In Conversation: Hannah Robert & Anna Clark discussing Paved with Good Intentions

final_coverFor the launch of  Paved with Good Intentions in October, we had planned an ‘In Conversation’ session between the author and launch-ee Hannah Robert and the illustrious launch-er (and author of no less than six books of her own), Dr Anna Clark.  As it turned out, Hannah was unwell, so we went with a much simpler format.  But here is the full interview as planned.

Anna: Your book starts with a central problem – that these two colonies each started with some form of legal recognition of Aboriginal rights in land, but nonetheless quickly resulted in wholescale dispossession – without treaty and without any effective protection of Aboriginal people or their freedom to stay connected with their country.  Can you talk briefly about those moments?

Hannah: Yes – those moments are very well known within the history of the colonisation of South Australia and Victoria, and have been treated as founding moments, yet often stripped of their significance regarding colonial legal recognition of Aboriginal rights in land.  First, between the 6th and 23rd of June 1836, John Batman, a colonial entrepreneur from Van Diemen’s Land, and his servants (including a number of Aboriginal men from near Parramatta) met with Wurrundjeri elders and claimed that they agreed to a treaty for purchase of two large tracts of land around what is now Melbourne and Geelong in return for a large quantity of blankets, tomahawks, flour and other items, and the promise of an annual tribute.

Meanwhile, in London, a group of colonial entrepreneurs were planning a new colony to the West of Port Phillip based on “Systematic Colonization” principles.  On 19 Feb 1836, after a significant period of negotiation with the South Australia Colonization Commissioners, the Colonial Office issued the Letters Patent for South Australia.  This was the official document that allowed colonisation to occur under the sovereignty of King William IV of England.  What is significant for my purposes about the Letters Patent was that they included these words:

“Provided Always that nothing in these our Letters Patent contained shall affect or be construed to affect the rights of any Aboriginal Natives of the said Province to the actual occupation or enjoyment in their own Persons or in the Persons of their Descendants of any Lands therein now actually occupied or enjoyed by such Natives.”

So each of these colonies started with colonizers talking about the rights of Aboriginal people to their lands in language that was explicitly legal – yet by 1847, the NSW Supreme Court in Attorney General v Brown held that “in a newly-discovered country, settled by British subjects, the occupancy of the Crown with respect to the waste lands of that country, is no fiction” – therefore vesting absolute title in the Crown, with narry a mention of the Aboriginal owners, their rights in land or their systems of laws.  This is the judicial approach which has since been termed (sometimes controversially) the doctrine of terra nullius.  But what was clear to me, looking at those two founding moments in South Australia and Victoria where colonizers briefly recognised Aboriginal people’s rights in land in legal terms, was that terra nullius didn’t come from nowhere – it was crafted and developed as a legal response to the problem of Aboriginal ownership of land which colonizers wanted to claim.

AC:  So really, the book describes that process of development of legal ideas that led us to terra nullius.

HR:  Yes, exactly.

AC:  But there’s more going on there than just legal developments – the book also features a range of voices of the 19th century colonisers in the context of discussing colonial policy and telling colonial histories – from the notable silence in relation to Indigenous ownership, invasion and frontier violence of many 19th C historians to the anguish visible in John West’s 1852 History of Tasmania, for example.  Are these a nineteenth century version of the culture wars?

HR:  Well, I’d argue that these are the same culture wars – that these are points on a continuum.  Just as colonising processes continue today (for example, the WA government’s recent attempts to close remote Aboriginal communities), so do the disputes around the moral, legal and rational meaning of those colonising processes – those basic questions about was it fair, and if it wasn’t, what recompense should be made?  The culture wars went very quiet for a long time, hence Stanner’s remark about ‘the great Australian silence’ regarding the role of first nations people in our history, but I think it was just bubbling under the surface.  Certainly, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people didn’t go quiet about it, but there was virtually no space within settler-colonial society where they could be heard, and their allies were often marginalised.

The work of colonising inevitably includes ideological work because there’s always a tension between the ‘values’ which settler-colonies like to ascribe to – such as rule of law, equality, and fairness – and the processes of colonisation, which require the continual erasure and dispossession of first nations people.  So I guess that is why I find this particular period during the 1830s so interesting – that it was a time when those ‘culture wars’ were discussed out loud within mainstream settler-colonial and imperial circles. I think it tells us a lot about the silence which followed.

AC:  I guess one of the surprising things about the book for me was how you think about the role of humanitarians in those discussions – really, it is their ‘good intentions’ that you’re talking about in the book’s title.  And if I can pull a short quote from the book, you write that:

… humanitarians placed themselves in an imagined third position—between the colonisers and the indigenous— in which humanitarians or the state could stand in for indigenous interests, replacing indigenous subjectivity with humanitarian protection.

This is a very different rendering of humanitarians from the story told by Henry Reynolds and others.  Instead of placing them as the good guys, you’ve suggested that they are implicated in the harms of colonisation.  For some, that might seem like a very harsh view of people who were just wanting to help Aboriginal people – is it?

