King's College London
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Representing the unfamiliar: Photography in the British Empire 1866-1938

Australian aborigines

Photograph showing Mrs Roger and her gins and son at Paddy’s CreekPhotograph showing Mrs Roger and her gins and son at Paddy’s CreekIn his journey across the Northern Territory of Australia, Sir Walter Balfour Barttelot (1880-1918) provides an insight into both the settler outposts in the Northern Territory and the settlers’ relationships with aboriginal peoples.

Barttelot himself was an officer in the Coldstream Guards and when writing this report in 1912 was the aide-de-camp to Lord Denman, the incumbent Governor General of Australia. His wife was also lady-in-waiting to Lady Denman, the Governor’s wife.

Barttelot joined a voyage to Northern Australia and charted his return to Queensland, pointing out the terrain, insects and watering points encountered during his travels, amongst much else.

He interviewed the white settlers he came across, who presented a quite unified opinion on the protection of aboriginal rights. Prior to the journey, in 1910 the Aboriginal Protection Act came into force in the Northern Territory, Australia, itself a region deeply connected to aboriginal communities.

One interviewee, Mrs Mara, bemoaned how she thought ‘the Act for the Protection of Aboriginals is dreadful. I really think the whites want more protecting than the blacks.’ White settlers in early 20th century Australia evidently felt under threat from perceived infractions on their way of life.

However, this insecurity was wildly unfounded. 10,000 aborigines in the Northern Territory were said to have been killed in skirmishes from 1860 to 1930, double the number of Northern Territory settlers killed in every conflict between the Second South African War and the Vietnam War. And of course there was the threat of disease to these aboriginal communities.

As for the role of aboriginal women, Stevens, a manager of a police station along the journey, highlights how ‘nearly all the white men up here have kept gins.’ As Donald Denoon has suggested, not only were aboriginal women subject ‘to violent sexual encounters with white men on the frontier,’ but also ‘to domestic abuse by white mistresses in the home.’

In the photograph reproduced here, Mrs Rodgers, a white settler Barttelot encountered, is portrayed next to her domestic servants, derogatorily referred to by Barttelot as ‘gins.’ The photo reflects a wider phenomenon of aboriginal women being taught homecraft in an attempt to mould their behaviour to the idealised form of the western housewife.

Link to King's College London catalogue record:

Sir Walter Barttelot. Report of a journey across the Northern territory from Port Darwin to Cloncurry in Queensland. 1912

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