The Early Thought
Many historians argue that the celebrations of our centenary of Federation masked several truths about why the colonies chose to federate. Among a variety of reasons, these historians declare that one of the prime motives behind federation was the emerging sense of nationhood. Or rather, that the need to maintain and consolidate a sense of ethnic identity was possibly more of a factor. This thesis explores the level of significance accorded to ethnic identity in Federation.
The Australian colonies were always unequivocally a part of the British Empire, but it is well documented that they did not share the Imperial Government’s views about ‘race’. The position of Aborigines is herein important. Whereas Aborigines were considered to be subjects of the British Empire, and as such free to claim the same privileges that this citizenship availed, to the colonial Australians the Aborigines were a doomed people who were to hold no place in a landscape of an emerging Australia.
The then British Governments had made a serious effort to ensure that Aborigines – as British subjects – enjoyed certain rights. Conversely, this imperial framework of rights was discarded in the era of Federation. This thesis considers arguments that identify the competing ‘racial’ discourse between the British Government and the colonists related ‘racist’ ideology, and that the ideology held by the colonies become dominant within Australian political and intellectual life.
Whilst the British endeavours are indeed pertinent, this thesis does not give this issue much coverage. Preferably, this paper considers the ideological issues – both popular and perceived – held by the colonial Australians. Subsequently, it is recognised that Federation offered the opportunity to categorically doom Aboriginal people.
Many historians have demonstrated that the popular media of the day endeavoured to exhibit that the Chinese were a threat comparable to that the Indigenous people posed to the heredity succession of the emerging Australian type. ‘White Australia’ as a national ideal reflected public consciousness and echoed the sentiments of the popular press. This thesis only briefly comments on this position. Nonetheless, the attempts to prevent or restrict non-European immigration to Australia can be seen as a parallel process to the construction of the various colonies’ racially motivated political and social systems that were applied to Aborigines in the latter half of the 19th century. It was argued that both movements sought to secure a White Australia, and this thesis examines this argument.
As indicated (in Part 1), one of the moves behind federation was the emerging sense of nationhood, or rather; the need to maintain and consolidate a sense of ethnic identity was conceivably more of a factor. As it were, towards the end of the 19th century racism and nationalism had become almost synonymous, and the fundamental reason for the adoption of the subsequent White Australia policy, tellingly, was the preservation of a British-Australian nationality.
Notions of ‘race’ and the mythology of white supremacy had helped shape early constructions of nationhood. “Central to the move towards Federation of 1901 was a class accord around race and nation” (Mary Kalantzis, 1998b:2). Kalantzis does not doubt that the ideologies held in colonial Australia were based upon an indulgence of racial superiority. The ebullient, nationalistic rhetoric of the 1890s and the period of Federation clearly established national unity on the basis of race, defined as essentially white and British. To define their unity as a nation, Australians had to define themselves against others of lesser races. The Australian of 1901 was reportedly a racist construction.
Identification as British and as a part of the British Empire was obviously a convenient basis upon which to define the identity of Australians at the time of Federation. The colonists, being principally British Australians, wanted it kept that way (Markus, 1979:xiii). Federation was the vehicle. Subsequently, “… 1901 was a moment of nationalism, and with that came racism, isolationism, and the exclusion of Aboriginal peoples” (Mary Kalantzis, 1998b:2).
‘Race’ and nation – and racism and nationalism – were theorised in their modern forms, significantly, around the period leading up to Australia’s Federation. Racism was interpreted – which fits the construct of this thesis – as the doctrine that the world’s population is divisible into categories based on physical differences which can be transmitted genetically. Invariably, this leads to the conception that the categories are ordered hierarchically so that some elements of the world’s population are superior to others. David Goldberg (1990:295) fittingly identified that: “The link between racism and race is generally considered to be discrimination against others in virtue of their putatively different racial membership.” Such an ideology justified the Australian colonial situation.
It is also pertinent that the emergence of racism was prevalent in the age of European expansion. As the indigenous peoples of other continents were encountered, Europeans categorised them into racial groups and sought to explain the diversity of relative social or industrious achievements of humankind. In its most strident form, Australian racism argued that Aborigines (and other non-Europeans) were genetically inferior; less advanced, and would only debase the British-Australian population.
The publication of Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species in 1859 had a further profound impact on European thought. Darwin suggested that all species were not permanently fixed: they were under-going change by natural selection. Darwin argued that if a species did not adapt successfully it was doomed to extinction. Only the favoured survived and prospered in the struggle for life. Herbert Spencer’s theory of evolution in the social sciences – Social Darwinism – indoctrinated that the principles of biological evolution should also be applied to human society. Spencer, a laissez-faire liberal argued that societies evolve from simple to more complex forms based on Darwin’s concept of natural selection – survival of the fittest and suggested that the nineteenth century perceptions of Aboriginal intellect and active powers was ‘remarkably consistent’ with this theory and provided powerful rationalisation for European supremacy.
The ideology of Social Darwinism subsequently caught the imagination of the public and entered the discourse (in particularly through the popular media) of the latter half of the nineteenth century. Intellectual fashions in Social Darwinism and eugenics, it was argued, sought to purify and secure a white Australia. The Indigenous population was perceived as a threat to this ‘purity’ and thus considered dangerous to the colonial society and an emerging Australian identity. The Indigenous Australians, who nature had supposedly chosen for extinction, inspired the doctrine of Social Darwinism.
Contemporary scientific techniques were also adopted to classify the physical characteristics of the Indigenous Australians: skull shape, bodily proportions, and other variables. Not surprisingly, researchers who were convinced of the superiority of the European type found data to authenticate their assumptions.
