A half-cast argument - the Bolt-Eatock case

Published The Age, Oct 3, 2011, Opinion page.

Debate about who is and who is not Aboriginal has been a part of Victorian politics since an 1886 Amending Act enshrined the phrase "half caste" in state legislation.


The court case and media debate surrounding Andrew Bolt's criticisms of "white Aborigines" have overlooked this defining aspect of Victoria's history.    


After killings and disease dramatically reduced the population of Aboriginal people during the first decades after colonisation, an 1869 parliamentary Act empowered the Aboriginal Protection Board to manage reserves for Aboriginal people and to remove 'neglected' or 'unprotected' children to reserves or institutions for their better care. in 1886 and 1890, Amending Acts, known as the "half caste acts", explicitly prohibited half caste Aboriginal people who were over 14 years of age or unmarried, from living on reserves, visiting "full blood" family members and gaining access to Aboriginal welfare.


The acts allowed the Aboriginal Protection Board to adopt a more active policy of removing half caste children and placing them with institutions or white families. But half caste adults were also prohibited from visiting family on the major reserves, at Framlingham, Lake Condah, Corranderk, Lake Tyers, Ramahyuck and Ebenezer, where community and family life were strong.  


Many Aboriginal people and families wanted to integrate and chose to live away from reserves and work in colonial Victorian society. But the effects of these acts were devastating and their repercussions are still felt by the children of Aboriginal people who don't know their grandparents.


Historian, Professor Richard Broome, in "Aboriginal Victorians - A history since the 1800s", wrote that for two generations,  the acts "limited the freedoms of Aboriginal people; they forced people from their homes and families on the reserve; they broke up families by the removal of children from their parents; and they undermined the reserves." Broome estimated between 5% and 20% of Aboriginal children were removed from parents each year from 1900 to the 1960s in Victoria.


"The state nurses wanted to take us and put us in Homes because we were half-caste kids," Lettie Nicholls recorded in the Museum of Victoria's "Living Aboriginal History of Victoria".  "We got word they were coming for us... So, in the early hours of the morning, my grandfather and grandmother sneaked us away in a horse and cart. We travelled around small towns...We kept away from the big towns 'cause someone might tell the State nurses who would pick us up and take us away."


Aboriginal people who did leave reserves and try to integrate during and after the 1890s depression and throughout the first decades of the 20th century often faced more severe racism, lower wages and battles with poverty.


Professor Ian Anderson, Tasmanian Aboriginal director of Murrup Barak, Melbourne University's Institute for Indigenous Development, says the division persisted into the twentieth century and for many decades, mixed blood Aboriginal people were declared "not black enough to receive Aboriginal welfare support and not white enough for mainstream welfare or support."


For much of Victoria's history, the act of claiming to be Aboriginal, particularly if you were not full blood Aboriginal, was a difficult and courageous thing to do that often led to sanctions, racism, and disadvantages.


After more than 100 years of disadvantaging Aboriginal people with "mixed blood", conservative commentators like Andrew Bolt now claim there is too much support for mixed blood Aboriginal people, and only "real draw-in-the-dirt Aboriginal" people should be eligible for support.   It is an old debate, not a new one, and should be expressed with compassion for the past rather than vitriol.


Every system attracts rorts and Aboriginal people dislike those who rort the system by falsely claiming to be Aboriginal.  But Andrew Bolt's arguments echo early colonial attitudes that presumed the end of the Aboriginal race in Victoria and complete assimilation, that casting of the dye, to be the only solution for half castes.  After the judgment Bolt wrote about the right to "pressure people to give up some racial identity."


Historian Chris Healy, author of "Forgetting Aborigines", argues that if people want to forget Victoria was colonised and indigenous people were dispossessed, then a good way to do that is to deny Aboriginality and argue that we are all the same.  Another way is to perpetuate a history that allows white people to define who is Aboriginal.  


The history of Aboriginal Victorians since colonisation is a moving, tragic, dynamic and inspiring story and one that real Victorians might study before deciding who is and who is not Aboriginal based on the colour of their skin.   


An edited version of this article may be viewed online at http://www.theage.com.au/opinion/society-and-culture/bolt-echoes-a-shameful-past-thats-more-than-skin-deep-20111002-1l3q0.html

© Copyright Andrew Bock 2010. All rights protected.