HR: I don’t think it is a harsh view – I think it is incredibly sad – that people who expressed concern for Aboriginal people and many of whom genuinely wanted to be their allies were instead co-opted into the colonisation process and given an impossible task – to save first nations people from all the ill-effects of colonialism without impeding colonisation in any way.  It was a way of managing that basic tension of the 19th century British settler-colonies – between lofty ideals of a ‘civilised’ empire and the dirty business of dispossession.  It was an awkward work-around which outsourced concern about the effects of colonisation on first nations people away from the ‘core business’ of colonising, while also tasking those most motivated to be allies to indigenous people with containing, transforming and speaking for them.

Of course, there were also some so-called ‘humanitarians’ who were not only co-opted into the colonisation process, but embraced the opportunity to make personal gains at the expense of Aboriginal people. Here I can’t help but think of George Augustus Robinson, who was currying for favour and arguing for a higher salary as Protector of Aborigines at Port Phillip, while the Tasmanian Aboriginal people he had rounded up were dying in droves at the Wybalenna camp on Flinders Island.

AC: It’s clear from the primary sources that you’ve used in the book that many colonisers were making deliberate and selective readings of Indigenous ownership.  For instance, even on the narrow, Lockean ideas of “property” as created by people mixing their labour with the soil to produce and harvest food, there are many areas such as Budj Bim that should have been recognised as conferring exclusive possession to the first nations owners.  So how are we to judge and read these historical actors, who were willing to tweak their observations to deny Aboriginal rights in land?

HR:  I don’t think we need to judge – and I’m not sure it is useful to judge in terms of pointing the finger and determining that a particular historical person was guilty or a bad person.  I think there are more interesting questions to ask in terms of trying to understand how the ideological work of the settler-colony functioned.   So my work starts with curiosity rather than judgment.  What interested me was the overlap between these two processes which colonisers were engaging in – on the one hand, observing first nations people and their interaction with the landscape, and on the other, doing the ideological work of colonisation – finding ways to read what they and other colonisers were doing as rational, legal and moral.  It’s that ideological work of colonisation that is the focus of the book, and the way that colonisers shifted between different modes of ideology in terms of economic theory, legal doctrine and humanitarian policy.

AC: Earlier in this conversation you mentioned some of the continuities – that you feel like these are the same culture wars which colonisers have been discussing from the 1830s to today.  Why do these questions persist?  Why are we stuck in this loop?

 HR: This is where I think the observations from first nations scholars such as Gary Foley and Tony Birch are apt – that Australia is only ‘supposedly’ or ‘nominally’ post-colonial.  The reality is that colonisation – in terms of the appropriation of resources from first nations people – continues, and with it, continues what the late Patrick Wolfe called the ‘logic of elimination’ – that indigenous people need to be construed as absent or extinct so that it is not theft to take their resources.

To take a recent example, just last year, Colin Barnett, Premier of Western Australia, explained that as a result of his government’s policy of closing remote communities he expected there would be “significantly less Aboriginal communities” in the years ahead.

Similarly, the Federal Government’s 2015 White Paper on the Development of Northern Australia has been described by Peter Yu, CEO of Nyamba Buru Yawuru as “a kind of 19th century think-tank” – given that it focuses entirely on traditional industries such as mining and irrigated agriculture, but was “practically silent” on economic activities where Indigenous people were leading — such as land management, carbon sequestration, conservation and eco-tourism.  The board of the Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility includes no indigenous members, and Bob Gosford of the Northern Land Council points out that the measures proposed by the White Paper to deliver “a more effective and efficient land administration system” would result in a ‘fundamental diminution’ of Aboriginal rights in land.

Those old colonising habits die hard – and treating Aboriginal people as ‘the problem’ tends to be the fall-back approach to policy-making by Australian governments.  It is only once we correctly identify ‘the problem’ as colonising practices and ideologies that non-indigenous Australia will be able to break out of the loop, and start forging a more respectful and constructive approach with first nations peoples.  And I think there is some really good work being done in this space – for example, Clare Land’s book, Decolonising Solidarity.  But I think step one of that work involves non-Indigenous Australians learning about what happened (and still happens) here in terms of colonisation and the shifting of power, resources and voice from first nations people to non-indigenous people and corporations.

AC:  What’s so impressive about this work is how it carefully manages both to theoretically unpack those dominant colonial discourses, as well being aware of the need to carve out analytical space where Indigenous voices can be heard. Aboriginal people were both written in, and written out, of colonial narratives—depending on what was being said. They were both actively constituted in an imagined chain of civilization and evolution, and actively erased from the colonial frontier. That’s why it’s so terrific that this research has been published. It isn’t just your Masters supervisors, a couple of examiners, and some enamoured friends who will be able to read and appreciate this book, but whole cohorts of students, and their teachers, and generations of scholars to come.

HR:  Thanks so much for launching it, Anna – and for your excellent feedback on the very first draft of this research.  I also need to thank the Aboriginal Legal Rights Movement in Adelaide – it was during an internship working on the De Rose Hill case with them as an undergraduate that I first had the opportunity to review some of the correspondence between the Colonial Office and the South Australia Colonisation Commissioners.

Further details and copies of the book can be obtained from the Readings website.


La Trobe