Governing Natives: Indirect Rule and Settler Colonialism in Australia's North.
By Ben Silverstein.
Manchester University Press. 2019.
Price: [pounds sterling]80 (hardcover)
Ben Silverstein's aim is to read the 1939 'New Deal for Aborigines' (a policy statement by Minister for the Interior John McEwen about Northern Territory Aborigines) as a plan for 'indirect rule': the state's deliberate harnessing of the customary governing capacities of Aboriginal society to mediate colonial authority. (1) Historians have described colonial authority in Nigeria and Fiji as 'indirect rule', but Silverstein is the first to say that it was policy, however briefly, in the Northern Territory. In 'settler colonial studies' the orthodox account of Australian history is that because settler colonial authority has been primarily interested in land it has tended to destroy the self-governing capacities of the colonized, enabling 'direct rule' (and it may even destroy the colonized physically).
Silverstein explains that the Northern Territory departed from the Australian norm because cheap Aboriginal labour was, in effect, an indispensable subsidy to the Territory's commercially marginal pastoral industry. The colonial state judged in the 1930s that it would be more prudent to preserve than to undermine the capacity of Aboriginal society to reproduce itself. 'Reproduction' refers here not only to fertility and child survival but also to continuity in outlooks and land-use practices, so that in the cattle industry Aboriginal labour was divided 'between two articulated modes of production' (p. 178)--the pastoralist's and their own, to the benefit of the pastoral industry. Silverstein thus recycles, to good effect, the theoretical framework developed more than 40 years ago by Beckett and Hartwig. (2)
To this established account of what made northern pastoralism different from the destructive logic of Australian settler colonial rule Silverstein brings three new arguments.
The first is to name this preservative approach 'indirect rule'. Drawing on a large literature about the British empire in Fiji and Nigeria, Silverstein describes the different ways that 'native society' in both colonies was seen as conducive to colonizing projects: as a source of cash crops and taxes, as a stable system of land tenure, as a producer of the next generation of native labourers, as reproducing a native political class amenable to the colonists' patronage. Indirect rule also projected the native interest forward, thus helping to legitimize colonial authority as developmental guidance.
When adapted to the Northern Territory, 'indirect rule' (as expressed in McEwen's 'New Deal') postulated a typology of Aboriginal subjects: the fully detribalized; the semi-detribalized; those 'in the native state'; and half-castes. McEwen's statement said nothing about how the New Deal would affect Aboriginal people already in the pastoral industry (the 'fully-detribalised'). The focus of the statement was more on the 'semi-detribalised' and those 'in the native state'. They were to live on reserves, 'buffered' from 'civilization'. Anthropologically-trained staff at buffer 'stations' would manage their gradual, transformative contact with 'non-official' colonial activities such as pastoral leases and missions. In this way 'native society' would continue to be 'a reserve labour force for the pastoral economy' (p. 146), a source managed by anthropologically trained government officials. McEwen's typology was therefore also a sequence: those in the 'native state' would become semi-detribalised and then they or their descendants would become as 'detribalised' as other Aboriginal workers and their rationed dependants who laboured in the pastoral industry's 'two articulated modes of production'.
But if Northern Territory reserves were sites of 'indirect rule' who were the 'chiefs'? Silverstein's second argument becomes relevant here. By the late 1930s Anthropology--and in particular Donald Thomson, reporting Arnhem Land field trips in 1936, 1937, and 1939--had produced for the Australian government a model of customary Aboriginal political authority. People in the 'native state' were regulated by customary law; thus, as 'clans' and 'hordes' they were 'governable subjects' (p. 84). Anthropology's functionalist turn and its quest for public funding made this discursive move possible and desirable. McEwen's 'New Deal' expressed a view, ably channelled by Elkin, that the least disturbed Aboriginal people were entitled to careful, expert handling of their comparatively acephalous social organization. Whether this meant indefinite segregation, and what role missionaries might play, were issues touched upon, but not resolved, by McEwen's 1939 statement.
Silverstein's most original and welcome exploration is to compare McEwen's 'indirect rule' proposal with policy visions offered by contemporary southern Aboriginal activists. They too differentiated among Aboriginal people by saying that all were going through a developmental sequence--some already 'civilized' (and capable of 'self-determination'), others still 'wild' (and entitled to be guided by the more 'civilized'). Some of these activists supported a version of indirect rule that white humanitarians had begun to advocate in 1927: allowing an 'Aboriginal state' somewhere in remote Australia. However, when discussion of this possibility turned to the question of how Aboriginal people would govern such a 'state', non-Aboriginal protagonists tended to compare Aborigines to Melanesians and to find Aborigines relatively unable, yet, to govern themselves. Such discussions seem not to have considered the possibility that southern Aboriginal people had acquired that self-governing capacity and might manage (as 'chiefs', in their own way) southern and/or northern reserves.
After the second world war, policy reformers could imagine 'advanced' Aborigines as citizens of Australia but not as leaders of Indigenous nations. Silverstein is thus reminding us of a moment in the late 1930s when an Australian policy about reserves--albeit motivated by a desire to continue to subsidize the pastoral industry--entertained an operational model of Aboriginal sovereignty.
