Academic journal article Borderlands

Colonial Letters Patent and Excolonialism: Forgetting, Counter-Memory and Mnemonic Potentiality

Academic journal article Borderlands

Colonial Letters Patent and Excolonialism: Forgetting, Counter-Memory and Mnemonic Potentiality

Article excerpt

In 1834, in authorising the colonisation of South Australia, the British Colonial Office issued Letters Patent specifying its policy of conduct to safeguard the rights of the Aboriginal inhabitants of lands in which nascent colonies were proposed or had been established. Although these property rights were subsequently breached, renewed attention to the Letters Patent reveals a broken promise of political recognition as a mode of engagement that was not widely actualised in the past but remains potential in the present; this potentiality may yet be seized to revive an alternative course of interaction between Indigenous and settler communities. Because colonial history involves two distinct kinds of forgetfulness--a missed actuality and a lost virtuality--remedial responsiveness requires two different efforts of remembrance: one will be critically directed to the truthful recovery of the past; and the other will make use of this memory to break with the habits of the past and identify a different foundation for future action. The first may best be thought of as a struggle for counter-memory to produce a more accurate and reflexive account of shared histories; the second requires a more nuanced and subtle attention to mnemonic potentiality and the prophetic rupture that it enables with respect to the past. This approach is developed with reference to the works of Foucault, Bergson and Ricoeur, together with an analysis of the strategic memory practices and modes of historical responsiveness shown by Ngarrindjeri peoples of south-eastern South Australia. Ngarrindjeri activism is not limited to the critical task of recovering counter-memory, but also involves a style of political practice that exceeds critique and which has a focussed constructive aim: it draws public attention to, and makes use of, an original and unspent potential for respectful interaction contained within the founding moment of intercultural contact.

As an Indigenous Nation responsible for the stretch of Country across south-eastern South Australia, Ngarrindjeri peoples have 'occupied, enjoyed, managed and used [...] ancestral lands since Creation' (Ngarrindjeri Nation 2007, p. 11; 2003).' Ngarrindjeri have never ceded their sovereignty or their territory; nor have they entered into treaty with colonising authorities. On 15 August 1834, British Parliament assented to the South Australian Colonisation Act, which created the Province of South Australia and provided for the appointment of Commissioners empowered to execute the Act. Authority to settle within the territorial boundaries of the Province was formally given by Letters Patent, issued by King William IV in February 1836. The British Colonial Office was clear in expressing its policy of safeguarding Aboriginal peoples' rights to occupation and enjoyment of their lands, and it was emphatic that the colonial acquisition of territory should be conducted in a fair and just manner (Berg 2010; Rigney et al 2008). These intentions are made plain by the inclusion of the following proviso in the Letters Patent: (ii)

   PROVIDED ALWAYS that nothing in these our Letters Patent contained
   shall affect or be construed to affect the rights of any Aboriginal
   Natives of the said Province to the actual occupation or enjoyment
   in their own Persons or in the Persons of their Descendants of any
   Lands therein now actually occupied or enjoyed by such Natives ...

The Governor and the Colonisation Commissioners for South Australia each received instruction regarding this provision. The First Annual Report of the Colonisation Commission (1836) again stressed that land could be acquired by the Commission for purchase by settlers, but only if it had first been voluntarily 'ceded' by the traditional owners:

The Colonial Commissioner is required to furnish the Protector of Aborigines [...] with evidence of the faithful fulfilment of the bargains or treaties which he may effect with the Aborigines for the cession of lands which they may have occupied or enjoyed; and it will be the duty of the Protector of Aborigines not only to see that such bargains or treaties are faithfully executed, but also to call upon the Executive Government of the Colony to protect the Aborigines in the undisturbed enjoyment of the lands over which they may possess proprietary rights, and of which they are not disposed to make a voluntary transfer. …

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