Managing mission life, 1869-1885

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McLisky, Claire
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Leigh Boucher and Lynnette Russell

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In settler colonies such as Victoria, missions and reserves were the sites where colonial legislation and missionary/humanitarian ambitions encountered Aboriginal people and their own goals, where theories about race, conversion and ‘civilisation’ were translated into everyday practice. Colonial power, in the words of David Scott, ‘came to depend … upon the systematic redefinition and transformation of the terrain on which the life of the colonized was lived’,2 and as the primary physical location in which these transformations were carried out, missions and reserves were laboratories both of Christian evangelical theories and of colonial rule. Granted astonishingly broad powers over Aboriginal people’s lives, mission and reserve managers applied and tested a variety of approaches to achieve the related goals of Aboriginal pacification, protection, conversion and civilisation.3 Their ability to do this was aided by the fact that missions and reserves were usually isolated from both rural settler populations and the metropolitan centres that often sought to dictate colonial and missionary policy. Yet despite this isolation, the flow of information and influence between ‘centre’ and ‘periphery’ was anything but unilateral; missions, reserves and Aboriginal people themselves fed ‘knowledge’ back into colonial, and metropolitan, understandings of race and ‘Aboriginality’, which in turn came to influence subsequent policy and legislation. This chapter focuses on one aspect of this dynamic – the ways in which missionaries and reserve managers interacted with colonial legislation in their attempts to redefine and transform Aboriginal lives on the six mission stations and government reserves in the Colony of Victoria during the period 1869–1886 (Ebenezer, Ramahyuck, Lake Condah, Lake Tyers, Coranderrk and Framlingham – see map in introduction). It considers the relationship between legislation, as imagined and set out by colonial policymakers, and the realities of everyday life on missions and reserves, paying particular attention to the ways in which the quotidian both reinforced and disrupted legislative goals. Missionary and reserve manager practice entailed the management not just of Indigenous time, space and resources, but also of emotions, behaviour and bodies – what Ann Stoler has called ‘colonial habits of heart and mind’.4 These intimate sites of governance and control were considered crucial to the larger goals of conversion to Christianity, ‘civilisation’ and assimilation, working hand-in-hand with the more structural methods of governance. They were also important loci of resistance and cultural transformation.

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Settler Colonial Governance in Nineteenth-Century Victoria

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Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander History

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