Labour History

‘The Nature and Effects Thereof Were... by Each of Them Understood’: Aborigines, Agency, Law and Power in the 1867 Gurnett Contract

Labour History (1998), 74, (1), 54–69.

Abstract

This paper examines an 1867 contract for a European tour between a group of Aboriginal workers, a white manager and a white entrepreneur to explore incongruities between literally read legal rights, assumptions of indigenous agency, and historicised inequalities of inter-racial (and inter-class) power. Resulting from an unsuccessful initial attempt to launch the famous 1868 Aboriginal tour of England, its primary functions were twofold. In the face of powerful government and philanthropic opposition, it was an attempt to convince an influential legal advocate for Aborigines of the propriety of the tour. Furthermore, it bound the potentially lucrative Aborigines by contracting not only them but their familiar ‘manager’, Hayman, to the entrepreneur, Gurnett. Explicit conditions of the indenture reveal the extent of control over the Aboriginal signatories and distinct racial and class inequities. But more severe disproportions of power and limitations to the exercise of Aboriginal agency can be located outside the contract. Conditions relating to touring Native American performers provide a critical commentary on both the organisers of the Aboriginal tour and the Victorian government’s legislative reactions.

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Sampson, David

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