Crimes Against Humanity Essay Writing – Arts and Humanities Assignment Help

Should AO Neville have been tried for Crimes Against Humanity?

This essay will address the statement that AO Neville should have been tried for Crimes Against Humanity in relation to the activities he led during his roles as Chief Protector of Aborigines (1915 – 1936) and Commissioner of Native Affairs (1936 – 1940).1 Through the broad application of the Sociological Imagination, a concept developed by C Wright Mills, whereby one places an individual within the broader social and cultural context of a place and time,2 this essay will explore the socio-cultural context of Australia in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries in order to demonstrate that his actions and beliefs were supported by, and shared with, many of his contemporaries. Through this exploration and the analysis of primary and secondary sources, this essay will argue that Neville, alone, cannot be held responsible for his actions.

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Widely regarded as the conceptualiser, orchestrator and executer of the strategy to remove Indigenous children from their parents (the Stolen Generation), Auber Octavius Neville was born on 20 October 1875 in Northumberland, England.3 The son of a Clergyman and his pious wife, Neville spent his formative years in Victoria before moving to Western Australia in 1897.4 During his adolescent development and ascent into manhood, Neville was exposed to many internal and external influences, including social, political, institutional and cultural factors, which directly and indirectly shaped his ideas, expectations and opinions. Mannheim describes this as “the tendency to ‘inherent in’ a social location” 5 and says:

“[sharing] a common location in the social and historical process, [limits an individual or group] to a specific range of potential experience, predisposing them for a certain characteristic mode of thought and experience and a characteristic type of historically relevant action.”6

Neville and his generational cohorts grew up in a time when Australia held the apron strings of Mother England firmly.7 A patriotic country which loved the King,8 Australia was very much a land of opportunity for British migrants. For the original inhabitants of this land however, it was a very different tale. Subjugated and humiliated by colonisers and their subsequent offspring, Aboriginal peoples endured racism and ignorance, fuelled by capitalism9 and grandiose visions of biological superiority.10 The concept of biological superiority, also known as scientific racism, was deeply embedded in the British psyche11 and was perpetuated throughout the centuries by social Enlightenment thinkers such as Voltaire,12 Kant13 and Blumenbach.14 Banner says:

“[the early] Britons perceived the Aborigines (sic) to be astonishingly primitive15… [Aboriginals were perceived to be] the lowest link in the connection of the human races”16

This perception was still prevalent during the twentieth-century and was further endorsed through scientific works and the social sciences.17A self-educated man, Neville was an avid reader of contemporary anthropological texts, and was especially interested in eugenics:18 “the science of improving a population by controll[ing] breeding to increase the occurrence of desirable heritable characteristics”.19 He also admired the work of Dr Herbert Basedow, an Australian Anthropologist who studied Aboriginals and subscribed to Blumenbach’s eighteenth-century racial classification system.20 These two somewhat complementary, if now disproven, anthro-biological concepts were regarded as valid and true, and influenced not only Neville, but many of his powerful contemporaries including Winston Churchill,21 Theodore

Roosevelt22 and Adolf Hitler.23 Members of “old racism” this generation believed in “a racial hierarchy, racial separation and in ‘race’ itself”.24

Contemporary evidence suggests that by the time Neville rose to power, scientific racism had become cemented as part of the Australian consciousness and established as societal habitus.25 In relation to the Aboriginal race specifically, Neville’s views on assimilation were shared by his peers across the country. Beginning with Terra Nullius26 and reinforced by the introduction of legislation such as The Australian Constitution (1901)27 and the Aborigines Act (1897),28 Aboriginal people were disenfranchised of their lands, rights, culture and personhood. The popularity of scientific racism and biological superiority is aptly demonstrated by a resolution passed at the 1937 Conference for State and Federal Aboriginal Affairs Administrators:

“This conference believes that the destiny of the natives of Aboriginal origin, but not of the full blood, lies in their ultimate absorption by the people of the Commonwealth, and it therefore recommends that all efforts be directed to that end.”29

Further evidence of this is the comparative legislation implemented in other States and Territories during this era. In 1911, the South Australian Chief Protector of Aborigines was made the legal guardian of every child of Aboriginal ancestry and in the Northern Territory, the Chief Protector was “the legal guardian of every Aboriginal and ‘half-caste’ (sic) child” from 1910.30

It is important to note that this legislation was enacted prior to Neville’s appointment, and whilst it may be true that Neville had great influence over policy in the coming decades,31 it is also true that without this foundational legislation and social consensus, his efforts would have been for nought. Cialdini says that “individuals often look to social norms to gain an accurate understanding of and effecti[ve] respon[se] to social situations” 32 – in truth Neville was merely reflecting and building upon popular opinion.

Cialdini also says that “individuals are frequently rewarded for behaving in accordance with the opinions, advice, and directives of authority figures”33 and goes on to suggest that this deference, in combination with organisational culture, may result in subordinates taking action with “little regard for [the] potential deleterious ethical consequences”.34 In this case, whilst we know that Neville believed in the validity his work, it may also be true that he was influenced by his superiors. As a government employee and departmental leader, Neville was ultimately responsible to the contemporary equivalent of the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs. Between 1912 and 1917, this man was Rufus Henry Underwood, who represented the Legislative Assembly seat of the Pilbara from 1906 until 1924.35 He believed that ‘[t]he sooner the aborigines died out in Western Australia the better it would be for all concerned”.36

Further support for the suggestion that Neville felt pressured to act, comes from the man himself:

“In the course of his official life a Public Servant is occasionally warned off the grass, so to speak, and given more or less direct hints to proceed in certain directions, however reasonable it might seem for him to do so in the interest of his duty of charges.”37

Unfortunately, due to lack of substantive evidence and an inability to acquire further information from the protagonist, this line of thought is forced to remain conjecture in the mind of the reader; however, I believe that its implication still holds significant weight.

Further, it must be reinforced that regardless of Neville’s personal or idealistic beliefs in relation to the treatment of Aboriginal people, as a Public Servant, he was vested with the responsibility to apply and enforce legislation; including that which ultimately resulted in the Stolen Generation. As already evidenced, the legislation echoed contemporary opinion and Neville was obliged to act within the parameters stated therein. Had he not done this, had he acted outside of these parameters, or enforced illegal activity, he would have been held responsible by his superordinates and the acting government.

In conclusion, whilst it is true that Neville facilitated some heinous acts, which had both short and long term negative effects upon the Aboriginal community in Western Australia; this essay has shown that his actions were widely supported, and possibly even encouraged by his contemporaries. He was, put simply, a Man of the Times – a figurehead for the bigoted and ignorant beliefs of contemporary Australians in the early twentieth-century. For this reason, I refute the claim that Neville should be tried for Crimes Against Humanity. It would be inequitable and unfair to lay the blame solely at his feet. Rather, his peers – the whole generation of poorly informed, prejudiced enablers – should be held responsible for his crimes.

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