After more than a century of British colonialism, Australia as it is now known to the world came into being with the 1 January 1901 Act of Federation. This Act united the six, separate self-governing British colonies on the Australian landmass under one central government, and within a year, the new parliament passed the Immigration Restriction Act 1901, more commonly known as the White Australia Policy. This policy ensured that only white Europeans would be allowed to immigrate to the new country, while empowering the state to deport existing non-white immigrants.
The mass deportation of people of colour, predominately Asians and Pacific Islanders, soon followed. The new federal government had made its ambitions clear: the young nation was to be an exclusively white one. However, there was a glaring roadblock to this goal: Australia’s Indigenous people could not simply be refused entry or deported back to their country of origin. Their existence was therefore seen by white Australia as a problem to be solved; an impediment to its goal of an exclusively white nation.
Even before Federation, the dominant theory regarding Indigenous Australians had for quite some time been the ‘doomed race theory’: that, if segregated from settler society, Aboriginal people would simply ‘die out’ – a bizarre idea, to say the least, to purport about peoples who have continuously inhabited a continent for at least 40,000 years. Nevertheless, this idea was dominant enough to heavily influence government policy. The various state governments each passed their own legislation based on it, aimed at ensuring that there would eventually be no visible Indigenous presence in Australia. Put simply, non-mixed race Indigenous people were to be segregated from white society and allowed to ‘die out’, while mixed-race Indigenous people were to be taken from their parents, stripped of their culture from an early age via a European-style education, and eventually forced to marry a white spouse.
Auber Octavius Neville, the ironically titled ‘Chief Protector of Aborigines’ of Western Australian from 1915–1940, summarised the intended end result of this approach, in 1937:
Are we going to have a population of 1,000,000 blacks in the Commonwealth, or are we going to merge them into our white community and eventually forget that there ever were any aborigines in Australia?
This reality – in which dominant society was openly hostile to the mere existence of his people – was what William Harris, an Aboriginal man of the Western Australian Noongar people, had grown up with. A mixed-race person born in 1867, he was educated at the Swan Native and Half-Caste mission in Perth but retained a strong connection to Noongar culture and people. Mission children were often expected to silently assimilate into settler society. Instead, Harris used his European-style education to advocate for his people in the only way that white society understood: in their language, and on their terms.
The Aborigines Act of Western Australia was passed in 1905. It established the Aborigines Department, headed by a Chief Protector, who was effectively given dictatorial powers over the lives of the state’s Indigenous people. For example, it granted the Chief Protector legal custody over any Indigenous person under the age of sixteen, a power that was routinely applied to remove children from their parents.
Even before the passage of this act, Harris was already one of the most important Indigenous voices in WA. He was often featured in local newspapers, catching those who thought they were engaging in white-only spaces off guard. In 1904, he had a lengthy statement published in the Sunday Times, rebutting an earlier article that downplayed the horrible treatment of Indigenous people in the state’s northwest. He pulled no punches:
The whole truth about the treatment of blacks in the Norwest hasn’t been written. It may never be written. Only a book written by a man who knows both peoples could express and number the horrible cruelties inflicted by savage, brutish dogs in the shape of white men on the helpless men and women and children in their power. Only a book could do justice to the legalised slavery called the “indenture system,” the hunting of men like wild beasts, the barbarous flogging of the slaves, the chaining of untried prisoners, and the brutal lust which respects not mother nor wife nor daughter.
The editor replies by stating that Harris’ account was so damning as to warrant a Royal Commission.
The notion that white society at large was truly ignorant about what Harris describes in this statement is a naïve one though. These practices were hardly uncommon, and were regularly recounted in newspapers of the time. The editor’s response is more performative than anything else. The real cause of their strong reaction was simple: the messenger was an Indigenous man.
Harris defied settler society’s paternalistic ideas about Aboriginal people. Editors’ prefaces to his statements would often laud his education and intelligence, with the clear implication being that these qualities were considered highly unusual for an Indigenous person. The fact that he retained his culture, despite his ability to engage in the ‘educated’ and ‘intelligent’ manner that settler society demanded, further contradicted settler notions about their cultural superiority and ideas surrounding Indigenous assimilation. Harris was something of a living, breathing antithesis to its beliefs, yet white Western Australia simply could not look away from him. For example, in 1906, soon following his emergence as a public figure, he was granted an audience with the WA Premier, which he used to advocate for starving Indigenous people who had been displaced from their land by gold mining operations.
