Fresh light on early defender of Aborigines
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
Detail from the cover of Just Relations: The Story of Mary Bennett’s Crusade for Aboriginal Rights