in Equal subjects, unequal rights

This chapter concludes a study on the circumstances under which British settler colonists accorded or denied political rights to Indigenous peoples in Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa from the 1830s to 1910. The developments discussed in the chapter show that while White settlers in all four countries gained powers of self-government and the vote, in none of these countries did the Indigenous peoples get fully equal powers. The processes by which these issues were fought out and negotiated in the four countries were very different, as were the outcomes. By the early twentieth century, the Maori of New Zealand had achieved the most in terms of access to conventional White parliamentary power – with both men and women enfranchised and Maori men able to sit in parliament and government – and Aborigines in Australia probably the least. Indigenous Canadians and South Africans (depending on the province in which they lived) had very limited voting rights, but were a very long way from anything approaching true equality. During the 1830s, in the British colonies of settlement, there was at least a theoretical assumption that British colonies did not enshrine any form of color bar excluding people on the grounds of race; yet, by 1910, all four countries had limited access to the franchise, to varying degrees, on racial criteria.

In 1995, Nelson Mandela, leader of the African National Congress (ANC) and recently elected president of South Africa, paid a formal state visit to Britain. He was warmly welcomed by the queen, by the British public and by the British Government. There had been instances of formerly imprisoned nationalist leaders who became heads of state after independence being welcomed to Britain – such as Jomo Kenyatta of Kenya. A century earlier, Queen Victoria had been prepared to welcome to London Indigenous leaders of royal or chiefly status, such as maharajahs from her Indian Empire, or African chiefs such as the Zulu Cetshwayo or the Tswana Khama. But Mandela was something more than a nationalist leader in a colony granted independence, and more than a king or chief – he was the first instance of an Indigenous person who had been elected (and by more than 60 per cent of the total vote) as head of government of a former colony of settlement, or White Dominion, in the old British Empire. It has never happened, and is perhaps unlikely to happen in the near future, in other former settler colonies. That this event occurred in South Africa is a striking illustration of the major political change which had taken place in that country in the 1990s, when the racially based apartheid regime was finally removed by an election in which – for the first time ever – all South African adults, Black and White, male and female, were free to vote.

This offers a dramatic example of the relevance, at the start of the twenty-first century, of the developments which this book has examined for the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. And it is not only in South Africa that the 1990s revisited some of these developments with a renewed relevance. In Australia and Canada, a number of major judicial decisions of the 1990s on the issue of land rights for Indigenous peoples have proved to be of continuing significance. In Australia, the Mabo decision of 1992 finally pronounced the death sentence on the doctrine of terra nullius (land belonging to no one), which had undercut the legal rights to the land of the Indigenous peoples for just over 200 years; in Canada, decisions in British Columbia, in particular, upheld the claims of various Indigenous bands to their native areas. In addition, the Canadian government granted autonomous political status to the area of Nunavut for the Inuit peoples of its Arctic territories. In New Zealand, the Treaty of Waitangi was given renewed force and contemporary significance by the decisions of the Waitangi Tribunal on Maori claims to their land. And the governments of these former colonies of settlement came under pressure to make some serious moves towards reconciliation with their Indigenous peoples, and perhaps to offer some form of apology for their former racist policies and atrocities; this was done most fully in South Africa, through its Truth and Reconciliation Commission (1995–98), and to a lesser extent by government initiatives such as the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, in Canada (1997), and a government-sponsored Council on Aboriginal Reconciliation (1991–2001), in Australia. We are not suggesting that these moves – in any of the countries – have achieved reconciliation between Indigenous and settler people, or that that they went far enough to address the historical wrongs of the colonial dispossession of the Indigenes. But it is significant that at the end of the twentieth century the issues of the political disfranchisement, physical dispossession and spiritual alienation of the Indigenous peoples were firmly on the political agenda of all of these former settler colonies. However much White colonial politicians may have wished to believe, at the end of the nineteenth century, that they had settled the ‘Native Question’ for good, the Indigenous peoples had survived, to put their political, social and economic needs and demands with renewed vigour a century later.

