Visitors 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.

The 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.

For example, the Victorian radical weekly, Tocsin, explained in 1906 that the champions of White Australia did not :

object 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.

From 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.

The 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.

Just 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.

“Race” 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.

The 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 dynamics.

The 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 yellerfellers.

Colour 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.

Looking 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.

From 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.

The botanist on the Cook expedition, Joseph Banks, first sighted Australians on 22 April 1770:

In the morn we stood with the land near enough to discern 5 people who appeared through our glasses to be enormously black: so far did the prejudices which we had built on Dampier’s account influence us that we fancied we could see their colour when we could scarce distinguish whether or not they were men.

Banks 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.

Early 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

Our 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.

Uncertainty about skin tones paralleled indecision concerning the rank of the Australians in the great chain of being.

The 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”.

To 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.

Evidence 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 complexion”.

The 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 associations.

Hunter 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”.

Since 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.

With 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.

In 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.

Well 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.

During 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.

From 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.

“Black” 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”.

Although 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.

A 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.

The 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 the label “blackfella” seems not to have beenas pejorative as boong, coon, gin or nigger.

The 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. 

Meanwhile, 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 condition.

The 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?

The 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.

Some 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: 

After 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 disappeared.

This interest coincides with greasing their bodies for ceremony and the pursuit of luminosity in painting through dots or cross-hatching.

Another 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.

For 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.

Hence, 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”.

Although 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.

Eventually, 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.

As Europeans spread around the continent, they encountered differences in pigmentation, not only between tribes, but within the same tribe.

Louis 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 of nature”.

To 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.

Thirty 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 was flawed.

From 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.

For 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?

A 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 variation.

During 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.