“A Book of Lies”: Settler impressions of Aboriginal women

VIDA blog’s Australian Women Writers Challenge book reviews continue with Lauren Robinson’s analysis of a book about colonial Australian history.

Warning: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this blog may contain the images and names of people who have since passed away.

Liz Conor, Skin Deep: Settler Impressions of Aboriginal Women (Crawley: UWA Publishing, 2016). RRP $50.00. ISBN 9781742588070 (paperback).

Skindeep-cover_1024x1024The recently released book Skin Deep: Settler Impressions of Aboriginal Women is an insightful analysis of the intersections between racism and misogyny in Australian society. As the title suggests, Liz Connor focuses particularly on print representations of Aboriginal women from the first instances of European exploration and settlement.

Skin Deep argues that these representations were based on unfounded hearsay, yet they were circulated and reiterated until they became accepted as truth. In titling this review I took inspiration from one of the books opening lines (27):

[This] is a print history of settler impressions of Aboriginal women situated at that most potent juncture of racism and misogyny. This is a book of lies.

Dr Liz Conor is an ARC Future Fellow at La Trobe University, author of The Spectacular Modern Woman: Feminine Visibility in the 1920s (2004) and editor of the journal Aboriginal History. It took Conor over a decade to write Skin Deep, and this is evident in the wide-ranging subject matter, which spans hundreds of years and the entire Australian continent. In doing so, she hoped to stimulate non-Indigenous readers into reflecting on the insidious history of Europeans in Australia and how pervasive these manufactured “truths” have become. However, Conor is also aware that Indigenous readers may find the content upsetting and takes care to be mindful of the possibility of further “reinscribing trauma” (7).

Conor astutely balances her analysis between racism and misogyny. Today, this is sometimes called misogynoir – a term coined in 2010 by critical race and feminist scholar Moya Bailey to describe the specific brand of misogyny and racism directed towards black women. Skin Deep both illuminates the intense racism to which all Indigenous people have been and are subject, while simultaneously emphasising the dual struggle that Indigenous women faced in dealing with both racism as well as misogyny. Conor uses primary sources to demonstrate how Indigenous women were separated from “normal” Indigenous society, through divisive references made to “natives” and “native women.”

"Aboriginal courtship - carrying off a lubra" (1861), by George Strafford. Image via State Library of Victoria.
“Aboriginal courtship – carrying off a lubra” (1861), by George Strafford. Image via State Library of Victoria.

As a result, we come to see how women were “othered” by the colonists. Conor describes how white men intentionally fostered this division; they felt more comfortable dealing with the Indigenous population when women were construed as different – brutalised and helpless. This made Indigenous society feel more familiar and less alien to the colonists, due to the strong current of misogyny and assumptions of female weakness in European society. Indigenous people were cast in the role of savage primitives in part due to this perception about the brutal treatment of women.

The tropes of bride capture and wife abuse are constant threads throughout Conor’s analysis. The irony is not lost that the very same white men who raped and murdered Aboriginal women and girls concurrently looked down on Aboriginal men for the alleged mistreatment of women. Indigenous society was also cast as patrilineal, with women entirely disconnected from property rights. As Conor argues, such a representation was less concerned with the realities of Indigenous culture and more concerned with reinforcing the Victorian belief in patrilineal propertied inheritance through arguments about primitive origins. Aboriginal culture was believed to reflect the “primitive” ancestry of “civilised” European society. As such, arguing that Aboriginal society practiced patrilineal inheritance allowed white men to position this as the natural order. Conor uses these examples to powerfully comment on the innate misogyny of European settlers.

Skin Deep examines more specific examples of the misogyny and racism of settler society towards Aboriginal women by analysing several prominent themes: bride capture, polygamy, infanticide, cannibalism, sexual abuse, Aboriginal domesticity, and ageing. As Conor explains, a “feedback loop” existed between scientists and casual observers, creating an uncritical set of truths that were in fact based off token eyewitness accounts (225).

