The Australian Aboriginal Progressive Association (AAPA) rose to prominence fighting for the rights of Aboriginal people in the early 1920s. They are today recognized as the first united, organized pan-Aboriginal political group. The AAPA realized early on that the survival of Aboriginal people and culture was savagely threatened by insidious government policy. Contemporary studies have highlighted the organization’s fights for land rights, citizenship, and the right of Aboriginal parents to keep their children, but the importance it placed on protecting and defending a distinct Aboriginal cultural identity has been largely overlooked. Evidence reveals that these early Aboriginal political patriots strongly advocated maintaining contact with their traditional knowledge base and placed strong spiritual and sacred attachment to the land on their political platform.
The Stain of Anthropology
The studies and statements of anthropologists through the early decades of the 20th century conferred long-lasting stereotypes of inferiority on Aboriginal people and culture, influencing the thinking of generations of Australians. They categorized who was and who was not Aboriginal and defined Aboriginal people as relics of the Stone Age and a dying race. Quite clearly, evidence dictates that the general thinking of the wider Australian populace was and continues to be deeply affected by the findings and thinking of anthropologists and intellectual theorists. Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species had an overwhelming impact; Darwin’s findings firmly established evolutionary social theory at the forefront of Australian public understanding.
Very few questioned the doomed race hypothesis at the time. As an example, in 1920 New South Wales (NSW) Premier Joseph Caruthers said, “The Australian Aborigines will soon be but a memory to those who people this continent.” (Macleay Argus 1/30/1920) American anthropologist Dr. William Lloyd Warner played an influential role in cementing these beliefs. He said, “[It is] tragic to think that the happiest people in the world should be doomed to extinction…. [The] fate of the Australian blacks will be that of the American Indian—they will vanish from the face of the earth.” (Telegraph 10/20/1927) Frederick Wood-Jones, professor of anatomy at the University of Adelaide, fostered similar beliefs: “there is a tremendous need in Australia for students and institutions to take up the study of [A]borigines and animals before they disappear forever.” (The Wingham Chronicle And Manning River Observer, 1/12/1922) Doctor of medicine and professor of anatomy at the University of Heidelberg, Herman Klaatsch supported Darwin’s findings “that man sprang from the same common root as monkeys and other mammals….” Blackfellows, he said, “are the last relics of the oldest type of mankind—they are the outspring of their race…. [The Aborigines] should not be allowed to die out seeing that nothing could replace them…. [U]nless something be done in this direction there will … be no blacks on the eastern coast in fifty years time and their loss would be a loss to science.” (Newcastle Morning Herald 3/29/1905) In newspaper coverage, the imminent Aboriginal demise was unquestioned. The impact of anthropologists can be ascertained in the thoughts of the general public. One writer commented, “[T]eaching of anthropology indicates that in a generation or two the full-bloods in this state will have vanished and that somewhat later the half-caste will be merged into the dominant white race.” (Sydney Morning Herald, 10/30/1924) Even a move to enshrine the Aboriginal passing was mooted: “[N]ow that the Australian Aborigines are dying out … it has been suggested that Australian artist B.E.Minns be commissioned by the Federal government to supply some artistic memorials of our passing black brothers.” (Telegraph 10/23/1927)
Sacred Land, Savage Impact
It was into this cauldron of deceit and misrepresentation that an Aboriginal political voice denounced the actions of governments and vehemently opposed the general thinking of the day. Aboriginal land tenure and the denial of that ownership since 1788 is an integral part of the history of the Australian continent. Any attempt to comprehend the reasons why Aboriginal people rose up in political revolt in the 1920s must have at its core an understanding of the importance of Aboriginal spiritual and sacred attachment to their land. The Australian continent prior to 1788 was owned and occupied by diverse nations of Aboriginal groups. They lived by complex customary laws, practised various forms of land tenure and environmental resource management, and protected their traditional lands and sacred sites. The colonization of Australia systematically stripped these Aboriginal peoples of their lands, culture, and resources with neither negotiation nor compensation and resulted in the Western economic development of Australia “predicated on the dispossession of Aborigines and transfer of property rights in natural resources away from the Aborigines to the colonists.” (Telegraph 10/23/1927) With their culture and economic values removed, Aboriginal people became increasingly dependent on the introduced economic structure.
