Australia Day: Patrick Wolfe on the Racialisation of Indigenous People in Australia


On the 26th January every year, people from all over Australia celebrate the founding of the British colony there. But what about the indigenous people who came before the British?

In this unsettling extract from Patrick Wolfe's new book Traces of History: Elementary Structures of Racism, Wolfe focuses his attention on the process of racialisation of the indigenous people of Australia. This racialisation was a product of Britain's insatiable lust for land which would be used to cultivate the raw materials needed for the booming Industrial Revolution. In this way, settler colonialism was intrinsic to modernity. Yet, as Wolfe notes, "for Indigenous people, the concept of settler democracy can only be an oxymoron. Their attrition at the hands of that democracy reflects the core feature of settler colonialism, which is first and foremost a project of replacement. Settlers come to stay. In relation to Natives, as I have argued, settler colonialism is governed by a logic of elimination."

Settling Australia

How, then, did all this come to pass in Australia? It can hardly be said that, when the eleven ships of the First Fleet landed in January 1788, the scene was set for the replacement of the owners of a whole continent. While this outcome did indeed substantially eventuate, it had a historicity – it was brought about rather than foreordained. It took the discovery and development of a key export commodity, Australian merino wool, to provide the impetus for the frontier expansion and accompanying large- scale immigration that culminated in the settler takeover of the continent. This is not to suggest that measures to defray the cost of convict settlement were not considered. Prior to the merino revolution, for instance, along with the export staples of whaling and sealing, sheep provided a minor source of export revenue as meat.23 Moreover, as Geoffrey Blainey recounted (albeit challenged by Alan Frost), plans for flax production, principally on Norfolk Island, were encouraged by the speculations of Captain Cook and the ambitions of Governor King (the scheme resulting in the production of two square yards of rough linen that were ‘perhaps among the costliest textiles ever woven by man’).24 The straight Norfolk Island pines were also seen as a potential replacement for the towering New England white pine which, up to the loss of the North American colonies, had provided the British navy with its masts.25

Nonetheless, while none of this came to anything – and with the defeated Tory loyalists in North America preferring the prospect of Canada to the new Pacific outpost26 – convict shipment still persisted. Moreover, mindful of the hazards of settler expansionism in the wake of the North American setback, the British imposed stricter bounds (‘limits of location’) for land claims in New South Wales. Such limits are vulnerable to the official blind eye. As James Boyce has revealingly shown, the settler takeover of Australia was not legislated. Rather, its primary dynamic arose permissively, in the absence of official regulation.27 This highly productive absence should caution us against viewing settler colonialism as a narrowly governmental project. Rather, as we shall see throughout this book, settler invasion typically combines a shifting balance of official and unofficial strategies, initially to seize Native territory and subsequently to consolidate its expropriation.

Rather than something separate from or running counter to the colonial state, the irregular activities of the frontier rabble constitute its principal means of expansion. These have occurred behind the screen of the frontier, in the wake of which, once the dust has settled, the exceptional acts that took place have been regularised and the boundaries of White settlement extended. Characteristically, officials express regret at the lawlessness of the dispossession while resigning themselves to its inevitability. In recent Australian jurisprudence, Justice Howard Olney invoked this inevitability as the ‘tide of history’, which provided the pretext for his notorious judgement in the Yorta Yorta case.28

The tide of history canonises the fait accompli, harnessing the diplomatic niceties of discovery to the maverick rapine of the squatters’ posse within a cohesive project that implicates individual and nation-state, official and unofficial alike. In occupied Palestine today, Amana, the settler advance-guard of the fundamentalist Gush Emunim movement, hastens apace with the construction of its ‘facts on the ground’. In this regard, the settlers are maintaining a tried and tested official strategy; indeed, Israel’s 1949 campaign to seize the Negev before the impending armistice was codenamed uvda, Hebrew for ‘fact’.29 Settler colonialism, in short, is an inclusive, land-centred project that coordinates a comprehensive range of agencies, from the metropolitan centre to the frontier encampment, with a view to supplanting Indigenous ownership. Its operations are not dependent on the presence or absence of formal state institutions or functionaries.

