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Nationhood and the ‘Pure’ Race (part 1)

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:

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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  1. Josephus

    A most important topic . I did not know that having left Rhodesia I would then migrate to another colonial racist state , though some progress has been made recently . That said, until the war memorial documents the frontier wars and until Parliament inserts in the Constitution a Treaty as well as a human rights charter there can be no reconciliation. Education must precede any referendum.
    I did with a friend write a submission to the Joint Houses on a Treaty, in 2017 I think it was.
    So more on the history please. The makkarata didn’t dwell on the resistance so some delegates walked out on the grounds that their people were not responsible for the invasion. But most thought tact was essential. Yet nothing.
    Send your abridged texts to the media Michael please. Even to the Australian… which represents which Australians? But sometimes dissent does get an airing even there.

  2. Kate Ahearne

    Thanks for this, Michael. It’s so important for us to consider these things. It’s amazing and sobering to be reminded that we have only been a nation for 120 years. Given the attitudes of the time, it’s no wonder that our society is still riddled with racism. And let’s not forget that it was as recently as 1962 that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders were given the right to vote.

  3. tess lawrence

    Congratulations Michael, thank you for writing this article in the first instance – and for publishing it here. And thank you for giving this aspect of our shared history the prominence from which others shirk. You remind us of how much unfinished business there is in this sorry place.

    Covid has been used as a convenient diversionary shield when it comes to the critical issues of a Treaty and a new Constitution that does not enshrine the lie of terra nullius. But even in relation to Covid and vaccinations, it is bleeding obvious how indigenous Australians are treated as if they are of lesser importance than the wider community.It is repugnant and intolerable. Reading part One I am struck by the fact that this journey is far from over and we still have so far to go. The spurning of the Statement from the Heart by the then Turnbull government was a singular act of treachery on so many levels.

  4. New England Cocky

    What a pertinent topic at this time of political crisis that aims to return Australia to the 19th century values of rampant White Australia colonialism. I look forward to your series with great anticipation.

    I trust you are aware of the very important role played by Isaac Isaacs, the very talented Jewish Beechworth lawyer who attended some of the Australasian Conferences of the 1890s. Isaacs was a rampant eugenicist and advocated strongly to allow all women the vote but to disenfranchise all Aborigines because he considered that they were ”lower than a chimpanzee”.

    There were comments about his very strong advocacy against Aboriginal enfranchisement noted in The Proceedings, that I have seen and seek to re-discover.

    The outcome was as Isaacs proposed, women got the vote, Aborigines were disenfranchised.

    The matter was taken to the High Court of Australia about 1906 where sitting as judge alone, Isaacs CJ enforced the disenfranchisement of Aborigines and established the legislative position for decades of state sponsored genocide in all states of Australia. It took the 1967 Referendum to change the status of Aborigines from ”flora & fauna” to Australian citizens in their own land.

    Naturally corrupt government officers and foreign entrepreneurs took great financial advantage of this government sponsored slavery. Now we have a COALiiton misgovernment that seems to want to return to these policies.

  5. Michael Taylor

    Hi, Josephus. There’s a lot of information out there, and it just needed someone to bring it all together like it was the last piece of a jigsaw puzzle.

    Hi, Kate. I completed the thesis in 2001, shortly before our election that year. With John Howard stirring up racism (against refugees) I saw Australia return to the 1890’s attitudes. And it worked for him. I worked for ATSIC under his government and I couldn’t be more disgusted with this mean-spirited man.

    Hi, Tess. Yes, sorry place indeed. When people consider why we federated, the one that is overlooked is the one that codified our racism. The dead giveaway was the first piece of legislation in our newly formed parliament: The Immigration Restriction Act (1901). We remember it as the White Australia Policy.

  6. Michael Taylor

    Hi, NEC. I didn’t know that. I’ve learned something from you and I thank you for that piece of info.

    Just up the road is the small, beautiful village of Yackandandah (near Beechworth) which proudly boasts as being the birthplace of Isaacs.

    The flora & fauna bit strikes a nerve with me. One of the people I most admire is an Aboriginal lady, Dr MaryAnn Bin-Sallik (who was the first Indigenous Australian to get a PhD at Harvard University). When she was born, like other Aborigines the birth was recorded under stock.

    She told me a funny story 25 years ago about a visit to Broome. MaryAnn never hid the fact that she’d only buy designer jeans (she always dressed smart). Anyway, there she was, this associate professor with a PhD from Harvard walking down the main street of Broome when a car full of white kids drove past and yelled out to her to “Get a job.”

    OMG she laughed when she told me that.

  7. GL


    I think what we are is more of a notion of a nation rather than a nation.

  8. Kate Ahearne


    What a wonderful story about Dr MaryAnn Bin Sallik!


    Nicely put.

