‘Just Relations: The Story of Mary Bennett’s Crusade for Aboriginal Rights’ by Alison Holland

2015, 382 p. plus notes

Books are a bit like buses: there can be nothing for a long time, and then two arrive together. This book Just Relations was published in 2015 and three years later Sue Taffe’s A White Hot Flame was published, both of them dealing with Mary Montgomerie Bennett, aboriginal activist (1881-1961) active from the 1920s through to her death in 1961.

Mary Montgomerie Bennett was a most unlikely activist. She was born in London, the daughter of a Queensland pastoralist and an East End actress mother and she spent most of her early life in England, her way eased by the wealth generated by the Queensland holding ‘Lammermoor’, near Townsville and Bowen. She lived in Australia between for the first six years of her life, but not on the station but instead in Stanthorpe and Tenterfield, Sydney and Hobart. She returned to England with her mother for another five years, before returning to Australia again for a further five years. This time, she would spend vacations between the ages of 12 and 17 with her father on Lammermoor, returning again to sell the property with her father in 1910. Yet Lammermoor, and her idealized view of her father’s own interaction with the Dalleburra people whose land it was, shaped her writing and politics throughout her adult life.

While in London, she became involved with the London-based Anti-Slavery and Aborigines Protection Society and was also confronted in her views by the outspoken Aboriginal activist Anthony Martin Fernando, who stood outside Australia House with skeletons pinned to his coat to protest the treatment of Indigenous people in Western Australia and Australia generally. After her husband’s death she travelled to Australia in 1932 and began working on Mount Margaret Mission, near Kalgoorlie, as a teacher. She continued her lobbying work, both in London and in Australia. She particularly fought against the Western Australian Aboriginal protector A.O. Neville whose blatant policy of ‘absorption’ and ‘die out’ was adopted by other state governments, to be replaced after WWII by ‘assimilation’, which continued the policy of child removal. Over time, she shifted her emphasis and political allegiances from humanitarianism to human rights, and from feminists to activists and internationalists.

Alison Holland’s Just Relations: The Story of Mary Bennett’s Crusade for Aboriginal Rights is a fairly academic book that examines her connections with various networks and lobbyists over time, as Barnett’s emphasis shifted from humanitarianism as a political project, to human rights as an international campaign. Holland contextualises her discussion of Mary Bennett’s ideas within Michael Barnett’s discussion of this philosophical shift from humanitarianism to human rights in his Empire of Humanity: A History of Humanitarianism (2011). This emphasizes the international context of Bennett’s work as she developed networks with other people working in the political space. Although originally working within the ‘missionary’ mode, with an emphasis on education and the rights of aboriginal mothers, near the end of her life she joined with other political indigenous and non-indigenous activists, especially from the southern states, working to raise the profile of government policies and their abnegation of human rights, an increasingly potent international idea. This narrative is very much a political one, as was Bennett’s own writing, and it ranges across international, state and national levels. It was very much a crusade in writing and discourse mode, as she collected evidence, wrote submissions, appeared before commissions, maintained correspondence and wrote articles. Anthony Martin Fernando may have had his coat with toy skeletons: she had her files and her pen.

The book starts with a discussion of dissent at both imperial and Australian levels (with an emphasis on the former), then moves to a more chronological survey of Bennett’s life and the change in her emphasis over time. The chapters are

  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1 Contextualizing Dissent: Humanitarians and the Aboriginal Problem
  • Chapter 2 Defining a Reform Agenda: Mary Bennett and the Humanitarian Moment
  • Chapter 3 Freeing Women: Righting the Wrongs Done to Aboriginal Women
  • Chapter 4 Domestic Rules: Ignoring the Rights of Mothers
  • Chapter 5: Mt Margaret: Promoting Adaptable Education
  • Chapter 6: An Inhumane Dictatorship: Challenging Policy in Western Australia
  • Chapter 7 Hunt and Die: Saving the Race from Extinction
  • Chapter 8 Defending Fathers and Sons: Human Rights for Australian Aborigines
  • Chapter 9 Demanding Justice and Freedom: Critiquing Assimilation
  • Chapter 10 At War with Evil: Dying in the Fight
  • Conclusion
  • Epilogue

Holland starts her book with the rather startling scenario of Bennett’s papers being confiscated by government officials after her death in 1961, highlighting the government’s discomfort with her life-long and increasingly internationalist activism. She returns to this scene in the epilogue, and suggests that it may have been part of ASIO surveillance as part of the ‘fabric of the times’. In any event, Holland argues, by confiscating her papers (which were returned but later lost), it was a

profound personal violation because her papers were inextricably connected to Bennett’s spirit and self-definition. They were deeply rooted in her own past and family story as they documented those of others, and they were critical to her crusade because, above all else, she was a writer…There is no doubt that Bennett’s crusade was a mental fight and her pen her sword which never slept. She saw her task as the pursuit of truth and the evidence of the department as it (ab)used its power to defeat Aboriginal lives.

p. 381

This is a fairly dense book, very much embedded in the politics of activism and political groups. The list of abbreviations at the start of the book was much appreciated as her action moved increasingly into the political sphere. It is, as the subtitle denotes, the story of a campaign and issues, many of which have been vindicated and are still relevant today.

My rating: 7/10

Read because: I did a talk at the Melbourne Unitarian Universalist Fellowship about Mary Montgomerie Bennett to both celebrate Women’s History Month and in the context of current debate about the Voice Referendum

Sourced from: purchased second hand.

One response to “‘Just Relations: The Story of Mary Bennett’s Crusade for Aboriginal Rights’ by Alison Holland

  1. Pingback: ‘A White Hot Flame: Mary Montgomerie Bennett, author, educator, activist for indigenous justice’ by Sue Taffe | The Resident Judge of Port Phillip

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