I have two arguments with Silverstein. First, he says almost nothing about the missions in remote Aboriginal Australia. They were the institutional hosts of nearly all the anthropological research from 1926 (W.L. Warner at Millingimbi) to 1939 (Thomson in and out of Yirrkala) that produced an account of 'Aboriginal society' as self-governing and thus (via indirect rule) as governable. McEwen presented missions as continuing institutions of colonial authority on reserves, integral to 'indirect rule'. He wanted the Commonwealth to continue to subsidize them, while holding them more accountable. He considered their spiritual work vital to the psychological stability of people whose ontology would continue to collapse as they gradually made contact with the world beyond their country. My best explanation for Silverstein having so little to say about what missions did and were expected to do in the Northern Territory is that his book's political purpose is to establish a genealogy for contemporary projections of Indigenous Australian sovereignty--a discourse whose invented tradition is so secular that sovereignty's filiation to notions of Aboriginal Christian community has become unthinkable.
My second argument with Silverstein is that he exaggerates McEwen's break from the policies of Cecil Cook, who served as Chief Medical Officer (CMO) and Chief Protector of Aboriginals (CPA) from 1927 to 1939. Cook was certainly critical of McEwen's 'New Deal', but his objection was to the proposed separation of the CMO and CPA roles. Cook had long thought that, in the Northem Territory, these two authorities must be a single biopolitical apparatus. The Commonwealth dealt with Cook's objection by transferring him to a Department of Health position in Sydney. This clash has obscured from some historians that Cook's previous sketches of Commonwealth policy anticipated other features of the New Deal. In particular. Cook and McEwen agreed that the pastoral industry and Aboriginal society could and should be in a mutually sustaining relationship. In 1935, Cook recommended that small reserves be declared near pastoral leases so that 'all the remnants of the tribe may continue as far as possible to live according to their own customs and to which native employees may repair during seasons of unemployment'. In the same memorandum he anticipated the 'New Deal' by recommending conditional support of missions. Both Cook and McEwen hoped that the Administration could manage reserve residents' gradual awakening to Australian modernity. On the more remote reserves, Cook wanted government to oblige missions to be more accountable for their subsidy and, in particular, to respect 'ceremonial... perhaps the most important factor in social integration...[lest] integrating factors [be] destroyed by Christianity'. (3) Cook's 1935 policy draft must be considered as evidence contradicting Silverstein's assertions that Cook saw 'contact with white people' as 'unavoidable, desirable, and fatal for Aboriginal society' (p. 113) and that 'Aboriginal people on reserves had, for Cook, neither a future nor a functional present; he would let them die' (p. 147). If McEwen's New Deal was 'indirect rule' then Cook's 1935 memo was an early sketch, worthy of inclusion in the intellectual tradition that imagined 'Aboriginal society' as possessing continuing political capacity. Of course, neither Cook nor McEwen imagined that such political capacity would continue indefinitely as Aboriginal sovereignty. But nor did either of them put a timetable on that authority's eclipse.
When commenting on missions, Cook's rhetoric and tone was more suspicious of their competence and more specific in itemizing their accountability to the state than McEwen dared to be in his 'New Deal' statement. Cook was a confident technocrat, McEwen a politician who could not be seen to be in harsh assessment of faith-based institutions. Indeed, to the extent that Silverstein's framing of the story of 1930s policy-making is tilted towards the secular (see above), Cook should be a more ideologically sympathetic character for Silverstein than he finds Cook to be. Silverstein sees Cook ('authoritarian and cold', p. 117) through the demonizing stereotype that has built up in scholarship on Cook's administration. His negative assessment of Cook is evident in several statements that give the impression that Cook was at best indifferent to Aboriginal suffering. Silverstein coins the phrase 'Cook's eliminationist necropolitics' (p. 142). 'Cook... pursued a course of action engineered to make white life and let Aboriginal people, and Aboriginal societies, die' (p. 110). Silverstein writes that under Cook the object of the 'practice of Aboriginal "protection"...was the health of a white population' (p. 110). Silverstein refers to Cook's 'unwillingness to contemplate the survival of Aboriginal communities' (p. 117) and that Cook was 'celebrating Aboriginal demise' (p. 124). There is ample evidence in the National Archives of Australia that Cook was sincerely dedicated to improving the health of the entire population of the Northern Territory--though he was frustrated that missions, not his own officers, mediated state intervention into the reserves. (4) It was Cook's zeal for Aboriginal health--not just his personality--that made enemies.
In a book about Commonwealth policy towards Aborigines in the Northern Territory in the 1930s, lack of interest in missions and gratuitous hostility to Chief Protector Cook are not small defects. Nonetheless, Governing natives is valuable as a reminder that one model of colonial authority will not deal with Australia's regional variety. and it has something new and important to say about how we positon Australia in the British imperial story.
(1.) Australia. Department of the Interior. Commonwealth Governments Policy with Respect to Aboriginals. Canberra: Commonwealth Government Printer, 1939.
(2.) Jeremy Beckett 'Torres Strait Islanders and the Pearling Industry' Aboriginal History 1(1) 1977, 77-104; Mervyn Hartwig 'Capitalism and the Aborigines: The theory of internal colonialism and its rivals'. In E.L. Wheelwright and Ken Buckley (eds) Essays in the Political Economy of Australian Capitalism Volume J. Sydney, Australia and New Zealand Book Company 1977, 119-41, see 134-5 in particular. Neither paper is in the book's bibliography.
(3.) Cook to Administrator 7 October 1935 National Archives of Australia CRS A1 1937/70.
(4.) See Tim Rowse 'Cook, Cecil Evelyn Aufrere (Mick) (1897-1985)'. Australian Dictionary of Biography. http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/cook-cecil-evelynaufrere-mick-12343 (accessed June 7 2019).
Western Sydney University