The 1930s was a time of flux in Aboriginal affairs. This decade was marked by the climax of legislative control over Aborigines, but it also saw changes which were to result in eventual legal equality and citizenship for Aborigines. Indeed, the anthropologist, A.P. Elkin, who witnessed and partly stimulated these changes, remarked in 1962 that ‘looking back over thirty years, I can best describe the changes in attitude and policies in the aboriginal sphere, as a revolution, and a revolution for the better’. 1 Perhaps he was too optimistic, but the change from paternalism to something approaching self-management has been little short of massive. What follows is an analysis of these changes and the forces that shaped them.
The colonial folklore that Aborigines were inferior still held firm in most European minds in the 1930s. The Melbourne Argus typically explained in 1938 that the Aborigines were ‘a backward and lowly race’ doomed to extinction. With mixed feelings of compassion, guilt and relief, most European Australians argued that the Aborigines could not survive in the face of so-called ‘modern’ civilization—the race would die out. They found ‘proof’ for their beliefs in the fact that only about 60,000 Aborigines survived by 1930 from an original population of 300,000 people. The only worrying aspect for these white supremacists was that the number of Aborigines of mixed descent was increasing. This fact revived the old white Australian fears for the purity of the white race and focused the attention of policy-makers on the Aborigines of mixed descent.
J.W. Bleakley's report on the Northern Territory Aborigines in 1928 concentrated on the ‘half-caste question’. He was obsessed like many others at the time with categorising Aboriginal people according to their degree of Aboriginal heritage, as if it was some taint which had to be isolated. Bleakley differentiated between fully Aboriginal people (‘full bloods’), through to persons who were only one-eighth Aboriginal (‘octoroons’). This grading of people reflected the racist idea that people of mixed race were on a continuum between civilisation and barbarism; the lighter the skin the more civilised and intelligent the person