Wayne Bradshaw reviews W.E.H. Stanner: Selected Writings (La Trobe University Press, 2024)


Henry Reynolds (Australian of the Year Awards)

The works of W.E.H. Stanner loom large within the Australian tradition of progressive writing on Aboriginal and settler relations. Before Henry Reynolds rewrote the history of Australian settlement, Bill Stanner revolutionised Australian anthropology. In any format, Stanner should be considered mandatory reading for settler Australians, and the new edition of his essays and lectures published by La Trobe University Press in conjunction with Black Inc. is currently the best way to engage with this important body of work. It contains all the pieces found in the 2009 collection, The Dreaming & Other Essays, with the addition of “Aboriginal Humour” from 1956. Stanner’s greatest contribution to Australia’s intellectual life was, however, helping to create space for more suitable authors to take up the work at hand, primarily through his role in helping to establish the Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies (AIAS), but also by lending his name and authority to the Stanner Award, established by the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS) after his death. The award provides valuable support for Indigenous researchers seeking to publish their work. This year, the Stanner Award was presented to the Gugu Badhun scholar, Dr Janine Gertz, to assist with the publication of her research on Aboriginal sovereignty as a monograph.[1]

In attempting to review a collection of such importance as this, I am loathe to engage in the all-too-common practice of a settler scholar writing about material that rightly belongs in the more capable hands of an Aboriginal one. There are already settler policy makers deciding the fates of Aboriginal communities; settler journalists describing the failure of policies; and settler academics teaching settler students about the ills of a colonial infrastructure that settlers continue to perpetuate and benefit from. A secularised kernel of the missionary system remains embedded within the framework of contemporary Australian society and its dealings with Aboriginal Culture. What marks out the best of Stanner’s essays—and “Caliban Discovered” is near his best—is his capacity to turn the full weight of his anthropological skill upon “European bias expressing itself in hard, narrow and very nearly intractable prejudices which for a long time prevented the voice of objectivity from being heard” (73). In his introduction to the collection, Robert Manne outlines Stanner’s tendency to critically examine the cultural processes of colonisation:


Stanner’s humanistic anthropology was as much concerned with analysis of the behaviour of the British during the long dispossession as it was with Aboriginal culture. All the materials for the coming tragedy could, he thought, be seen in the first three years of Governor Phillip’s muddled and incoherent rule, where an early romanticism of the noble-savage kind had quickly turned to violence, indifference and contempt. (11)


Stanner remains useful to readers and policymakers because he rightly reframes Indigenous policy failures as being caused by the inadequacy of colonial governments. From Phillip on, colonisation had been driven by “three main mentalities—disdain, turning to dislike and contempt; romanticism, turning to despair and morbidity; and a bankruptcy of ideas, turning to indifference” (“Caliban Discovered” 75). Well-meaning ignorance and a refusal to listen to the voice of Indigenous thinkers has been a prevailing theme of the Australian project at many points in the nation’s history.

It perhaps remains as true today as it was in 1938—particularly in the light of the referendum result in 2023—that “Australian native policy and administration is a curious mixture of high intentions and laudable objectives, loosely formulated in vague principles; almost unbelievably mean finances; an extremely bad local administration and an obstinate concentration on lines of policy which 150 years of experience have made suspect” (“The Aborigines” 129). Nevertheless, we have surpassed a point that Stanner could only dream of in the Boyer Lectures. Not only have we lived to see history “bring into the main flow of its narrative the life and times of men like David Unaiipon, Albert Namatjira, Robert Tudawali, Durmugam, Douglas Nicholls, Dexter Daniels and many others” (189), but also the lives of women including Truganini, Joyce Clague and Shirley Colleen Smith. More importantly, the fields of Stanner and Reynolds have been transformed into the fields of Aileen Moreton-Robinson, Martin Nakata, Megan Davis, and Janine Gertz. If we still refuse to listen, it is no longer for the lack of Indigenous voices speaking out.

It is an unfortunate matter of circumstance that Australia required white intellectuals like Stanner to describe the moral failures of colonisation. The circumstances were, Stanner himself suggests, entirely avoidable, and “[t]he disposal of land, the development of law and order, the distribution of political power, the recognition of human rights, and the administration of justice must all have taken a different course, had it not been for the suffocation of conscience” (“The History of Indifference thus Begins” 120). “The Great Australian Silence” that Stanner described in the Boyer Lectures was of settler Australia’s own making. The silence is now broken, and as Stanner himself observed, “the melancholy footnote is turning into a whole chapter of Australian history, and the codicil is becoming a major theme in the Australian story. It has been my good fortune to have had something to do with that process over the last thirty years” (“The Boyer Lectures” 176). In 1953, Stanner suggested that “[o]ur own intellectual history is not an absolute standard by which to judge others. The worst imperialisms are those of preconceptions” (“The Dreaming” 62). More than half a century later, we have reached the point in history where a Gugu Badhun scholar can build on an existing body of work undertaken by Indigenous scholars such as Lester-Irabinna Rigney and Linda Tuhiwai Smith, to state that “Indigenous research must rewrite and reright the Indigenous position in history and society” (Gertz 2). History prevails upon us to listen.


Works Cited

Gertz, Janine. “The Gugu Badhun Researched: Intellectual Sovereignty versus Indigenous Intellectual Nullius.” Sūdō Journal, vol. 2, 2020, pp. 1–7. https://sudojournal.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/1-Gugu-Badhun-Researched.pdf

Manne, Robert. “W.E.H. Stanner: The Anthropologist as Humanist.” W.E.H. Stanner: Selected Writings. La Trobe University Press, 2024, pp. 1–17.

Rigney, Lester. “A First Perspective of Indigenous Australian Participation in Science: Framing Indigenous Research Towards Indigenous Australian Intellectual Sovereignty.” Kaurna Higher Education Journal, vol. 7, 2001, pp 1–13.

Smith, Linda Tuhiwai. Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples. Bloomsbury, 2021.

Stanner, W.E.H. W.E.H. Stanner: Selected Writings. La Trobe University Press, 2024.




[1] Note: “Gugu Badhun people are the original inhabitants of the area known as the Upper Burdekin region of North Queensland.” Information from Gugu Badhun Aboriginal Corporation website:   https://www.gugubadhun.com/

Wayne Bradshaw
Wayne Bradshaw

Wayne Bradshaw is an adjunct research associate at James Cook University, Australia, where he completed a PhD in literary studies investigating the impact of egoist philosophy on the historical development of the avant-garde manifesto. His book, The Ego Made Manifest: Max Stirner, Egoism, and the Modern Manifesto, is available from Bloomsbury.