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Indirect rule and settler colonialism in Australia’s north

In the 1930s, a series of crises transformed relationships between settlers and Aboriginal people in Australia’s Northern Territory. This book examines archives and texts of colonial administration to study the emergence of ideas and practices of indirect rule in this unlikely colonial situation. It demonstrates that the practice of indirect rule was everywhere an effect of Indigenous or ‘native’ people’s insistence on maintaining and reinventing their political formations, their refusal to be completely dominated, and their frustration of colonial aspirations to total control. These conditions of difference and contradiction, of the struggles of people in contact, produced a colonial state that was created both by settlers and by the ‘natives’ they sought to govern.

By the late 1930s, Australian settlers were coming to understand the Northern Territory as a colonial formation requiring a new form of government. Responding to crises of social reproduction, public power, and legitimacy, they rethought the scope of settler colonial government by drawing on both the art of indirect rule and on a representational economy of Indigenous elimination to develop a new political dispensation that sought to incorporate and consume Indigenous production and sovereignties. This book locates Aboriginal history within imperial history, situating the settler colonial politics of Indigeneity in a broader governmental context. Australian settler governmentality, in other words, was not entirely exceptional; in the Northern Territory, as elsewhere, indirect rule emerged as part of an integrated, empire-wide repertoire of the arts of governing and colonising peoples.

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Work and the ends of settler colonialism

The Aboriginal New Deal was designed to govern Aboriginal people differently in different spaces: from reserves to pastoral stations to towns and cities. These were represented as sequential, staging progress that rendered functional the articulation of indirect rule in a settler colonial formation, its iteration as part of a process of elimination, one that would never yet be complete. This chapter examines labour as the mechanism of movement along the long march. It was work that provided the impetus for motion; this was a system of labour exploitation glossed as the production of modernity. This chapter focuses in particular on the distinctive government of work through transforming customs on pastoral stations.

in Governing natives
A white minority in the national community

This chapter turns to Cecil Cook’s administration of Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory. Cook was committed to pursuing a White Australia through Aboriginal assimilation: both biological and social. Through managing Aboriginal sexualities, particularly the marriage and sexual behaviour of Aboriginal women, he sought the biological absorption of Indigeneity into the settler community. And by confining Aboriginal people in urban sites of discipline, he worked towards their individuation which, in the settler imaginary, denoted their departure from ‘native society’. But interwar campaigns for Aboriginal rights increasingly emerged as counter-hegemonic movements. Aboriginal activists called for fundamental reform and improvement of their conditions all over the nation, imagining futures of modernity, dynamism, and sovereignty. White humanitarian movements translated these claims as licensing the implementation of what A. P. Elkin, Chair of Anthropology at the University of Sydney, termed the ‘indirect method’, demanding better government in the north. These social movements were sufficiently forceful and prominent as to call into question the legitimacy of Cook’s government, turning public opinion against his regime and generating a crisis of authority.

in Governing natives
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The tense of citizenship

This final chapter examines the settler colonial futurity of the Aboriginal New Deal, with its end in an Aboriginal citizenship that was to mark, for the Australian state, the erasure of Aboriginality. It focuses on the ways this future was confounded not just by contradictions internal to the practice of Aboriginal administration but also by Aboriginal insistence on the continued practice of sovereignty and jurisdiction over, and in relation to, land. At a time (in 2018) when the constitutional recognition of Indigenous people in Australia has produced a new crisis, these questions of futurity are both pressing and unresolved. This chapter suggests that rather than turning to governmental strategies of containment, a decolonising practice might instead sit uneasily with this lack of resolution, opening up possible futures that cannot yet be imagined.

in Governing natives
Transforming indirect rule

This chapter traces a textual genealogy of indirect rule as an art of government, beginning in the mid-nineteenth-century moment of imperial crisis and tracing its development through the work and writing of Arthur Gordon in Fiji and Frederick Lugard in Nigeria. It describes indirect rule as emerging from a conception of ‘native society’ that characterised a specific political rationality, working to articulate those landholding ‘native societies’ with either settler-owned plantations or British mercantile capital. The chapter emphasises the role of administrators’ writing, particularly that of Lugard, in popularising indirect rule as a mobile art of government which could be abstracted from the specificities of the colonial formation and deemed applicable as a functional and benevolent approach to distinct articulations.

