protect their property since the government refused to do so:

The lives of these men – the lives of all who have been slain in contests between the blacks and the whites, might not have been sacrificed, but for the successive Governments of this Colony, who have hitherto refused protection to the settlers, by means of an effective armed force; and by this refusal given rise, in all probability, to a war of extermination (Sydney Morning Herald 1838).

Thereafter ‘it became almost impossible to prosecute whites for the murder of Aborigines’ (Reece 1974, p. 191).

The first decades of Australia’s colonisation saw the dispossession of the Aborigines around the coastal settlements as wool became the source of wealth both in Australia and Britain. The ability of the colonial governments to sell or lease land to graziers maintained the colonies’ financial independence of the mother country, and cheap land lowered the cost of resources to Britain’s expanding industries. Thus, despite official policy, both the colonial and British governments were committed to developing the pastoral industry, and encouraged, by omission or commission, the extension of the frontier further and further inland (Christie 1979; Dunn 1984). Cattle replaced sheep as the frontier extended into northern and inland regions, and frontier violence persisted well into the twentieth century (see Reynolds 1987).

The early decades of Australia’s colonisation were also, however, characterised by efforts to civilise the Aborigines. Most reports of these experiments were negative, leading the constitutional scholar, politician, and founder of the system of primary education in New South Wales William Wentworth to argue that:

The aborigines of this country occupy the lowest place in the gradatory scale of the human species. They have neither houses nor clothing: they are entirely unacquainted with the arts of agriculture; and even the arms, which the several tribes have, to protect themselves from the aggressions of their neighbours, and the hunting and fishing implements, with which they administer to their support, are of the rudest contrivance and workmanship. Thirty years intercourse with Europeans has not effected the slightest change in their habits; and even those, who have most intermixed with the colonists, have never been prevailed upon to practise one of the arts of civilized life (1820, pp. 27–28; see also Woolmington 1988).

Nevertheless, with the tide turning in Britain in favour of the self-government of the colonies, and with the strength of humanitarian feeling toward the natives of the British Empire following the abolition of British slavery (see Aborigines Protection Society 1837), the period in which the dispossession of the Aborigines dominated was followed by one of protection within the context of pastoral labour shortages, a widespread belief that the Aborigines were doomed to a natural extinction, and a commitment within legislation to instil some form of work ethic within, in particular, the younger generations of Aborigines, a policy position which would continue until the 1960s.

Governance of the Indigenous: Becoming Workers

Shortages of labour in settler colonies was a major concern of Edward Wakefield’s system of colonisation. The problem with the British colonies in the New World, he argued, was that land was so plentiful that new settlers could become landholders without the need to become wage workers. A labour force could be ensured only if the price of land was high enough to force newly arrived settlers into the labour market. After saving for some time, workers would buy land from the government, and the government would use these funds to pay the fares of new emigrants. Wakefield’s vision of the successful settler colony was a re-creation of the factors which had led to British economic growth: ‘the greatest division of labour; the greatest production; the utmost excess of production over consumption; the greatest accumulation of wealth – in other words, the utmost prosperity of the colony – the greatest progress of colonisation’ (Wakefield 1829, p. 21).

Wakefield’s policies were adopted to various degrees by the British and Australian authorities, and systematic emigration from the United Kingdom to Australia began in 1831 (see Goodwin 1966, Chap. 3). Consistent with the demands of the emerging economies, most likely to receive free passage were agricultural workers and their families, and single women in domestic service (see Haines 1994). Aboriginal labour was also a solution to the shortages of workers, as well as the expense of white workers, particularly in the expanding pastoral lands throughout the continent. Although frontier violence remained significant in these areas, Aborigines began to be seen more as potential workers, albeit a reserve army of labour to whom no long-term commitments needed to be made, than threats to property. Several factors bolstered this view. In eastern Australia the supply of labour fell from the 1830s as the assignment of convicts to remote settlers waned and finally ended with the 1840 ban on transportation to Australia’s eastern coast. From the early 1850s, agricultural and pastoral workers were lost to the newly discovered goldfields. And Aborigines were superb bushmen, highly valued for their tracking skills, and Aboriginal women could be trained as domestics. They were willing to settle on the station as a means of maintaining connection to their ancestral lands, and were extremely cheap compared to white labour, frequently working merely for scant rations for themselves and their tribe until equal wages were legislated in the 1960s. By the early 1870s the employment of Aboriginal labour was widespread in the northern pastoral industry and by 1892 Aborigines made up the majority of station workers in the Northern Territory (May 1983, Chap. 3; Reid 1990, p. 174).

