Governing natives

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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