In 1841, Herman Merivale, professor of political economy at Oxford University and soon to be appointed under-secretary of state for the colonies, made the following remarks about the nature of colonisation:
The history of the European settlements in America, Africa, and Australia, presents everywhere the same general features – a wide and sweeping destruction of native races by the uncontrolled violence of individuals, if not of colonial authorities, followed by tardy attempts on the part of governments to repair the acknowledged crime.1
At the beginning of the new millennium, Herman Merivale’s mid-nineteenth-century characterisation of colonies of settlement at once confirms and challenges a ‘commonsense understanding’2 of colonialism. The work of revisionist historians has ensured that Europeans can no longer claim ignorance of the devastating impact on Indigenous peoples of this particular type of colonial enterprise. But the alleged disorder and pragmatism of its administration, so candidly asserted as ‘irregular and arbitrary’ by one of its major protagonists, is perhaps less immediately brought to mind.3
In this book, where we trace the general and particular circumstances in which political rights were accorded or denied to Indigenous peoples in Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, from the 1830s to 1910, Merivale’s twin observations emerge as particularly pertinent. By situating the violence and upheaval of dispossession within a comparative perspective, we hope to identify shifting modes of British and settler rule over time as British governments and colonial elites adopted more ‘respectable’ means of establishing and then entrenching settler dominance and privilege, in lands that were inhabited by others. Part of securing that dominance, as well as of attempting to repair ‘the acknowledged crime’ of colonisation, would include consideration of how surviving Indigenous peoples were to be incorporated within the political systems that were unfolding.
We turn our attention to this specific aspect of colonial rule in these newly forged aggregations – to how first British and then settler governments addressed the question of Indigenous peoples’ political rights. In demonstrating critical links between similar types of colonial formation in vastly different parts of the Empire, we argue that the ways in which Britain and the individual colonies responded to this question, while varying significantly, conformed nevertheless to the general economic requirements of settlement. Previous valuable collections have tended to view the franchise purely as part of legal or political history.4 In putting forward a comparative study of the franchise within the distinctive social context of settler colonialism, we address a significant gap in the historiography that we hope will clarify understanding of enduring injustices and inequalities in these contemporary settler states. Rather than simply listing the terms and provisions of the franchise when these states were being formed, we demonstrate their historical relation to the wider economic, social and political imperatives that framed those interactions in Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. We identify major players in these encounters whose distanced or intimate engagements with decisions over who would and would not be included as full members of the colonial polity laid bare some of the central issues at stake in settler–colonial rule.
Traditional Marxist and more recent postcolonial theorists have established and elaborated the pervasive and persistent effects of colonialism. While not questioning its overall coherence as a political project, we have adopted an analytical framework that views colonialism as unfolding in specific fields of struggle and its modes of government as both formulated within and responsive to variable and shifting balances of power. We focus our attention in this instance on a distinctive form of colonial domination – British nineteenth-century settler colonialism – and offer an examination of these four localised sites of its various manifestations. In so doing, we are indebted to the work of recent scholars who have asserted the need to counter an enduring view of colonialism as undifferentiated, as an ‘oddly monolithic, and surprisingly unexamined, notion’,5 and to foster instead analysis of its operations ‘through its plural and particularised expressions’.6
To that end, we foreground here certain features of settler colonialism central to an understanding of the nature, the terms and the timing of the political rights conferred upon Indigenous peoples in each of our sites. These common features, variously experienced and expressed, hold together a comparative analysis that is otherwise vulnerable to the substantial differences between its component parts. Further, they establish the historical connection between the ways British and colonial governments of the mid- to late-nineteenth century assessed the political rights of Indigenes and both the overt violence–coercion of other modes of settler–colonial rule and the entrenched discrimination that continues to characterise settler societies today.
Colonialism had a particular face in colonies such as Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa where large numbers of British and other European settlers claimed a stake in the land. In colonies of exploitation, such as India, economic interests were vested in the richness of their resources and in exploiting the labour of their Indigenous or imported inhabitants in extracting their surplus value. In colonies of settlement, on the other hand, economic interests were vested primarily in securing permanent control of the land. While the labour of Indigenes – and of others, as we shall see – may also have been indispensable in certain times and places, maximising settler access to land, and converting that land to property, remained of paramount importance. Moreover, where individual Europeans in colonies of exploitation were more likely to be adult males who would eventually return ‘home’, increasing numbers of women and children were included among the settlers, a population that intended to stay and make the country a homeland for future generations. Establishing British systems of law and government would be central to that process – and to the subsequent launching of the independent states which would follow if settler hegemony could be achieved.
