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genocide and empire Arrow vol 5 no 1 contents
About borderlands volume 5 number 1, 2006



Genocide and Empire

A. Dirk Moses (ed), Genocide and Settler Society: Frontier Violence and Stolen Indigenous Children in Australian History. New York: Berghahn, 2004.

Alan Lester

University of Sussex


1. This book is published as part of a series on war and genocide in which studies of National Socialist policies predominate. Its blurb promises that it will 'reconstruct instances of Australian genocide' and for the first time, place 'them in a global context'. At the series editor's suggestion, the key basis for this 'global' comparison is actually the policies pursued by Nazi authorities, especially in occupied eastern Europe, during the 1930s and 1940s. This was the context, after all, in which the word 'genocide' was first coined by Raphael Lemkin, a figure whose writings loom large in some of the book's chapters.

2. In an effort to give a precise grounding to recent, publicly aired claims and counter-claims of parallels between white British/Australian treatment of Aborigines and Nazi treatment of supposed 'racial inferiors', the work of two scholars of those Nazi policies and their colonial precedents (Jürgen Zimmerer and Isabel Heinemann) is included in this volume. The reader is left largely to make their own judgement concerning the similarities and differences between the events described in these two chapters and those surrounding the settler-indigenous relations in Australia that are analysed in the remaining eleven chapters. I found these two chapters instructive and did indeed come to my own conclusions about both parallels and contrasts in the discourses of perpetrators, and the experiences of victims. However, I wonder whether a different kind of global context might have served a more useful purpose, both in furthering debates about apology, reconciliation and reparation in Australia, and in comprehending the past on its own terms. The context that I would propose is one of connection rather than simply comparison. This is something that I will return to below.

3. The first of three sections in the book sets out 'conceptual and historical determinants' of genocide studies more broadly, and their potential relevance for Australia. A. Dirk Moses is quite clear that the 'book aims to stimulate still more research, rather than provide easy answers', and the chapters that follow do indeed take quite sharply different approaches on the utility and applicability of the term 'genocide' in an Australian context. Moses' substantive introductory chapter argues that 'genocidal moments', if not systematic genocide on the scale of the Nazis, were intrinsic to the 'deep structure of settler society' (36). In this chapter he foreshadows questions that recur frequently throughout the volume. The most significant of these is whether or not Lemkin's and the UN's definitions of 'genocide' are applicable to the colonial and modern Australian states' and other white interests' treatment of Aborigines. Specifically, this applicability is tested first in relation to the mass murders and more indirect decimation of Aborigines as a result of settler occupation in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (Part Two of the book), and secondly in relation to policies of child removal, eugenic planning and racist restrictions on Aboriginal social life in the twentieth century (Part Three).

4. The question that preoccupies many of the contributors in Part Two is whether there must be deliberate, state-directed intent to destroy if we are to use the word 'genocide' to describe the effects of Australia's settler occupation. If not, can the word be used more flexibly to apply in conditions where massacres were (with some significant exceptions) undertaken by settlers outside of state control, and where the Aboriginal population was denuded by disease and starvation that could have been prevented? In Part Three, the problematic revolves in part around the UN's exclusion of what is popularly described as 'cultural genocide' from its own definition of the term. While pre-World War Two state and Commonwealth policies of child transfer, and the prohibition of certain patterns of procreation had the intention of forcing Aboriginal and so-called 'half-caste' biological 'absorption', and can therefore fit more easily with the UN's definition, can this definition legitimately be extended to describe policies of child transfer aimed more at cultural assimilation thereafter? Both policy directions would ensure the eventual disappearance of certain kinds of people, whether defined by 'racial' constitution or by cultural norms, but they would do so without destroying the existing Aboriginal and 'half-caste' individuals, who were their targets.

