Academic journal article The Australian Journal of Politics and History

Imagining Aboriginal Nations: Early Nineteenth Century Evangelicals on the Australian Frontier and the "Nation" Concept (1)

Academic journal article The Australian Journal of Politics and History

Imagining Aboriginal Nations: Early Nineteenth Century Evangelicals on the Australian Frontier and the "Nation" Concept (1)

Article excerpt

Did the Europeans who had early contact with the indigenous people of Australia, and who also had an intimate knowledge of their culture and organisation, view them as nations? Norman Tindale, a distinguished Australian anthropologist whose career spanned from the 1920s to the 1970s, surveying early anthropological work, surprisingly, answered yes to this question. Tindale observed that "in the early days of white contact there was a compulsion to try and find major units in Australia of the kinds familiar to the people of Europe". He noted how in several early European studies of Aboriginal societies there were descriptions of "so-called nations that some nineteenth century writers pretended to find". (2) Tindale did not agree that Aboriginal Australia was composed of nations, but believed that Aboriginal people should only be seen in terms of being tribes. He argued that "the 'nation' concept was untenable except as a satisfying a classificatory demand by those unwilling to accept the idea of nonnational units". (3) Was Tindale right? Did Europeans who believed that Aboriginal people constituted nations merely transfer inappropriate concepts onto them? What did Europeans coming into contact with Australia's indigenous people mean when they talked of Aboriginal nations? Also, Tindale's remarks indicate that the notion of perceiving Aboriginal people as nations was far more pervasive than accounts of Aboriginal-European race relations suggest. How widespread was the idea?

The "Nation" Concept

The term "nation" was regularly used by Europeans to describe the people they colonised until the nineteenth century. When North America began to be extensively colonised in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the use of the term nation to describe indigenous people was common. In the treaties signed with the invading Europeans, the North American Indians were described as nations. (4) Prior to the nineteenth century, a nation had been simply defined as a group of people of common ancestry, living together, who spoke a common language. The word was derived from the Latin noun, natio, which meant "stock" or "breed". (5) Anthony D. Smith has argued that the concept of a nation is not a modern idea as commonly thought and claimed by many writers, such as Ernest Gellner. The nation, for Gellner, was a modern institution that emerged only in the late eighteenth century. (6) Smith has stated that, contrary to Gellner's thesis, even in Ancient Greece and Rome there were "strikingly parallels to the `modern idea' of national identity and character". (7)

From the late eighteenth century onwards, according to Smith, there appears to have been a shift in the meaning of what was meant by the term "a nation". The notion of a nation as an organised territorial unit replaced the old meaning of a nation being a group of people with similar customs and a common ancestry. The concept of the nation as a highly organised territorial political unit with a centralised authority administering in a methodical and systematic manner the affairs of a common people through a large bureaucracy of government departments clearly dominated European political thought in the nineteenth century. (8)

The modern idea of a nation, which developed from nineteenth century liberalism, made independent statehood a desirable, even essential, concomitant of nationhood. The state was an expression of the collective will of a nation. In the aftermath of the French Revolution, the nation-state was viewed as the realisation of the principle that "the source of all sovereignty resides essentially in the nation", found in the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of Citizens of 1789. Gellner, and other writers such as E.J. Hobsbawm, have commonly accepted the nation as a modern concept, which was the result of the sweeping away of feudal society by nationalist ideas spread by the French Revolution. …

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