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Governance, Settlers and Aboriginal Victorians

SW1.09 Somerset House East Wing
04/03/2015 (18:00-20:00)

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The Governing the “Aboriginal Problem in Victoria”: example or exemplar.

The southern city of Melbourne, Australia grew at a speed that astonished both settlers and the Aboriginal people they usurped. This was not an incremental steady increase rather initial settlement and then the mid-century gold rush produced distinct demographic bulges. Only fifteen years after founder John Batman arrived, there were already a little over 75,000 settlers in the colony – most of which had arrived in the previous decade. By 1861 thanks to the gold rush this would increase sevenfold to nearly 540,000. Indeed, the speed and scale of pastoral colonisation after 1835 and the density of settlement after the gold rush nearly overwhelmed Aboriginal Victorians. The impacts of these demographic floods (both human and animal) were brutal. By 1850 only around 1,900 Aboriginal people were recorded as having survived.

Crucially, however, the settlement of Port Phillip (Melbourne) unfolded in the same decades as humanitarian concerns about indigenous peoples reached their peak largely propelled by a metropolitan evangelical paternalism. The patterns and practices of settler colonisation on the south-eastern mainland, even as they swiftly dispossessed Aboriginal people through violence, disease and depopulation, were always tempered by powerful discourses of evangelical protection.  In the newly formed city of Melbourne, settlers asserted their political autonomy as independent Britons in discursive contrast to the very peoples they claimed to protect and whose territory they expropriated. Thus conceptually‘Aborigines’ functioned as a powerful imaginative counterpoint for settlers to assert their status as freeborn Britons who deserved to be unshackled from the interventions of metropolitan authorities. Claiming settler self-rule became a mechanism by which indigenous people were once-again denied political and territorial sovereignty. Propelled by these local claims and their part of the wider contagion of geopolitical reconfiguration in the British world, within a generation of Batman’s ‘first’ contact, local colonists had been granted administrative separation from New South Wales and a form of self-government that curtailed the influence of the Colonial Office on local affairs. Crucially, responsible self-government, in this case, entailed a responsibility for the governance of indigenous peoples without the ongoing interference of London in ways that metropolitan evangelicals had worked very hard to avoid a decade before. In this paper I will profile the arguments that these factors converged and Melbourne was both exceptional and profoundly influential in the development of means of ‘governing the natives’.

This paper is drawn from a large project currently being undertaken by Professor Lynette Russell, FRHistS, FASSA.and Leigh Boucher (Macquarie University) on Victorian Ethnographers 1835-1920, ARC DP 110100076.

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