EJANZH: Russell McGregor, Reviewed by Peggy Brock

Russell McGregor, Imagined Destinies. Aboriginal Australians and the Doomed Race Theory, 1880-1939 Melbourne: MUP, 1997. ISBN 0552847625 RRP $29.95

Reviewed by Peggy Brock

Russell McGregor makes a valuable contribution to the literature on ideas of race in this volume on the ‘Doomed Race Theory’. While broad surveys of racial theory and practice in Australia, most notably Andrew Markus’s Race and Racism in Australia, have been undertaken in the past, detailed analyses of the ideas of race in Australia have not. We have had to turn to the literature on race in Britain, the US and more recently South Africa for histories of the evolving ideas about racial categories of humanity.

McGregor begins his analysis with an excellent review of the eighteenth and nineteenth century ideas of race and their application and exposition in Australia. He suggests that there were two main currents of thought, which melded together, lead to a prediction of the inevitable extinction of indigenous Australians: the idea of progress; and the concept of race. McGregor’s discussion reflects a deep familiarity with the eighteenth and nineteenth century literature on the subject. He indicates the many strands of thought which hardened into the racial ideas of the early twentieth century, but his multi-layered reading of this intellectual history seems to belie his claim that there was a doomed race theory. Rather, McGregor’s analysis shows that, while there were broad trends in the intellectual discourses on categorising human societies, there was never a consensus. There was never one theory which explicated the demise of inferior races. Administrators, anthropologists and others formulated their views based on a variety of intellectual influences, including evolutionary categories, as well as their own observations of Aboriginal societies. By the 1920s and 1930s ideas of evolutionary progress had been combined with eugenicist practices of controlled breeding to manipulate the doomed race into biological assimilation with the superior race.

This book is not only a history of ideas, but also investigates how these ideas influenced interactions between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians, particularly the policy and practice of Aboriginal administrators and those groups who sought to influence them. McGregor focuses on Northern Territory practices. He is particularly interested in those administrators who also had an interest in theoretical issues. There is a long discussion of the evolutionary anthropologist, Baldwin Spencer’s short career as Special Commissioner and Chief Protector of Aborigines in the Northern Territory in 1912, as well as a detailed analysis of the influential administration of Cecil Cook. Cook was a medical doctor appointed Chief Medical Officer and Chief Protector of Aborigines in 1927, who propagated policies and practices with strong eugenicist elements as did a number of his bureaucratic contemporaries, including A. O. Neville in Western Australia. McGregor manages to discuss these ideas and practices in a non-judgmental way to give an account of the ideas that influenced what are now regarded as abhorrent practices of controlled breeding of Aboriginal people, including the removal of children of mixed descent from their Aboriginal families.

McGregor is also fascinated by the anthropologist A. P. Elkin devoting the major part of a chapter to his work. Again, unlike many recent critics of Elkin, McGregor discusses Elkin’s work on its own terms rather than with late twentieth century hindsight, noting changes in his views and understandings of Aboriginal society over two decades. While Imagined Destinies focuses on the Northern Territory, it also considers intellectual developments in other parts of Australia such as the physical anthropologists and evolutionists based at the South Australian Museum and University of Adelaide in the 1920s and 1930s. Tacked on at the end of the book is a brief discussion of Aboriginal views as articulated by activists in New South Wales and Victoria. This is an important discussion, but does appear rather as an afterthought than an integrated part of McGregor’s discourse. It brings the book to a rather abrupt end. Some assessment of the overall argument and an indication of postwar trends in theory and practice would have been useful. Afterall, although there were major changes in policy after the war, the idea of a doomed race in Australia did not die with the holocaust in Europe. Cultural assimilation practised in the 1950s and 1960s was another expression of an assumption that a people were doomed and needed new alternatives.

I strongly recommend this book as an important addition to the sparse literature on ideas of race in Australia. It is not an easy book to read and I found its organisation a little obtuse. There is no reason given for the focus on Northern Territory practice, and chapter headings such as ‘Anthropology Renovated, Optimism Revived and Problems Renewed’ seem cumbersome rather than enlightening. Nevertheless Imagined Destinies is worth the effort.

Peggy Brock is a Senior Lecturer in History at Edith Cowan University. She can be contacted by email at [email protected]