In the 1820s, some years after soldier turned pastoralist John Macarthur’s experiments with sheep-breeding had produced a particularly fine strain of wool that seemed superior even to that produced in Saxony, the rapid development of Yorkshire wool mills stimulated merino production in Britain’s colonial limpet on the eastern edge of Australia and, further south, in the island colony of Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania).30 In Van Diemen’s Land, though there were few official constraints on the seizure of grassland for pasturage and, as is well- known, Indigenous resistance was exhaustively suppressed, ecological conditions placed a limit on the amount of land available for wool-growing, a situation that encouraged Vandemonian settlers to cast their eyes northwards to the unconquered southern region of the New South Wales mainland, the Port Phillip District that would eventually become the colony (later state) of Victoria.31 At the same time, further north, in the region around Sydney, the pressure for pastoral expansion was intensifying rapidly. Under conditions such as these, a territorial limit that had served to contain a disruptive convict outpost came to serve as an obstacle to the creation of wealth. As British Secretary of State Lord Glenelg observed, somewhat belatedly, in 1836,

The whole surface of the country [New South Wales] exhibits a range of sheep walks which, though not naturally fertile, are yet, when occupied in large masses, of almost unrivalled value for the production of the finest description of wool ... The motives which are urging mankind to break through the [official] restraints are too strong to be encountered with effect by ordinary means. All that remains for the Government in such circumstances is to assume the guidance and direction of the enterprise which, though it cannot prevent or retard, it may yet conduct to happy results.32

Given the boom in wool exports, some ships could sail back and forth between Australia and England – at least, around the wool-gathering season of December to March – with less reliance on the Indian and Pacific ocean trading that many had engaged in once they had dropped off their human cargoes, together with supplies for those already there, earlier in the convict era. In maritime terms, a partial reversal set in. Whereas, in the early days, ships had left Britain with a cargo bound for Australia – which, as the flax disappointment illustrates, had little to send back – the merino revolution lessened the imbalance. As in the case of Brazil, which we shall consider below, a significant factor was human freight.33 Given the merino revolution, the backloading could switch directions, or work both ways, with wave upon wave of settlers disembarking in Australia from ships that would return directly to Britain. The number of free settlers increased, aided by a bounty system that subsidised their passages, while convict transportation was stepped up, with emancipation generating a constant demand for replacements – a departure from slavery that further expanded the settler population.34

To return for a moment to the question of Foucault and modernity, one of the Benthamite reforms that British Home Secretary Robert Peel introduced in concert with his reformed police force was the abolition of the death penalty for over a hundred offences. Instead of being hanged, the offenders were transported, a procedure that enhanced their utility.35 In the event, in the decade of the 1830s, the White population of Australia rose by nearly 150 per cent (from 80,000 to 190,000).36 Ultimately, the supply of convict labour no longer complemented what Brian Fitzpatrick termed ‘the spontaneous colonial movement of expansion’. British policy shifted to a more flexible combination of capital and ‘free’ labour in the persons of tens of thousands of paupers, the necessary labour. Convict transportation to New South Wales was at length abandoned when, and only when, it had become clear that capital export and pauper emigration to Australia would be the most profitable form which English interest could take.37

Here, then, was settler colonialism’s voracious dynamic, poised in a kind of pincer movement to the north and south of the Port Phillip District. In 1835, ‘an illegal squatter camp was established on the banks of the Yarra River’. This was the beginning of Melbourne.38 In the person of John Batman, the Vandemonians had arrived before the pastoral wave from further north, but that would not be long in converging on the lands and livelihoods of the Indigenous people of Victoria, collectively known today as Kooris. Batman, whose Tasmanian experience had hardened him in the ways of Native expropriation, opted for a softer approach on the mainland, conducting treaty negotiations on the Merri Creek, a tributary of the Yarra, proceedings that seem to have been attended by a young boy who would grow up to be called William Barak, whom we shall encounter presently.39

Assuming the principle of pre-emption, a North American legacy that centralised land deals with Native peoples in the colonial government, Governor Bourke in Sydney rapidly repudiated Batman’s Treaty, and colonists set about removing Native people from their rich Victorian grasslands with unparalleled speed and ruthlessness – in Richard Broome’s estimation, ‘as fast as any expansion in the history of European colonisation’.40 So far as the interplay of official and unofficial strategies is concerned, it is apparent from Batman’s overruled treaty that settlers could seize Aboriginal people’s land without their consent but not with it. In Boyce’s words:

When Bourke belatedly heard that the squatters had committed their most brazen act of trespass yet – the colonisation of Port Phillip – the Governor viewed this as a strategic opportunity to break the impasse with London and let loose the benign spirit of private enterprise upon the vast wastelands of the continent.41