It is clear that the land figured, and continues to figure, prominently in relations between settlers and Indigenes in these societies. It follows, then, that indigeneity also assumed, and continues to assume, a heightened significance, signalling as it does alternative claimants to the land, the exclusive possession of which by the settlers would remain the primary object of settlement. While we focus here on Indigenous peoples’ political rights, it is important to emphasise that it was the land of Indigenous peoples, not the people themselves, that was the driving concern of the colonisers. Indeed, the presence of Indigenous peoples seriously confounded colonial intentions, presenting to various groups among the colonisers – colonial entrepreneurs, settlers and their different factions, metropolitan and local officials, missionaries, humanitarians and other observers – a major problem to be solved. It was no accident that in settler–colonial discourse the ‘Aboriginal Problem’, or the ‘Native Question’, assumed a particular urgency that resonated in profound ways with what amounted to a basic economic concern – how to deal with impediments to gaining exclusive access to the land. At the theoretical level, at least, a sovereign Indigenous presence was incommensurable with permanent European settlement.7 In practice, attempts to orchestrate its demise, both materially and discursively – through violent coercion of Indigenous peoples, legal denial of their property rights or attempts to assimilate them out of existence – promoted sustained, and continuing, resistance by Indigenous peoples and troubling ethical, legal and political debates among British and colonial governments, colonial entrepreneurs and local settlers.
As far as the justification of dispossession was relevant in the face of outright force, British lawyers and politicians had long had recourse to European codes and practices relating to the rights and responsibilities of conquest and discovery that were themselves enmeshed in international rivalries between imperial powers.8 As Barbara Arneil has observed, English liberalism, as developed by J. S. Mill and others, was (and is) ‘plagued by the powerful colonial interests within which it is rooted’.9 In particular, liberalism became infused with Lockean notions which recognised proprietary rights in land on the basis of its improvement, specifically by mixing land with labour. In Arneil’s assessment, ‘[t]he definition of property evolved with the changing modes of colonialism, from ownership through discovery or conquest to actual possession and occupation of a territory’.10 Over time, rights of ownership could therefore also be legally denied to those deemed not to have improved the land sufficiently – a characteristic concomitantly signifying immature cultural development – as well as to those whose claim had been forfeited by conquest or cession. Although apparent in other sites and times, the effectiveness of this discursive construction would become particularly clear in the Australian context, where the legal doctrine of terra nullius, or land belonging to no one, gradually underwrote dispossession as the nineteenth century unfolded and the pastoral frontier expanded.
That we centre discussion here on the long period of contestation over political rights testifies to the massive physical and ideological odds Indigenous peoples faced from the very beginnings of settlement. In outlining the protracted nature of that struggle, it is important to reiterate that we are dealing with attempts to establish what was essentially a European political order, one which attempted to define the terms of an individual’s participation in affairs of government. In effectively rejecting alternative forms of engagement with the state, such prescription worked against, and, indeed, can be said to deny, the interests of Indigenes as a people whose relation to the land in settler societies rendered, and renders, them distinct from others in the community. Our analysis focuses on this process of legitimising particular forms of political action and canvasses the range of ways British and the settler governments of the four sites in question held out to Indigenous peoples the prospect of a voice in matters of state once certain levels of ‘civilisation’ had been attained. Although undeniably dominant, this assimilationist and developmental model did not, and does not, encompass the full range of Indigenous peoples’ responses to dealing with settler states. While we cannot address these issues here, we acknowledge their enduring salience. As Garth Nettheim has observed, particularly in relation to Canada and Australia:
Indigenous peoples’ organizations today are claiming not just short-term special measures to allow them to integrate; they are claiming long-term differential status as distinct peoples, with their own base on land or other resources, and the ultimate right of self-determination of their political destiny.11
Given the range of oppression experienced by Indigenous peoples throughout the nineteenth century and beyond, we perhaps should clarify why we have we selected the franchise as the subject of our analysis, especially when enfranchisement can undoubtedly be seen as a measure of incorporation in an imposed political order. Put simply, in the putatively democratic societies that were developing in these different colonial communities, not having the vote would have extraordinarily serious implications, particularly once they became independent nations. Those without the franchise would not be considered full members of the ordinary civil society and, accordingly, their eligibility for associated civil rights that the endowment of political rights foreshadowed and protected would also be impaired. From the outset of these new democracies, therefore, those who were excluded were subject to discriminatory provisions that would be embedded in the founding documents of the new nations, a political decision that would have profound consequences for decades to come. Crucially, while exclusion from the vote did not prevent Indigenous peoples from pursuing alternative courses of action outside of the mainstream political system, it locked them out of the only decision-making body that, on the macro level, would ultimately control the way they could live their lives in the new nations.
