ABORIGINES - SKIN DEEP
to the Body section at the Melbourne Museum are invited to rotate a drum
of beads. The aim is to spot any of the three red ones that represent
the determinants of skin colour among the 30, 000 white ones for the
rest of our genome.
near impossibility of glimpsing even a single red bead is at odds with
the readiness with which we notice skin colour itself. More importantly,
that difficulty conflicts with the assumption that physical
characteristics are determinants of individual or group destiny.
example, the Victorian radical weekly, Tocsin,
explained in 1906 that the champions of White Australia did not :
to a man because his complexion or the cast of his eyes differs from our
own, but because his complexion and the cast of his eyes are inseparably
connected in our experience with certain qualities of mind to which we
do most emphatically object.
the 1880s to the 1950s, “White Australia” meant more than a
restrictive immigration policy, expressing a national ideal to be
secured through positive and negative eugenics. Britishers would be
strengthened through welfare reforms and birth control, referred to as
racial hygiene. Non-white foreigners were to be deported and excluded.
The “uncontaminated” blacks would die out while the lighter-skinned
would disappear through inter-breeding.
belief that the dissolution of the physical would eliminate the cultural
underlines the muddle-headedness in all racial stereotyping.
Furthermore, that assumption highlights that the problem was not with
black skins but with how the whites viewed them.
as no one can be born a slave without there being a master to own her,
the cultural significance of “blackness” would not exist without the
socio-economic impress of whiteness. This privileging of white was
illustrated European zoologists claimed the zebra was white with black
stripes, whereas Africans rightly said it was black with white stripes.
had entered the lexicon of science as an arbitrary convenience for
taxonomers early in the 18th century. In a circularity,
“race” was soon being used to explain physical variations.
Scientists had turned geographical varieties into biological barriers.
one gene in ten thousand that alters skin colour is not a physical basis
for splitting our species into races, still less is it an index of
social customs Hence,
biologists abandoned race as a meaningful category, not only because the
physical differences are so slight, but because of their multi-variant
genetic difference between a Swede and a pigmy is less than 0.2 per
cent, and of that only a portion affects pigmentation. Hence, the
so-called half-caste is truly a “one-in-ten-thousandth caste”.
Reacting against discrimination, part Aborigines sought to pass
themselves off as white. By the 1930s, they were referred to as
played its part in how Europeans reacted to the Australian Aborigines.
That they were not white did not always establish innate inferiority.
The question was how dark were they? If “black”, then, like the
African Negroes, they were fit only for slavery. If “lighter”, they
had prospects of salvation.
at both sides of the frontier, we can explore how skin colour affected
the invaders treatment of the indigenes and how they in turn understood
their conquerors. At issue is not the vocabulary for skin tones but the
policies associated with colour, and which continue to the present.
1700, William Dampier’s accounts of the north-west corner of the
continent installed the first fixed ideas about the Australians: “The
Colour of their Skins, both of their Faces and the rest of their Body,
is coal-black, like that of the Negroes of Guinea”. Dampier dismissed
the Australians as “the miserablest People in the World”.
Generations of school children imbibed these opinions when the authors
of school texts plagarised each other’s quotations.
botanist on the Cook expedition, Joseph Banks, first sighted Australians
on 22 April 1770:
appreciated that seeing could include a learned response, and was not
just the brain’s response to the refraction of light, as proposed by
Isaac Newton in the 1670s.
in July, Banks initiated a new tradition by deciding that the
Aborigines’ “colour was nearest to that of chocolate”. A month
later, he accepted that while
glasses might deceive us in many things but their colour and want of
cloths we certainly did see … What their absolute colour is is
difficult to say, they were so completely covered with dirt … I tried
indeed by spitting upon my finger and rubbing but altered the colour
very little, which as nearly as might be resembled that of Chocolate.
about skin tones paralleled indecision concerning the rank of the
Australians in the great chain of being.