Having survived the horrendous impact of violence, disease, and neglect for nearly a century of British occupation, Aboriginal people incorporated and combined European means of living and sustenance into their daily lives. The later stages of the 19th century saw the introduction of the New South Wales Aboriginal Protection Board and the granting of land as reserves for Aboriginal people. According to Goodall (1996), “At the height of Aboriginal holding of reserve lands in 1911, there were 115 reserves totaling 26,000 acres. Of these, 75 were created on Aboriginal initiative.” The majority of these reserves “were farmed and managed by Aboriginal people themselves, and were never directly controlled by the Aboriginal Protection Board.” Aboriginal knowledge of their land and environment ensured that farming successes marked these independent land holdings. The downturn came with the encroachment and envy of white settlement, followed shortly thereafter with the introduction of the First World War soldier resettlement scheme. Goodall noted (1998) the successes achieved by these Aboriginal farmers and just as importantly their determined efforts to maintain their cultural identity:
The most economically viable of all the reserves were those on the north coast, particularly around the Macleay Valley. Here the slower rate of white settlement had given Aborigines time to re-occupy some of the most fertile river flat land. Their reserves of 30 or 40 acres could produce crops such as maize and pumpkins, enough to support their extended families and often produce a profit, which they used for equipment or household goods, or sometimes to make the expensive shift from farming to dairying. These farms looked so ‘European’ that many white settlers were unaware that their Aboriginal neighbours and their children still spoke their own language at home and maintained an extensive ceremonial life.
As early as 1888 police officer Martin Brennan had highlighted Aboriginal desire for land in maintaining a distinct Aboriginal cultural identity:
I have known blacks in the Braidwood and Coast districts very intelligent, who have been and are excellent farm labourers, and whose aspirations at all times were to be allowed some land which they might call their own in reality; which they might cultivate unmolested for the use of themselves and their families; and where [A]borigines of the surrounding districts might meet periodically for the purpose of holding coroborees and other exhilarating games. (Goodall, 1990)
Five decades later another example on the north coast revealed that “the Thungutti were coping reasonably well with the radically altered circumstances which had forced change upon their society since the generation of their grandfathers.” (Creamer, 1977) As late as 1931 and 1935 important social and political institutions, including several initiation ceremonies, were held at various sites near Bellbrook. (Ibid., see also Morris, 1989) The participants conducted “a series of ceremonies collectively known as the Bora or the Keepara initiations. Two elders led them, Gilbert Duckett, known to the Thungutti as the “King of the Keepara” and old Ralph Quinlan. Both were nguloongurra or “clever men” with an extensive knowledge of tribal ways and power to heal the sick; they had been taking part in initiation ceremonies since around 1890 when they were both young lads.” (Creamer, 1977)
The success of Aboriginal farmers was widely evident. “The independence they had won for themselves allowed them to develop a whole way of life, which made sense to them. It was economically viable in the changed circumstances of colonisation but it drew also on the 60,000 years of Aboriginal society and civilization of that country.” (Goodall, 1988)
Right across NSW, Aboriginal people adopted farming, albeit with their own modifications through an intimate knowledge of the land, environment, and seasons. Most important, Aboriginal people were pressing for land with which they were spiritually and socially aligned. (Goodall, 1990) Some commentators of the period remarked on the strong urge Aboriginal people had to hold on to a piece of their country. “I have lived among the blacks for many years,” said one, “and I find that all of them are longing for some little place in their own country that they can call their own; some little place where they are at liberty to carry out their ancient codes unrestricted by the presence of the white man and his stock.” (Adelaide Advertiser, 4/29/1925) He continued, “[T]he blackfellow’s love for his own country, no matter how small the area, is as strong as ours is for our Empire.”