The all-engulfing ferocity of the Victorian land grab became even more destructive in 1851, when the discovery of gold caused large areas of the countryside to swarm with people whose only motivation for being there was greed. By the end of the 1850s, Indigenous people in Victoria had suffered a demographic collapse. According to the official figures of the colonial government’s ‘Board for the Protection of the Aborigines’, 2,341 Aboriginal people remained alive in Victoria in 1861. Twenty-five years later, that figure had fallen to 806.42 But the most intense attrition had occurred before 1861, especially in the decade following White colonisation in the mid-1830s. The lower end of estimates for the Aboriginal population as it stood in 1835 suggests a total of around 12,000 people (a figure already substantially reduced by smallpox epidemics).43 Eight hundred and six being roughly 6 per cent of 12,000, it is misleading to talk of the Aboriginal population of Victoria as having been decimated, since the population level fell to well below 10 per cent. This is far and away the largest fact in Victoria’s history, one that dwarfs the campaign for the eight-hour day, the career of Ned Kelly, the holding of the first Australian federal parliaments or the staging of the Melbourne Olympics. The consequences of this foundational fact converged on a scattering of small portions of land that were set aside in the second half of the nineteenth century for the purpose of dealing with the problem of the Aboriginal ‘remnant’.44 Of these sites, Coranderrk Aboriginal Station was the one closest to Melbourne.


Histories should, I believe, be written responsibly. I am writing this history on my verandah overlooking Healesville, in the Yarra Valley. The town is named after Richard Heales, a Congregationalist immigrant from London who made a name for himself in colonial Melbourne as a radical politician, temperance campaigner and founding president of the colonial legislature’s ‘Central Board to Watch Over the Interests of the Aborigines’ (as it was initially called), before dying young in 1864. This year, our town is celebrating the sesquicentenary of its foundation – or, as it is somewhat nervously termed, ‘settlement’ – which took place a short while after Heales’s death. Down below me to my right, where the buildings and paddocks give way to bushland, a patch of dark green marks the eastern end of the Coranderrk woods.

Terrible things were done at Coranderrk. When I go to the super- market or the post office, I see descendants of people to whom these things were done. They generally keep themselves to themselves. They are in our town but not of it. They are of Wurundjeri country, which I am in but not of. The Wurundjeri (Woiworong) are part of a larger group of related peoples collectively called Kulin, whose country takes up the south-central region, including the greater Melbourne area, of the Australian state of Victoria. My house is built on Wurundjeri land, for which they have never received a cent. The least I can do is start this history at home, with what has happened here in Healesville, from which there can be no complete recovery. In any event, like so many Aboriginal histories, the Coranderrk story resonates widely. Australian settler colonialism has been nothing if not consistent. Similar things have been done to Indigenous peoples across the continent. The Coranderrk story tells of violence, theft, confinement, exploitation, banishment and betrayal. It also tells of resistance, steadfastness, adaptation, family and survival. In my view, it tells of the birth of the modern Aboriginal political movement.

Coranderrk’s history was painstakingly reconstructed thirty or so years ago by the late Diane Barwick, her pioneering work being supplemented by Michael Christie and others. More recently, and in other media, it has been illuminated by two creative historical collaborations, that of Giordano Nanni and Andrea James, and that of Rachel Perkins and David Dale.45 Summarising briefly from this body of work, Coranderrk was a rarity among Aboriginal reserves for being located at a site chosen by Aboriginal people themselves. It was their second attempt. They had previously selected a place called Acheron, over the Blacks’ Spur (as it was then called) to the north-east, and had made a successful start to clearing and planting there – too successful as it turned out, as they were soon moved on and their selection allocated to local Whites who had come to covet the land once they saw what could be done with it. The Acheron ‘second dispossession’ is significant because it illustrates the fact that, by this stage (the early 1860s), the region had categorically entered the post- frontier era. Unallocated land was at a premium, with competition for it becoming intense. Indeed, the very establishment of the Aboriginal missions and reserves, essentially a confining provision, was symptomatic of this development.

