Over twenty years ago I submitted my Honours thesis in Aboriginal Studies, that had the (academically proper but) gangling title of:
A review of the racist ideologies of Social Darwinism and eugenics in colonial Australia in the formative years of Federation, and how these ideologies were applied to purify and secure a White Australia.
When reading it recently I couldn’t help but ponder that there is so much of our colonial history that remains unknown, especially the cruel effects colonialism had on the First Australians.
Australia is, sadly, considered a racist country. But that’s how the country was born. My thesis – which was researched for twelve months – indicated strong evidence of this.
Over the next five days I will be publishing a shortened (and a less academic) version of my thesis, and of course, with a shortened title.
Here we begin:
White Australia and Federation
There has been much debate surrounding Federation over the past year. Recently, Mary Kalantzis in the Barton Lectures (The Australian, 21/2/01) introduced a concept that is indeed timely in the context of this thesis. For her, the timing is also critical (having just passed our centenary of Federation celebrations), asking her readers to face the racist origins of our nationhood. Kalantzis also noted the British position in the colonies’ desire federate. Namely, British colonial rule had made a serious effort to ensure that Aborigines – as British subjects – enjoyed certain rights. Bearing this, subsequent research sought to identify the British position (and its ineffectuality) in the frontier nation. She comments that as we approached Federation in the late 1890s:
Australia was ethnic-British by consciousness now, less than it was Colonial-Imperial and this changed the character of government fundamentally. Whereas an open Empire promoted unrestricted immigration and allowed no explicit discrimination between its subjects, the emerging Australian nation moved towards a white Australia Policy – in deliberate defiance of the edicts from London. Whereas the Empire had established fundamental rights for indigenes, [Federation] removed these (Kalantzis, 1998b).
The desire to remain one people without the admixture of other races was arguably one of the most powerful forces that impelled the colonists towards Federation. The thesis reviews key writers in Aboriginal Studies who have argued that the ethnic distinctiveness of colonial Australia could be ‘purified’ though a unified Australia, and that the Indigenous population was perceived as a threat to this ‘purity’. The discourse of this racist ideology included a set of hypothetical premises about human kinds (eg, the Great Chain of Being and the evolutionary theory of Social Darwinism), and about the differences between them (both mental and physical). In the formative years of Federation the racist ideology of social evolutionary theory was used as justification of a strong ‘white’ state in Australia. Colonists proclaimed that:
… human improvement had occurred in the past through beneficial struggle wherein the fittest alone had survived. Intervention by the state with the natural growth process of the economy, they concluded, could lead only to stagnation and race deterioration (Goodwin, 1964:415).
Emergent scientific thoughts in Social Darwinism and eugenics ultimately sought to purify and secure a White Australia. The Indigenous population, and the hordes of Chinese entering the colony, were a perceived as a threat to this ‘purity’. Unlike the Indigenous Australians, who nature had supposedly chosen for extinction, the Chinese threat came not only from the racial conflicts that inspired the doctrine of Social Darwinism, but from a media inspired regime of propaganda that exposed Chinese social habits as immoral, and more importantly, dangerous to the colonial society.
The research has purposely been directed to a review of the secondary sources. Secondary sources are seen as a valuable source of both data and analyses of theoretical contexts. Whereas the primary data can describe ‘what happened’ and as it happened, the secondary sources can provide some valuable analyses and interpretation of ‘why it happened’. The use of secondary sources is also pertinent as one endeavours to identify the knowledge and ideas that have already been established in the field of research.
Many historians provide works with a representative sample of literature (and opinion), as well as a broad ambit of material from popular journals of the late nineteenth century. In particular, the Sydney Bulletin – one of the most influential journals of the period – is a widely cited journal. It is proclaimed that the adaptation of evolutionary theory to the defence of radicalism was illustrated well from the middle of the 1880s in contributions to the Bulletin.
European racial ideals and preoccupations are indeed well exemplified by editorials, staff and correspondent’s features in a number of other journals as well, both influencing and reflecting public opinion. These publications harangued the public with sensational articles and cartoons warning of the threat to the social and moral well being of – and in particular – an emerging Australian type. These journals, they wrote, being:
Filled with articles of substance and lively debate on provocative issues provided their readers with a wealth of illustrative material which both popularised scientific racist theories and provided plenty of local examples to bear these theories out (Evans et al, 1993:15).
Most writers examined conclude that the ideology of Social Darwinism subsequently caught the imagination of the public and entered the discourse through the popular media, and that the ideology shaped the White Australia Policy. In summary:
- The doctrine of Social Darwinism produced a set of ideas that were very engaging to the colonial society.
- Popular literature of the nineteenth century depicted an image of the Australian Aborigine that reinforced these colonial ideals.
- Australia was determined to maintain what it believed was its racial homogeneity. If the indigenous peoples continued their perceived decline towards extinction (and other migrant races were excluded or expelled), a ‘pure race’ could logically result (Cited in Evans et al, 1997:26).
White Australia, it is inferred, was designed to serve as ‘an ideological function in reinforcing the concept of an all-white nation’. It composed a policy of the most persuasive and effective journal in the country: “to preserve the White Breed pure” (Evans et al, 1993:358). With Federation, an immigration policy gained in salience and the logical sequel to the thinking of the fathers of Federation was the passing of racial exclusion legislation – The Immigration Restriction Act (1901). This Act came to be known as the ‘White Australia Policy’. Literature is examined that contends that this policy confirmed the racist ideology based on white supremacy and was used to deny citizenship to the Aboriginal people.
Evans, Raymond; Saunders, Kay; and Cronin, Kathryn (1993), Race relations in colonial Queensland: a history of exclusion, exploitation and extermination, University of Queensland Press, St Lucia.
Evans, R; Moore, C; Saunders, K; and Jamison, B. (1997), editors 1901 our future’s past; documenting Australia’s federation, Pan Macmillan, Sydney.
Gibb, D. (1973), The making of ‘white Australia’, Victorian Historical Association, West Melbourne.
Goldberg, David (1990), editor Anatomy of racism, University of Minnesota Press, Minnesota.
Goodwin, Craufurd (1964), ‘Evolution theory in Australian social thought’ in the Journal of the history of ideas, Volume 25, pp 393-416, in Knowledge, Ideology and Social Science (Level 1) Readings, University of South Australia, Adelaide.
Hollinsworth, D. (1998), Race and racism in Australia, 2nd edition, Social Science Press, Katoomba, NSW.
Kalantzis, Mary (September, 1998b), ‘Working to our cultural advantage’ in hotTYPE, volume 2, (Online, accessed 8 Aug. 2001). URL:http://www.rmit.edu.au/About/hotTYPEv2/
Markus, A. (1979), Fear and hatred: purifying Australia and California 1850-1901, Hale and Iremonger, Sydney.
McConnochie, K; Hollinsworth, D; and Pettman, J. (1993), Race and racism in Australia, Social Science Press, Australia.
McGrath, Ann (1995), editor Contested ground: Australian Aborigines under the British crown, Allen and Unwin, St Leonards.
Pettman, Jan (1988), ‘Whose country is it anyway?: cultural politics, racism and the construction of being Australian’, Journal of intercultural studies, Volume 9(1), Pages 1-24, in Race Relations in Australia: Theory and History Readings Part 2, University of South Australia, Adelaide.
Continued tomorrow: The Early Thought
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