It is significant that any such franchise rights as were accorded in the numerous colonies that eventually amalgamated into these four nations were generally dependent, at least in the first instance, upon the possession or occupation of individual private property – and not of communal land – a critical nexus between the economic and the political that formalised Indigenous incorporation within the settler economy. Its conversion into property illuminates the pivotal role of land in settler colonialism, and we engage in this project with individual settlers and local and metropolitan governments who were fully immersed in the early years of its alienation as a commodity to be bought and sold on the open market. The new meanings that were being attached to land contrasted starkly with those they displaced. Throughout the period we study, and as settlement expanded in each of our sites, settler desire for land-as-property, which could be possessed under individual title and could accrue value in the market economy, promoted the transfer of vast amounts of land previously held on a communal basis – and valued in entirely different ways – by Indigenous peoples.
As we examine in more detail the shifting terms under which political rights were conferred, withheld or withdrawn in these settlements, however, it is important to note that the different franchise provisions cannot be read simply as a measure of colonial concern for Indigenous participation in the affairs of government or the economy. They also reveal the extent to which settlers felt secure in their authority and their claims to sovereignty over particular regions and over the land as a whole. It was clear that the taking of the land would not alone secure settler dominance if there were enough Indigenous survivors whose consent to the colonial order could not be assumed. The demographic balance in individual colonies therefore emerges as a vital variable when comparing their different suffrage qualifications. We alert readers to the significance of the associated issue of differentiation, though it lies beyond the scope of our present analysis. Who would count as Indigene and who as settler was a question that would preoccupy the new nations as they sought, through strategic racial classifications, to control the impact of miscegenation and the resulting birth of children of mixed descent.12
At the base level, a qualified male property suffrage in the colonies served as much as a measure of compliance with bourgeois values, as it did in Britain where, although the Reform Act of 1832 had enfranchised middle-class (propertied) men, the perceived threat from ‘radical’ working-class men (and, at that stage, from all women), whose individual stake in the country was less apparent, delayed their enfranchisement for many decades.13 In both the metropole and the colonial peripheries, then, an increasingly democratic franchise, which moved over time from property to manhood to universal suffrage, could be seen to indicate an increasingly entrenched and naturalised social, economic and political structure. In the colonies, however, we shall see that significant exceptions would be made to these qualifications, exceptions that were designed to contain perceived threats to settler authority. These threats were increasingly framed within the language of race rather than that of class – while both these categorisations intersected in complex ways with gender, as attempts were mounted to manipulate the electorate in favour of the colonial order. Although carefully worded to counter Colonial Office concerns about discriminating on the basis of race, these legislative safeguards for preserving settler dominance and privilege simply coded race in other ways. The complex reasons underlying this contradiction between the rhetoric and the practice of British and settler governments inform the title of this book, Equal Subjects, Unequal Rights.
Far from being simply imposed from above, then, the establishment and maintenance of settler control were fraught with tensions that were apparent both within the individual colonies and between the colonies and the metropole. The dynamic nature of settler colonialism consistently encroaches upon any retrospective attempt to cast it in purely prescriptive terms. We hope to indicate, in particular, the rawness and fragility of some settler regimes, notably in the early period of settlement, when the extent of the colonial authority they claimed was under challenge and the very survival of the colony was placed in jeopardy, often prompting massive coercion. The option of using outright force by local and imperial troops, as well as by individual settlers, to uphold and enforce British and settler authority in the face of sustained Indigenous resistance would eventually become untenable. But its exercise at crucial stages of colonial rule would prove as vital to the later emergence of these ‘democratic’ nations as were the conventions of respectable men who eventually oversaw their official constitution as the century drew to a close.
By the late 1830s, however, the point at which we begin our study, the interest of powerful humanitarians of the day in the welfare of ‘native races’ magnified the problem of a sovereign Indigenous presence. Attending now to a different type of colonial engagement from the one that had prompted their fight for abolition, the humanitarians’ exposure of the dire predicament of Indigenes in settler colonies, most notably in the 1837 Report of the Select Committee on Aborigines, made the contradictions within English liberalism once more glaringly apparent. Although we start at this point of humanitarian concern, and focus overall on attempted political solutions to the problem, neither our period nor our focus can be divorced from preceding and continuing official and unofficial attempts at ‘clearing the field’, which, as recognised by Merivale, were far less ‘respectable’.
