South Australia's Foundation Act, passed by the British parliament in 1834, made no reference to the Aboriginal peoples who owned and occupied the land that was being annexed from the other side of the world. In 1835 a new government which came to power under Lord Melbourne included prominent anti-slavery campaigners concerned about the treatment of Indigenous people in Britain’s colonies. The South Australian Colonization Commissioners, who had previously given little thought to the rights and welfare of Aboriginal people, were now questioned closely about their plans. The Colonial Office was particularly concerned about Aboriginal rights to land, and how Aboriginal people could be protected from the violence characteristic of earlier colonies. At the same time as these negotiations were taking place, a parliamentary select committee was investigating the treatment of Aboriginal people throughout the British Empire.

Despite a language of rights, the committee's recommendations were paternalistic. Protection, it believed, could be afforded through the appointment of officials whose primary task would be to supervise the incorporation of Aboriginal people into the new colonial order. Although there was scope to do so, neither Aboriginal ownership of land nor Indigenous forms of law and government were recognised.

Protector of Aborigines

In the years between settlement and the establishment of responsible government in 1857, Aboriginal policy in South Australia, as in other colonies, was largely shaped by the Colonial Office. South Australia’s first crown-appointed Protector of Aborigines, Matthew Moorhouse, was directed to instruct Aboriginal people in the ‘arts of civilisation’ and the ‘fundamental truths of Christianity’. The task of ‘civilising and Christianising’ was pursued at the Aborigines Location, a small reserve established in the Adelaide parklands in an area known to Kaurna people as Piltawodli. Some efforts were made to teach what the protector called ‘habits of useful industry’, such as planting crops and building houses, and Lutheran missionaries endeavoured to inculcate Christianity. A few schools were established for Aboriginal children, first in Adelaide and later at Encounter Bay on Fleurieu Peninsula and Port Lincoln on Eyre Peninsula, an Anglican training institution, Poonindie being founded near Port Lincoln in 1851.

The protector was also required to exercise a general supervision of Aboriginal welfare. It was recognised that European settlement would inevitably restrict Aboriginal access to their land and resources, and to compensate for this the practice of distributing rations of flour, tea and sugar was implemented in the 1840s, primarily through sub-protectors and police in frontier districts. Although Aboriginal rights to land were not recognised, the government instituted a practice of granting small sections to Aboriginal people who expressed a desire to farm, while in the pastoral districts Aboriginal rights on the land were protected by provisions in pastoral leases.

Faith in government efforts to civilise and Christianise Aboriginal people quickly waned. Firstly, there were insufficient resources devoted to a task of which the settlers themselves were sceptical, but more importantly Aboriginal people, while interested in what the newcomers had to offer, were perfectly satisfied with their own culture. Most of the schools the government had established or supported in the 1840s had ceased to operate by the early 1850s, and when responsible government was achieved in 1857 the position of Protector of Aborigines was not renewed.

Mid to Late Nineteenth Century

Aboriginal policy in the period between the late 1850s and first decade of the twentieth century might best be described as one of ‘calculated neglect’. A select committee of inquiry held in 1860 to investigate the condition of Aboriginal people reported that they had ‘lost much, and gained little, or nothing’ as a result of colonisation (cited in Survival In Our Own Land, p. 45). The prevailing sentiment was that Aboriginal people were ‘doomed to extinction’ and that the best the government could do meanwhile was provide for their material and physical welfare. Among the few practical outcomes of the inquiry was the re-establishment of the Protector’s Office and an expansion of the network of ration depots – which now functioned as a rudimentary welfare system. An important new feature of ration distributions was that pastoral stations now became the principal depots in the northern parts of South Australia. The availability of government rations was an inducement for Aboriginal people to remain in their own districts, it encouraged their engagement in the pastoral industry and made station managers de facto protectors. Although the government was no longer actively involved in trying to civilise and Christianise, it gave some support to Aboriginal missions established by philanthropic organisations.

By the 1890s colonial governments began adopting more interventionist forms of administration, implementing legislation which both restricted the freedoms of Aboriginal people and denied them rights enjoyed by other citizens. An important motive for this change of approach, in an era when notions of ‘racial purity’ underpinned an ideal of ‘White Australia’, was the increase in the number of Aboriginal people of mixed descent. An Aborigines bill brought before parliament in 1899 failed, partly because provisions designed to regulate the employment of Aboriginal people were opposed by the pastoral industry, but legislation was eventually passed in 1911. This provided for the establishment of Aboriginal reserves and institutions and gave the Chief Protector of Aborigines power to confine people to reserves and institutions or remove them, as well as to declare specific towns and municipalities prohibited areas. As these provisions in the act indicate, segregation was a feature of Aboriginal administration in this period. The Protector was also made legal guardian of all ‘Aboriginal and half-caste’ children.