  9. Michael Taylor

    Kate, I remember a middle-aged Austrian exchange student ask MaryAnn what it was like to be a primitive.

    Everyone in the uni class held their breath, not only because of the degrading and racist comment, but knowing that MaryAnn could be a very stern lecturer. I’m sure we all felt (and hoped) that MaryAnn would thunder back at her.

    But no. With much poise MaryAnn answered; “I’ve never considered myself a primitive.”

    She was all class.

  10. DrakeN

    Thank you Michael for reminding me of the arrogant attitudes of my forebears, and those voices of ‘racial purity’ which drove the Nazis on to their evil deeds some 4 decades later.
    It concerns me deeply that if such attitudes were to be promoted today there would actually be an upswelling of support from quite a large portion of the community.

  11. leefe


    Far classier than that student. I’d have given the classic three word reply: “You tell me.”

  12. Michael Taylor

    Good one, leefe. 😀

    As I recall she was a poor student. I hope she returned to her beautiful native Austria with the knowledge that Aborigines aren’t savage.

  13. New England Cocky

    @Michael Taylor: I will get off my backside and chase out the exact Proceedings reference details (with the assistance of IT son transferring a CD to computer format). I have read the 1906 (?) HCA transcript of the disenfranchisement case, but again need to chase it out to refer to it accurately.

    Before the Referendum, the great NRL South Sydney Aboriginal full-back Eric Sims was a prodigy who could kick penalty goals from anywhere within half-way. Indeed, he was so proficient that the NRL changed the rules to remove the perceived advantage of penalties being three (3) points down to two (2)points.

    St George was in their hey-day with Graeme Langlands playing full-back. Langlands could tour to England with the NRL but Sims could not be selected because he was NOT an Australian citizen, merely ”flora & fauna”. Many tragics believe that Sims was a better full-back that Langlands.

  14. Dufa Wira

    Thanks Michael, some interesting threads to unpick here. I was aware of the impact that the initial loosening of Imperial control from the 1850’s onward had had on the broadscale dispossession of Aboriginal Land (e.g. Robertson Land Acts in NSW and the “torrens title” system in SA). Thank you for showing me that these same threads were further amplified in the movement for Federation. I look forward to learning more.
    Of course, Australia is still a venal, vassal state, as the awful AUKUS (or rather, USUKA) clearly demonstrates.

  15. Michael Taylor

    NEC, while Western Australia was still a colony a group of Aborigines joined the WA ‘army’ to fight in the Boer War. I don’t know how many went over to South Africa to fight, or if any were killed, but after the war eleven of them wanted to return home. But there was one big problem.

    In their absence the Australian colonies had federated, the first piece of legislation in the new parliament was the Immigration Restriction Act (1901) and (despite WA being a little late to join this new federation) they were barred entry into Australia under the Act.

    Their land was subsequently seized by the WA government.

    What an absolute chillingly tragic story.

  16. Michael Taylor

    Hi, Dufa. It appears that nothing has changed since the 1850s.

    All the good work from Whitlam and Keating has been shredded since the day Howard took office.

  17. Andrew J. Smith

    Pity we do not see more articles like this in the mainstream i.e. using credible sources to support an argument vs. any old person’s opinion or PR; coincidentally one has been parsing through Galton the founder of eugenics via UCL (along with Malthus, Smith et al. informed by miserable pious Christianity of Luther and Calvin).

    Like comments suggest, strong whiff of the old British eugenics movement in Australia’s policies and actions towards indigenous, but ironically post WWII immigration targeting and fast tracking British was also susceptible to the same influence.

    Have a wide circle of British acquaintances, many who are quite outspoken on their differing views of Australia 🙂 i.e. for some it’s racist, but those who immigrate then complain of too many ‘brown’ people (or gain PR/citizenship then leave and fly under the media radar).

    However, I have to then explain that Australia started scraping the bottom of the barrel regarding the UK post WWII as a preferred source nation for ‘quality’ immigrants, to be replaced by the far more significant pool of well educated immigrants and new citizens from Commonwealth nations in Asia (and to this day needing to state that there is no special privileged pathway for British migrating to Australia, suggested round Brexit; go to the end of the queue).

    The white Australia policy ended with more recognition of indigenous and non Anglo immigrants, embracing our geographic region and ourselves, culturally. This continued till John Howard, and the importation of US white nativist policies to turn the clock back and promote eugenics, Anglo exceptionalism or white Australia through proxy issues and dog whistling that lead to the same i.e. denigration and demonisation of non Anglo/Irish* citizens and immigrants.

    *Ironically, Irish Catholic and Jewish immigration post WWII was opposed by a majority of WASP Australians.

