The Colonial Past

‘The Great Australian Silence’: Sexual Violence in Australian History


Like many settler colonies with evolving frontiers, there has been a continuous undercurrent of sexual violence in Australian history. From the first establishment of European settlements in Australia, forced sexual relations perpetrated by white settlers have remained relatively unspoken about in recollections of the Australian frontier experience, regardless of the victim’s race.

The term ‘the Great Australian Silence’ was first coined in a 1968 lecture delivered by anthropologist W.E.H. Stanner. Stanner utilised the term to address the manner in which certain critical areas of Indigenous and non-Indigenous history, including invasion, dispossession and massacres, had generally been ignored by Australian historians as part of a long-term structural trend, otherwise known as the ‘cult of forgetfulness’.[1]

Although scholarship has evolved over the past two decades to address certain aspects of ‘the Great Australian Silence’, a silence which undeniably excludes or minimises the prevalence of sexual violence perpetrated by white settlers predominantly against Aboriginal women, the scholarship has centred around massacres, genocide and child removal, with no substantial historiography on sexual violence.

Subsequently, it has been historically-set works of fiction that have been most effective in drawing public and academic attention to the relationship between the frontier, frontier violence and sexual violence. This includes the efforts of John Hillcoat and Kim Scott, whose works The Proposition and Benang: From the Heart will be briefly examined in this post, as well as the works of other contemporaries such as Kate Grenville (The Secret River, 2005) and Phillip Noyce (Rabbit-Proof Fence, 2002).

Although Scott and Hillcoat investigate these ideas in slightly different contexts, namely sexual violence towards white women in nineteenth-century frontier Queensland in Hillcoat’s The Proposition, and sexual violence towards Aboriginal women in Western Australia from European arrival through to the twentieth century in Scott’s Benang, they both attempt to highlight sexual violence as intrinsic to the frontier experience.

These two texts, when compared, emphasise differing aspects of colonial sexual violence. Hillcoat, in depicting the raped white colonial woman, presents sexual violence as a threat to the ideal of white nationhood; whereas Scott, in showing interracial sexual violence between settlers and Indigenous women, presents sexual violence as necessary for the survival of the white Australian nation.

In The Proposition, sexual violence is a vital and indivisible aspect of the film; indeed, “women’s bodies, or the violation of white women’s bodies to be exact, are called upon as both the motivation and means of resolving the proposition propelling the film”.[2]

The crime that motivates the proposition that drives the film is especially horrific as it involved the rape and murder of pregnant Eliza Hopkins, who embodied the future of the white nation. Furthermore, the place of sexual violence in relation to the frontier is emphasised in the penultimate scene in the Stanley homestead whereupon Martha, wife of Constable Stanley, is the victim of an attempted rape.

In this regard, Hillcoat draws substantial attention of the place of sexual violence against white women on the Australian frontier. In comparing The Proposition and Benang, the role of race is important to note, and here both creators serve to offer a nuanced insight into how sexual violence is presented in the context of colonial Australia based on the race of the violated woman. Rape is deemed a crime in The Proposition, arguably the worst crime that can be committed in such a society, whereas in Benang it is either an unacknowledged, un-criminalised consequence of the wider, also unacknowledged, crime of mass murder, or merely taken as an accepted aspect of colonisation

The sexual violence against Indigenous women in Benang does not serve to drive the plot of the novel; instead, it supplements and further highlights the violence faced by the Nyoongar people under white settlement. Furthermore, Scott highlights how sexual violence is intrinsic to other brutal and silenced aspects of colonialization, namely the eugenicist ideals held by those such as A. O. Neville, which subsequently motivate the mass removal of Indigenous children.

The most predominant occasions of rape are committed by Ern Scat, a Scotsman who legitimises his constant rape of his two Nyoongar wives as part of his eugenicist attempts to “breed out the colour”. For Scott, sexual violence and the expression of colonial hegemonic masculinity are depicted as a necessary part of colonisation, via the likening of the bodies of Aboriginal women to the land they are dispossessed from.

Indeed, Ern’s first experiences with the Aboriginal camps is a memory overwhelmed by sexual violence; as he remembers “the first night. The dirt on his bare knees, and how she turned her head away as her body took his thrusts”. Shifting between Sandy One’s mother being the product of rape, to the intrinsic place of rape after the massacre of Indigenous groups, through to Ern’s exploits, Benang details how sexual violence towards Aboriginal women is a continual and substantial feature of Australian history.

In comparing Hillcoat’s The Proposition and Scott’s Benang, one can see how historically-set texts have been vital in attempting to address the national silence regarding the place of sexual violence in Australian history.

It is worth noting that these examinations of sexual violence are done from the perspective of male creatives, and although they are successful in opening dialogue about ‘the Great Australian Silence’ regarding sexual violence in the history of the Australian frontier, texts by women, particularly Indigenous women, could offer further insights and perspectives into the relationship between sexual violence and Australian history.

