Archibald Meston and the Aborigines : ideology and practice, 1870-1970 : an exploration in social history

Thorpe, Bill (1978). Archibald Meston and the Aborigines : ideology and practice, 1870-1970 : an exploration in social history Honours Thesis, School of History, Philosophy, Religion, and Classics, The University of Queensland.

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Author Thorpe, Bill
Thesis Title Archibald Meston and the Aborigines : ideology and practice, 1870-1970 : an exploration in social history
School, Centre or Institute School of History, Philosophy, Religion, and Classics
Institution The University of Queensland
Publication date 1978
Thesis type Honours Thesis
Supervisor Claire Williams
Ray Evans
Total pages 146
Language eng
Subjects 420305 Aboriginal Cultural Studies
Formatted abstract


Archibald Meston was born in 1851 in Scotland and died in 1924 in Brisbane. During his working life he was a sugar farmer, a newspaper columnist and editor, a member of Parliament, and an explorer, chiefly in Queensland. Throughout his life he wrote voluminously, if unevenly, on a whole range of social, political and economic questions. Some of his anthropological accounts are still considered valid1. But Meston is perhaps remembered most by contemporaries, subsequent historians, and some of those Aborigines who spent their lives in one way or another "Under the Act", for his proposals on Aboriginal "Welfare", his "knowledge" of Aboriginal customs, dialects, etc., his Aboriginal "shows" and, not least, his role as Southern Protector of Aborigines between 1898 and 1907. In these latter, related roles, Meston exerted an influence direct and indirect over hundreds of individuals, mostly Aboriginal, perhaps as great as that which any large capitalist, or important group of politicians had over other subordinate groups in the Queensland class structure. For this reason, among others, the following study is mostly concerned with those elements in Meston's biography which bear on what I would call the "Aboriginal question".

I do not wish to imply, however, that this account represents a revivified example of a Carlylean "great man" theory of history, even if the reader may be struck by the emphasis I have placed on Meston's ideas .and their intellectual origins, or because Meston himself sometimes conceived himself in this fashion. I am nevertheless working from the assumption that certain historical individuals are more powerful in certain social relationships than others, not because they are Hegelian ''world historical figures" who transcend their historical situation, but because they are located, think and act in specific echelons of a dynamic class structure. Thus my analysis is loosely "neo-Marxist" in that it owes rather more to those elements in Marx which emphasise struggle and consciousness than to the somewhat restricted situation for human interaction implied by economic determinism. Here "racial thought" as a form of social consciousness, is obviously crucial.

At the same time, I adopt a "realist" position in relation to concepts such as "class", "class structure" etc., in that these are not merely appearances of reality, but actually stand for actual, patterned and sometimes highly structured social relationships which must be delineated theoretically and empirically. The so-called "Structural Marxists" are perhaps the most successful recent theoreticians of the class structure as a structure2; unfortunately their formulations come uncomfortably close to the "Categorisations" which they expressly denounce and, more seriously perhaps·, contain an anti-empirical bias which makes it difficult to apply the theory to socio-historical reality3. Nevertheless the judicious application of such theoretical schema, modified to suit the Australian context, does seem appropriate, and will be employed throughout, in conjunction with other Marxist-oriented approaches. A fuller discussion of such issues will be found in Part Three. For the moment I would suggest that judicious eclecticism is preferable to theoretical rigidity.

1. N.B. Tindale, Aboriginal Tribes of Australia, Vol. 1 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1974), p. 126.

2. See Nicos Poulantzas, "On Social Classes", New Left Review, No. 78, March-April 1973, and Nicos Poulantzas, Classes in Contemporary Capitalism (London: NLB, 1975), Introduction

3. Marxist structuralism has come under increasing critical scrutiny - a trend which the present writer welcomes - on the grounds that it represents a static, functionalist overview of social relations where "people" are conceived as a historical "agents". As a recent critic put it: "Marxist structuralism is analytically rigorous, but to the point of subordinating history to formal method and exhausting the dialectic in conceptual abstraction", Dale L. Johnston, "Strategic Implications of Recent Social Class Theory", The Insurgent Sociologist, Vol. VIII, No. 1, Winter 1978, p. 40. The present writer takes his stand with the Marx who wrote: "Nature builds no machines, no locomotives, railways, electric telegraphs, self-acting mules, etc. These are products of human industry; national material transformed into organs of the human will over nature, or of human participation in nature. They are organs of the human brain; created by the human hand; the power of knowledge objectified". Karl Marx, Grundrisse, Translated with a Foreword by Martin Nicolaus (London: Penguin, 1973), p. 56. What follows is probably much closer to an old-fashioned "history of ideas" than an analysis firmly based on Marxist methodology, for which I make no apologias. Bertrand Russell, who once wrote a critique of dialectical materialism, nevertheless made an important statement when he observed that "a cat seeing a mouse is by no means a passive recipient of purely contemplative impressions. And as a cat with a mouse, so is a textile manufacturer with a bale of cotton", in Patrick Gardiner (ed.), Theories of History (New York: Free Press, 1959), p. 289. ………………………………………………

Keyword Aboriginal Australians -- Queensland
Meston, Archibald, 1851-1924

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