The developments we have discussed in this book are of more than merely antiquarian interest. We have shown that, as White settlers in all four countries gained powers of self-government and the vote, in none of these countries did the Indigenous peoples get fully equal powers. The processes by which these issues were fought out and negotiated in the four countries were very different, as were the outcomes. By the early twentieth century, the Maori of New Zealand had achieved the most in terms of access to conventional White parliamentary power – with both men and women enfranchised and Maori men able to sit in parliament and government – and Aborigines in Australia probably the least; Indigenous Canadians and South Africans (depending on the province in which they lived) had very limited voting rights, but were a very long way from anything approaching true equality.

We should also note that our research does not bear out the comfortable liberal assumption that the history of the franchise is always one of simple linear progress over time – that once voting rights have been gained by particular groups, they are never lost and can only be added to by the widening of the qualified pool or the enfranchising of further groups. In the British colonies of settlement, this has not been the case. At the start of our period, the 1830s, there was at least a theoretical assumption that British colonies did not enshrine any form of colour bar, excluding people on the grounds of race; yet, by 1910, all four countries limited access to the franchise, to varying degrees, on racial criteria. Settler politicians during our period showed themselves willing to envisage disfranchising certain Indigenous groups. In Australia, there were specific racial exclusions in Western Australia and Queensland, and in the federal vote; in Canada, there was an almost bewildering sequence in which, at various points in time, Indigenous people were added to, or removed from, the pool of those qualified to vote; and, in South Africa, the vote for the new Union parliament was racially restricted in 1910 – and even the limited rights then allowed to African and Coloured voters were removed later in the century.

In considering the reasons for those outcomes, we have quoted relevant documents to illustrate the overt justifications offered by politicians at the time. Our analysis of the deeper underlying reasons for how events turned out would highlight in particular certain main issues: settlers’ access to land and the uses they wished to make of it; the need of colonists for Indigenous peoples’ labour; the demographic balance between colonisers and Indigenous peoples, especially the colonisers’ fears of Indigenous peoples’ potential to frustrate White political goals; the capacity of Indigenous peoples to mount effective resistance to colonial intrusion; issues of gender; and the intensity of the ‘civilising mission’ and Indigenous peoples’ attainment of Western education and ‘respectability’.

In all the colonies of settlement, the primary aim of the settlers was to get possession of the land by dispossessing the Indigenous peoples, whether by sale and treaty, as in Canada and New Zealand, by conquest and treaty, as in South Africa and New Zealand, or, as in Australia, by declaring the land to be terra nullius and therefore automatically the property of the British Crown. Whatever political powers were to be allowed to Indigenes, they could not be such as would be capable of blocking or interfering with the continuation of the process of acquiring the land and bringing in White settlers. In New Zealand, a major factor in blocking any real political rights for Maori for the first twenty-five years was settler fear that they could use such rights to block further settler acquisition of the land. Even in 1890, when Captain William Russell explained why commitment to Maori political rights would prevent New Zealand joining the Australian federation, he spoke of the reasons for granting those rights as turning upon ‘the necessity for keeping the natives at peace, and yet obtaining enough of their lands to further colonisation’. In South Africa, the exclusion of the Indigenous peoples from political power in 1910 was followed almost immediately by the Natives’ Land Act, restricting the areas in which they could legally buy land to just 7 per cent of the total area of the country.

Furthermore, whereas under English property law land was a commodity to be bought and sold in individual title, for Indigenous communities the land was an integral part of their whole way of life and set of beliefs. But the issue of the form of tenure on which land was held became highly relevant politically. Where Indigenes could get a vote, it was usually on the basis of a qualified property franchise – as in the early years of representative government in Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the Cape. Colonial authorities were often prepared to set aside some areas of land as ‘reserves’, where Indigenous people could continue to occupy and work the land; but, in such cases, their tenure – whether by African or Maori tribal group or Indian band – was communal: the land belonged to that people as a whole. Sooner or later, colonial authorities in these cases insisted that communal property could not satisfy the property qualification, which required that it was individual property held under English property title. This was to provide an incentive to the Indigenous people to break up their communal holdings into individual plots of land – to drop their ‘Indian’ status and become full Canadian citizens, or become fully Christianised, educated, civilised capitalist Maori or Africans. Even the evangelicals and humanitarians who supported Indigenous rights, including access to political rights, attached considerable significance to individual property and settled agriculture as a criterion of civilisation and fitness for full political rights. People who roamed around, or who refused to abandon a communal lifestyle, were not fully qualified for political rights. In Australia, the only Aborigines who voted tended to be those who lived on mission stations. In the Cape, the politicians distinguished between the ‘respectable’ educated Coloureds and Africans who deserved the vote, and the raw ‘blanket Kaffirs’ who should not have it. And in Natal, of course, even owning individual property and gaining exemption from ‘Native Law’ was not enough to gain an African man a vote: the system had built in further discretions designed to ensure that almost no Africans voted.