After a period of uncertainty and another false start, the senior Wurundjeri elder (ngurungaeta), Simon Wonga, indicated to the Scottish lay preacher and Board for the Protection of Aborigines inspector John Green that they would like to set up a community at Coranderrk, where they were camping after the devastating loss of Acheron. In 1863, a year before the founding of Healesville, the community was established, initially without official gazetting, though this subsequently materialised. Wonga knew his man. The system of control that Green and his wife

Mary established at Coranderrk was astonishingly devolved by missionary standards of the time, the couple’s policy being one of sharing govern- ance with the community. In consequence, Aboriginal groups from other parts of Victoria were drawn to join the Coranderrk community, their leaders deferring to Wonga’s authority as ngurungaeta of the country.

In John Green’s capacity as Protection Board inspector, he was able to persuade a number of Aboriginal parents to entrust their children to his and his wife’s care. He tended to recruit children who combined Aboriginal and European ancestry, so a significant proportion of the Coranderrk community, especially of its younger members, had relatively light complexions. In its early years, at least in relation to comparable institutions, Coranderrk succeeded, though it had to deal with con- stant harassment by White neighbours. Further, as the Greens’ relatively humane management practices began to alarm the authoritarian governors of other missions, funding and oversight by the Board became sources of growing contention.

Aborigines were seen as an encumbrance rather than a clientele, and the Board failed to provide funding for basic capital works including housing, irrigation, storage, fencing and transport for produce. Coranderrk did not return an early profit and was held to be a liability to the colonial treasury, a perception that encouraged local Whites in their efforts to have the station sold off and fuelled arguments for residents’ labour to be hired out, to defray the expenses of running the station. These pressures also reverberated within the community. In 1868, Wonga, together with his nephew, the now middle-aged William Barak (who would later succeed him as ngurungaeta) and fellow-resident Jemmy Barker, went to Melbourne to complain to the Board about Green’s financial management. Green had been distributing the scarce funds available to him on a needs basis, which had disadvantaged some of the hardest workers on the station. All the while, surrounding White farmers were agitating for the station to be broken up and put on the market.

In the post-frontier era, then, Coranderrk confronted settler colonial- ism’s twin priorities, the demand for cheap land and cheap labour to work it. Increasingly, these demands found racialised expression, voiced in the complaint that public money should not be wasted on supporting people who were not even proper Aborigines. The ‘half-castes’ should be made to work off the station. By the end of the decade, however, Green and the community were well reconciled and the pressure to single out people of mixed descent was resisted in major legislation that the colonial parliament introduced in 1869. In addition to providing for increased disciplinary control – a measure which, given the Greens’ management policy, did not unduly affect Coranderrk – the 1869 legislation, as we shall see, regulated White pastoralists’ use of Aboriginal labour and enabled Aboriginal people to be compulsorily confined on missions and reserves. Though these provisions were not enforced very rigorously, they had the effect of burdening the Coranderrk community with an increasing proportion of non-productive elderly and infirm members. Moreover, though resisted in the 1869 legislation, the racial dimension – most stridently voiced in parliament by the member for the constituency that included Coranderrk – had entered the public realm of politics.

The convergent pressures of financial uncertainty and the associated increase in Board interference eventually led to a major crisis. Hop growing was introduced at Coranderrk and proved to be an outstanding success, to the extent that the station returned a handsome profit that the Board could use to subsidise the other, church-run missions. Before long, the Board appointed White staff and labourers to produce the crop. White labourers would receive wages while Aboriginal ones would not. This was part of a programme of Board interference and criticism of the management style of John Green, who was eventually driven to resign his post at Coranderrk – a major tactical blunder that let down the Aborigines who had put their trust in his protection at the same time as it provided the Board with a pretext to be rid of its troublesome manager. Almost immediately, regretting his breach of trust, Green withdrew his resignation but the Board pressed its advantage and refused to reinstate him. This was the key moment in the Coranderrk rebellion, which, for all its impossible bravery and fortitude, would trigger measures whose con- sequences for Indigenous people in Victoria would fall squarely within the terms of the Genocide Convention that the General Assembly of the United Nations would approve, with Australian assent, sixty years later.46

In the wake of Green – who, despite bans, remained in the neighbourhood as a friend and advisor to the community – Coranderrk experienced a series of unwelcome replacements. Under Wonga and, after his death in 1875, his successor Barak, the Coranderrk Kooris mounted a sustained campaign of petition and protest, principally directed to the colonial parliament over the heads of the Protection Board. Initially seeking the reinstatement of John Green, the campaign subsequently widened to include a request for the abolition of the Board. Mary Green’s educational efforts bore fruit in the felicity with which some of the younger members of the community, in particular Tom Dunolly and Robert Wandin, drafted letters and petitions to officials, parliamentarians and the radical Chief Secretary (leader of the colonial parliament) Graham Berry, who lent an ear to Barak in particular and provided significant support for the campaign while he remained in office.

