Defending Aboriginal human rights: an archaeology of an anti-racist

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Mary Montgomerie Bennett (1881-1961) was a leading Aboriginal human rights activist across the middle years of twentieth century Australia. Her activism took the form of prolific writing, mostly letters but also books and editorials. From 1927 till her death in 1961 her pen was her sword which, in William Blake's terms, 'never slept'. Christian socialist, upper-class (from a wealthy Queensland pastoral empire), white and with a humanitarian sensibility she was an unlikely Aboriginal ally. Yet, across three decades she mounted a determined, public critique of native administration in Australia which earned her the reputation of ‘gadfly on the official conscience’.

Her activism was in two distinct phases. Before the second world war, her sensational slavery allegations, shaped by the ethics of British imperial humanitarianism, resulted in a royal commission in the west in which her claims of sexual and economic enslavement of Aboriginal people were slammed and denied. She was one of the few critics of Aboriginal child removal working with the Wongutha community on the goldfields of Western Australia where she taught them on the Mt Margaret Mission, and with Aboriginal leaders such as William Cooper, as one of the few white members of his Australian Aborigines’ League. After the war, in the context of the Cold War, she joined an underground community of civil society activists representative of Aboriginal, left-wing, Christian, feminist and peace concerns to advance Aboriginal human rights. Where she had been marginalised by the white community before the war, she found solidarity in these networks and, in the context of rampant assimilationism, advanced some of her most trenchant defence of Aboriginal community and survival.

In tracing an archaeology of her activism, this paper locates the sources and nature of her protests focussing on the various connections she made across borders of class and race, as well as personal, political and geographical borders to think through the making of a human rights activist.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationActivism at the margins
EditorsVictoria Grieve-Williams
PublisherSpringer, Springer Nature
Publication statusAccepted/In press - 2021


  • Human
  • Rights
  • Aboriginal
  • Australia


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