The colonies of settlement varied in the importance attached to the labour of Indigenous people. In most parts of Australia, after the initial years of settlement, Aboriginal labour was not essential to the colonial project except on the cattle stations of Northern Australia; and in Canada, after the decline of the fur trade, Indigenous peoples’ labour was not central to the economy. In South Africa, on the other hand, the labour of the Indigenous people was crucial to the colonial economy, and it was important that they should not have political rights which might enable them to interfere with what colonial politicians called ‘Native labour supply’. So Rhodes’s Glen Grey Act, laying down a model for how to deal with land tenure and labour supply, withheld the vote in the Glen Grey district even from people who would qualify by virtue of individual tenure. After the South African War, the question of ensuring sufficient ‘Native labour’ for the mines and farms played an important part in deciding the political powers allowed to Indigenes under the Union Constitution and the legislation of the early Union governments.

All the colonial politicians operated within a general framework set up by British governments of avoiding explicit colour bars in their franchise qualifications. Where the Indigenes were few, and unlikely to make any serious difference, there was little risk in extending the vote to them; but where they were, actually or potentially, in a majority, their number could be the crucial factor in convincing politicians that their enfranchisement was too dangerous and that ways in which to bar Indigenes from the vote – if possible, without spelling this out in the legislation – would have to be found. South Africa was the only country in which, in all parts and throughout the whole period, the Indigenous people were numerically the clear majority. In the other countries, though the settlers were a vulnerable minority in the early years – as in New Zealand – the effects of disease, dispossession and violence on Indigenous peoples reduced their numbers significantly, at the same time as settler populations were rapidly increasing; by the end of the nineteenth century, the Indigenous populations of Canada and Australia were small minorities, and in New Zealand, though their number was somewhat larger, they were still a clear minority. Even so, White citizens were anxious for the future.

This was of fundamental importance to Indigenous political rights in South Africa. It is what led the Natal politicians to manipulate the theoretically non-racial system to deny the vote to all but a derisory handful of Africans and a very few Indians; and it led the Cape politicians to raise their property qualifications to prevent Africans ‘swamping’ the White voters. When the colonies met to draw up the Constitution of the Union of South Africa, they inserted a clear colour bar to exclude Indigenes from the parliament and from the vote in every province but the Cape; the seeds of apartheid were sown in that Constitution. This issue was also of importance, at certain times and in particular places, in the other settler colonies. In New Zealand, until at least 1867, White politicians used that same language of White voters being ‘swamped’, and schemed to counter it by confining the Maori vote within just four constituencies. In Canada, fear that Indigenous votes would ‘swamp’ those of settlers in certain constituencies was used by opponents of Macdonald’s 1885 Bill for a uniform federal franchise. In British Columbia, in 1871, when the settlers found themselves outnumbered 4 to 1 by Indigenous Canadians, they excluded the Indigenes from the vote on the basis of race. Even in Australia, the only two colonies which specifically legislated to bar Aborigines from the colonial vote, and insisted on their exclusion from the federal vote in 1902, were Queensland and Western Australia – the colonies in which, at the end of the nineteenth century, the Aborigines were most numerous and could make the most difference by exercising their votes. Politicians could even use ostensibly ‘democratic’ arguments in Australia and Canada to deny Indigenes the vote – on the grounds that unsophisticated Indigenous voters were particularly liable to having their votes manipulated by powerful White patrons, and that (White) manhood suffrage was more democratic than a qualified franchise with no racial bar.