In coastal regions, government reserves joined missionaries in trying to instill a sedentary lifestyle in order to civilise and Christianise the Aborigines. Rations kept Aborigines tied to these areas – it was not until formal ‘Aboriginal Protection’ legislation was introduced that many Aborigines were required to maintain residence on these properties. From 1850, the government of Victoria, for example, began to ‘vigorously’ form stations and missions ‘and every attempt was made to civilise the tribal derelicts and half castes’ (Foxcroft 1941, p. 101). A new attitude around rations had emerged: ‘Food and clothing was not to be issued gratuitously except in case of extreme emergency’ (102). As The Empire declared in 1854, ‘The sacred law – “If any man will not work, neither should he eat” – is at the very foundation of political economy’ (quoted in Goodwin 1966, p. 356). Children were also to be instilled with the work ethic. Although there were a variety of views on the efficacy of the formal education of Aboriginal children, rations were used to encourage school attendance (see Fletcher 1989; Christie 1979, p. 125).

While Aboriginal children (who by this time were frequently partially white) were being schooled, ‘full-blood’ Aborigines were increasingly thought of as destined for extinction. A mid-century reformulation of the notion of race cast Australian Aborigines as biologically incapable of modernisation (Anderson and Perrin 2008; McGregor 1997). This belief in the natural disappearance of the Aboriginal race persisted, despite evidence to the contrary, and it comforted white Australians to think that this was simply a ‘natural law’ of evolution: ‘reserves have been made and aids to soothe the sufferings of a dying race. … Their disappearance is a natural necessity’ (Collier 1911, pp. 129–130).

Governance of the Indigenous: Consolidation of the White Breadwinning Male

The federation of Australia entrenched an imaginary nation of racial homogeneity. The Constitution excluded Aborigines from Australian population statistics, and the federal Immigration Restriction Act (1901), also known as the White Australia policy, articulated this vision of Australia as a civilised outpost of the Empire by excluding non-white immigrants. The indentured Melanesian workers upon whom the Queensland sugar industry relied were deported (see Moore 1988). As John Watson, the leader of the Australian Labour Party, argued, the new nation ‘reserved the right to say who shall be citizens. We ask that they shall be on a moral and physical level with ourselves, and that they shall be such as we can fraternise with and welcome as brother citizens of what we hope will some day be a great nation’ (Commonwealth of Australia 1901, p. 5177). Clearly, this vision excluded the Aborigines.

In this vision, Australia’s development relied not simply on white people, but on white families. The economically productive family was one in which men worked and women kept house and looked after children (Hewitson 2013). In 1904, the federal government was alarmed at the falling birth-rate of white women, with a Royal Commission finding that the waning birth-rate undermined ‘the value of the family as the basis of national life; … the character of the people; … their social, moral, and economic progress; … their national aims and aspirations; … their capacity to survive in the rivalry of nations’ (1904, p. 53).

A host of related policies centralised the well-being of the white male breadwinner and his family as the basis of Australia’s economic progress. Immigration policy kept out productive Asian workers unused to Australian standards of living: ‘It is not the bad qualities, but the good qualities of these alien races that make them so dangerous to us. It is their inexhaustible energy, their power of applying themselves to new tasks, their endurance and low standard of living that make them such competitors’, argued Alfred Deakin, the Commonwealth’s first Attorney General (Parliamentary Debates 1901). Tariff policy provided protection to those businesses which paid ‘fair and reasonable’ wages (New Protection 1907–8). Wages policy formally defined ‘fair and reasonable’ wages in 1907, when a manufacturer of harvesters applied for tariff protection. The Commonwealth Court of Conciliation and Arbitration found that unskilled white male workers would thereafter receive a wage sufficient to support ‘the normal needs of the average employee, regarded as a human being living in a civilised community’ (Higgins 1907, p. 3). The average employee was a white man supporting a family of five. To encourage population growth, the Maternity Allowance Act of 1912 granted £5 to every new white mother. Assisted immigration targeted families and breadwinner family formation: ‘Men for the land, women for the home, employment guaranteed, good wages, plenty of opportunity’, claimed an Australian Government (1928) poster encouraging British emigration.