The campaigners also secured the tireless support of a wealthy Scottish landowner, Anne Bon, who became a lifelong friend of Barak. Colonial newspapers, in particular the liberal Age and Leader newspapers of the Syme brothers David and George (the latter also being a member of the Board), printed the Coranderrk residents’ letters and petitions and publicised their grievances, in particular their concern over the dis- missal of John Green. Dramatically, Barak and others staged a series of walks into Melbourne to present their case to Berry and other officials, a journey of over forty miles each way (nowadays the round trip takes three hours to drive on tarmac highways). Growing public support was reflected in the appointment in 1881 of a parliamentary enquiry into ‘the present condition and management of the Coranderrk Aboriginal Station’, whose revealing proceedings included the testimonies of Coranderrk residents.47 Though continuous with the armed resistance to colonial invasion that Wonga and Barak had experienced in their youth, this altogether lettered campaign, effectively orchestrated in the idiom of parliamentary agitation and without a spear in sight, constituted an utterly transformed mode of self-defence. The eventual colonial response was a catastrophe for Indigenous people in Victoria: an amendment to the 1869 legislation that was entitled the Aborigines Protection Act of 1886, universally referred to by Victorian Kooris to this day as the ‘Half-Caste Act’.

In relation to the end of the frontier, and to the question of race in relation to land and sovereignty, it is instructive to compare the 1869 and 1886 Victorian acts, which encompass a key shift in the settler drive to eliminate Native territoriality.

The 1869 Act, legislated before sustained protests had arisen at Coranderrk and other missions, was essentially a matter of territorial consolidation. The land in its totality had been won from Aborigines, who were no longer in a position to contest its development. The 1869 Act provided for the regulation of the survivors in ways that would not obstruct settlers’ orderly use of the land. Thus the government was empowered to prescribe ‘the place where any aboriginal or any tribe of aborigines shall reside’ (s. 2. i) and to prescribe the terms of work contracts between Aborigines and Europeans (s. 2. ii). In concert with routine provisions for the ‘care custody and education’ of Aboriginal children and measures to prevent adults from selling their government- issued blankets or moving outside the colony of Victoria (whereby they might evade the provisions of the act), the act provided for the spatial and financial control of Aborigines in a manner that would prevent them from impeding the workings of a predominantly pastoral economy.

Crucially, the arguments urged by the member for the electorate containing Coranderrk having been rejected, this control was undiscriminating, the definition of Aboriginality being couched in terms of community affiliation rather than race. Section 8 of the 1869 Act defined ‘an aboriginal’ as: ‘every aboriginal native of Australia and every aboriginal half-caste or child of a half-caste, such half-caste or child habitually associating and living with aboriginals’. All these people, wherever they were in the colony of Victoria, would be subject to control under the 1869 Act. Such an inclusive categorisation of Aboriginal people reflected the early ascendancy of a humanitarian faction on the Board, who advised the government on legislation relating to Aborigines. This group saw the missions as providing training that would enable Aborigines to survive the colonial onslaught as self-sufficient farming communities. On the basis of the humanitarian faction’s desire for these communities to be viable, the number of labourers was maximised – a goal reflected in a style of racial classification not dissimilar to the one that we shall find associated with the reproduction of Black labour in the United States.48 It was not to last long in colonial Victoria.

Seventeen years later, the main thing to change – for legislative purposes, that is – was the 1869 Act’s definitional section 8, which the 1886 Act primarily held itself out as amending. In two consecutive sentences (section 2 and the first sentence of section 3), the 1886 Act introduced the racial distinction between ‘half-castes’ and Aborigines: ‘Section eight of the [1869] Act is hereby repealed. The term “half-caste” whenever it occurs in this Act shall include as well half-castes as all other persons whatever of mixed Aboriginal blood.’