Changes of policy, settlement expansion, and the returned soldier-housing scheme resulted in massive Aboriginal reserve land loss. One example on the north coast highlighted the brutality of the period: “James Linwood of Fattorini Island, an [A]boriginal who felled and cleared the land, lived there for 35 years, had cows and horses, grew corn and traded with storekeeper Magnus Thompson on the same footing as other settlers, was driven off by the Board to the bush and poverty.” (Macleay Chronicle, July 1937) After decades of toil the reward for Aboriginal farmers right across the state was to be cast off their hard-worked-for properties with nothing more to show than the shirts on their backs. This period is today recognized as the “second dispossession.”
Once the Aboriginal farmers had been evicted, the reserve over the land was revoked and it was alienated permanently. Ironically, it became clear in the 1970s that all of these revocations were in fact illegal, a problem solved by the Wran Government by passing legislation concurrently with its 1983 Land Rights Act which retrospectively validated the second dispossession. (Goodall, 1988)
This full-scale revocation of independent reserves was to invoke a much harsher period for Aboriginal people. They were all thrown together on largely worthless tracts of land, under strict control of all aspects of their lives and with little or no means left to earn their own sustenance. This loss of Aboriginal reserve land, along with an acceleration in the removal of Aboriginal children from their families, was the catalyst that ignited Aboriginal political revolt.
The Australian Aboriginal Progressive Association
The Australian Aboriginal Progressive Association first came to the public’s notice in early 1925 and quickly became front page Sydney news. The new organization was depicted as “fighting for the preservation of the rights of [A]borigines for self determination.” (The Daily Guardian, 5/7/1925) In an inspiring call to arms, President Fred Maynard urged his people to join the new organization:
We aim at the spiritual, political, industrial and social…. We want to work out our own destiny. Our people have not had the courage to stand together in the past, but now we are united, and are determined to work for the preservation of those interests which are near and dear to us. (The Daily Guardian, 5/7/1925)
At the forefront of AAPA demands was the call for enough land to “see every [A]boriginal in this country settled on a tiny portion of his own original land.” (Macleay Chronicle, 8/19/1925) The AAPA’s demands did not waver during a time of political agitation. Said one member, “New South Wales offered Aboriginal people a blanket and rations for what was in reality his country in the first place.” (Northern Star, 8/3/1927) In correspondence with NSW Premier Jack Lang, AAPA President Fred Maynard defiantly maintained that “the Australian people are the original owners of the land and have a prior right over all other people in this respect.…”
Land, however, was not the only issue at stake. The AAPA fought a bitter four-year campaign against the New South Wales Aboriginal Protection Board and its practice of removing Aboriginal children from their parents’ homes. The AAPA stance also highlighted the pride in Aboriginal culture that was very much at the forefront of the movement’s activities. Too many contemporary analysts describe the early Aboriginal activists as conformist, pressing for equality based on the ability of Aboriginal people to adopt European and “civilized” ways of living. Fred Maynard, for example, did say to Premier Jack Lang:
Our people have … accepted the modern system of government which has taken the place of our prehistoric methods and have conformed to same reasonably well when the treatment accorded them is fully considered. We are, therefore, striving to obtain full recognition of our citizen rights on terms of absolute equality with all other people in our own land. (Maynard, 1927a)
But none of this is evidence that Maynard or other members of the AAPA did so with any thought of abandoning or denouncing either Aboriginal culture or a distinct Aboriginal identity. The evidence points to the contrary. Aboriginal leaders were merely strategically constructing their writing and petitions to appeal to their target audience.
The Aboriginal fight was first and foremost to gain recognition and acceptance in their own land on their own terms. The full message of Maynard’s letter to the premier was confrontational and cutting in its delivery. He targeted the sinister activities of the New South Wales Protection Board and highlighted the full impact of historical reality since 1788, including the invasion and the subsequent one-sided war waged against the Aboriginal population. In contrast, the message Maynard delivered to an Aboriginal recipient was entirely different: he was scathing when he warned that sinister motives lay behind the New South Wales Protection Board’s policy and intentions. “Make no mistake,” he wrote. “No doubt, they are trying to exterminate the Noble and Ancient race of Australia…. What a horrible conception of so called legislation, Re any civilised laws, I say deliberately stinks of the Belgian Congo.” (Maynard, 1927b) He revealed that the Board’s malicious intentions were hiding behind “these so called civilised methods of rule, under Christianized ideals, as they claim of civilising our people under the pretence of love.” Maynard felt the whole process had to be confronted:
[T]hese tyrannous methods, under the so called administrative laws re the Aboriginal Act, have got to be blotted out as they are an insult to intelligent, right thinking people. We are not going to be insulted any longer than it will take to wipe it off the Statute Books. That’s what our Association stands for, liberty, freedom and the right to function in our own interest.
