Aboriginal Western Australia and Federation

Transcontinental Railway Exploring Party

When Western Australia was granted responsible government, the British Colonial Secretary refused to hand over control of Aboriginal affairs because of the colony's poor reputation in its treatment of Aboriginal people. Since the arrival of white colonists in 1829, members of Western Australia's Aboriginal communities had been murdered, mistreated and exploited for the gain of the invaders.

Legal oppression

Towards the end of the nineteenth century, the colonial government introduced a range of new discriminatory measures to control its Aboriginal and mixed-race populations. More than half of the Aboriginal population of the south was of mixed descent at the turn of the century.

Laws were introduced to control the movements of Aboriginal people, and their ability to work and to associate freely. These laws also applied to northern Aboriginal people employed in the pastoral industry. The mixed-race population of the south was systematically excluded from white society. The 1886 'Aborigines Protection Act' deemed mixed-race people living with Aboriginal people to be 'natives', while the 1893 amendment to the Constitutional Act denied all Aboriginal people the franchise unless they owned a freehold estate valued at 50 pounds, effectively preventing nearly all Aboriginal Western Australians from voting.

Battle for Control

Stories of exploitation had reached Britain causing outrage among social reformers. As a result, the Constitution granted to Western Australia in 1890 by Great Britain specified a minimum of 5000 pounds or 1% of the colonial gross revenue, whichever was greater, be given over to provide for Aboriginal people in the colony. This imposition caused much resentment among colonists and for nearly ten years John Forrest led a campaign against British control of the local Aboriginal population. He finally succeeded in 1897 when the 'Aborigines Act (Imperial)' repealed the financial provision and transferred Aboriginal affairs to the Western Australian Government.

Western Australian Aboriginal people entered the new Commonwealth of Australia without recognition by the white ruling force. Their many contributions to the white exploration of the hinterland were not acknowledged. The measures taken by the Western Australian Government over the next thirty years, flowing from the 1905 Aborigines Act, gave unprecedented power over Aboriginal people to the Chief Protector. Aboriginal people lost the freedom to work and live where they wished. The forced separation of many children from their Aboriginal families, and the systematic exclusion of Aboriginal people from white society through segregation had drastic and far reaching consequences. It was little comfort to Aboriginal people of Western Australia that many Western Australians believed the government and Christian missions carried out these measures against them for their own good.

Focus Questions


Key words



Department of Aboriginal Affairs


Chief Protector of Aborigines

Stolen Generations

Further reading

Impacts of Law Pre 1905 from Kaartdijin Noongar

Western Australia legislation affecting Aboriginal people from AIATSIS

In the name of protection from Australians Together

Diverse Aboriginal Identities from Common Ground

Aboriginal Protection from Find and Connect

Aboriginal Records collection at the State Records Office

A performance to mark the opening of the Coolgardie Railway

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