Academic journal article Hecate

Living an Immoral Life - 'Coloured' Women and the Paternalistic State

Academic journal article Hecate

Living an Immoral Life - 'Coloured' Women and the Paternalistic State

Article excerpt

There are vast populations in northern Australia who refer to themselves as 'coloured.' The inclusive category, 'coloured,' was ubiquitous in official and vernacular vocabularies until Indigenous Australians were released from the paternalistic grip of Aboriginal administration. The category was not legislatively defined, and might include Asians, Pacific Islanders and Indigenous Australian descendants. Its very usefulness was and continues to be that it defied all legal classifications such as alien/non-alien, Indigenous/non-Indigenous, Asian/non-Asian. Since access to citizenship for Indigenous Australians has been linked to identity - an identity that previously debarred them from citizenship - it has become difficult to remain 'coloured,' and many of these families are beset by intense conflicts over identity, and uncertainty whether their forebears were or were not considered Aboriginal people and what impact this may have on their access to citizenship rights. The uncertainty arises not only from a legacy of massive displacements and unreliable records, but also because the legislative boundaries drawn around Indigenous Australians have been extremely fluid.

For the patriarchal state, whose universe clearly defines the role of women in the maintenance of family, class and race, coloured women are an essentially intractable, morally suspicious phenomenon, an administrative and ethical problem. This 'problem' quickly moved to the core of Aboriginal administration in north Queensland. The challenge that coloured women posed to a white Australia during the first half of this century is intricately linked to predominant attitudes towards Asians, so that Aboriginal policy cannot be understood in isolation, as a black-and-white issue.

A considerable measure of xenophobia guided the policies of this bureaucracy, particularly xenophobia directed at Asians. The first comprehensive Aboriginal Protection Act in Queensland (the Aboriginals Protection and Restriction of the Sale of Opium Act 1897) was a clear expression of anti-Chinese sentiments; its major target of intervention was the supply of charcoal opium to Aborigines by Chinese. As a matter of policy (not of legislation), Asian-Aboriginal children were specially targeted for removal as neglected children (using the provisions of the 1884 Reformatory Schools Act), and the discussions surrounding the introduction of the 1897 Act were very much focussed on the experience of far north Queensland, where the marine industries, conducted almost exclusively by Asian and other coloured men, were subject to particular government attention.(1)

The interaction of Asian men with Indigenous Australian women was always suspicious and considered tendentially immoral, not least since Asian men were seen as such.(2) Since (to discourage the formation of coloured families in Australia) very few Asian, Pacific and other 'coloured' women were permitted entry, those who were in Queensland were either suspected of engaging in, or were the offspring of what were considered 'pernicious associations' - sexual relations across racial boundaries. Coloured women, therefore, threatened the race/class distinctions between black and white. Their legal existence was in the interstices between protective legislation extended over Indigenous Australians, and restrictive legislation extended over aliens, particularly Asians. The histories of Australian-born coloured women have fallen victim to this xenophobia because their records are evocations of immoral lives.

By 1901, significant advances had been made in Aboriginal administration by means of an impressively efficient network of reporting through ten local Protectors, powers to remove Aboriginal persons to missions and reserves, and supervision of employment by means of a permit (refused to Chinese, again as a matter of policy until this became law in 1901). The Southern Protector, Archibald Meston, confidently projected the date at which Aborigines would be extinct to be in the 1950s,(3) but the Northern Protector, Dr Walter Roth, was concerned about the increase in the 'half-caste'(4) population. …

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