Framing and Expropriating Indigenous Identities: The Role of British Law in the Annexation of Australian Aboriginal Land
While Space is treated as 'natural fact', humans organize space in culturally specific ways. Conceptions of space as unexplored 'place' and 'land' have justified imperial rationales of occupation and exploitation. I focus on the seizure of Australian Aboriginal land, sanctioned under the international law of 'terra nullius'. British law formulated land and place as indisputably crown possessions. 'Terra Nullius' saw land as 'empty', enabling appropriation of Aboriginal land, and eviction and extermination of the indigenes. British law over-wrote Aboriginal notions of place, negating the Aboriginal intertwinning of place with the production of identity and cultural customs. Land and Place became loci of struggles for space and meaning. The rule of law sanctioned the colonizer's continuing incursion into new territories, and the annexation of those terrains. The European law that Aborigines became subject to interpreted Aboriginal law as irrational and primitive. Legal principles repeatedly created the indigenes as British 'subjects' and conversely as second class citizens without rights. Colonial legal constructions of land and space ultimately dehumanized Australia's indigenous peoples. The Humanities, via the study of colonial literature and popular writing, enables us to reconstruct the contemporary legal rhetoric and colonial understandings of 'land' and 'place' which validated mass Aboriginal exterminations. A postcolonial emphasis traces the resonance of such historical epistemologies today. Only in 1992, in the 'Mabo Case', was 'terra nullius' first rejected, affirming the possibility of Aboriginal rights to land and place. The conventional juxtaposition of Humanities and Legality dissolves where established legal frameworks are revealed as fiction. The role of the Humanities is vital in understanding the historical and legal precedents in ongoing struggles of ownership and meaning of Australian land and place. The Humanities cannot claim to speak for indigenous peoples. However, deconstruction of logocentric designations of space discloses epistemological and actual violence, crucially redressing Aboriginal dehumanizations.
Keywords: Land and Place, Framing Indigenous Identities
Dr. Jo Collins
Final Year PhD Student, Postcolonial Centre Department of English, Kent University