5. After Moses' Introduction, the first of the comparative chapters by Zimmerer argues that tracking colonial conceptions of race and space during the colonial period enables us to comprehend the 'archaeology' of genocidal intent on the part of National Socialists in the mid-twentieth century. Jan Kociumbas' subsequent chapter is a parallel argument that British settler colonization was frequently genocidal, in Australia as well as elsewhere. The next chapter by Raymond Evans, concluding Part One of the book, links the dispossession of Aborigines on Australia's colonial frontiers to the later development of White Australia immigration policies. Both are conceived as stages within a unitary racist project —'the single-minded drive to create in Australia a mono-racial continental community' (110). Many histories of South Africa were, until recently, similarly linear. They were concerned with the tracking of racist continuities across some 300 years, from the days of slavery in the early colonial Cape, through frontier expansion, industrialisation and early twentieth century segregation to the degradations of apartheid. In South Africa, the post-apartheid moment has opened up ways of disassembling these linear narratives. Historians have begun to draw attention to experiences, beliefs, performances and practices that complicate such 'endpoint' stories. The intriguing question that arises, for me at least, is whether or not, in the face of continued right wing denial and refusal to countenance reparation and apology, it is still too early for most historians to feel that they can do the same in Australia?

6. The second section of the book deals with the question of genocide on Australia's historic frontiers of colonisation. It starts with Henry Reynolds's concise account of the events in Van Diemen's Land that have, perhaps more often and more comprehensively than any other Australian episode, been described as genocidal. Reynolds provides a nuanced analysis of the differences between settler, humanitarian, and metropolitan and local governmental objectives, rhetoric and practice—an account that is at odds with some of the more homogenising tendencies in certain other chapters' treatment of colonial projects. Reynolds makes it clear that, in common with other British colonial frontiers, it was land-grabbing settlers who most clearly expressed 'exterminatory', or what we might with most reason today call 'genocidal' intent. Colonial governance in the early nineteenth century was caught ambivalently between the need to 'manage' such demands, appease evangelical humanitarian agendas and satisfy the metropolitan government and public at large as to the morality of British colonial rule, not to mention governors such as George Arthur's own feelings. The next chapter, Raymond Evans's second, is a narrative of the series of mass killings, many by the Native Police, that marked the destruction of Aboriginal societies along the mid-nineteenth century Queensland frontier. Evans demonstrates that the 'achievement' of settler self-government allowed greater scope for settlers to carry out exterminatory intent, despite the lingering concern of some humanitarians and of the metropolitan government.

7. Pamela Lukin Watson's succeeding chapter is the most direct, and perhaps rather forced, attempt to prove that genocide, strictly according to the UN's definition, took place, also in Queensland. With its squeezing of historical material into a format determined by the UN definition, and certain convolutions to demonstrate 'intent', such a chapter may well be politically necessary in pursuit of reparation and apology. It represents a kind of 'strategic essentialism' to counter the vastly more damaging, populist strategic essentialisms of people like Keith Windschuttle. But it does come at a price, and that is the understanding of nineteenth century colonial entanglements on their own terms, with all their ambivalences, multiple colonial and indigenous agencies, negotiations, accommodations and compromises, as well as their exactions, suppressions and downright horrors.

8. The final chapter in Part Two is by Paul Bartrop and is comparative in a different way from those focusing on National Socialism. It deals with two separate colonial massacres, one in Gippsland, Australia, in 1843, and one in Colorado, USA in 1864. Bartrop examines each case against the UN definition of genocide, finding that the Australian massacre, regardless of its own horror, did not constitute genocide in these terms because it occurred despite, rather than because of the law, and because it was not state-sanctioned. The Colorado massacre was, however, genocide in the UN's terms, because it was state-directed.

9. Part Three of the book is aimed at the second arena of debate over genocide in Australia—the Aboriginal and so-called 'half-caste' experience of forced child removal, procreative regulation and racist restrictions in the twentieth century. Robert Manne begins the section with an account of the genealogy of child removal policies and the context of eugenic and racist thought in which they occurred, before the Second World War. For the most part, he seeks to uncover the story on its own terms rather than try to match evidence up against any particular definition of genocide, but his conclusion is that, in the policies adopted, for example by Chief Protector A. O. Neville in Western Australia and emulated to some extent elsewhere, one can find genocidal thoughts and plans. Often, though, they fell short of reified genocidal crimes because of both insufficient resources and Aboriginal resistance.

