This is an NFSA Digital Learning resource. See all Digital Learning websites.
Mabo home
Self-government & Philanthropy
Compensation for dispossession might perhaps be inferred in the 1848 instruction of Colonial Secretary Earl Grey that part of the revenue from sales of land in New South Wales be used for Aboriginal welfare and protection. However, the governments of the Australian colonies were never effectively constrained by Britain to spend a prescribed proportion of their land sales income on those whom they dispossessed.

The problem was that these funds were also intended to finance emigration to the colonies. Not only was migration a much more popular cause than Aboriginal welfare among most of the colonial elite, the swelling of the colonists' numbers by migration added to the pressure further to dispossess Aboriginal people. Emigration also increased the proportion of 'free' settlers over those who had been transported as convicts (the last transported felon disembarked in the eastern ports in 1852, and in Fremantle in 1868). This 'elevation' of the colonies' moral climate - as it was then seen - added weight to the settlers' plea to London that they now be allowed to govern themselves. New South Wales was given its own constitution in 1852, Victoria in 1851, South Australia in 1856 and Queensland in 1859.

Indeed, the colonists' struggle for self-government was partly about escaping London officials' authority over colonists' land use. This dynamic of Imperial control, colonial resistance and disastrous neglect of Indigenous interests is well illustrated by what happened when the British government framed the constitution of Western Australia in 1889. Under the Western Australian Constitution Act 1890 Section 70, part 4, the Western Australian Government was obliged to spend one per cent of its revenue on food, clothing and education for Aborigines. The Western Australian Parliament had repealed that bothersome requirement by 1897.

Because the six colonial governments failed to negotiate and to draw up a treaty or agreement setting out Indigenous rights, or to retain a notion of Indigenous entitlement in such laws as the Western Australian Constitution Act, the mid-nineteenth century idea that rations and reserves could be thought of as Aborigines' 'compensation' was lost from the colonists' collective memory. Another more comfortable set of ideas replaced it. The Australian colonists came to see the giving of rations and the creation of reserves as acts of charity. Aborigines came to be seen less as land owners and more as a new species of the poor, subject to the white man's philanthropy.

Keywords: colonialism, colonialism, colonisation, colonists, compensation, conquest, Grey, Earl, land tenure, migration, New South Wales, Queensland, rations, reserves, South Australia, Victoria, Western Australia, 1800s

Author: Rowse, Tim and Graham, Trevor