Owing to the peculiar respect afforded to him, Harris himself could have easily qualified for an exemption from the Aborigines Act. Effectively, this would have rendered him an ‘honorary white’ in the eyes of the law, provided that he agreed to stop associating with Aboriginal people who still lived in the traditional way. Instead, as Anna Haebich notes in For Their Own Good: Aborigines and Government in the South-West of Western Australia, 1900–1940, Harris and his family took ‘a strong stand against the notion of exemptions which (…) only served to reinforce the status of Aborigines as second-class citizens.’
Despite the fact Harris’ words were often minced to push anti-Indigenous agendas, such as a 1906 article in the West Australian that laughably claimed that he had admitted that Indigenous people were cannibals who ‘are in the habit of dishing up roast youngster three times a day throughout the year’, he never waned. He would only become a more prolific activist in the years following the passage of the 1905 Act. Additionally, other members of his family and community were clearly influenced by him, becoming activists in their own right.
The already grave situation in WA became even worse following A.O. Neville’s appointment to the office of Chief Protector in 1915. While the idea that Indigenous people were to be ‘bred out’ was quite mainstream at the time, Neville quickly proved to be one of the staunchest, most zealous proponents of this approach. In the five years following his appointment, for example, a quarter of the southern WA Indigenous population had been forced from their land and into camps. In Neville’s first year, the Harris family paid dearly for the stand they’d taken against exemptions. William’s brother, Edward, had four of his children forcibly institutionalised under the provisions of the Act. It is very likely that the family were specifically targeted by Neville in this instance, owing to their continued prominence as activists.
Yet, if anything, this heinous attack on their family only strengthened their resolve. Harris continued rebutting the uninformed hysterics of white pundits, such as in 1921, when he was involved in a heated exchange with Daisy Bates, a famous, white self-styled ‘anthropologist’, ‘humanitarian’, and so-called ‘expert’ on Indigenous people. As he often found himself having to do, he refuted her ridiculous claims of rampant Indigenous cannibalism, ending his letter with a scathing attack:
In conclusion, let me repeat that anyone who really has the welfare and liberty of the aborigines at heart would not advocate measures such as those put forward by Mrs. Bates. If Mrs. Bates is so full of altruism, then among the poor and needy white women and children there is a wide field where she might do good work.
By 1926, William was at the head of an extensive network of politically adept Indigenous activists. Among others, it included his aforementioned brother, Edward, and his nephew, Norman. On the 14 November that year, the group formally announced themselves to the press:
The educated aborigines and half castes in this State are about to form a protective union. As British subjects they claim, and mean to have, the protection of the same laws that govern the white man, not to be persecuted by the Aborigines Department and its officials.
With this statement, the Native Union, as they would thenceforth be known, directly accused the Aborigines Department, with ‘Protector of Aborigines’ Neville at its head, of doing the exact opposite of what that title implied. Neville would rightfully remain their primary target over the next two years, as he represented the most extreme strain of an ideology that was already, by nature, genocidal. Of course, the article announcing the Union’s formation ends as many of Harris’s letters did, with him exasperatedly refuting the ongoing, dubious accounts of Indigenous cannibalism:
In Melbourne a few days ago Mr Holmes spoke of the dangerous cannibal savages in the North-West. Let me tell Mr Holmes and others whom it may concern that natives are not the savage and dangerous cannibals he would make out.
In March 1927, five months after news of the Native Union went public, William’s nephew Norman penned a letter to his friend, Jim Bassett, an Aboriginal farmer. The previous fifteen months had been particularly bitter. Social reforms that were passed nationwide, such as the forty-four-hour working week and welfare payments for poor families, did not apply to Indigenous people. A motion to extend the vote to mixed-race Indigenous people in WA had failed the year prior. Additionally, the members of the Union had been directly affected by new legislation passed by Neville which banned Indigenous people from entering Perth, the state’s hub of activity.
Norman’s letter laments these issues, among a plethora of others, such as the forced detention of more than 300 Aboriginal people at the Moore River Native Settlement and the confiscation of Indigenous children. Perhaps most significantly, Norman notes that all of these atrocities are enabled by the Aborigines Act. He sums this up in his own immortal words: ‘I have got a headache just thinking about this Act.’