In all the colonies, the Indigenous peoples put up resistance to the European invasions and the dispossession of their lands. But the effectiveness of that resistance varied markedly, in terms of the size of the military forces they could mobilise, their logistical ability to sustain long campaigns, and their military technology. Perhaps the most effective were the Maori, whose close settlements and use of horticulture enabled them to mobilise large forces effectively, and who had acquired and mastered the use of firearms before formal British colonisation began. Also effective and feared were South Africa’s Bantu-speaking peoples (Xhosa, Zulu, Sotho) – whose military power could be defeated only by regular British troops, and then with considerable difficulty – and the Khoisan in the nineteenth century, whose mastery of firearms made the Kat River rebellion a serious problem for the Cape. On the other hand, the Australian Aborigines, while mounting guerrilla attacks on settlers and their stock in many parts of the continent, were unable to mobilise the numbers of men and supplies to conduct large-scale wars.

The extent of resistance had some effect on the question of the concession of political rights to Indigenes. The inability of Australian Aborigines to offer serious large-scale and sustained resistance to settlement and dispossession made it easy for the settler politicians to ignore Aboriginal rights when discussing political reforms. Conversely, it is clear that Maori military prowess in the New Zealand wars of the 1860s was significant in convincing the settlers to admit Maori men to their parliamentary system. Similarly, fear of ‘the Hottentot with his musket’ played some part in the decision of the Cape politicians in 1853 to opt for a colour-blind franchise with a relatively low property qualification. A desire to prevent further frontier wars with the Xhosa may also have influenced the Cape’s cautious integration of an elite of Xhosa-speaking voters (albeit having to satisfy more restrictive qualifications than in 1853) into the system in the 1880s. On the other hand, in Natal, fear of the military might of the Zulu neighbours produced no such result, but rather strengthened their manipulative system, designed as it was to deny the vote to Africans in practice while holding it out in principle. Fear of Indigenous numbers led, similarly, in British Columbia to their outright exclusion from the vote. And in the federal Canadian parliament, the coincidence in time of the north-west rebellion with the debate about a uniform national franchise that would include the Indigenous people enabled opposition MPs to invoke that rebellion in support of their objections to the Bill.

Gender issues – particularly the issue of whether or not women should be admitted to the vote on the same terms as men – could be made to work very differently in their impact on Indigenous political rights in the four countries. It operated in favour of Indigenous rights in New Zealand: when it became the first country to legislate for full womanhood, as well as manhood, suffrage, it gave the vote to Maori women on equal terms with White women. By 1900, in New Zealand, Maori men and women had the vote on virtually the same terms as Whites, and Maori men could both sit in parliament and serve in government. In Australia, on the other hand, the White politicians of the new federal parliament used women’s rights as a weapon to deny Aboriginal rights: the Commonwealth Franchise Act 1902 gave the vote in federal elections to all White women, while at the same time, in practice if not entirely in law, debarring all Aboriginal men and women from the federal franchise. New Zealand and Australia were world pioneers in granting women the vote. Although, in Canada, female suffrage was linked with the Indigenous vote on at least two occasions, it seems to have functioned primarily as a rhetorical device, enabling politicians to contrast ‘the savage’ and ‘the squaw’ with ‘innocent white womanhood’. South Africa was far more conservative than Australasia, and did not grant women the vote until 1930; this was the work of a conservative National Party government which enfranchised White women only on the ground that they thereby doubled the size of the White electorate and further reduced the percentage and influence of the small Black vote.

Finally, and overlapping with some of the issues already raised, there are the more intangible issues, which we discerned as central to the claims raised on behalf of Indigenous people by evangelicals, missionaries and humanitarians as early as the Select Committee on Aborigines in the 1830s. Ideas that Indigenes should be able to qualify for the vote only if they passed some test of education – or more broadly of ‘civilisation’ or ‘respectability’ – were significant in some places at particular times. Ideas of the Christianised, educated, respectable, ‘good native’, who deserved to have the vote, were put forward in all of our countries at particular moments. Perhaps the Canadians laid the greatest stress on this: the key point in the province of Canada’s Gradual Civilisation Act of 1857 and the federal Gradual Enfranchisement Act of 1869 was the distinction between the ‘status Indian’ and the Canadian citizen: Indigenes could qualify for the vote – but only if they dropped their Indian legal status by rejecting their traditional culture and social structure, becoming educated, leaving the communal band or group, and individuating their land. Despite Macdonald’s attempt, in 1885, at a uniform national franchise, this continued essentially to be the case for Indigenous Canadians well into the twentieth century. The vote was, in effect, held out as a reward for those Indigenes who were prepared to assimilate White Canadian ideas of civilisation and a respectable lifestyle.

