Disclaimer: This article uses historic, dated and colonial terminology and ideologies about race and racial identity when reporting on these histories.
This year the highly-acclaimed historical drama Loving, a biopic about interracial marriage in the 1950s was released.
The film tells the story of real-life couple; Richard Loving, a white man, and Mildred née Jeter, an African-American woman, who were both arrested and later banished by their home state of Virginia (US) for illegally living as interracial spouses.
Just one month after the Lovings wed, they were charged under Section 20-58 of the Virginia Code, legislation which prohibited interracial couples from being married out of state and then returning to the state. They were also charged with Section 20-59, which classified ‘miscegenation’ (the coupling of different races in a sexual or romantic nature) as a felony and punishable by a prison sentence of up to five years. Virginia was just was one of 24 US states at the time that barred marriages between different races.
On 6 January 1959, the Lovings pleaded guilty to 'cohabiting as man and wife, against the peace and dignity of the Commonwealth' and were sentenced to one year in prison, with the sentence suspended on condition that the couple leave Virginia and not return together for at least 25 years.
Richard and Mildred Loving are arguably America’s most famous husband and wife, being the plaintiffs in the 1967 US Supreme Court decision which invalidated the laws that prohibited interracial marriage. Despite Richard, a bricklayer, and Mildred, a homemaker, being neither being activists or politically charged, the pair changed the course of their country’s history.
In the film, Richard is played by Australian actor Joel Edgerton, a compelling depiction which landed him Best Actor nomination at this years’ Golden Globe awards. Edgerton has been involved in 'interracial' relationships himself, most prominently with Olympic runner and Kuku Yalanji and Birri-Gubba woman, Cathy Freeman and has said, "Every now and then I felt judgment, a silent judgment. It was a subtle between the lines, outside of the law judgment from people."
While Loving is a significant American story which discusses African-American civil rights and American politics, lead actor Edgerton's homeland, on the other side of the world, holds some similar histories.
The Outback Romeo and Juliet
In Australia’s Northern Territory – also in 1959 – Mick Daly, a white Australian drover and his Aboriginal girlfriend, Gladys Namagu, were refused permission to marry by Government officials. They were dubbed the ‘Outback Romeo and Juliet’ and their plight sparked national outrage and public sympathy. Federal and state politicians became involved in their case, as did academics, the media - and even the United Nations.
Mick Daly was prosecuted under Section 64 of the Northern Territory Welfare Ordinance for ‘habitually consorting with a female ward to whom he is not married’. Like many Aboriginal people at the time, Gladys was declared a 'ward of the state' under the Welfare Ordinance. This gave the government control over her affairs.
The Welfare Ordinance was drafted as being non-discriminatory legislation, with the Territory priding itself on being ‘colour-blind’ and having amended the Aboriginals Ordinance 1918 and removing any mention of race. However, Aboriginal people, regardless of age, were routinely deemed state wards as they fell under the Ordinance’s malleable criteria, such as, 'inability to manage one’s own affairs’, ‘standard of social habit and behaviour’ and 'mixing with undesirable people'.
Mick and Gladys had been ‘keeping company’ at a campsite near Katherine (NT), where he was later arrested after police were tipped off by a visiting welfare officer who was inspecting the camp’s working conditions.
Mick told the Katherine courthouse that he hadn’t known his relationship with Gladys had been illegal and defended himself with a very dramatic, and very public, proposal in front of the magistrate and police. The Northern Territory News reported that Daly walked across the courtroom over to Gladys and said,
‘Gladys, didn’t I ask you to be my girl?’
‘Yes,’ she replied
‘Did I say to you that if you wanted to go to Arthur [Julama] I would not stop you?’
‘Yes,’ said Gladys.
‘Gladys, I asked you to marry me before, didn’t I? I still want to marry you … Will you marry me, Gladys?’
‘Yes,’ she replied.
The media attention given to this theatrical proposal ramped wide-spread public support of the impassioned couple, however the Ordinance (legislation) specified that no ward could be married without the Director of Welfare's, Harry Giese, written consent. Giese refused Mick’s application to marry Gladys and instead, Gladys was sent to an Aboriginal settlement at Warrabi and the couple were effectively banned from seeing one another.
