Friday, 22 December 2017

Material Culture and Australia's Racist History

Firstly, I must apologise that this post is not about ancient history. 
The National Museum of Australia (NMA) today posted to Facebook an "On this day":
 "#OnThisDay in 1901, the Immigration Restriction Act, which later became known as the White Australia Policy, became law."
It was illustrated with a medallion I'd never seen before which made me both sad and angry. This image:
Given that just last night I'd discussed how national histories can make us feel awkward, comparing the English treatment of the Irish to Australia's treatment of its indigenous population, it seemed appropriate that this image should appear on my newsfeed.  
The White Australia Policy is the other element of Australia's history which makes most reasonable Australians cringe.
The appearance of this medallion emotionally gutted me because I'd done a little research on some medallions which were dug up in the yard which had once belonged to members of my extended family. I found out that those medallions were presented to schoolchildren in 1919 to celebrate the end of World War One. I was left pondering whether this medallion similarly had been given to children. My mind was racing about what effect this might have had going forth. 
Make no mistake, while Australia presents itself as a successful multicultural nation, in reality my society has a constant burning racist undertone that no one feels particularly comfortable discussing. I pondered whether medallions might have played a role in this. I had to know.
I followed the link included in the post, but it was just a discussion of the White Australia Policy for which this image was included as an illustration.
I searched the NMA database to find out more about the object, but it only provided a rudimentary description including that the reverse featured the words PROTECTION POPULATION PRODUCTION PROGRESS, and that it was made in 1906. In short, it didn't have the information I sought.
My previous research on Australian medallions made me aware of the fact that Museums Victoria includes more material relating to the history of objects.
It didn't disappoint me.
Museums Victoria informed me that this medal was commissioned by the Australian Natives' Association (ANA) circa 1910, as an expression of support for the White Australia Policy. The white metal used to visually depict Australia as white was aluminium.
According to Museums Victoria, the ANA was a Friendly Association, a term I'm finding quite ironic and is making me angry (there's a reason I'm an ancient historian, I can maintain less bias when looking further into the past without giving myself an ulcer), which "provided benefits to its Australian-born members." The little more I've read on it reminds to some extant of Roman collegia.
Further information on the ANA provided by Museums Victoria state that it was formed in Melbourne in 1871 composed of "native-born" Australians which promoted the Federation of the Australian states (to which it spread out of Victoria even to New Zealand) as they thought Australia should develop independent from Britain. By 1882 it had 511 members and £1,787 in funds, and by 1898 its membership increased to 10,063 with £95,569.1 They also considered that those born in Australia were being disadvantaged by not receiving a British education, and therefore sought to develop educational facilities in Australia. One of the most prominent members of the association was Alfred Deakin who later became Prime Minister, but also included other individuals who helped draft the Australian constitution, including George Turner, John Quick, Alexander Peacock, and Isaac Isaacs. 
So I looked at an image this morning and worried that the item featured might have been given to children. I was relieved to find out it wasn't. Instead, this group helped fashion Australia's constitution. It was worse!
Currently in Australia a great deal of attention is being devoted to our constitution, particularly section 44. John Quick wanted to include in the document a definition of "citizen" which might have prevented our current constitutional crisis while still seeking 
"to equip the Commonwealth with every power necessary for dealing with the invasion of outside coloured races."2
It is therefore hardly surprising that this group would happily promote the White Australia Policy on a medal.
Following Federation, the ANA promoted in addition to the White Australia Policy, national defence, railway expansion, nature conservation (so they weren't all bad), and Australian football.
So some concluding thoughts:
  • Wow, the word "native" in the Victorian period had multiple uses! Given that the word has for some time been used pejoratively, I found the Australian Natives' Association quite shocking. 
  • Given that ANA members thought that Australian-born caucasians were at a disadvantage, I do wonder what their reaction to the citizenship crisis would be. The more I consider this question, the more I think they would be upset that those born in Australia like Barnaby Joyce and John Alexander have been caught up in this would have them rolling in their graves.
  • The Australian Football League (AFL) has some well-known problems associated with racial vilification. I do wonder what effect the historical association with the ANA has had on the culture of the sport might have had.
  • The promotion of Australia Day by the ANA makes me reevaluate yet again the appropriateness of it as a day to celebrate being Australian. Apparently at one time it was actually known as ANA Day.
  • I am really glad I've had nothing to do Australian Unity, because I think I'd find it very uncomfortable to be associated with a company whose origin was so openly racist. Yes, I know the modern company can't help its past any more than I am personally responsible for Australia's history, but...
1. See Johnson, Judy 1984 The role of the Australian Natives' Association in the Federation of Australia; One Nation With One Destiny. It can be accessed at
2. Record of the Debates of the Convention(Melb 1898) Vol. IV at 246 quoted in Rubenstein, Kim 1997 "Citizenship and the Constitutional Convention Debates: A Mere Legal Inference" Federal Law Review  vol. 25 p. 306.

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