descriptor “chocolate” leaves a problem because we cannot be sure
what its Eighteenth century users meant. Surgeon John White’s
description of the plumage of a parrot as inclining “to a purplish or
chocolate colour” adds to the confusion. We know the diarists meant a
drink, and not a bar of Cadburys. But how dark was this beverage? Until
the 1820s, chocolate contained cocoa fat, and so did not dissolve easily
in milk. We get some idea of what they saw because they often tied
“chocolate” to “velvety”.
celebrate the penal colony, its versifiers reached for elevated diction
and Classical allusions. Hence, they used the heraldic “sable” for
black, a cliché which tells us nothing of what they saw.
from the early artists is hardly more helpful. The dark end of their
palette included carbon black, umbers and Sienna, which could be
extended by mixing. Yet not all those paints were always available in
the colonies so that artists had to make do. Since Captain John
Hunter’s portrait of an Australian presented her with an aquiline
profile in contrast to his written description of flat noses and thick
lips, why should we accept his rendition of her skin colour as close to
raw umber? When a Tasmanian woman saw an oil of one of her people in
1837, she asked whether the skin had been rendered in charcoal, since,
according to her Protector, George Augustus Robinson, the flesh tone
that the painter had produced was “quite the reverse of the native
trouble that the Europeans had in discerning skin colour extended to
their interpretation of the meaning of the paints with which the natives
decorated themselves. Naming those shades was straightforward – mostly
white with some red, or else black and yellow. Captain-Lieutenant of
Marines Watkin Tench claimed that white was “strictly appropriate to
the dance” while red was more common and of less consequence. Deputy
judge-advocate David Collins agreed that white was for dancing but
believed that red was for fighting. White and yellow were later
accounted funereal. White also signified peace while red had judicial
recorded in 1790 that the natives had words for only four colours
-black, white, red and green. Yet, flexibility in their usage of this
quartet is clear from Tench’s report that “they translate the
epithet white, when they speak of us, not by the name which they assign
to this white earth; but by that with which they distinguish the palms
of their hands”.
they could delineate kinds of whiteness, we can assume that they also
appreciated degrees of blackness. They also repeated the word for a
colour in order to convey its intensity. Because no blue pigment was
available, they juxtaposed other colours and patterns so that black
would be understood as “blue”. The application of feathers or ash
also enhances the significances of the four available colours.
the settlers’ rudimentary grasp of indigenous tongues, and their even
poorer insight into the Aborigines’ spiritual domain, the reporters
were at a loss to specify meanings among these multiple functions.
Moreover, the urge to interpret the novel within the familiar infected
every experience. One diarist on the First Fleet imagined snow in the
white sands as he passed the east coast of Tasmania in high summer.
this manner, Surgeon White described the stripes that the native
warriors painted across their breasts and backs as “not unlike our
soldiers’ cross belt”. It is possible that the natives adapted their
white markings and red body paint to match the dress of the red coats
whose garb they promptly learned to fear almost as much as muskets in
the hope of gaining military prowess by looking like their invaders.
into the twentieth century, researchers relied on external markers, such
as skin colour, hair structure and cranial capacity, to fulfil their
equation of science with classification and measurement.
the eighteenth century, the racism of scientists took two paths. The
first applied the Christian doctrine of the Fall to argue that all skin
colours were a slippage from the purity of whiteness. The ultimate
decline for those whose inferiority was thus indicated would be to die
out. The theologians were stuck with a single creation but could allow
that their god had later damned one branch of humankind as the children
of Ham. By contrast, Enlightenment thinkers proposed separate creations
of different species of men, represented by up to five skin colours -
white, red, yellow, brown, black.
the third century Greek physician, Galen, came the linking of humours
with skin colours that were taken as racial temperaments: blacks were
lazy, passionate and unreliable. The Swedish taxonomer Linneaus applied
these characteristics to human beings in the 1750s, notions carried on
the Cook voyages by his student Daniel Solander.
was also the long-standing metaphor for the malign, with “dark”
serving both as a moral judgement and a physical feature. Writing of the
Port Jackson peoples, a convicted forger listed their “dark
characteristics” as “irascibility, ferocity, cunning, treachery,
revenge, filth, and immodesty”.
the view that the Australians were not redeemable gained support, the
chance of civilising them continued to be debated. In 1810, a
correspondent to the Sydney
Gazette accepted that the adults were hopeless, having fallen even
from their “State of Nature”. The solution therefore lay with the
young: “As many of their children as they can be prevailed to part
with, must at an early age be distributed among the families of sedate
persons”. The writer accepted that Europeans would be reluctant to
undertake “the nurture of a little alien, against whose complexion our
prejudices … are at war”. The reluctance was overcome by taking
girls into domestic service.
