Native Dignity


Native Dignity

Room 920, Level 9
Melbourne Law School

Parkville campus

185 Pelham Street

Booking not required

This Working Paper Seminar examines how the concept of 'native dignity' underwent two reversals as it passed from a revolutionary European context to the colonial context of 19th century Australia.

In the first reversal, the concept of native dignity that emerged in Europe in the 18th century as an emancipatory human-based 'natural' understanding of dignity, in opposition to an oppressive status-based 'artificial' dignity, became, in the colonial context, its opposite: an artificial dignity that Aboriginals could only possess if remade in the image of the European. Equal dignity of Europeans became, in short, abject undignity for Aboriginals.

At the same time, to counter British colonialism and its civilising mission, and to assert their own power and authority, Aboriginals deployed an anti-colonial concept of dignity that was particular to their position in time and space, and that Europeans could not possibly possess, at least not without becoming Aboriginal. Thus, in a second reversal, a status-based concept of dignity, which in the European context had been a source of oppression, became, in the colonial context, a source of “native dignity” for Aboriginals, and a mode of liberation.

This argument is presented through a reading of the painting 'Native Dignity' (1860) by Anglo-Australian artist ST Gill, along with analysis of archival material on Australian colonialism and Aboriginal resistance and assertions of authority. Mimesis, of both an imperial and a critical-parodic kind, provides a key analytical concept for understanding the operations and reversals of native dignity.

Lunch will be provided.

Image credit: 'Native Dignity' by ST Gill (1860)

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