Romantic stories exist of Gladys being ‘rescued’ from the Aboriginal compound by Mick and his friends at midnight. She would climb over a fence and the couple would share an embrace underneath a banana tree.
Giese's decision to prohibit the couples’ nuptials – although entirely discretionary – was argued as being of the ‘interest of the ward’ and would not be appealed. Giese made claim that Gladys was already ‘tribally married’ to an Aboriginal man (Arthur Julama), despite both Arthur and Gladys publicly, and repeatedly, denying the allegation. Although the official refusal was based on Gladys’ unsuitability, Giese also had objections to Mick. Having little education and reports of abusive behaviour when under the influence of alcohol, Giese did not consider the drover to be a ‘fit and proper person’ to marry a ward.
In an editorial of the Northern Territory News, Jim Bowditch, a journalist and friend of Mick’s wrote, “Could it be that the department believes men who sleep with Aboriginal women are not the right type to marry them? If that principle were applied, a great many of the marriages between whites would never take place.”
When the ‘issue’ of Mick was debated in the Legislative Council, correspondence between Mick and Bowditch was presented as an example of Mick’s sincere affection for Gladys. The opening of the letter, which was written while Gladys was staying with Bowditch and Mick was situated at Eva Downs cattle station on a job, read,
I just got your letter yesterday and I was very pleased to hear from you that Gladys is well. I miss her very much too. I hope I can get married to her after I am finished with these bullocks. We will be at Anthony’s Lagoon dip (another cattle station) next Friday and it will nearly be the end of November before we are finished.
I hope Gladys doesn’t change her mind in that time because I love her very much and I’m sure that I won’t change my mind about her. I would like Gladys to stay with you, Jim. I think she would be more happier and in good company with you people. Your wife and Zenie (Jim’s sister-in-law) treat her very well and I appreciate it …
Like the Loving’s case, which is a familiar reminder that racism and segregation prevailed in America’s south, the Namagu/Daly matter reveals that Australia too, used government policy to impede unions that disrupted the status quo (i.e: interracial marriage). The legislation which gave the Director, Harry Giese, a range of powers such as; prosecution for cohabitation, refusing a ward permission to marry and removal of a ward to a native settlement, demonstrates how historically marriage is not about romance, affection or commitment, but governmental strategy.
Segregation vs. Assimilation – a short, dark history of interracial marriage in Australia
Unlike the US which segregated races almost nation-wide, Australia’s history of interracial marriage - particularly between white and black Australians - is less straightforward. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, marriage legislation varied state-to-state and different parts of the country took different approaches to the unions of Aboriginal people to non-Indigenous people. None of which had the harmonious 'Love is Love' approach, and all of which used it as a tool for ‘controlling’ the ‘problem’ of the Aboriginal population.
NT & WA
Gladys and Mick fell under legislation of NT, which was almost identical to WA's laws. The Governments 'managed' Aboriginal people by having control over their lives and making them wards of the state. This gave the Governments an incredible amount of power over people such as, forbidding Aboriginal people from engaging in certain activities, be able to take their personal belongings, or put them into custody. It also meant that they could decide who they could and could not marry. In regards to interracial marriage, generally any anxieties or prevention of mixed unions in the NT and WA was largely due to Aboriginal women being involved with immigrant Asian fishermen or pearl divers rather than white Australians, as these relationships threatened the idealised ‘white Australia’.
Prior to the mid-1930s, there was a strong moral concern from the government about ‘miscegenation’ between Indigenous people and white Australians, but later the WA Aborigines Act Amendment Act 1936 and NT laws carried the philosophy that Aboriginal people could be ‘absorbed’ into the white population through interracial marriage. It should be noted here that the lawyer defending Mick and Gladys, actually argued their case on the basis that the couple should have the right to marry whomever they choose, and that their relationship was consistent with the Government’s assimilation policy at the time.
The WA Aborigines Act Amendment Act 1936 carried the philosophy that Aboriginal people could be ‘absorbed’ into the white population through interracial marriage. However prior to the mid-1930s, there was a strong moral concern from the government about ‘miscegenation’ between Indigenous people and white Australians.