in Governing natives
Conflict and crisis, 1918–45

This chapter examines the contradictions inherent in the pastoralism that was so critical to the Northern Territory. Pastoral production was, in its interwar iteration, heavily dependent on cheap Aboriginal labour. At the same time, it depended for its profitability on a rate of exploitation that eroded the capacity of Aboriginal workers to stay alive. This was a material contradiction in which the relations of production mitigated against the reproduction of labour and, therefore, the reproduction of pastoral production itself. Pastoralism was destroying its condition of possibility, a contradiction registered in the Payne–Fletcher Inquiry, which reported in 1937 on the failing production of the Northern Territory. This crisis demanded a reconsideration of the relationship between settler societies and Aboriginal peoples, a new mode of managing the articulation of communities and of modes of production, a reconfigured colonial social formation in the north. And this revision was effected through a turn to understand the Northern Territory differently, to contextualise it within the British Empire as much as it was situated within a White Australia, and therefore to bring Australia into that transcolonial discussion on native administration and frame its governing practice within that conversation.

in Governing natives
Colonial transformations and a governmental event

The 1930s was a time of crisis in Australia’s Northern Territory. This chapter approaches that crisis first through the problem of jurisdictional ordering faced by patrol officers like Ted Strehlow, who encountered Indigenous laws and sovereignties that were beyond their control. The chapter describes indirect rule as an art of government to which Australian administrators turned to resolve some of these crises, in the interests of a developing northern settler colonialism.

in Governing natives
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Anthropologising Aborigines

This chapter examines Donald Thomson’s Australian discovery of ‘native society’ in Arnhem Land, representing the recognition of Indigenous difference in the north. In 1933, Aboriginal people at Woodah Island in eastern Arnhem Land killed a policeman who was ostensibly in the area to investigate previous killings of Japanese men who had intruded into Yolngu country. Aboriginal legal responses, including violence, disabused settlers of the notion that their governing capacity was possessed of an omnipotent sovereignty. This was an administrative crisis, in which public power lacked the capacity to govern effectively in its own terms. While a range of responses to Yolngu action were considered, including another police party, an ultimately abandoned punitive mission, and a successful missionary peace party, this chapter examines Donald Thomson’s deployment to investigate and report on Yolngu law and custom. His narration of the discovery of ‘native society’ in Australia populated the terrain of northern government in the official mind of Australian settler colonialism. Identifying the anthropological ‘native society’ in the north was the governing correlate of the recognition of the Northern Territory’s colonial difference traced in Chapter 3. It established Aboriginal presence, inciting a turn to indirect rule as the art of governing native society without pushing it to disorder.

in Governing natives
Decolonisation, Globalisation, and International Responsibility

This book is about the impact of decolonisation on British society in the 1960s. It moves away from the traditional focus on cultural, media, and governmental archives to analyse public agency and civic forms of engagement with the declining empire. Through a close examination of middle-class associational life it broadens our understanding of who had a stake in decolonisation while also revealing the optimism and enthusiasm with which members of the British public developed visions for a post-imperial global role. By studying a wide range of associational organisations this book shows that globalisation and decolonisation opened up new opportunities for international engagement for middle-aged members of middle-class society. In the 1960s for many participants in associational life it became a civic duty to engage, understand, and intervene to help the shrinking world in which they lived. This book uncovers how associations and organisations acted on this sense of duty, developing projects that promoted friendship and hospitality as the foundations of world peace, visions for secular and religious forms of humanitarianism that encouraged relationships of both sympathy and solidarity with those in the global South, and plans to increase international understanding through educative activities. This book will be useful to scholars of modern British history, particularly those with interests in empire, internationalism, and civil society. The book is also designed to be accessible to undergraduates studying these areas.

Chapter 5 uses the work of Christian Aid to address the neglect of religious institutions in histories of the domestic impact of decolonisation. It shows how the complex interplay between domestic and international contexts determined the everyday experiences of religious humanitarian action. Christian Aid was shaped by post-war European reconstruction, by changing attitudes towards overseas missionary work, by the increasingly multiracial makeup of the World Council of Churches, by debates about the meaning of Christianity in modern Britain, and by long-standing rhythms of religious associational life. Its work reveals how religious organisations adapted in the face of decolonisation and capitalised on humanitarianism as a way of encouraging greater participation in religious activities. Christian Aid played certain dimensions of their imperial connections to their advantage, while simultaneously distancing themselves from those dimensions that were losing public support.

in British civic society at the end of empire