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Harris, William (1867–1931)

by Lois Tilbrook

This entry is from the Australian Dictionary of Biography

William Harris (1867-1931), civil rights leader, was born in 1867 in Western Australia, one of seven children of convict William Harris (alias William Paulet), a tramper from Wales, and his wife Madelaine whose mother was Aboriginal. He was a private pupil at the Swan Native and Half-Caste Mission, Perth. Harris mined at Paynes Find and Yalgoo, and farmed in the Morawa district for over forty years. He fought the issue of Aboriginal civil rights for some twenty-two years in the face of the Aborigines Act, 1905, which restricted civil liberties of those classified on the basis of proven or assumed, total or partial, Aboriginal descent.

In 1906 Harris argued with the premier for government assistance to Aborigines on the north-eastern goldfields. He claimed that the Aboriginals' economic dependency resulted from the denudation of native game by miners, and demanded provision of food and medicine from monies designated for Aboriginal use under the Federal Constitution.

In 1913 in a local newspaper he again denounced depressed conditions. He particularly objected to an incident near Paynes Find in which police, apparently unprovoked, had shot some Aboriginals' dogs which were essential for hunting kangaroos, whose skins were a major source of income. During the subsequent debate Harris denounced the 1905 Act in the Sunday Times on 6 April.

The Act's provisions were being extended to the South-West, and affected people of mixed descent not previously regarded as having Aboriginal affiliations, because of their education and lifestyle. Harris described 'half-castes and others brought up and educated on the same lines as whites, who pay taxes, and whose ideals of life are the same as those of a white man. Yet by law these people are denied the suffrage, and further are not allowed to enter a public house'. Without the right to enter a hotel Aborigines were virtually excluded from a district's social life and the opportunity for contacts leading to employment. But their civil liberties were increasingly eroded by the Act and its 1911 amendment, producing many disgruntled disadvantaged people. This culminated in November 1926 in Harris's formation of an Aboriginals' union. It was the work of one man and a few local followers, but it was intended to unite similar groups throughout the South-West. The union's aims included: voting rights for southern Aborigines, a uniform law for Aboriginals and whites, and 'justice and fair play'.

Next year, on 18 March, central Perth was prohibited to Aborigines. This stirred Harris's nephew Norman Cleaver Harris to employ a lawyer. On 9 March 1928 William Harris led a representative deputation to the premier of those who had suffered under the Act. Edward Jacobs and Arthur Kickett, successful farmers, had long fought the Education Department for the right to send their children to state schools. At the meeting Harris concentrated on the demoralizing Government Native Settlement at Moore River where families were split and people of varying cultural backgrounds grouped under police control. Despite the recognition by Premier Collier of 'a great obligation to do justice to the Aboriginal, because [the white man] had deprived him of his country', legislative change did not occur until after World War II.

Harris died, unmarried, on 13 July 1931 and was buried in the Aboriginal cemetery at Utacarra, Geraldton. He had remained undaunted by the task of confronting public dignitaries and seeking to redress injustice. His tenacity and strength were remarkable.

Select Bibliography

  • P. Biskup, Not Slaves, Not Citizens (Brisb, 1973)
  • West Australian, 9 Feb 1906, 14 Mar 1913, 10 Mar 1928
  • Sunday Times (Perth), 6 Apr 1913, 26 Nov 1927, 11 Mar 1928
  • Mirror (Perth), 10 Mar 1928
  • P. Biskup, Native Administration and Welfare in Western Australia, 1897-1954 (M.A. thesis, University of Western Australia, 1965)
  • Aborigines Dept, files AD 955/1899 and AD 94/1928 and Native Union Newsletter, 1970 and Education Dept, file 4259/14/1915 (State Library of Western Australia)
  • South West Aboriginal Studies oral history collection (Edith Cowan University).

Citation details

Lois Tilbrook, 'Harris, William (1867–1931)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://ia.anu.edu.au/biography/harris-william-6582/text11327, accessed 24 September 2017.

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2012