Fresh light on early de­fender of Abo­rig­ines

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

Anna Hey­ward Just Re­la­tions: The Story of Mary Ben­nett’s Cru­sade for Abo­rig­i­nal Rights By Ali­son Hol­land UWAP, 480pp, $45

His­to­rian and re­searcher Ali­son Hol­land uses the life of ac­tivist Mary Ben­nett to chart the his­tory of the con­di­tion of Aus­tralian Abo­rig­ines un­der set­tler rule as a mat­ter of hu­man­i­tar­ian and hu­man rights. Hol­land’s bi­og­ra­phy is well­re­searched, cov­er­ing in de­tail Ben­nett’s work and Aus­tralia’s le­gal and civil frame­work, as well as de­bates about Abo­rig­i­nal life and rights, and plac­ing them in the con­text of in­ter­na­tional stan­dards and le­gal agree­ments.

Ben­nett saw black-white re­la­tions in Aus­tralia as a global prob­lem, one that re­vealed the con­di­tion of all peo­ple liv­ing un­der colo­nial rule. She was caught up in the global po­lit­i­cal hu­man rights move­ment of the day — the move­ment that led to the es­tab­lish­ment of the League of Na­tions, votes for women and a lot of rhetoric about in­ter­na­tional con­nect­ed­ness.

She was born in 1881 to a wealthy Scot­tish im­mi­grant fam­ily. Her fa­ther owned large tracts of land and lots of cat­tle in north­ern Queens­land, on which the Dalle­burra peo­ple lived. Hav­ing spent an early part of her life among in­dige­nous peo­ple, she be­came ob­sessed by their wel­fare, believ­ing it to be ne­glected, even sab­o­taged. She heard Con­stance Cooke, a mem­ber of the Abo­rig­ines wel­fare com­mit­tee of the Women’s Non-Party As­so­ci­a­tion of South Aus­tralia, speak at the Lon­don Anti-Slav­ery So­ci­ety and then, child­less af­ter the death of her hus­band, with her mother and fa­ther hav­ing also died, she ded­i­cated the rest of her life to im­prov­ing the lives of Abo­rig­ines.

In 1930 Ben­nett wrote a book, The Aus­tralian Abo­rig­i­nal as a Hu­man Be­ing, in which she de­scribes the pur­suit of “just re­la­tions” be­tween races as the most ur­gent prob­lem of the 20th cen­tury. Her vi­sion is not an ide­alised one, imag­in­ing the ab­sence of the white master and op­pres­sor, but one in which two sets of peo­ple who have come to live to­gether do so in fair­ness.

“There is no quar­rel with the settlers,” she writes. Rather, “the ob­jec­tion is to the sys­tem”. Ben­nett’s be­lief was that degra­da­tion and un­fair­ness had been cod­i­fied and nor­malised and that the “en­emy” con­sisted of “gov­ern­ments and their poli­cies, politi­cians, bu­reau­crats, mis­sion­ar­ies, wel­fare of­fi­cials”.

She worked against poli­cies such as mixe­drace child re­moval, and made the rad­i­cal ac­cu­sa­tion of geno­cide against Abo­rig­ines. One of the im­por­tant medi­ums through which she worked was pub­lic­ity, un­cov­er­ing prob­lems such as the sex­ual abuse of Abo­rig­i­nal women and rou­tine dis­place­ment from lands. She was one of very few peo­ple speak­ing of such things. She used friends and con­nec­tions back in England to ef­fect change in the colony be­fore set­tling per­ma­nently in Western Aus­tralia, where she died in 1961, aged 80.

Af­ter her death, the state im­me­di­ately seized her large col­lec­tion of per­sonal pa­pers, which, doc­u­ment­ing her life, con­tained im­por­tant in­for­ma­tion about the his­tory of Abo­rig­i­nal-set­tler re­la­tions. In a care­ful and en­gag­ing epi­logue to Just Re­la­tions, Hol­land ex­am­ines this episode, in which, “in a ques­tion­able ex­er­cise of power, the state stepped in to con­fis­cate the per­sonal pa­pers of a cit­i­zen”.

It is per­haps be­cause of the suc­cess of this ma­noeu­vre that Ben­nett’s name is not well known be­yond schol­ar­ship, at a time when her views and work would be so widely ac­knowl­edged. Hol­land’s re­con­struc­tion work, on this count, was aided by Ben­nett’s pro­lific net­work­ing and cor­re­spond­ing.

One point that stands out in Hol­land’s book is the progress we haven’t made, and how far we have not come in terms of com­fort­able, sat­is­fac­tory re­la­tions be­tween the in­dige­nous and set­tler pop­u­la­tions of Aus­tralia. Ques­tions that were de­bated in the late 1920s, such as of self- gov­ern­ment, in­de­pen­dence and in­di­rect rule, re­ver­ber­ate in our dis­cus­sions to­day, for ex­am­ple in the con­text of the ba­sics card and the cash­less wel­fare card.

At the time that Ben­nett was work­ing in the 1920s, Abo­rig­i­nal pro­tec­tion was an ex­is­ten­tial is­sue. There was a strong be­lief that “Abo­rig­ines were doomed to extinction”, a be­lief that prob­a­bly en­abled the non­cha­lance with which Abo­rig­i­nal con­di­tions and civil rights were re­garded.

Ben­nett saw this pos­si­bil­ity as a dan­ger and be­lieved in an “ur­gent need to pre­vent their extinction”. “The ideal of sav­ing the race,” Hol­land writes, “pro­pelled Ben­nett’s cru­sade.”

Ben­nett spoke with­out em­bar­rass­ment of the dis­ad­van­tages for peo­ple of dark skin. Writ­ing from the US, as I am, in a cul­tural mo­ment in which the dif­fer­ence in sta­tus be­tween black and white peo­ple is be­ing ex­am­ined and con­tested, a solid and me­thod­i­cal book such as the one Hol­land has writ­ten, on the his­tory of Aus­tralian hu­man rights and race re­la­tions, feels valu­able.

Aus­tralian gov­ern­ments are en­gaged, from time to time, by for­eign and in­ter­na­tional bod­ies on ques­tions of in­dige­nous af­fairs (such as re­cently by the UN Per­ma­nent Fo­rum on In­dige­nous Is­sues over the clo­sure of re­mote West Aus­tralian com­mu­ni­ties), but this rarely be­comes a real, tan­gi­ble in­flu­ence on pol­icy.

Al­though Just Re­la­tions: The Story of Mary

Ben­nett’s Cru­sade for Abo­rig­i­nal Rights is over­long and stylis­ti­cally on the dry side for the lay reader with­out a re­fined taste in schol­arly writ­ing, Hol­land’s book, along with Ben­nett’s life, present an op­por­tu­nity to think about the po­si­tion of Abo­rig­i­nal peo­ple in Aus­tralia as uni­ver­sally and in­ter­na­tion­ally im­por­tant, rather than as a sim­ple mat­ter of state and do­mes­tic pol­icy.

Anna Hey­ward is a writer and reporter based in

New York.

De­tail from the cover of Just Re­la­tions: The Story of Mary Ben­nett’s Cru­sade for Abo­rig­i­nal Rights

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