  18. Mark

    Eric Simms played Rugby League for Australia on any number of occasions. In the 1968 Rugby League World Cup, Simms gained the distinction of becoming the fourth Aboriginal to represent Australia in rugby league. He scored 50 points in four games at the 1968 World Cup, a record which still stands today.

    He played in the 1970 World Cup in England two years later and scored 37 points in total.

    Yes Eric Simms was A player (among others) whose particular skills contributed to a change in the rules as they had evolved at a particular time. While Simms was changing the game in Sydney, Barry Spring was doing the same in Brisbane.

    With Spring the “field goal” ace in Brisbane football, and Eric Simms his counterpart at South Sydney, arguments that the value of a field goal should be reduced gathered momentum.

    The Laws of the Game were changed in 1971 to reduce a field goal to one point.

    Spring had NEVER played a game of Rugby League until the age of 26. That’s how much the rules of the game changed to allow/encourage the kicking of field goals – a skill at which Spring (and Simms) excelled.

    So much that might be written. BTW, Simms only replaced Langlands because of a broken wrist.

  19. wam

    A great read, Michael. Sadly white supremacy rules in Australia. The concept of terra nullius and belief that Aborigines are too weak to have throw backs like the ‘shiny black’ black Africans so will die out, are still strong, especially in SA a la. The special racism reserved for our Australian Aborigines begins with a designated lower case, is echoed by booing and fixed by bolt ‘lighter shade of pale’?
    A mate of mine is from a very lucky darwin family. Late in the 19th century the wife of a chinese farmer on cox peninsula went home to china and was caught up in the white immigration for a few years. Whilst she was away the old man shacked up with an Aboriginal woman and had a son. When his wife finally was allowed back in, she adopted the child and registered his birth. This registration saved the family from institutional racism but was no immunity to the social racism.
    It is an ill wind that blows nobody any good and a dynasty of great Aboriginal sportsmen and woman have graced darwin.

  20. John Lord

    Hi Michael. I have a question. If as you say..

    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:

    How come Darwinism itself was rejected by the church and the establishment of the time. Or am I missing something.

  21. leefe

    John Lord:

    Because hypocrites gonna hypocrite.

    There has never been a time when people – and especially those within religious groups – did not cherry-pick data and theories to suit their own preconceptions and prejudices.

  22. Michael Taylor

    Hi, John.

    That’s a bloody good question.

    Darwinism was rejected by the church, but Social Darwinism was accepted by all the colonial institutions, including government. The theme for the Social Darwinists was “survival of the fittest”, which the colonists believe was ordained by God.

    Perhaps the best way to explain it is to use Scott Morrison at a reference point, who tends to believe that the rich were chosen by God to do well, while the poor are left to suffer because they too were chosen by God to be poor.

  23. DrakeN

    Just so, leefe.

    “Don’t do as I do – do as I say!”

  24. Graeme Taylor

    Re: ” the initial loosening of Imperial control from the 1850’s ” as Dufa mentions.

    There was self-government slowly introduced, but no legislation could be made Law until assent from the Representative of the Monarch, are very rarely were the Governors or Governors General ever coming from these lands, that is, the British Crown had final say on what became law.
    I’m not sure much has changed. This is sadly very much still an outpost of the Empire, and set up as such.
    Prior to Her Majesty’s Government introduce a Bill into her Parliament in Canberra, a responsible Minister must forwarn the GG of the new Bill.
    This is called a meeting of the Executive Council, the Oath of which is

    “I, [NAME], being chosen and summoned by the Governor-General of the Commonwealth of Australia to be a member of the Federal Executive Council, do swear that I will, when required, advise the Governor-General (or the person for the time being administering the Government of the Commonwealth of Australia) to the best of my judgment, and consistently with the good government of the Commonwealth of Australia, and that I will not disclose the confidential deliberations of the Council. So help me God!”;query=Id%3A%22chamber%2Fhansardr%2F2005-08-16%2F0165%22

    I deduce that any proposed Bill that is not thought may not be to the liking of Her Madge gets stopped here. The GG would be remiss in duty to let legislation go through, forcing Her Madge to utilise Section 59 of the Constitution, that is, a provision to annul such legislation

  25. wam

    Darwinism interferes with creation and the bible whereas social darwinism is useful to the churches. Thus the christians can accept creation and deny darwin but can use survival of the fittest to justify the ravages of white social, economic and political power. The rich use social darwinism to justify their wealth and some, like twiggy, derive pleasure in being seen as altruistic by helping those from whom he takes.
    leefe amoral society cannot be hypocritical because they have their truth.
    I try to explain to lord, that if he lies, he is culpable because he is moral and knows. But if the rabbott, and bible people(jews, xstians, muslims and spin off cults), lie they are not culpable because they are amoral and opus dei styles free them from responsibility for any actions and subsequent collateral damage up to and including death.
    shit graeme I thought 59 was gone??

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