Half-Caste – any term making use of the word ‘half’ suggests an incomplete person

Half-Caste – any term making use of the word ‘half’ suggests an incomplete person


The following phrases are some of the terms that have been used to describe people of ‘mixed race’; the terms that are generally considered to be out-dated and offensive.

Bi-racial – Black – Boong – Coconut – Coloured – Coolie – Coon – Cross-breed – Dusky – Eurasian – Fair-skinned – Half-breed – Half-caste – Half-pure – Hybrid – Mixed Blood – Mongrel – Octoroon – Quadroon – Quarter-caste – Quintoon

Of the terms noted above, one in particular has some extra historical context: Half-caste

In India the population was divided into four hierarchical castes according to what they were good at, that is, priests, warriors, trades people and manual workers. Once a person is born in a ‘lower’ caste, he or she couldn’t move up to another ‘higher’ caste – nor could they marry into other castes. Children born out of wedlock from liaisons between the castes were known as ‘half caste’. The higher caste Indians of course used that as an excuse to keep the lower caste in their place.

In Australia the definition of half-caste was ever changing, thereby revealing how the concept of race is socially constructed. In 1897, the definition of an Aborigine included half-castes “who otherwise than as wife, husband, or child habitually lives or associates with Aboriginals”.

In Australia during the period 1890 and 1911, the ideology of Aboriginal racial inferiority was institutionalised when States and Territories enacted legislation severely restricting the liberty of Aboriginal people. Aboriginal people were prohibited from consuming alcohol and being in the vicinity of townships, they could be removed or transferred to different reserves by force, and they required permission from State authorities to marry, dispose of property and seek employment.

The nation had been built, and was being built, on the subjugation of the original inhabitants. The Australian nation was established in 1901, when all the different colonies joined under one constitution to form a national government.  The new federal constitution had left Aboriginal affairs with the old colonial, now state, governments.

The exploitation of “half-caste” or mixed-blood children was justified by a system of thinking based in eugenics and social Darwinism, which deemed them inferior to pure whites but superior, because of their white blood, to full-blood Aboriginal people. The policy of removing mixed race Aboriginal children from their parents emerged from these policies and laws based on eugenics theory in late 19th and early 20th century Australia that the ‘full-blood Aborigine’ would be unable to sustain itself, and was doomed to inevitable extinction, as at the time huge numbers of Aboriginal people were dying, from diseases caught from European settlers.  According to this view, the increasing numbers of mixed-descent children in Australia, were labelled as “half-castes” or alternatively “quadroons” and “octoroons”.

This thinking led to policies and legislation that enabled the removal of children from their family and community. The intention was to culturally assimilate mixed-descent people into contemporary Australian society. The legislation that was passed gave the State guardianship rights over Aboriginal children up to the age of sixteen or twenty-one. Police officers or other agents of the state (such as Aboriginal Protection Officers), were given the power to locate, abduct and transfer babies and children of mixed descent from their families and communities into institutions.  Many, many institutions were established in the early decades of the 20th century for the reception of these separated children; some of these institutions had a much earlier history.

Aboriginal protectors were empowered to make mixed-blood children wards of the State.

James Isdell, a former member of the WA Parliament served as a travelling Protector of Aborigines in Marble Bar and the Kimberley districts during 1906–1909. It is clear from the records that Isdell was primarily interested in taking children to the missions and institutions were the half-caste children.

Isdell did more than anyone persuade the Chief Protector to remove half-caste children to the missions; he wrote submissions, reports and letters, arguing strongly about the sexual ruination of half-caste girls.  Henry Reynolds said Isdell wanted to remove children ‘particularly because of what he considered the open indecency and immorality of the camps.

In 1922, A.O. Neville was appointed as the Western Australia State Chief Protector of Aborigines. During the next quarter-century, he presided over the now notorious ‘Assimilation’ policy of removing mixed-race Aboriginal children from their parents and communities.

Neville believed that biological absorption was the key to ‘uplifting the Native race’. Speaking before the Moseley Royal Commission, which investigated the administration of Aboriginal affairs in 1934, he defended the policies of forced settlement, removing children from parents, surveillance, discipline and punishment, arguing that “they have to be protected against themselves whether they like it or not. They cannot remain as they are. The sore spot requires the application of the surgeon’s knife for the good of the patient, and probably against the patient’s will”. In his later years Neville continued to actively promote his ideology. Towards the end of his career, Neville published Australia’s Coloured Minority, a text outlining his plan for the biological absorption of aboriginal people into white Australia.

From the 1930s, Aboriginal people deemed to have enough white blood could apply for a certificate which exempted them from being Aboriginal. To be eligible, Aboriginal people needed to display “exemplary” behaviour. In Western Australia, this included: dissolving all tribal associations, except for filial relations; serving in the armed forces or demonstrating they were fit and proper; being able to speak and write English; being free from serious disease and having two references from reputable white citizens.

The certificate of exemption stated: “[Name], by reason of his character and standard of intelligence and development, should be exempt from provision of the Aborigines Act 1934-1939 … [and] shall cease to be an Aborigine for the purpose of the Act”.

This ideological framework was used to justify the oppression and exploitation of Aboriginal people, and the enactment of these policies enabled total control over peoples’ day-to-day lives so that they could be either excluded from white society, thereby allowing development to proceed unhindered by resistance from traditional owners , or exploited as labourers to increase the profitability of the colonial enterprise.

Stephen Hall
Stephen Hall
Lives in Perth, Western Australia.

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