The Protectors

I was once told by a patronising Englishman that the trouble with Australia is that it has too much geography and not enough history … clearly the observation is not really relevant to Tasmania … it has a remarkably rich tradition of historical literature. – Henry Reynolds in his Introduction to Grease and Ochre by Patsy Cameron.

George Augustus Robinson was the Chief Protector of Aborigines in Port Phillip District (now Victoria, Australia) in 1839, a post he held until 1849. During the Black Wars in the 1820s in Van Diemen’s land (now Tasmania) he was motivated by self-interest and was paid a bounty for each aborigine rounded up and imprisoned. Robinson’s greatest offence was failing to honour his promise to allow them to return to their country.

George Augustus Robinson (22 March 1791 – 18 October 1866)

There were never any grants of native title in Tasmania because no aboriginal clan was ever in a position to claim connection to country because they had been removed by Robinson acting on behalf of the governor and colonial authorities.

Also there is very little native title in Victoria partly because of the Yorta Yorta decision in which Edward Curr’s oldest son, Edward M Curr, played a role by claiming they had lost ‘connection with country’ because of disease (small pox) and the burgeoning pastoral industry  … ‘title washed away by the tides of history’ said one of the judges.

In 1875 Edward M Curr joined the Colony of Victoria’s Board for the Protection of the Aborigines (BPA). He was one of three new members appointed during a board shake-up probably orchestrated by the vice chairman, R. Brough Smyth, who, like Curr, was a senior public servant with an interest in ethnology. Curr served on the BPA during a period of great controversy regarding the future of the Coranderrk Aboriginal station, near Healesville.

“Coranderrk lay within the traditional territory of the Kulin nation. The troubles at Coranderrk were sparked by the dismissal of the general inspector John Green in 1874. Green had managed Victoria’s six Aboriginal reserves since the re-establishment of the protectorate system in 1861 and had taken a particular interest in Coranderrk. He was a sympathetic manager, as he explained to the board in 1863: ‘My method of managing the blacks is to allow them to rule themselves as much as possible.’

Green also rejected the view that Aborigines were ‘incapable of instruction’ and argued that ‘blacks’ and ‘half-castes’ were equally quick to learn. Green had the support of the board until 1872 and his work at Coranderrk was widely praised.

In contrast Edward M Curr took a paternalistic view giving the following answers at an inquiry into Coranderrk in 1881 :

Edward M Curr

4833. Has not the Board persistently for years endeavoured to get the people removed from Coranderrk? – Certainly not.

4834. Are you sure that yourself and Mr. Jennings and others have not written letters recommending their removal? – We did, but that is not the question you asked.

4835. Did you ever consult the blacks about the question? – No.

4836. Do you think that is fair? – Most decidedly for their good.

4837. Are they children? — They are.

4838. Are they not men? — No, they are children. They have no more self-reliance than children.

4839. If they offend against the law are they punished like children? — No, like men.

4840. Is that just? — I did not make the laws.

4841. Should they be judged in our courts of justice as men, and punished as men, if you say they are children? — They are children in some respects; but when they steal they know they are doing wrong.

[Diane Barwick 1998: 183–184.41 BPA, ‘Minutes of meetings’, NAA, Series B314, 7 September 1881.42 Coranderrk Inquiry (1881), 120. in ‘The Native as a Child’ in Edward M. Curr and the Tide of History by Samuel Furphy]

Curr maintained his view that the problems at Coranderrk were due to outside interference.

Native Title in Queensland
Go forward 150 years and this paternalism is a little different (but not much) in Queensland because the Wik people won their case in the high court. [Wik Peoples v Queensland HCA 40, (1996) 187 CLR 1]

Recent government reaction – from Hawke to Turnbull
So why have successive governments – Hawke promised land rights in the 1983 election but never delivered – got away with extinguishing land rights despite Mabo and Wik?

According to Aboriginal activist and writer Gary Foley: “The final nail in the coffin of freehold title land rights came after a meeting between PM Hawke and the Labor Premier of Western  Australia Brian Bourke who was acting as an advocate of the powerful WA mining lobby. (Bourke would some years later be exposed as a corrupt politician who ultimately was gaoled for his corrupt activities, but would continue to be an ALP powerbroker for decades to come) After Hawke met with Bourke, the Prime Minister revoked his earlier strong statements on  Aboriginal Land Rights and instead claimed that mining interests were the “national interest‟ and would be protected.” [A Short History of the Australian Indigenous Resistance 1950 – 1990 by Gary Foley].

Ian Curr

Turnbull was wrong to reject Voice. Treaty. Truth. – Uluru Statement from the Heart but he will never admit it.

Malcolm Turnbull is the modern-day-equivalent of the protectors.

Ian Curr
6 April 2021

Please note: Ian Curr is the great, great grandson of Edward Curr.


A Short History of the Australian Indigenous Resistance 1950 – 1990 by Gary Foley

Edward M. Curr and the Tide of History

Wik Peoples v Queensland HCA 40, (1996) 187 CLR 1

Grease and Ochre: The Blending of Two Cultures at the Tasmanian
Colonial Sea Frontier
by Patsy Cameron

‘The Native as a Child’ in Edward M. Curr and the Tide of History by Samuel Furphy

Voice. Treaty. Truth. – Uluru Statement from the Heart