In Natal, in a fashion to similar Canada’s, the government was able to manipulate the theoretically colour-blind franchise to exclude almost all Africans from the vote by insisting that voters must first apply to be exempted from ‘Native Law’, adopt Christianity and private property, and then satisfy a series of further White criteria of civilisation. In the Cape, in 1892 when the politicians feared being ‘swamped’ by African voters under their original 1853 qualification, they not only raised the property qualification by 200 per cent, but added a literacy test aimed specifically at the so-called ‘blanket Kaffir’ who fell short of the image of the ideal assimilated ‘civilised’ African. In New Zealand, the most dramatic achievements by Maori within the settler parliamentary system came from the ‘Young Maori Party’, whose members had been educated at Christian boarding-schools and had undergone tertiary education and gained professional qualifications – making them almost the epitome of the colonial ideal of the Christian respectable and civilised Indigene. Even in Australia, the debate on the Commonwealth Franchise Act (1902) showed some politicians who, while opposing the vote for Aborigines in general, declared their willingness to give it to educated respectable Christian Aborigines.

These final examples – showing colonial politicians changing the criteria when it looked as if too many Indigenes would be able to satisfy them, or holding out the vote as a prize only for those Indigenes who satisfied their criteria of civilisation – remind us, finally, that the crucial decisions about their political rights were taken for Indigenes, and not by them. The constitutions and franchise laws were the products of the imperial Parliament in London and of settler politicians in colonial parliaments. Indigenous peoples were, however, far from being passive victims: they thrust themselves and their demands on their governments by actions ranging from military violence through public meetings to petitions and deputations; and when they could make life difficult for the colonial authorities by withholding labour or denying access to land, they sometimes did so. In the period we have examined, the power to bestow or withhold that ultimate political accolade of the nineteenth century – the vote – lay with the White politicians in their local parliaments, and to an extent (which had diminished so substantially by the turn of the century as to be little more than a formality) with governments and with Parliament in London.

In many ways, the attendance of the White male prime ministers of the Dominions at the Imperial Conference in London in 1911 signalled the culmination of Britain’s nineteenth-century colonial enterprises in Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. Outside of the Indigenous ‘reserves’, the land had been successfully alienated to settlers as private property. Four almost independent nations had emerged from the inefficient and unwieldy proliferation of colonies that had characterised the settlements for most of the previous century. Mature legal and administrative structures had been permanently installed, and the electorates of these fledgling ‘democracies’, shaped to protect settler hegemony, would now entrench their dominance and privilege as full members of the nation. Contemporary middle-class values defined the dominant culture. Along the way, a diversity of measures had been adopted to deal with the Indigenous peoples who had stood in the way of settler access to land in the early days of each settlement’s expansion, and to contain the threats that their continuing presence presented to colonial sovereignty and authority.

Events of the twentieth century showed that possessing the power of the vote was not an empty token: as Canadian Indigenous peoples, Australian Aborigines and, perhaps most forcefully of all, Black South Africans found, to be without the vote could have a cripplingly damaging effect. In Canada Indigenous war veterans were enfranchised nationally in 1924, but when the vote was extended to inmates of charitable institutions, in 1929, there was no suggestion that Indigenous people, also notionally disfranchised on the basis of their dependence, should be similarly treated. The 1946 Canadian Citizenship Act declared that all persons born in Canada were Canadian citizens, but this conflicted with the Indian Act which retained a definition of ‘person’ that until 1951 excluded ‘Indians’.1 This inconsistency was resolved only when individual provinces voted to remove their ‘Indian’ disqualification clauses, beginning with British Columbia in 1949. The provinces of Manitoba, in 1952, and Ontario, in 1954, followed before the federal government acted to restore Indigenous voting rights nationally in 1960. Over the next nine years the remaining provinces amended their legislation (Saskatchewan in 1960, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island in 1963, and Quebec in 1969), rendering Canadian citizenship a category no longer defined by racial origins.2