The amendment was crucial. Its awkward phrasing enabled the removal of all Indigenous people with any European ancestry from the provisions of the earlier 1869 Act, which had provided for Aboriginal people’s admittance, including confinement, to missions and reserves. As such, it was the first occasion anywhere in the Australian colonies on which race constituted the operative criterion for legislation. It would by no means be the last. The most destructive consequence of the distinction drawn between those with and without European ancestry was spelled out in the new section 8 of the 1886 Act, which gave the government power to prescribe:

the conditions on which the Board may license any half-castes to reside and be maintained on the place or places aforesaid where any aboriginal or tribe of aboriginals now or hereafter reside, and for limiting the period of such residence, and for regulating the removal or dismissal of any of such persons from any such place or places.49

With the temporary exception of children and the permanent exception of people aged thirty-five and over, whose days were on average numbered, this provision empowered the Board to break up Aboriginal families and communities on racial criteria that they themselves did not observe in their life together, permanently expelling kin from reserves and missions to which others were confined and condemning children and their families to the prospect of permanent separation when the children reached the age of thirteen. Within the space of two decades, the other main- land colonies and, after 1900, mainland states of Australia followed suit (Tasmania claiming that it had no surviving Aborigines).50

In the interval between the 1869 and 1886 Acts, the humanitarians had lost their dominance of the Board to a squatter clique who had no interest in Aborigines succeeding on land that could be taken over by White people. Rather than confining Aborigines to land committed to their cultivation in the manner of the 1869 Act, the 1886 Act provided for some Aborigines to spread out across the landscape, settler control of which was now taken for granted. The difference was that it no longer called the people concerned ‘aborigines’. Rather, for settler purposes, a substantial proportion of the Aborigines controlled under the terms of the 1869 Act simply ceased to exist. Whatever threat to territorial order these people had posed in 1869 – a threat that had warranted their com- pulsory confinement – they no longer posed it.

Given the intervening disturbances at Coranderrk, along with other missions and reserves at a safer remove from Melbourne, this is surpris- ing. It is all the more surprising in view of the fact that the insurgencies at Coranderrk and other missions were routinely blamed on ‘half-castes’, who were held to be more intelligent than Natives ‘of the full blood’. On the face of it, then, the 1886 Act would seem to have provided for the letting loose on settler society of a group of notorious troublemakers. There is no need to pursue the absurdities. The 1886 Act was not aimed at individuals, whose behavioural characteristics it ignored. Nor was it aimed at territorial control, which it took for granted. It was aimed at Aboriginal collectivity. In the absence of land, we are back to the political dimension, Aboriginal territoriality, which finds expression in the technical language of race.

At a stroke, the 1886 Act sought to eliminate around half of Victoria’s surviving Aboriginal population, a goal that was significantly achieved (by 1927, the Victorian Aboriginal population stood officially at 514, a drop of approximately 35 per cent from 188651). The means to this achievement were routinely forcible, with people being separated from their relatives by Victoria Police and Protection Board functionaries, in many cases to vanish thereafter into the settler mainstream. As observed, terrible things were done. Given these outcomes, it is hard to avoid ques- tions of group psychology. Can it be that the bulk of the Legislative Assembly of Victoria – which, after all, represented the settler population as a whole – were psychopaths? The evidence does not permit such a simple interpretation. Rather, the rationales presented by proponents of the 1886 legislation evince a banality that Hannah Arendt would have recognised.52 Giordano Nanni has pointed out to me that the rare debates on Aboriginal matters in the Legislative Assembly principally revolved around humdrum economic considerations, and were not conspicuously marked by the lurid cant of scientific racism.53

As we shall be reminded throughout this book, colonisers did not set out to create racial doctrine. They set out to create wealth. As Hansard reveals, the principal arguments for the 1886 Act boiled down to the related propositions that Aboriginal reserves were a drain on the public purse, using up money that would be better spent on public works such as the railways, that this problem could be alleviated by removing the ‘half- castes’ so that they could contribute usefully to the Victorian economy, and that the reduced number of Aborigines remaining would need less land allocated to them, allowing portions of their reserves to be sold off (or even whole reserves if they could be amalgamated), the proceeds going to defray the public outlay on their maintenance.54

There is nothing deranged about these rationales, which are paradigm expressions of the settler-colonial logic of elimination. Indeed, there was a certain candour to the forthright acknowledgement of the attractive- ness of the mission land, reflecting the influence on Victorian Aboriginal policy of Protection Board members like the frontier-era squatter Edward Micklethwaite Curr, now in his sixties. Even Barak’s friends and sup- porters Berry and Bon welcomed the passage of the 1886 Act, on the ground that it would stop public money being syphoned away from those for whom it was intended, ‘full-blood’ Aborigines.55 Due process was vouchsafed. Accordingly, while many of these rationales were no doubt cynically expressed, and while it is clearly the case that part of the Protection Board’s motivation for promoting the act was its resentment of the public success of the Coranderrk community’s political campaign, the outcome for Victorian Aborigines cannot be reduced to a calculus of White people’s intentions, which did not need to be consciously hostile. As Michael Christie observes, a feature of the Board’s tactical shrewdness in getting the act passed was its accommodation of public support for the Coranderrk struggle: ‘The public were less sympathetically disposed to the half-caste question – it lacked the dramatic appeal of a dispossessed but united people fighting to stay on a piece of land they considered theirs.’56


