Aboriginal Western Australia and Federation

Transcontinental Railway Exploring Party

Following colonisation in 1829, members of Western Australia's Aboriginal communities had been murdered, mistreated and exploited for the gain of the white settlers. Accordingly, when Western Australia was granted responsible government in 1890, 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. Despite this rebuke, injustice toward Aboriginal people continued during and after the time of Federation.

Legal oppression

Towards the end of the nineteenth century, the colonial government introduced a range of new discriminatory measures to control its Aboriginal and multiracial 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 multiracial 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'. The 1893 amendment to the Constitutional Act denied all Aboriginal people the franchise unless they owned the title to land valued at 50 pounds or more. This amendment effectively prevented nearly all Aboriginal Western Australians from voting.

Battle for Control

Stories of exploitation 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 set aside 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 He finally succeeded in 1897 when the Aborigines Act (Imperial) repealed the financial provision and transferred Aboriginal affairs to the Western Australian Government.

The new Commonwealth of Australia entirely excluded and disempowered Western Australian Aboriginal people. 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 consequences that are felt to this day. 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

Healing Foundation - Map of Stolen Generations Institutions

Kaartdijin Noongar - Impacts of Law Pre 1905

AIATSIS - Western Australia legislation affecting Aboriginal people

Australians Together - In the name of protection

Common Ground - Diverse Aboriginal Identities

Find and Connect - Aboriginal Protection

A performance to mark the opening of the Coolgardie Railway

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