Through the early decades of the twentieth century, not much changed to offer Aborigines greater control of their lives. Protective legislation denied the civil rights of most at some point in their lives, and for many it totally dominated their life chances, even to suffering state removal of their children to distant destinations in an effort to wipe out Aboriginal cultures and enforce assimilation. They did not have the slight bargaining power that political citizenship could have conferred. Aborigines and other supporters campaigned from the 1920s to reverse their lack of citizenship. It wasn’t until 1962, however, that the Commonwealth franchise was re-instated for all Aboriginal men and women, and 1967 that the discriminatory clauses of the Constitution were removed by national referenda and the protective legislation dismantled.3 In New Zealand the four Maori seats had longevity, as did Maori peoples’ support for the Labour Party. The entry of further Maori representatives into parliament awaited the recent introduction of a system of mixed proportional and electorate-based representation that afforded Maori entry through a range of new parties that broke the Left–Right mould.

The optimistic British liberal scenario that the Union of South Africa would be followed by a gradual extension of the vote to bring in a steadily increasing proportion of the African and Coloured population, together with a gradual liberalisation of the racial laws, was completely wrong. Instead, it proved to be indeed ‘a White Man’s Union’: successive governments tailored their policies specifically to the White electorate. Governments led by Botha, Smuts and Hertzog passed legislation restricting African ownership of land to the ‘tribal reserves’, just 13 per cent of the country; requiring African males to carry passes to move around the country; declaring the cities to be ‘White’ areas, with Africans allowed in them only so long as their labour was useful to the Whites; and introducing an industrial colour bar restricting skilled positions to Whites only. Though Plaatje and his colleagues in 1912 founded the body which became the African National Congress, to represent African political interests, their representations were ignored by successive South African governments.

There was no further extension of the common franchise to any non-White people. When women were finally given the vote in South Africa in 1930, the government gave it to White women only – and did so because they thus doubled the size of the White electorate and further reduced the percentage and influence of the Black vote: it reduced the ‘non-White’ voters in the Cape from 19.9 per cent of the electorate in 1929 to 10.9 per cent in 1931. In 1936, a coalition of the two main White parties provided the necessary two-thirds’ majority to remove the Africans from the common voting roll in the Cape. In 1955, the National Party government, as part of its apartheid policy, removed the Coloured voters from the common roll. So, the year 1955 – 102 years after the Cape had first enacted a non-discriminatory qualified franchise for its new system of representative government – proved to be the sour end of the nineteenth-century dream of ‘Cape liberalism’. From 1955 onwards, the electorate which returned successive apartheid governments in South Africa was pure White. White and Black South Africans were not again to vote on a common voters’ roll until the first genuinely free and democratic election, in April 1994, after the end of apartheid.

Far from being contained in the past, the presence of the Indigenous peoples continued to unsettle these societies whose foundations had been built upon concerted attempts to bring about their demise. Indigenous issues are still persistent items, unevenly addressed, on the national agendas in Canada, Australia and New Zealand, while Indigenous peoples’ tenacity in nurturing cultural integrity, despite centuries of contact, has been a powerful counterpoint to official regimes of assimilation and control. The long struggle to achieve full democracy in South Africa remains the outstanding example of the reversal of White rule, a situation that was inconceivable in the other colonies once the demographic balance in favour of settlers became overwhelming. Despite the importance of this political milestone, the massive legacies of colonialism in the social and economic sphere continue to challenge the different sense of community that is now being built in the new South Africa.


1 R. Bartlett, ‘Citizens Minus: Indians and the Right to Vote’, Saskatchewan Law Review, 44 (1979–80), p. 189.
2 Elections Canada, A History of the Vote in Canada (Ottawa: Elections Canada, 1997), pp. 191–3.
3 See Brian Galligan and John Chesterman, Citizens Without Rights: Aborigenes and Australian Citizenship (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998); Tom Clarke and Brian Galligan, ‘“Aboriginal Native” and the Institutional Construction of the Australian Citizen 1901–48’, Australian Historical Studies, 26:105 (1995).

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Equal subjects, unequal rights

Indigenous people in British settler colonies, 1830s–1910




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