While Conor notes that most of the tales told by settlers about Aboriginal people held a grain of truth, Skin Deep traces the existence of these stories through the colonial archive. It reveals the repetition and exaggeration required to facilitate their preponderance. For example, the original bride capture story was advanced by David Collins in An Account of the English Colony in New South Wales (1798). He wrote that Aboriginal women were

dragged through the woods by one arm…the lover, or rather the ravisher, is regardless of the stones or broken pieces of trees which may lie in his route, being anxious only to convey his prize sadly to his own party, where a scene ensues too shocking to relate.

This was not a first-hand account of events. But, as Conor demonstrates, these sentences were copied almost word for word in countless subsequent reports of male Aboriginal violence against Aboriginal women. Similarly, stories about Aboriginal women committing infanticide and cannibalism were vague but interpreted as reliable facts. Interestingly, Conor notes that some of these accounts may have come from Indigenous people themselves, as grisly tales told by one tribe about another. Due to most settlers’ lack of understanding of Indigenous culture, this distinction was probably missed. The Aboriginal mother, believed to be the perpetrator of these savage crimes, was portrayed in a role of mute but critical importance, whereby she moved her race closer and closer to the point of supposed extinction through her infanticidal tendencies.

Skin Deep also examines European anxieties about interracial Asian and Indigenous relationships. Conor argues that Europeans were unable to understand the “complex rites of sexual exchange” in which Indigenous women participated (291). For example, Indigenous women sometimes engaged in sexual relations with Asian men for certain rewards, and Indigenous men would enforce payment. While Connor asserts that this was different from prostitution, this is a difficult distinction to comprehend. Although Conor is perhaps trying to allow for the agency of Aboriginal women, a point that many historians overlook, this argument seemingly resulted only in dismissing the sex-based oppression that Indigenous women experienced in many interracial encounters. However, her analysis of the differing attitudes Europeans held about Indigenous sexuality, depending upon the races involved, is certainly interesting and astute.

"Daisy Bates with Aboriginal warriors" (1921), photographer unknown. Image via State Library of South Australia.
“Daisy Bates with Aboriginal warriors” (1921), photographer unknown. Image via the State Library of South Australia.

From a personal perspective, I particularly appreciated Conor’s analysis of how white women were often equally complicit in the creation and reiteration of stereotypes and un-truths. The primary focus of my Ph.D. is white women in nineteenth-century Victoria. Many books I have read about both Indigenous history and Australian history fail to examine how the ill treatment of Aboriginal people was not solely the providence of white men. Conor refers several times to Daisy Bates, an Irish-Australian female author prominent in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Bates was partially responsible for reviving ideas about cannibalism and infanticide by Aboriginal mothers. Conor refers to her as one of the Aboriginal peoples “worst enemies” (229).

Conor is at pains to demonstrate the relevance of her research to contemporary Australia. Skin Deep links the disparaging and racist historic representations of Aboriginal women with continuing disrespect for Aboriginal culture and peoples today. For example, Conor cites Pauline Hanson, who referenced Bates’ descriptions of Indigenous women as child killers and cannibals in a 1997 parliamentary speech. By using such an example, Hanson apparently attempted to refute the so-called “romantic” views of pre-contact Indigenous society. As Conor argues, this reveals the enduring effects of racist print culture and the ongoing belief in the veracity of these false claims. Skin Deep also considers the Northern Territory Intervention and the racist use of Indigeneity as a tourist attraction.

This book was painstakingly researched over many years, and Conor’s deep engagement with the source material is a testament to this. Skin Deep continually highlights the ongoing relevance of the dark history Conor seeks to illuminate. This, I believe, is an important yet often forgotten element to writing history, particularly Australia’s colonial history.


LRLauren Robinson is a Ph.D. candidate with the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at Deakin University in Melbourne. Her thesis is focused on the intersections between gender, class and nature in nineteenth-century Victoria. More broadly, Lauren is interested in the themes of immigration, women’s studies and environmental history. 


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