23 E. Beever, ‘The Origin of the Wool Industry in New South Wales’, Business Archives and History 5, no. 2 (1965), 100–1.

24 Robert Hughes, The Fatal Shore: A History of the Transportation of Convicts to Australia, 1787–1868 (London: Vintage, 1986), 101, citing Edward Lloyd; Geoffrey Blainey, The Tyranny of Distance: How Distance Shaped Australia’s History (rev. ed., Sydney: Pan Macmillan, 2001), 37.

25 William Cronon, Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England (New York: Hill and Wang, 1983), 109–11.

26 Coupland, American Revolution and the British Empire, 259–65.

27 ‘It was only after the abandonment of the long-established policy of concen- trated settlement that exclusive territorial claims beyond defined borders were made, perfect sovereignty over Aboriginal country was asserted, and the continental land rush began’, James Boyce, 1835: The Founding of Melbourne & the Conquest of Australia (Collingwood: Black Inc., 2011), xi.

28 David Ritter, ‘The Judgement of the World: The Yorta Yorta case and the “tide of history’”, Australian Historical Studies 123 (April 2004), 106–21; Deborah Bird Rose, ‘Reflections on the Use of Historical Evidence in the Yorta Yorta Case’, in Mandy Paul and Geoffrey Gray (eds), Through a Smoky Mirror: History and Native Title (Canberra: Aboriginal Studies Press, n.d. [2002]), 35–48.

29 Ilan Pappe, The Making of the Arab–Israeli Conflict, 1947–1951 (London: I.B. Tauris, 2001), 187.

30 Sylvia Morrissey, ‘The Pastoral Economy, 1821–1850’ in James Griffin (ed.), Essays in Economic History of Australia (Melbourne: Jacaranda, 1970), 58–61.

31 Lloyd Robson, A History of Tasmania, vol. 1, Van Diemen’s Land from the Earliest Times up to 1850 (Melbourne: Oxford UP, 1983), 208; Boyce, 1835, 19.

32 Glenelg quoted in Brian Fitzpatrick, British Imperialism and Australia, 1783– 1833: An Economic History of Australia (Sydney: Sydney UP, 1939), 369.

33 ‘From the owner’s viewpoint, passengers were just another way to fill a ship.’ Frank Broeze, Island Nation: A History of Australians and the Sea (Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1998), 83.

31 Lloyd Robson, A History of Tasmania, vol. 1, Van Diemen’s Land from the Earliest Times up to 1850 (Melbourne: Oxford UP, 1983), 208; Boyce, 1835, 19.

32 Glenelg quoted in Brian Fitzpatrick, British Imperialism and Australia, 1783– 1833: An Economic History of Australia (Sydney: Sydney UP, 1939), 369.

33 ‘From the owner’s viewpoint, passengers were just another way to fill a ship.’ Frank Broeze, Island Nation: A History of Australians and the Sea (Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1998), 83.

40 Richard Broome, Aboriginal Victorians: A History Since 1800 (Crows Nest: Allen & Unwin, 2005), xxiii.

41 Boyce, 1835, 32.

42 Annual reports for the Board for the Protection of Aborigines from 1861 to 1925 are available (open access) on line from the University of Melbourne at lib.

43 For discussion and further sources, see Broome, Aboriginal Victorians, 90–3, 146–7 (table), 194; Diane E. Barwick, ‘Changes in the Aboriginal Population of Victoria, 1863–1966’, in D. J. Mulvaney and J. Golson (eds), Aboriginal Man and Environment in Australia (Canberra: ANU Press, 1971), 288–315; M. F. Christie, Aborigines in Colonial Victoria, 1835–86 (Sydney: Sydney UP, 1979), 206–7.

