The context of reform
Dhakiyarr's trial and appeal were not the only catalyst for the important changes in Aboriginal administration later in the 1930s. Records in the National Archives' collection show that the events of 1933–34 followed years of criticism of the federal government for failing to protect Northern Territory Aborigines, and years of vigorous attempts to improve the system of justice for them.
Just five years earlier, police retaliation against Aboriginals who killed a white prospector on Coniston Station in Central Australia drew national and international attention. The much publicised 'Coniston Massacre' was followed by public outcry over what many called a 'whitewash' – the police involved admitted to 17 Aboriginal deaths, but were exonerated by a Board of Enquiry.
In 1928 the government of Stanley Melbourne Bruce asked JW Bleakley, the Queensland Chief Protector of Aborigines, to report on Aboriginal policy in the Northern Territory. Bleakley's report, The Aboriginals and Half-Castes of Central Australia and Northern Territory commented on the injustice of applying British law to crimes involving tribal law and proposed a form of tribal court.
Aboriginal employment conditions were under scrutiny as well. In the early 1930s the British Anti-Slavery Society in London alleged that northern Aboriginals worked in conditions no better than slavery.
And, in the area of capital punishment, reform was already well under way by the time Dhakiyarr was brought to Darwin in April 1934. Answering public criticism of the harshness of the mandatory death penalty for murder convictions on 'tribal' Aboriginals who could not have been aware of European law, from the early 1930s the federal government began to commute some death sentences to life imprisonment.
Cabinet approval to commute death sentences, 20 May 1930.
NAA: A461, L300/1, p.21
Months before the trial, the Department of the Interior decided to pre-empt the possibility of capital punishment in Dhakiyarr's case. As the article below reports, the government was concerned not to 'breach the faith' of Dhakiyarr and the other Yolngu men who had voluntarily travelled to Darwin. While Dhakiyarr was en route from Arnhem Land to Darwin with the peace party, Interior Minister JA Perkins announced that, whatever happened, Dhakiyarr would not be hanged.
Article from the Melbourne Herald, 23 March 1934.
NAA: A1, 1936/327, p.88