Amanda Nettelbeck’s book Indigenous Rights and Colonial Subjecthood traces the development of indigenous rights and colonial governance systems across the British empire. It addresses what Nettelbeck describes as the ‘unresolved debates’ in the development of colonial legal systems at moments when British administrators were grappling with the fact that recognising indigenous people’s sovereignty and their position as British subjects meant obligations for colonial administrations and white settler law to uphold those rights.
Spanning 100 years(1830-1930s), Nettelbeck traces an incredibly complex legal landscape of ‘protection’ systems, a hallmark of British colonising practices. We learn of the vast reach of the law in criminal and civil governance systems — such as those governing labour, welfare, families, and public space — which controlled and regulated indigenous lives. The experiences of Aboriginal people in Australia are the focus of the work, with comparisons regularly made to policies around the British empire such as those in Trinidad, Jamaica, New Zealand and Natal. Nettelbeck makes impressive use of chronological case studies about regulatory practices that impacted indigenous people’s lives and how Aboriginal people navigated the legal and philosophical perspectives that underpinned British protection systems, systems which favoured conciliatory approaches in some instances, and coercion and punishment in others. Throughout Nettelbeck’s historical analysis is underscored by the deft use of historiographical and theoretical analyses of colonialism which are intricately woven into the narrative, making the book a pleasure to read and a rewarding piece of scholarship to engage with.
The judges were unanimous in their decision that Indigenous Rights and Colonial Subjecthood be awarded the 2020 ANZLHS Annual Prize in Legal History.