Twentieth Century

William South was appointed Chief Protector of Aborigines in 1908, and it was under his administration that the policy of removing children of mixed descent began to be seriously pursued. The racial motive for removals is evident in South’s frequent references to skin colour; typical was his reference to one child removed in 1911 whom he described as ‘almost white’. South also objected to the existing mission system which, in his view, produced idleness and dependency. His short-term view was that missions should be taken over by the government and run as industrial institutions from which youths, once they came of age, would be drafted out, or apprenticed, to earn a living for themselves. In the longer term, he imagined that the missions would cease to have a role as Aboriginal people were ‘merged’ into the general population. The state took over Point Pearce mission in 1915 and Point McLeay in 1916. Regulations under the 1911 act gave superintendents great control over the lives of residents; it was an offence, for instance, for Aboriginal people in an institution to use ‘profane or blasphemous’ language, to be ‘dirty or untidy’, or to be ‘insubordinate in any manner whatsoever’. The policy of removals was further pursued with the Aborigines (Training of Children) Act of 1923, but the act became a ‘dead letter’ in the face of concerted Aboriginal opposition. Removals continued however, and the provisions of the 1923 act were incorporated into the Aborigines Act (1934).

A further Aborigines Act in 1939 created an Aborigines Protection Board to supervise Aboriginal welfare. It expanded the definition of an Aboriginal person to include anyone of Aboriginal descent and implemented a scheme of exemptions. A person granted an exemption certificate was no longer subject to the operation of the act, and had the same rights as non-Aboriginal Australians. There were two categories of exemption, limited and unconditional. Those with the former could have their exempted status revoked if they did not behave according to the board’s expectations. Those granted exemptions – ‘dog licences’ as Aboriginal people called them – were not allowed to live on reserves and were advised to cease associating with other Aboriginal people. The legislation also included a provision making it an offence for a non-Aboriginal man to ‘habitually consort’ with an Aboriginal woman if not legally married to her.

By the 1950s ‘assimilation’ had become official government policy in Australia. Aboriginal people, it was argued, should enjoy the ‘same rights and privileges’, observe ‘the same customs’ and be ‘influenced by the same beliefs, hopes and loyalties as other Australians’ within a single national community (cited in The Flinders History of South Australia: Social History, p. 495). The policy sought to improve Aboriginal living standards and was pursued by assisting Aboriginal people to move into the general community through the provision of housing and other services.

The Aboriginal Affairs Act (1962) marked an important turning point in state government policy, removing many discriminatory aspects of previous legislation, such as the system of exemptions, the power to restrict Aboriginal access to certain towns and districts, and the offence of ‘consorting’. Changes were also occurring at the federal level. By the early 1960s most Aboriginal people were eligible for Commonwealth benefits, such as social security payments, and in 1962 they were granted full voting rights in federal elections.

In the 1960s the assimilationist presumptions that had guided Aboriginal policy since South Australia’s foundation began to be challenged. Laws denying Aboriginal people their civil and political rights were gradually removed, while concessions began to be made on the basis of cultural difference. In the 1960s and 1970s South Australia was in the vanguard of these changes, most notably through the leadership of Don Dunstan. In 1965 the Aboriginal and Historic Relics Preservation Act (proclaimed 1967) provided for the protection of Aboriginal heritage. The Aboriginal Lands Trust Act (1966) consolidated existing Aboriginal reserve lands and placed them under the control of a board of Aboriginal representatives. In 1966 South Australia was the first Australian state to outlaw racial discrimination. The Aboriginal Affairs Act Amendment Act (1966–67) provided for the creation of Aboriginal Reserve Councils, marking the end of administration by government-appointed superintendents. South Australia was also responsible for landmark land rights legislation, with the Pitjantjatjara Land Rights Act in 1981 and the Maralinga-Tjarutja Land Rights Act in 1984.

For much of the twentieth century Aboriginal activists campaigned for federal involvement in Aboriginal affairs, believing their interests would be best served if policy was nationally coordinated. These efforts culminated in the resounding success of the 1967 referendum giving the Commonwealth a mandate to involve itself more actively in Aboriginal policy-making and administration. However, not until the election of the Whitlam Labor government in 1972 did the Commonwealth take a significant role in directing national Aboriginal policy. Since then, state and federal policy has shifted away from assimilation toward self-determination.

Premised on a denial of Aboriginal sovereignty and rights to land, Aboriginal policy and administration for most of South Australia’s history was directed at assimilating Aboriginal people into the settler’s culture. Since the 1970s there has been increasing recognition of cultural difference and Aboriginal rights, but it remains to be seen how far state and federal governments will go in meeting Aboriginal aspirations for self-determination.

By Robert Foster

This entry was first published in The Wakefield companion to South Australian history edited by Wilfrid Prest, Kerrie Round and Carol Fort (Adelaide: Wakefield Press, 2001). Edited lightly. Uploaded Day Month 2015.

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