10. In looking forward to the post-Second World War climate of social and racial policy, Manne is in substantial agreement with Russell McGregor whose later chapter persuasively distinguishes between pre-war plans for the biological absorption of Aborigines and 'half-castes' based on eugenics, and post-war policies based on cultural and social integration, which are better described as assimilation. The latter, argues McGregor, represented policies to manage rather than erase the Aboriginal presence, and bear little relation to the UN definition of genocide. In between the chapters by Manne and McGregor are those of Isabel Heinemann and Anna Haebich. Heinemann's is one of the chapters on Nazi policies included for comparative insight. It focuses on the bureaucratically organised murders, kidnappings and forced adoptions of tens of thousands of children in Nazi-occupied eastern Europe during the Second World War, and the transfer of those children deemed of good enough 'racial stock' to German foster parents. Again, readers are left to make their own conclusions about any comparisons with Australia. Haebich's ensuing chapter is an argument that the UN's definition of genocide be adapted to take account of colonial attempts to erase an indigenous presence where there was no central state policy of Aboriginal destruction, but where destruction was nevertheless inevitable as a result of policies that broadly supported expansionist settler imperatives. The existing UN definition, however, does more readily match the pre-war, absorptionist policies already described.

11. The volume concludes with an epilogue by Tim Rowse which tracks the population classified as Aboriginal numerically. Rowse argues that the history of the Aboriginal population since colonisation is one of decline followed by recovery, even if that recovery is in large part due to the encouraging fact that an increasing number of Australians with 'mixed' descent are choosing to classify themselves as Aboriginal. In a neat end to a disturbing book on genocidal thoughts and programmes, Rowse concludes that 'the indigenous Australian population, assumed until the 1930s to be headed for extinction, has bounced back and will continue to grow' (324).

12. While there is interesting comparative material in most of the chapters in this book, I found it problematic that some of them portray an apparently unitary mode of British colonization, with certain time and space-distanced episodes selected as being representative of that mode. There is, for instance, a recurrent instrumentalist view of late eighteenth and early nineteenth century humanitarian projects. The Myall Creek trial is dismissed by Jan Kocimubus as a 'show trial, staged by urban-based liberals concerned to streamline and modernize the process of colonization' (93), without any sense of the vehement contest over notions of Britishness, racial difference and the morality of Empire that the trial occasioned among Australian (and indeed other settler) Britons. Rather than seeing humanitarianism as being simply a smokescreen for legitimating, or a ploy for modernising, settler dispossession and the 'extermination' of indigenous peoples, it makes more sense to view humanitarianism and settler capitalism as different and contested projects to define the nature and purpose of British colonization. Both of these projects were indeed dispossessive, but in very different ways, the former culturally and the latter materially. Much of the 'new imperial history' of the last few years had been at pains to disaggregate the multiple projects and networks through which British colonisation was carried out and maintained, and to stress the tensions as well as the convergences between these projects. Paying attention to the heterogeneity of British colonial interests and their connections across the Empire (as, for example, does Reynolds), enables us to be much more specific about when, and in what contexts certain groups expressed genocidal intent, and how and why that intent was, or was not, realised.

13. I can see why the series editor suggested the inclusion of chapters on Nazi policies and actions. It helps to illuminate the arguments over the use of the word 'genocide' in relation to the colonial and modern state treatment of Australian Aborigines. As a non-specialist, I also found these chapters harrowingly informative and well constructed. Yet at the same time, they do sit rather awkwardly here, and I wonder whether a differently projected frame of reference for the book might have been of more use. This would be one based on colonial and modern Australia's positioning within British trans-imperial networks. Such a different form of contextualisation might just have served better both our historical understanding of the colonisation and modernist planning of Aboriginal Australia, and the present political struggle to secure a meaningful acknowledgement of the effects of those interventions.

