Archibald Meston and scientific racism in 19th-century Australia

Archibald Meston was born in Donside, Aberdeen, in Scotland and immigrated to Sydney in 1859. An avid explorer from a young age, Meston’s journeys brought him into contact with Aboriginal Australians from whom he gained knowledge of local customs, habits, and languages. Horace Tozer, colonial secretary in the Nelson ministry, commissioned Meston in 1894 to prepare a report for the basis of the Aboriginals Protection Act of 1897. This piece of legislation was one of the chief determinants of the post-settlement experience of Indigenous people in Queensland, and established a rigid system of reserves that has been described as “a Queensland version of Apartheid”, for it imposed a highly detailed system of bureaucratic controls and destroyed Aboriginal autonomy.

From January 1898 to December 1903 Meston was ‘Protector of Aboriginals’ for southern Queensland, which later included the central division. In this capacity, he was to investigate cases of ill-treatment of Indigenous Australians and to supervise their employment. Meston had a distinct opinion about the kind of person who should be appointed to the position of Protector, and how Indigenous peoples should be governed. He believed that “[no] white man can command the fear and respect of the Australian black without an unmistakeable manifestation of superior physical and intellectual force allied to a liberal disposition and evidence of some importance.” In his 1895 report to the government, Meston recommended that Protectors be men of “strong physique [because] … physical power appeals to the Australian Aboriginals as to all savage races.” Meston’s views on dominance and power were influenced greatly by his enthusiasm for Scottish philosopher Thomas Carlyle’s writings on hero-worship and heroic leadership. Although his ideas about race were mostly reflective of broader social currents in Britain and Australia, he rejected the pseudo-scientific theories of craniology and phrenology (perhaps echoing Thomas Carlyle’s dismissal of nineteenth century social and political sciences in Britain) that were popular in Australia at the time. On the other hand, he grounded his concern for racial ‘intermixing’ between white Australians and Indigenous Australians in the works of British eugenicists such as Karl Pearson.

As a popular journalist, Meston helped to further shape settler-Indigenous interactions. As evinced in a vast body of literary journalism that he produced in his later years, Meston was instrumental in promoting nineteenth century concepts of race, and claimed authority based on his first-hand experience with Indigenous Australians. His opinions were exemplary of ‘scientific racism’ in Australia. As a self-styled amateur anthropologist, Meston succeeded in presenting himself as an expert in both popular and political spheres. As such, he was one of many individuals who contributed to the creation and perpetuation of the notion of ‘social evolution’. Theories of social evolution offered a way to account for the way in which Western colonialism had impacted indigenous populations in the nineteenth century. In Anna Haebich’s words, “it was a circular, imaginary proposition based on ethnological fragments collected by amateurs in the field and cobbled together by armchair anthropologists.” Accordingly, Indigenous societies were positioned at the bottom of the evolutionary hierarchy, and in the seemingly inevitable clash between ‘civilisation’ and ‘primitive’ peoples, they were “doomed to extinction”. Much colonial Australian government policy was built on such assumptions.

Archibald Meston was a central figure in the articulation and enactment of the idea that the colonial government’s principal role at the end of the nineteenth century was to ‘smooth the pillow of a dying race’, and the assumption that Aboriginal Australians were a ‘dying race’ was evident in his reports to the colonial government. Many of Meston’s views were made policy in Queensland’s Aboriginals Protection Act from 1897, which drew specifically upon his field reports and writings. This legislation regulated the lives of Indigenous Australians in seventeen areas, including: power over the removal to reserves; education and care of Indigenous children; the distribution of food and other resources; the conditions under which children should be placed into service; employment; the prohibition of Aboriginal rites and customs; and, the control of marriage. Section 9 of the Act allowed the relevant Minister to remove any Indigenous person to a reserve, with a three-month prison sentence for breach of disciplinary regulations or escape.

The Queensland legislation, based upon Meston’s reports, was the basis for similar policies in the Northern Territory, Western Australia and South Australia. Under such ‘protective’ legislation, Aboriginal Australians lost basic rights such as freedom of movement and labour, custody of children and control over personal property. In some parts of Australia, the Chief Protector had legal guardianship over all Aboriginal children, usurping the power of the parents. Such policies reached their peak in the 1930s, although the Queensland Act existed in various forms up until the 1970s. Archibald Meston’s amateur ethnography and field reports informed many of their provisions.

Though individuals such as James Dawson might have reflected a seemingly philanthropic approach to Indigenous peoples, Meston was far more representative and influential in shaping relations between settlers and the Indigenous population in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.

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