Yet undeniably, Hillcoat and Scott both succeed in starting to challenge the silence and unspeakability regarding historical sexual violence in Australia, and thus offer a foundation for further discussion and research from a myriad of different perspectives. Ultimately, both texts work to render sexual violence in Australian history speakable, as it should be.[3]

Zoe Smith is a history and literature student at the Australian National University, with a specialisation in gender history and feminist theory. Having just completed a semester of study with the University of Sheffield History Department, she will be completing her third year of study this year, with full intentions of doing further research into sexual violence on the Australian frontier via an honours thesis and a PhD. You can find Zoe on Twitter @ZoeASmith4

Cover image: View of Millstream-Chichester National Park, Australia. The barren landscape is suggestive of the cultural silence discussed in the blog. Courtesy of Gypsy Denise.,_Pilbara,_Western_Australia.jpg [Accessed 4 February 2020].

[1] For more information on Stanner and the ‘Great Australian Silence’, see Andrew Gunstone, ‘Reconciliation and “The Great Australian Silence”’ in R. Eccleston, N. Sageman, and F. Gray (eds), The Refereed Proceedings of the 2012 Australian Political Studies Association Conference, (Melbourne, 2012).

[2] Tanya Dalziell, ‘Gunpowder and Gardens: Reading Women in The Proposition’, Studies in Australasian Cinema, 3.1 (2009), 122.

[3] The ideas and research presented in this blog post are featured in and further extended upon in an upcoming article due to be published in March by the Australian National University Undergraduate Research Journal. Interested readers will be able to access the article here:

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Are museums really ‘hiding’ the imperial past?

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In 1903, this postcard was delivered to the engineer’s office in Paddington railway station, sent by a former colleague from Cape Town. The engineers stuck it into their office scrapbook, nicknamed Enginorum, which currently lives in the archives of the National Railway Museum (NRM), where I discovered it whilst on placement planning a fictitious exhibition.

As a student interested in women’s experiences of imperialism, I have long believed that museums should be doing more to engage with the British Empire and I was drawn to the picture immediately. It completely encapsulates the way imperialists interacted with and viewed colonised women.

In writing “The prospective Wives of” the engineers, the sender eroticises these women and assumes their ownership. As this was a prevalent attitude across the Empire, I desperately wanted to include the image in my exhibition.

Given the critiques that museums are ‘hiding’ the imperial past, I was pleasantly surprised to find that all NRM staff I spoke to actively encouraged me to include it in my exhibition. Like me, they all seemed to believe that museums should be more engaged with the British Empire.

Why then had they failed to do so?

In my exhibition planning I was to discover a few possible reasons why. Coming across questions – practical, intellectual, and ethical – that my academic work had rarely forced upon me, issues that left me constantly switching between including the postcard and discarding it.

When presenting my exhibition plan, a colleague asked me ‘What would you do if your funding was halved?’. The main floor of the NRM is open plan, which means it can become quite loud and chaotic when the museum is busy. I decided to build cladded walls around my exhibition so that I could provide a closed-off, quiet space in the museum.

This, I hoped, would give visitors a private area to seriously reflect upon the history of the British Empire. The cladding would likely have been the most expensive part of the exhibit. Meaning that I would have had to remove it if funding was cut. Given its intended function, to provide a quiet space for reflection, this would likely have led me to forgo the display of imperial objects.

This conflict between what staff thought should be displayed and what funding would allow played out repeatedly. I frequently heard of wonderful objects, both imperial and non-imperial, which had truly amazing stories but could not be displayed as they did not fulfil the objectives of a grant.

An advisor to the former British Empire and Commonwealth Museum once said that ‘nobody wins plaudits for funding exhibitions on empire’. Perhaps, then, the charges made against museum staff of ‘hiding’ the imperial past are over-simplistic, unfair even, and should also be directed at funding bodies.

Visitor reactions to the postcard also concerned me. Not because I was afraid of criticism for discussing the Empire. I would have openly embraced the debate. Instead, I was worried about how people would look at the bodies of the women depicted.

In a museum visited primarily by school children, I was fearful that the naked breasts would turn my exhibition into a joke. This would recreate the power imbalance in the original image by reducing the women and their bodies to the source of amusement for a second time.

Initially, I thought that I could use this to my advantage. I could teach the public about how the very act of looking is inherently marred by our own prejudices. However, object labels, I was advised, are best kept to around fifty words to retain a visitor’s attention. A word count which includes the object’s name, reference number, and date. There was no way I could have discussed such a complex issue in such a short space.

Also, the women of the image look uncomfortable and their stances appear forced. To me, it looks like they were coerced into being photographed, so had little power in the production of the image. Was I further stripping them of agency by exhibiting them for a second time?

Plus, in thinking that I had a right to decide whether to display their bodies, wasn’t I just assuming the same level of ownership over them as its original sender? This was an ethical dilemma that resurfaced when deciding whether I should even include the image here.

I still passionately believe that museums should be doing more to discuss the British Empire. But museums are complex institutions facing countless financial, political and moral pressures. It is this multifaceted nature that I believe is largely responsible for their imperial silence.

Not once at the NRM did I feel discouraged from talking about Empire, nor did I witness any deliberate attempt to hide the past.  Instead, I found like-minded people frustratingly trapped between the history they wanted to tell and the history they could tell.

Hannah Silvester is a MA student at the University of Sheffield. Her interests lie in gender history in late colonial and postcolonial South Asia. Hannah’s current work focuses on using Muslim women’s literature as a historical archive of nationalist and feminist thought in the years prior to and immediately after the partition of 1947.

Feature Image: National Railway Museum, Enginorum, p. 79. © Science Museum Group

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