Aboriginal affairs has always been a sore point in Australia. Ever since the first Governor attempted to put in place the Colonial Office’s instructions to treat the inhabitants with “amity and kindness” the exercise has been fraught. There is a text-book version of the changing policy landscape and rote school lessons on the gradual acquisition of Aboriginal rights and freedoms. These go some way to conveying the contested ground, political conflict and personal anguish on which this history was built. Yet, they give the impression of evolution and progress. At the same time, the history wars magnified the fractiousness without carving a pathway through. In this paper I recover an important part of the history, which often goes unremarked. I reflect on the role of humanitarian intervention in this politics. Not only has it been critical to the policy landscape — for good and ill — but there are also historical connections and lineages between then and now, which deserve attention. Closely aligned to a history of human rights in Australia, recovering this history seems more pertinent than ever.