Before writing, Norman had just received his uncle, William, and they had discussed the Union’s next course of action. It was decided that they would organise a deputation to the WA Premier, and soon ‘letters were forwarded to families in various parts of the south and William Harris visited Aboriginal groups in several districts, drumming up support and requesting donations.’ William had managed to secure a meeting with the Premier back in 1906, but a deputation of this well-organised, politically adept group of Indigenous activists was an unprecedented achievement.
One year later, the Native Union achieved its goal. On 9 March, they were received by the Premier, Philip Collier. Echoing the way William’s statements and letters had been received in the past, the Premier’s immediate reaction, reported in the Daily News, was paternalistic surprise at the idea that black men were navigating the white man’s world:
It was surprising to see the manner in which the case for the blacks was handled by the members of the deputation, who were nearly all men of education, and who could quote the classics mier the next white man. The members so impressed the Premier that he told them that the manner in which they presented their case would have done credit to any deputation of white people.
The deputation had come with a clear agenda that heavily reflected the grievances laid out in Norman’s letter. They argued that Indigenous people should not be subject to different laws, that they should be allowed entry into Perth, that the Moore River Settlement be abolished, that Aboriginal children should not be taken from their parents, and that the practice of forced relocation should be stopped. All of these issues, as William pointed out to the Premier during the conversation, had their roots in the Aborigines Act.
Perhaps most daringly, the deputation took direct aim at A.O. Neville and Daisy Bates, two figures who had until then been unquestionably touted by white society as paragons of virtue for their work with Indigenous people. Of Bates, who was believed to be someone who selflessly devoted her life to assisting Aboriginal people, William stated: ‘she is doing it for publicity, so that people may call her a courageous woman for living amongst the blacks.’ Their most damning condemnation was reserved for Neville:
They made very serious complaints about the administration of the department under Mr. Neville, and claimed that the Protector was the worst enemy the natives had, and if allowed to continue in control would soon be responsible for the extermination of the race. The department which was established to protect the blacks was really killing them out.
The deputation not only possessed the bravery to tell the highest power in their state that they knew exactly what was going on, but they also put forward the same understandings and arguments about genocide in Australia as those made today by contemporary scholars. Two examples of this are the conclusion of the Bringing Them Home Report of 1997, which points out that the policies enacted met the UN’s definition of genocide, and what academic Colin Tatz wrote in his discussion paper Genocide in Australia (1999), where he summarised Neville’s program:
First, the “full bloods” would die out; second, take “half-castes” away from their mothers; third, control marriages among “half-castes” and so encourage intermarriage with the white community (…) In this way, it would be possible to “eventually forget that there were ever any Aborigines in Australia.”
Despite the best efforts of the deputation, who had received a promise from the Premier that ‘if I can help you in any way, I shall be only too glad to do what I can for you’, they were unsuccessful in their aims. Neville rebutted their attacks with his own report to the Premier, in which he laughably questioned the (entirely Indigenous) Native Union’s credibility on Indigenous issues. His account was, nonetheless, accepted without criticism. This, combined with William Harris’ untimely death in 1931, effectively ended whatever hopes they had of spurring any meaningful change. Worse still, the Moseley Royal Commission, convened to investigate allegations of maltreatment of Indigenous people under Neville’s mandate, somehow instead ended up unanimously accepting his requests to expand the Act to allow him even more power over Indigenous people. Thus, in 1936, the Act was amended to stipulate that, among other measures, any marriage involving an Indigenous person must be personally approved by Neville himself, while the age of his legal guardianship of all Aboriginal people was raised from sixteen to twenty-one.
Of course, with the hindsight that we have today, the idea that Australian society in 1928 would make any concessions to Aboriginal people is preposterous. Yet these men lived that reality, and resignation was not an option for them. They did everything they possibly could to fight for their rights from within the dominant system, and their story has largely been told only in passing: summarised in paragraphs at most, and used as an example in books and journal articles. Yet it well and truly deserves a book of its own.
William Harris and the Native Union stand as a fierce counterexample to the common, lazy, contemporary understanding of Indigenous people in post-federation Australia as passive victims. The Union’s role as the first organised Indigenous political group engaging with formal politics sent ripples through Australian society, and their influence can be seen clearly in later civil rights agitation, from the Day of Mourning in 1938 and beyond.
Header image: the 1928 deputation. Back row (left to right): Wilfred Morrison, Norman Harris, Edward Jacobs and A. Kickett. Front row (left to right): Edward Harris, William Harris and William Bodney. Image courtesy of Corrie Bodney and Claremont Museum