These conventional wisdoms
rested on the paradigms of scientists, albeit with a considerable lag
between their exposition among experts and their absorption by the
populace. This delay is apparent in the way blood is still spoken of as
decisive, 50 years after identification of the double helix established
genetics as the mechanism for inheritance.
want of knowledge is rarely the cause of bias, any more than education
has been its cure. Information will confirm prejudices as often as
dispel them. Darwin’s concept of natural selection snaked back into
biological Spencerianism of the survival of the fittest. Although Mendel
explained the spawning of varieties, genetics are still being used to
support a determinism as rigid and as mono-causal as phrenology.
black power declaration in the 1960s that “Black is beautiful” was
not new. An early settler recollected that the natives had reacted to
being called “black fellows” by dubbing the English “white
fellows”. Not only did the Aborigines seem “perfectly content with
the distinction” but considered “white the worse hue, decidedly”.
Across the intervening decades
label “blackfella” seems not to have beenas pejorative as boong,
coon, gin or nigger.
Australians had no chance to describe themselves as other than black.
North American Indians, however, had
adopted “red” as a skin name to delineate themselves from
black slaves. Tribes in the south-east designated themselves as red-men
because Seminole creation legends told of people having been formed from
red clay. To be red, therefore, was to be human, although yellow, brown
and tawny were nearer their actual tone. They accepted red because they
painted themselves and their possessions that colour; in addition, red
was also their war moiety. This descriptor spread across the continent
to end up as “Red varmints” in Hollywood scripts.
the Europeans in the North American colonies had started to call
themselves “white” instead of “Christian” in order to deepen the
divide between slave owners and their black chattels. The move from a
theological label to a chromatic one intensified its oppressive import
because it replaced the need for conversion with an ineradicable
Australians preference for blackness does not let us know whether they
had regarded their skin colour as more than a fact of life before being
confronted by its opposite. If they had possessed that self-awareness,
did they grade individuals or neighbouring mobs according to some
register of shades? Was skin tone a factor in their conflicts? Since
women were generally lighter, did the sexes prize skin tints as a factor
when selecting a partner?
Aborigines’ painting and scarifying their flesh establishes that they
accepted that their natural shades needed embellishment to express their
symbolic universe. Old men blackened their grey hair for phallic
ceremonies. Abel Tasman’s 1642 report of men “painted black from the
waist to the thighs” raises the issue of why they selected that colour
and for that part of their anatomy when all of their skin was dark.
observers doubted whether the Aborigines even noticed their skin tone.
The botanist, Baron Charles von Hugel, lamented in 1832 that black women
regarded “one part of their skin as just as black and dirty as
another, and they have no idea that this could be a source of either
attraction or shame”. Yet, his experience at Swan River revealed their
fascination with its sheen:
I had eaten my lunch I gave the scraps to the natives. They enjoyed the
bread and the cheese, but they were at a loss to know what to do with
the two slices of ham. One of them finally discovered that when rubbed
on the skin it makes it shine, and so my gift rose in value. They all
wanted some ... They rubbed away on their skin till the slices
interest coincides with greasing their bodies for ceremony and the
pursuit of luminosity in painting through dots or cross-hatching.
test for the Aborigines’ perception of their “blackness” was their
confusion on seeing the Africans who came with the whites. One group
murdered a black US pastry cook travelling inland in 1852 for violating
laws of trespass, before offering to guide his white companion to
safety. This mistake provoked those Aborigines with longer contact into
“great indignation”, saying that the locals “ought to have known
the difference between ‘black fellow’ and ‘white man’s black
fellow’.” That they could not do so automatically indicates that
colour was less important than “skin” in its clan sense.