He hammered home that Aboriginal people had been driven too far:
Are we going to stand for these things any longer? Certainly not! Away with the damnable insulting methods which are degrading. Give us a hand, stand by your own native Aboriginal officers and fight for liberty and freedom.
“Deep Spiritual Force and Power in their Midst”
In early 1925 the AAPA instigated a recruitment drive throughout New South Wales. At a meeting held in Kempsey and attended by hundreds of Aboriginal people, two of the local elders were asked to address the crowd. James Linwood and Johnny Mosely were prominent Aboriginal men who had suffered greatly at the hands of government policy. Linwood delivered his address in Aboriginal language, thereby grounding the new movement distinctly within an Aboriginal cultural context. A journalist noted the significance of the occasion: “ [I]t was a remarkable meeting because of the presence of some of the very old [A]borigines in this district, old identities of the Macleay River. They were as keen as any in the movement.… Mr James Linwood from Fatorrini Island, spoke in the [A]boriginal language to the people urging them to join up and work together in the interests of their own race.” (Macleay Argus, 4/7/1925) Later that year the AAPA held a conference at Kempsey attended by several hundred Aboriginal people. (Voice of the North, 1925) The conference attracted Aboriginal people from all walks of life to rally to the AAPA stand. There were some “deep spiritual force and power in their midst.” (Macleay Chronicle, 10/7/1925) Leader Fred Maynard explained to New South Wales Premier Jack Lang the importance traditional Aboriginal society placed in looking after the elderly, children, and widows and told him that modern society had adopted these very same principles: “… your present scheme of Old Age pensions was obtained from our ancient code, as likewise your Child Endowment Scheme and Widows pension….” (Maynard, 1927a)
As Goodall has said, the AAPA sought to utilize the best of both worlds in their platform:
The 1920s activists had felt free to make clear assertion of the value and continuation of Aboriginal traditional culture, insisting that they must be recognised as civilised by virtue of both ‘our more ancient civilization’ and their competence within European culture.… (1982, 1996)
It is clear that early Aboriginal political agitation firmly advocated, in its directive and actions, the importance of traditional sacred attachment to the land and the retention of a distinct Aboriginal cultural identity. Several decades later we are left to ponder and lament what might have been. If the AAPA’s call for enough land for each and every Aboriginal family in the country had been met, we would have witnessed and reaped the benefits of several decades of Aboriginal people working in their own independent and self-functioning areas of country. If the AAPA demand that Aboriginal children be left with their own caring families had been met, we would not have witnessed the horrific impact of a further five decades of horror and despair with thousands of Aboriginal children being ripped from their families and homes. Finally, if a distinct, rich Aboriginal cultural base and identity had been maintained we would not now be entwined in the slow process of putting together a fragmented jigsaw puzzle with many missing pieces. This country as a whole would have been so much the richer and embedded with a much clearer conscience both of its past and future.
John Maynard is a research academic lecturer at the Umilliko Higher Education Research Centre, University of Newcastle. His traditional roots lie with the Worimi people of Port Stephens. His grandfather was Aboriginal activist Fred Maynard, and his father Merv was a top Koori jockey.
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Maynard, F. (1927a). Letter to the Premier, NSW Premiers Department Correspondence Files, A27/915.
Maynard, F. (1927b) Letter to Aboriginal girl, NSW Premiers Department Correspondence Files, A27/915.
Morris, B. (1989). Domesticating Resistance: The Dhan-Gadi Aborigines and the Australian State. Oxford: Berg.