44 It is hard to put a precise figure on the number of Aboriginal missions, stations and reserves. A figure of eight or ten is not unreasonable. Some (such as Acheron or Yelta) were short-lived and some (such as Ramahyuk and Lake Tyers) were merged, while some scholars (such as Broome, Aboriginal Victorians) do not seem to count Cummeragunja and Maloga as Victorian, presumably on account of their positioning in relation to the Murray River. In my view, while they were not Victorian Aboriginal mis- sions for European administrative purposes, they were Victorian-Aboriginal missions for Koori community purposes. In excluding Cummeragunja, the priority accorded to the Eurocolonial category ‘Victoria’ over Indigenous community reckonings erases one of the vital hubs of Victorian Koori history and identity.

45 The key work is Diane E. Barwick, Rebellion at Coranderrk (Laura E. Barwick and Richard E. Barwick, eds, Canberra: Aboriginal History Monograph 5, 1998 [1985]). See also Diane E. Barwick, ‘Coranderrk and Cumeroogunga: Pioneers and Policy’, in T. Scarlet Epstein and D. H. Penny (eds), Opportunity and Response: Case Studies in Economic Development (London: C. Hurst, 1972), 10–68; Christie, Aborigines in Colonial Victoria, 167–8, 182–99; Bain Attwood, The Making of the Aborigines (Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1989), 90–103. Giordano Nanni and Andrea James, Coranderrk: We Will Show the Country (Canberra: Aboriginal Studies Press, 2013); Rachel Perkins and Darren Dale (prod. and dir.), First Australians, Episode 3: ‘Freedom for Our Lifetime’. On demand at:

The following account of Victorian authorities’ treatment of the Coranderrk commu- nity is principally indebted to these sources, together with conversations over the years with Aunty Joy Murphy Wandin. Giordano Nanni has been a patient and knowledge- able sounding-board for my reading of Coranderrk history.

46 This assent was ratified in Australia’s Genocide Convention Act, 1949.

47 These testimonies have been dramatised verbatim in Nanni and James, Coranderrk: We Will Show the Country.

48  I owe this insight to Giordano Nanni. 

49  Aboriginal Protection Act 1886: An Act to amend an Act intituled ‘An Act to provide for the Protection and Management of the Aboriginal Natives of Victoria’ (PPV, 1886, no. 912).

50 The list significantly includes the Aborigines Protection and Sale of Opium Act (Queensland, 1897), the Aborigines Protection Act (New South Wales, 1909) and the Aborigines Act (Western Australia, 1897).

51 Broome, Aboriginal Victorians, 209.

52 Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (New York: Penguin, 1977 [1963]).

53 The following exchange from the parliamentary debate leading up to the 1886 Act is indicative of the framing of the issue (in this context, the term ‘vote’ refers to a sum of money that parliamentarians vote to allocate to a given end): ‘On the vote of £6,084 to complete the vote (£10,584) for the aborigines, Mr BROWN observed that the vote showed an increase over the vote of last year. Surely, with the aboriginal race dying out, there should be reduction rather than increase.

Mr. BENT thought the Chief Secretary would do well to inform the committee what were their intentions for the Board for the Protection of the Aborigines with respect to half-castes. The last time this vote was under consideration it was promised that there should be more economy. It was stated that there was a large number of half-castes, and that the board would do something to procure their employment on work befitting their position. He would also like to hear some explanation for the item of £9,308 – a very large sum – for contingencies.

Mr. DEAKIN stated that the amount appropriated for salaries was comparatively very small. The bulk of the vote consisted of the £9,308 set down for contingencies, that was to say of money which was to go to the aborigines themselves in some form or other. The question of the expenditure upon the aborigines was an important one ... [notes that the expense was offset by the Coranderrk hops] ... The honourable member for Mandurang (Mr. Brown) very properly described the aborigines as a nearly extinct race, and, therefore the expense attending their maintenance ought to become less and less. There was at the present moment on the table a Bill [for the 1886 Act] under which it was proposed that the state [i.e., the colony] should get rid of the mainte- nance of the half-castes and quarter-castes of the aboriginal population; and the board hoped that that measure becoming law would soon enable them [the Board] to largely decrease their expenses.

(Mr. Zox – ‘Are the half-castes and quarter-castes to merge into the general population?’).

[Mr. Deakin] – ‘That was the intention’. Victorian Parliamentary Debates (Hansard, session 1886, vol. 52, 1810). Alfred Deakin would later become prime minister of Australia.

This is an extract from Patrick Wolfe's Traces of History: The Elementary Structure of Race.