these incidents we are reliant on the testimony of Europeans. Their
rudimentary grasp of the language impeded understanding, as did
assumptions that “White” set the standard from which other skin
colours were a declension.
we can accept Tench’s report that the Aborigines were “amazed by the
whiteness of skin”, and initially supposed European clothing to be
“so many different skins”. At Botany Bay, Gweagal men thought the
newcomers were women because they were clean shaven. Upon being
undeceived by one man’s removal of his trousers, the locals “made a
great shout of admiration”.
the Aborigines had to fit the invaders into their symbolic systems, we
should be sceptical about tales of their believing that whites, such as
William Buckley at Port Phillip, were the returning spirits of black
ancestors. A convict at Port Jackson had told the local people that he
had once been one of them, and appointed an old lady as his mother. They
indulged this fantasy until he took possession of a much younger female,
whereupon they speared him back to death.
European concepts permeated Aboriginal thinking to come back to us as
evidence of their cosmology. Writing in the early 1920s, the sympathetic
medical practitioner, Herbert Basedow, reported that “throughout the
Northern Kimberley district the natives maintain that a dead tribesman
will ‘jump up all-the-same whitefellow’ in colour”. If true, this
prospect could have been in reaction to their having been conquered,
sustaining the hope that by becoming like the invaders they would match
their fire power.
Europeans spread around the continent, they encountered differences in
pigmentation, not only between tribes, but within the same tribe.
de Freycinet at Port Jackson in 1819 found some “close to the colour
of African negroes, others more like the coppery red of Malays”.
Another observer concluded that the range “may fairly be referred to
the accidental varieties which we observe throughout the whole economy
make sense of the spectrum of skin hues around the globe, the British
Association for the Advancement of Science in 1839 voted £5 to publish
a pamphlet to help travellers record the physical and social
characteristics of races and tribes “likely, at no distant period, to
be annihilated”. Such data would reduce “the irretrievable loss
which science must sustain” by their disappearance. The booklet’s
third query concerned complexion of skin, hair and
eyes, at that time assumed to be linked.
years later, the Association supplied a colour chart of ten skin tints.
The traveller in “uncivilised lands” was advised to hold these
against “a part of the body not exposed to sun or weather”, no
delicate achievement for naked peoples. Plastic eyes and swatches of
hair were also available for field comparisons. Later editions of the
guide sidelined “pigmentary characters” because of “the
unsatisfactory nature of matching techniques”, not because the concept
the 1950s, new machines provided precise measurement of the reflectance
of skin colours just as attention was shifting to their polygenetic
sources. Anthropometricians report differences between darker coastal
tribes and those in central Australia in support of a multi-wave
hypothesis. No matter how refined the grading of pigments became, the
practice was never neutral because colour classifications were used to
confirm social judgements.
instance, the distinctions in skin tone retain currency in debates about
land claims. Who were the original inhabitants, ask spokespeople for the
mining industry? Were the Aborigines one people from a single
immigration, or were there several waves over 50,000?
second variation in skin colour was that Aboriginal babies are born
lighter than their parents, sometimes almost pink, had import for the
stolen generation. An 1820s observer added that the infants went black
before their first birthday, but not from any rubbing with “grease or
dirt”. From the 1870s, the sighting of the strawberry-headed kids of
the Pitjantjatjara in the central desert presented a more startling
the first half of the twentieth century, officials hoped that if skin
pigment was not obvious at birth, it could be bred out. Along with a
scholarly reclassification of Aborigines as near to Caucasian, the
lightness of Aboriginal infants influenced policy towards biological
absorption. As Anna Haebich has documented in her Broken
Circles, governments maintained registers of “Almost white
girls” who were the most vulnerable to being taken from their
families, to be married off to white men. Children were expelled from a
special home for the light-skinned if they began to darken. Its
superintendent fretted that her charges had returned from a beach
holiday as “brown as berries”.
Being almost white did not guarantee equal funding. The youngsters got about one-third of the government grant for white orphans. Now that identifying as Aboriginal offers a few benefits, the complaint is that they don’t look black enough.