14. What is rather clumsy about the inclusion of the Nazi chapters is the lack of any clear connection, rather than merely comparison, between Australia and Nazi Germany. While the comparative chapters can serve to highlight parallels and contrasts (the stock in trade of traditional comparative history), such points of comparison are not actually adverted to explicitly here, and even if they were, they would be of limited explanatory potential. Their main benefit is clearly to agitate for a recognition that one really can uncover some similarities between what is conventionally accepted as genocide, and the experiences of many Australian Aborigines. But certainly in terms of causative connection at least, situating Australia within trans-imperial networks has grater valence. The density of economic, ideological and material trajectories that linked nineteenth and early twentieth century Australia with other British colonies (settler colonies in particular), and with Britain itself, was far greater than the density of those trajectories connecting Australia with Nazi Germany or with any other sites across the globe for most of this period.

15. The British settler discourse of irreclaimable indigenous savagery, and the project of 'eradication' or 'extermination' that was indissolubly linked to it, was one that was worked out, elaborated and redefined through extensive conversation and communication between Australian, South African, North American and even New Zealand Britons. Later state and Commonwealth policies of 'breeding out the colour' of half caste children were framed within an ideological and scientific package of modernist social planning that was similarly trans-imperial in its elaboration and manifestation. It was not simply that Australian interests borrowed notions from other parts of the Empire. The traffic in ideas went in all directions. Robert Manne, for instance, notes that the South African government asked to have more detail on Australian policies for the eradication of 'half-castes' through manipulation of 'mixed-race' marriages. Even if prohibitions on 'mixed marriages' in South Africa were geared at the prevention of 'miscegenation', while those in Australia were aimed at the selective encouragement of the practice so as to 'whiten' the 'mixed race' population, such variations were nevertheless the product of extensive exchange and communication of racist discourse across imperial space. To give one more example, a couple of the contributors note how influential the colony of Natal's dictation test was in setting up a model for regulating 'non-white' immigration and maintaining the White Australia policy thrust. The circuits of Empire, then, encouraged both comparison and connection in ways that comparative history cannot access, but interconnected history can.

16. Even aside from generating a more meaningful context for historical enquiry, I think there is also an important contemporary political point to be made from such an imperially networked frame of reference. One of the most absurd arguments that Keith Windschuttle has had recourse to throughout the recent History Wars has been that which suggests that Britons in the colonies were incapable of what we might reasonably call genocidal acts, or even, falling short of that, mass murder, for the very reason that they were Britons. For Windschuttle, Britishness seems to mean a community guided by essentially liberal notions of the rule of law, by Christian precepts and by ideals of justice towards others. Tracking the difficulties that humanitarian British men and women, who to a greater or lesser extent genuinely did believe in such principles, encountered in trying to rein in equally 'British' settlers engaged in brutal acts of dispossession on the multiple frontiers of the Empire, is the surest way of highlighting the absurdity of this claim. What such an exercise in Australian-centred, but trans-imperial, history would also do, is to show how the deeply engrained Christian ethnocentricism, even of such humanitarians, fostered immensely painful and regrettable policies of Aboriginal and 'half caste' child removal and 'forced assimilation', which culminated in the twentieth century. Might a greater awareness of the perpetual, trans-imperial struggle to define 'proper' behaviour towards indigenous peoples in settler colonies, be even more conducive of a public acceptance of the need to apologise and make amends, than comparisons with Nazi Germany, which, if anything, tend to fuel more vehement and destructive right wing and public revisionism?


Alan Lester is Professor of Historical Geography at the University of Sussex. His interests are in British colonial projects and networks in the nineteenth century. Most recently, he is the author of Imperial Networks: Creating Identities in Nineteenth Century South Africa and Britain (Routledge, 2001) and, co-edited with David Lambert, Colonial Lives Across the British Empire: Imperial Careering in the Long Nineteenth Century (Cambridge University Press, 2006).

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