Aborigines, on the other hand, were subjected to more and more regulation and supervision under the state Aboriginal Protection Acts (see Rowse 2005a, pp. 244–245). These Acts established that Aboriginal wages, which were in the region of 20% of the white male wages established in the Harvester decision and less for Aboriginal women, would be paid directly to the Aboriginal Protector who would dispense funds as he saw fit. The Acts also controlled where Aborigines lived and whether and where they could travel. In keeping with the biological perspective on race which had become dominant in the second half of the nineteenth century, these Acts formalised systems of child removal which would keep young Aborigines from being incorporated into Aboriginal culture (see Commonwealth of Australia 1997). Another widely held and comfortable assumption on the part of many white Australians was that Aboriginal mothers did not miss their ‘half-caste’ children. As one Aboriginal Protector remarked in 1906:

The half-caste is intellectually above the aborigine, and it is the duty of the State that they be given a chance to lead a better life than their mothers. I would not hesitate for one moment to separate any half-caste from its aboriginal mother, no matter how frantic her momentary grief might be at the time. They soon forget their offspring. (Isdell 1906, quoted in Commonwealth of Australia 1997, Chap. 7)

Aboriginal families, then, were decimated, while white families were encouraged, supported, and centralised within Australia’s vision of its national development.

Governance of the Indigenous: Becoming the Productive Economic Citizen

In 1937, the state Chief Protectors of Aborigines met for the first time to co-ordinate their administration of the Aborigines. A resolution as to the ‘Destiny of the Race’ was passed, wherein:

That this Conference believes that the destiny of the natives of aboriginal origin, but not of the full blood, lies in their ultimate absorption by the people of the Commonwealth, and it therefore recommends that all efforts be directed to that end. (Commonwealth of Australia 1937)

This policy of assimilation was further defined at a subsequent meeting of the states to include all Aborigines:

The policy of assimilation means that in the view of all Australian governments that all aborigines and part-aborigines are expected eventually to attain the same manner of living as other Australians and to live as members of a single Australian community, enjoying the same rights and privileges, accepting the same responsibilities, observing the same customs and influences by the same beliefs, hopes and loyalties as other Australians. (Commonwealth of Australia 1961; see also Rowse 2005b).

In keeping with these intentions, Commonwealth government welfare benefits (such as old-age and widows’ pensions and payments to mothers) were extended to Aborigines over the post-Second World War period, though payments were usually made directly to state governments or managers of reserves and missions rather than to Aborigines themselves. Unlike white women, though, Aboriginal women eligible for government payments were subjected to intense surveillance by State Protectors and by the agents of the Commonwealth welfare system. Aboriginal women were visited by inspectors from Aboriginal welfare boards, and taught, through required attendance at clinics and the viewing of government-produced films, how to act like white Australian housewives. In the film Why Clean?, for example, Aboriginal mothers are shown appropriate standards of hygiene. A House in Town educated Aborigines about suburban nuclear family life (see Moore 1984). State governments introduced ways in which Aborigines could be exempted from the operation of the Aboriginal Protection Acts. This entitled Aborigines to freedom of movement and to white wages. These rewards again came at the cost of adopting the institutions of white Australian culture to the exclusion of Aboriginal culture. The Western Australian Government (1944), for example, required applicants to have lived as a ‘civilised’ person and to have dissolved all relationships with Aborigines except for immediate family members for the two years before application for exemption. Thus, the adoption by Aborigines of Western marriage and nuclear family life, proper motherhood, and breadwinning status were essential components of the policy of assimilation into Western notions of productive economic citizenship, though missionaries and government reserves had long tried to impose this family form on Aborigines as part of their civilising and Christianising project (Attwood 2000; Perkins 1936, p. 196).


Throughout white Australia’s history of interaction with Aborigines there have run themes of exploitation as well as compassion, fear, and ignorance as well as deep caring and appreciation, but these humanitarian impulses, and Aborigines’ own agencies, were dominated by those which have sought the dispossession and disappearance of Aborigines. Aboriginal policy making reflected colonial and twentieth-century Australia’s visions of economic development and nation building, themselves premised in significant ways upon a Western imaginary of the productive economic agent. Although in recent decades Aborigines have won numerous battles for land rights and self-governance, many Aborigines, if not most, remain economically marginal and dispossessed. In short, for Aborigines, Australia remains a colonising power.



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Copyright information

© The Author(s), under exclusive licence to Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2020

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Political EconomyUniversity of SydneyCamperdownAustralia