It is important to emphasise, too, that the mid–late nineteenth century witnessed a number of different phases of settler–colonial rule in each of the four sites. Large numbers of Indigenous peoples had been killed as a result of the initial onslaughts, which had involved the violence of brutal and disorderly land expropriations, as well as stresses arising from the influx of resultant refugee populations and the effects of the diseases they brought with them. But the gradual extension of the frontier in some colonies, and/or belated decisions to press for even more land (and its resources) in others, meant that such destruction could move in waves across a country over many decades. Consequently, considerable variation in both the specific nature of the interaction between settlers and Indigenous peoples and in the mode of colonial governance could occur within and between colonies as the century unfolded. The issue of who would be full members of the polity promoted debates that invoked broader and shifting concerns, indicating the complexity of the colonial field within which such decisions were framed.
Along with the influence of the humanitarian lobby that was at its peak in the 1830s, the effects of the granting of self-government also reverberated throughout our four sites during these years. Following the recommendations of the Durham Report, the decades from the 1830s to 1910 saw the gradual extension to the settlers first of representative government, then of responsible government and, finally, after the colonies had travelled their separate roads to nationhood, of greater independence as British Dominions. This shift in power from central to more localised control by European systems of law and government was welcomed by settlers, who were keen to exercise their individual rights and to entrench their institutions; but it had serious consequences for Indigenous peoples. Their recognition of this danger often prompted appeals to the Crown to abide by British justice, forcing the British Government of the day to respond to their concerns independently of the local authorities.
This increasing fragmentation of political power further complicated the struggle over political rights in the colonies and marked the ongoing contestation that surrounded attempts at resolution. When we first encounter these struggles, new constitutions were being offered to the colonies as government devolved and as the terms under which political rights could be granted to Indigenous peoples began to be considered. Although settlement may have been instigated in Britain, the ‘mother country’ increasingly distanced herself from local policies and practices despite her professed concern about several significant issues, including the welfare of Indigenous populations throughout her settlements. British governments and Colonial Office administrators commonly justified this stance by explaining that a commitment to just democratic practice prevented metropolitan interference with decisions passed by representative majorities in colonial legislatures.
Meanwhile, humanitarians, missionaries and other critics of government policies and/or settler practices deployed similar discursive strategies to reconcile the contrary ends implicit in their concern for Indigenous peoples’ welfare and their support for the economic objects of settlement. Throughout the century, and across our four sites, these vocal commentators advocated the importance of reforming colonial policies. But in asserting the responsibility of governments to encourage religious instruction and education programmes, and to allow some limited economic opportunities in order to ameliorate the condition of colonised peoples, the ‘civilising mission’ conduced, nevertheless, to colonial ends by endeavouring to train compliant subjects and a small elite of middle-class professionals.
We acknowledge the innovative scholarship on Indigene–European relations in each of the countries whose experiences we pursue.14 This work has been invaluable to our understanding of the particular colonial contexts in which decisions about political rights for Indigenous peoples unfolded. For the foray into cross-country analysis that we have attempted here, we owe a debt to that ground-breaking work. We have drawn freely throughout the book on primary sources such as Colonial Office correspondence between local governors and the British government and its officials, internal colonial correspondence, parliamentary debates, legislation and reports, missionary reports, newspapers, letters and petitions. We hope this gives appropriate recognition to the human side of what can sometimes be read historically in more mechanistic ways. Individuals were involved on all sides of these struggles, and individuals made decisions and lived their lives amid the turmoil and the resulting order. In all of this, we can only gesture towards the differences between the perspectives of ministers or bureaucrats in London and those of settlers, missionaries and Indigenous peoples in the colonies, differences that would be crucial to decisions affecting all those who inhabited those settlements. In the end, these distinctively colonial cultures produced distinctively colonial solutions to the ‘problems’ they faced.15 We hope to evoke some of the immediacy that surrounded debates about political rights in the four sites by bringing to the fore not only their social, economic and political contexts but the varied thoughts and emotions that underscored their common and particular discursive formulations. To this extent, we hope to emphasise that this period was indeed a formative one, a period when the process of defining and installing privilege and exclusion was taking place.
