What do the Bill Leak cartoons have in common with nineteenth century images of Aboriginal people?

Hannah Roberts La Trobe Law SchoolBy Hannah Robert

In September last year at Friday night drinks, I was doing the hideously smug thing of showing my law school colleagues the various cover designs for my forthcoming book.  The publishers favoured one design, and I favoured another, so we needed some other opinions.  My colleagues pored over them, selecting this or that design, except for one who said, ‘I’m sorry, but I don’t like any of them.  All of them include this one image and I think it is offensive’.

I was a little taken aback, but I looked at it again.  The image was the first seal of South Australia, designed before the state had even come into existence.  Back in 1834, ‘South Australia’ was an imagined ideal colony in which Edward Gibbon Wakefield’s economic theories about balancing land, labour and capital could be put into practice.  The seal depicted an Aboriginal man, naked and seated, looking up to see a white woman (presumably Britannia) wearing robes and a classical helmet, and holding a lance.  She is literally looking down on him, gesturing vaguely with the back of her hand – a hand held out, not in friendship, but perhaps indicating towards the land under his feet.  Behind her, a sheep advances, while a shield emblazoned with the Union Jack rests beside her.  The figures are of a similar size, but their faces are proportioned very differently – her features are fine, while his are caricatured – with the exaggerated lips, nose and brows of a Bill Leak cartoon.

The reason I had wanted the image on the cover was because it echoed so precisely the depictions of African slaves on anti-slavery medallions of the same era.  In one medallion, struck for the Women’s Abolitionist movement, there is a similar interaction depicted, but this time between a kneeling African woman, hands shackled and held up in prayer, and a white woman, who is stepping towards her, looking down at her face and holding one hand out, upturned.  The other hand holds the scales of justice, and what looks like a leek tucked under her arm (white women, multi-tasking as always!).  The facial features and hair of the African woman are almost identical to that of the “Aboriginal” man in the South Australian seal – suggesting that the middle class Britons behind the South Australian venture were content to simply transpose their conceptions about African slaves across to the Kaurna people who they were yet to encounter as the first nations of what is now called Adelaide.  This transposition was a key part of my argument in the book, as I examined how colonisers ideas about Aboriginal people and their land rights were influenced by law, by classical economics theory, and by the humanitarian movement – including antislavery campaigns.  So it felt like a perfect image to place on the cover – drawing attention to the way in which colonisers saw first nations people through the frame of their own ideas.

I was pretty attached to keeping the image on the cover, but it bothered me that someone might find it offensive.  So I emailed a couple of history colleagues who researched interactions between colonial and first nations peoples.  Both came back saying, no, they wouldn’t put that on the cover.  One, herself a first nations scholar, explained that the image ‘might catch some people by surprise’, and that while it may be appropriate to include it in the text as it was part of my analysis, none of that context was possible on the cover.

When I looked, I discovered there was a whole debate around the interpretation of antislavery images of enslaved people, and the ethics of reproducing these depictions, given the prejudice they had perpetuated the first time around, and which they could stir up again.   I certainly didn’t intend to cause harm to indigenous people by republishing a historical image – but did that matter if the practical effect of the image was to rub salt into the wounds of first nations people who still experience the ongoing effects of racism and the seizure of their lands?

Worse still – a key theme of the book was that good intentions on the part of colonisers were not enough if colonisers were unwilling to engage directly with indigenous people and to their legal systems on an equal footing.  What kind of irony would it be if my book replicated the same well-intentioned harms I was critiquing?

I felt sheepish that it hadn’t occurred to me before how the image might be experienced by people who had been stereotyped by similar images for over two hundred years.  But I was glad of the opportunity to do something about it, and for having such a practical lesson in the blindness that comes with white privilege.  In the process, someone remarked to me, ‘Oh, so the thought police have got to you’.  No, I responded, I had a choice, and I decided not to use an image that would have compromised the ethics and the analysis of my research, and more importantly, could have caused harm to others.  It may have been a ‘microaggression’ in comparison to the land theft, over-incarceration, violence and child-stealing, but I still had a choice whether to add to the harms inflicted on Indigenous people. I could only make that choice if I consulted with some of the people who could be affected by the image, and was willing to listen to the criticism that made those harms visible.  Bill Leak consciously chose to close himself off from that criticism, and instead persisted in producing images which stereotyped and denigrated Aboriginal people.

When my dad saw the end result – instead using a black map of Australia, he commented, ‘Ah ha – paved with bitumen!’  And in the end, that image described the steamrolling of Aboriginal rights in land better than any historical image could.

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