In 1901, Queensland was the first state to pass law which enabled the Aboriginal Welfare Protector control over the marriages of Aboriginal people. In Queensland, the Aboriginals Protection and Restriction of the Sale of Opium Act 1897 stated that a marriage of an Aboriginal woman to any person other than an Aboriginal man needed permission of the Aboriginal Protector (a man who was non-Indigenous, obviously). While this 'protection' system was also enacted by NT and WA, unlike these states, the Queensland Government did not favour absorbing Aboriginal identity. In fact, people with a mix of Indigenous and non-Indigenous genes were rather ‘absorbed’ into the Indigenous population instead of the white community - attempting to ensure that blacks stayed black and the whites stayed white.
Queensland deemed ‘miscegenation’ “a great moral wrong” and up until the 1960s, the long-serving Chief Aboriginal Protector, John Bleakley (who had very vocal opinions on ‘white purity’ and ‘pure blood’) “prohibited” interracial relationships and implemented policies to actually encourage relationships of Aboriginal people to only Aboriginal people. This included Indigenous people who may have been of mixed (namely white) decent. In 1932, Bleakley reported, ‘the marriage of whites and Aboriginals [sic], unfortunately not discouraged in the earlier years, has been absolutely prohibited, and every encouragement given to these women to marry amongst their own race.’
SA, NSW & VIC
Southern and Eastern states, South Australia, NSW and Victoria, did not enact legislation which imposed official control on interracial marriages. As Europeans arrived much earlier in these areas, the violent and dispossessing effects of their settlement on First Nations’ people devastated Indigenous population numbers. The engineered ‘disappearance’ of Aboriginal people in the early 20th Century in the South-East such as, separating families, forcible removal of children, denying Aboriginal identity and the fiercely presumptuous idealisation of the ‘doomed race theory’ suggests that the states’ had few concerns about interracial marriage. ‘Management’ of Indigenous people was to make them invisible – no Aboriginal people meant no interracial marriage. However, similar to the NT and WA, state governments’ allowed interracial marriage, not morally, but on the basis of racist policy; biological absorption and assimilation.
The engineered ‘disappearance’ of Aboriginal people in the early 20th Century in these states; separating families, forcible removal of children, denying Aboriginal identity and the fiercely presumptuous idealisation of the ‘doomed race theory’ suggests that the states’ had fewer concerns about interracial marriage than the rest of the country.
In 1961, the Australian Parliament enacted its first Marriage Act, establishing laws for the recognition of unions nation-wide. This dismantled any state Aboriginal protector officials to have control or say over who an Indigenous person could or could not marry. Since, the Australian Marriage Act 1961 has been amended by the Howard government in 2004 who defined marriage in Australia: ‘Marriage means the union of a man and a woman to the exclusion of all others, voluntarily entered into for life’. While there are no longer restrictions on interracial marriages, the Marriage Act prohibits same-sex couples from marrying one another in Australia.
Happily ever amended
The public focus and ‘novelty’ of the star-crossed ‘Outback Romeo and Juliet’, Mick and Gladys, fortunately helped them obtain quality legal representation, Dick Ward, a lawyer and former member of the Northern Territory Parliament.
In a few months of being denied permission to marry, elected members of the Northern Territory Legislative Council pursued the matter of the couple. The attempt to have the Director of Welfare reverse his decision was defeated. However similar to the Lovings, Mick and Gladys’ relationship was the catalyst for a change in legislation. A motion to amend the Ordinance to include a right of appeal to a magistrate against decision of the Director of Welfare in relation to the marriage of wards was accepted by the Legislative Council and by the Federal Cabinet. Immediately after the amendment became law, Mick Daly lodged an appeal, to which the Director did not contest.
Mick Daly and Gladys Namagu were married in January 1960 in the Darwin Catholic Cathedral. Gladys given away by their legal representative, Dick Ward and surprisingly amongst their guests was the Director of Welfare, Harry Giese who congratulated them on their celebration. Mick and Gladys remained married for seven years.
Stories like Gladys and Mick’s tell the dark, shameful history of marriage legislation in Australia. And while Governments can prohibit couples from marrying, they cannot - and never have been able to - ‘control’ or regulate the sincere affection between two people. Because, love is love.
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Please note: Some of Mick Daly's letter to Jim Bowditch has been edited for spelling and clarity.