It is crucial, then, both to catalogue Indigenous peoples’ political rights and to investigate the manner of their constitution at the level of discourse. Colonial discourses produced racialised understandings of Indigenous (and other colonised) peoples that were far from uniform, and their particular congeniality to different colonial ends saw their varied and arbitrary appropriation through distinct sites and times across the Empire. Most importantly for our purposes, in settler colonies in the mid–late nineteenth century, colonial assessment of Indigenous peoples’ political rights correlated with the discursive formulation of the – now familiar – associations of whiteness with privilege, on the one hand, and non-whiteness with discrimination, on the other. These associations would later become entrenched both in the legislative, administrative and legal systems of the colonies and in the constitutions and institutions of the independent nations they generated. They also came to inform and justify the common understandings that emerged within the settler populace about the different groups which inhabited the colony/nation and the various rights to which they were entitled.
Consequently, this comparative analysis of Indigenous peoples’ political rights contributes to the ongoing task of denaturalising the idea of race, which has worked so effectively to authorise enduring inequalities in settler societies, by demonstrating its formulation within specific colonial contexts and in accordance with defined economic interests. Indeed, at certain points it will be obvious that in trying to use contemporary terms for what was occurring we have found the signification of those terms changing before our very eyes. While we cannot pursue here a detailed elaboration of this vital historical task – of identifying ‘race’ as it was being forged – we acknowledge the recent work of Indigenous and non-Indigenous critical commentators who are bringing to bear on existing scholarship an increasing awareness of the construction of whiteness as an invisible but crucial pillar of race.16
Part I canvasses the extent of the ‘second’ British Empire after the loss of the American colonies and the subsequent reappraisal of colonial administration that occurred in the mid–late 1830s. Part II consists of three chapters, grouped as ‘Establishing settler dominance’, in which we consider early political developments in the Canadian and Australasian colonies as well as the two British colonies in Southern Africa, from the late 1830s to around 1870. Then in Part III, ‘Entrenching settler control’, a second group of three chapters, covering the years from the 1870s to 1910, establishes the political outcomes consequent upon this period of intensified appropriation of Indigenous lands.
The story that unfolds is detailed and varied, but its overall reliance on the key features of settler colonialism outlined above has allowed some significant observations to emerge about this particular type of colonial enterprise and its enduring ramifications throughout our four sites. In particular, given the link between land and political rights, it clarifies how the concerns of Indigenous peoples in these societies today are directly related to the economic structures that initially framed their formation as colonies of settlement and which continued (and continue) to inform their social and political development as independent nations.
In bringing to a close this introductory discussion, we draw attention to the following observation to emphasise the importance of bringing a comparative perspective to bear on colonial history:
In these days much is written about the supposed injustice done to the original inhabitants by allegedly dispossessing them of this country by force, and driving them out of it, partly at the establishment of this settlement and partly in subsequent times.
This statement comes from a public lecture, in which the speaker claimed to refute the charge that colonists from Europe had dispossessed Indigenous inhabitants by unjust means, on the grounds that the land had formerly belonged to no one. The Indigenous inhabitants, he said, did not possess the land – they simply ‘wandered’ over it; and ‘their assemblage into tribes resembled more closely that of the fishes and the birds of the air than that of a society of men held together by common ties’. This is an argument that Australians have in recent years learned to recognise as the legal doctrine of terra nullius – the claim that, prior to the arrival of colonists, the Indigenous peoples had no recognisable legal title to the land the colonists subsequently took. Until it was overturned by the Australian High Court in the Mabo judgment in 1992,17 this had been, since 1788, the formal legal position governing British colonisation of Australia.
The lecturer in question was not talking about Australia, however; nor was his lecture delivered in the twentieth century. It was the argument forwarded by an Afrikaner lawyer in the Cape Colony in 1838, and it concerns the dispossession of the Indigenous Khoisan peoples by the Dutch colonists from 1652 onwards.18 The similarity of these claims to the argument long used to justify dispossession of Aboriginal peoples in Australia19 suggests that there is considerable value in approaching these issues comparatively. Such is our aim in this study of Indigenous political rights in the colonies which eventually formed the nations of Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.
In accordance with increasingly common practice in recent colonial historiography, we have chosen to capitalise the words Indigenous, Black, White and Coloured. Colonial provincial and national governments and parliaments are referred to with lower-case initial letters to distinguish them from the British Parliament and the Government of the day.