It is important that in Australia, as in other colonial contexts, Europeans imagined the indigenes as the Other, those fashioned or constructed which is outside and opposite, and a collective identity was forged through a discourse that set them apart from Europeans. White (1981:64) suggests that the idea that it was possible to isolate national types was one of the most important mainstays supporting the colonial ideas about national character that developed in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Similarly, Pettman (1988:3) argues that:
Aborigines were constructed as ‘the Other’ in ideologies of race and nation … they were not only placed outside of the nation, but also outside humanity, by virtue of their supposed primitiveness, and the inevitability of their demise … in accordance with Social Darwinism.
It is pertinent that European institutionalisation of scientific research and methods took place at a time when rapid and aggressive imperial expansion necessitated a devaluation of Indigenous cultures. Not surprising, much European knowledge of Indigenous people was hence dependent on representations that construct the Aborigines or the ‘first natives’ in their absence. Attwood and Arnold (1992) pursued the idea of discourses, drawing on Said’s Orientalism as the basis of discussion. Said’s study examined the way in which Europeans constructed a range of essential ‘truths’ or stereotypes about the East (Orientalism); Attwood and Arnold applied a similar analysis to Western constructions of knowledge about Aborigines (Aboriginalism). They defined a number of different Aboriginalisms and also proposed to subject Aboriginalism to a Foucaldian discourse analysis so that the value of the knowledge it produces can be critically assessed and the relationships of power in which this is embedded can be revealed. In introducing their book Power, Knowledge and Aborigines Attwood and Arnold write that their book was indeed:
… concerned with European Australians and our ways of knowing the Aborigines. In particular it considers both Aboriginalism as a mode of discourse which, like Edward Said’s ‘Orientalism’, produces authoritative and essentialist ‘truths’ about indigenes, and which is characterised by a mutually supporting relationship between power and knowledge (Attwood and Arnold, 1992:i).
They suggested that knowledge is acquired for a purpose, contingent, and constructed by relationships of power and that we need to consider who has produced this knowledge, when and where, for what purpose, in whose interests, how and in what form. This is pertinent when looking at the reasons behind Australia’s Federation. As a parallel, in his study of how Europe constructed an archetypical image of the Orient, Edward Said argued that, far from reflecting what the countries of the Near East were like, ‘Orientalism’ was the discourse by which Europeans were was able produce the Orient sociologically, ideologically, scientifically and imaginatively. Within the framework of western hegemony over the Orient, Hall argued that there emerged a new object of knowledge, a:
… complex Orient suitable for study in the academy, for display in the museum, for reconstruction in the colonial office, for theoretical illustration in anthropological, biological, linguistic, racial and historical theses about mankind (Hall, 1997:259).
This form of power is closely connected with knowledge, or with the practices of what Foucault called ‘power/knowledge’. For Foucault power is productive of knowledge. Power forms knowledge and produces discourse. Edward Said’s discussion of Orientalism closely parallels Foucault’s power/knowledge argument: a discourse produces, through different practices of representation a form of racialised knowledge of the Other deeply implicated in the operations of power. Identifying the power/knowledge relationship to Said’s argument, Stuart Hall summarises that power:
… produces new discourse, new kinds of knowledge (ie Orientalism), new objects of knowledge (the Orient), it shapes new practices (colonisation) and institutions (colonial government). Power is to be found everywhere. Power circulates (Hall, 1997:261).
Even before colonisation, the construct of the Aborigine – the Other – was seen as positioned in the landscape as a savage: a subsequent depiction that evolved in the minds of European imagination. The English, especially, considered themselves well credentialed. As the first Englishman to encounter Aborigines, William Dampier instilled in other Englishmen’s minds the preconceptions about these people when he wrote that they were “the miserablest [sic] people in the world” (Donaldson and Donaldson, 1985:37). And the image of the Aborigine was to leave no impression of excitement or significance on Cook, a later visitor, merely accepting the Aborigines as Dampier had earlier reported. Cook had also brought with him images of indigenous peoples as ‘noble savages’, largely the antithesis of Europeans. Cook was probably influenced by the writings of Rousseau, whose saw ‘native’ peoples as unadulterated by the evils of civilisation. These idealistic views were modified after 1788. However, these early explorers saw no, and reported no:
… positive attributes among the Aboriginal people and believed in their own superiority. The land was declared terra nullius … and the various Aboriginal nations declared uncivilised. (Bourke et al, 1994:4)
Historians suggest that such reports simply confirmed prejudices based on doctrines of evolutionary and intellectual difference. These reports were to lend support to the European scientific discourse of the Great Chain of Being, which arranged all living things in a hierarchy, beginning with the simplest creatures, ascending through the primates and to humans. It was also practice to distinguish between different types of humans. Through the hierarchical chain the various human types could be ranked in order of intellect and active powers. The Europeans – being ‘intelligent and God-fearing’ – were invariably placed on the top, whilst the Aborigines – as perceived savages – occupied the lowest scale of humanity, slightly above the position held by the ape. Such ideas were carried to and widely circulated in the Australian colonies and helped shape attitudes towards the Aborigines. So dominant was the concept that it helped … “develop pre-conceived attitudes towards – and arguably the fate of – the Aborigines even before the colonisation” (Henry Reynolds, 1987:108). Reynolds argues that the image of the Aborigine simply confirmed prejudices based on doctrines of evolutionary difference and intellectual inferiority. These prejudices, he endeavours to suggest, were based on a construction of Aborigines where the Europeans were more credited with knowing more about the Aborigines than the Aborigines knew about themselves.
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Continued tomorrow: Ideology and the Indigenous Australians
Link to Part 1
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