William Harris (Australian civil rights leader)

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William Harris (1867–1931) was an early Western Australian leader for Aboriginal civil rights.[1]

1867 - Born in Western Australia, he received a rudimentary education as a private pupil at the Swan Native and Half-Caste Mission, before educating himself to a considerable extent.

1904 – While working at the ports and on stations in the Ashburton and Gascoyne districts of Western Australia, Harris witnessed the brutish and cruel practices used to oppress, disenfranchise and subjugate the local Aboriginal people. After The Times (London) and the Australia press published an account of the ill-treatment of Aboriginal people in the Nor’-West of the State, Harris entered public debate about the issue with a letter to the press accusing the Colonial Secretary, Walter Kingsmill of willful hypocrisy and misrepresentation. Kingsmill had vehemently denied there was any evidence of the ill-treatment of Aboriginal people. Harris also criticized the Chief Protector of Aborigines for Western Australia, Henry Charles Prinsep for turning Aboriginal people off their land.

At the time the State Registrar-General, Malcolm A.C. Fraser had Harris in mind for a temporary position with the State Government to compile the vocabulary and descriptions of Aboriginal customs from different portions of the State together for posterity. Within weeks of the publication of Harris’s letter Malcolm Fraser appointed journalist Mrs Daisy Bates to the position.[2]

1906 – While prospecting in the Eastern Goldfields of Western Australia, Harris observed extensive starvation and disease among the local Aboriginal population. Harris was so concerned by what he witnessed that he traveled to Perth and on February 8, 1906, Harris and the Goldfields MP, Patrick Lynch M.L.A. met with the State Premier, Mr C.H. Rason. Harris explained that the Aboriginal people living on the eastern goldfields were in desperate need of food and medicine and handed Premier Rason a letter signed by the local Justices of the Peace lending their support. Harris also had a meeting with the Chief Protector of Aborigines, Mr Prinsep in an effort to persuade the Aborigines Department to supply rations, clothes and medicine to those starving and diseased.

1921 - When Mrs Daisy Bates began making national headlines with sensational stories accusing the Aboriginal people of cannibalism,[3] William Harris was one of very few who contested her allegations. In her rejoinder to a published letter by Harris disputing her views,[4] she wrote, ‘the only good half-caste is a dead one.[5] William Harris reproached her comment as “a stigma on a small class of people whose position in the community was an unenviable one”.[6]

1926 – Alarmed at the persecution inflicted upon Aboriginal people by the West Australian Aborigines Department and its officials, he voiced the intention to form the Native Union of Western Australia. Harris was particularly concerned about conditions at Mogumber (Moore River Native Settlement) after the Chief Protector of Aborigines A. O. Neville changed the settlements purpose from an Aboriginal farming community to an internment camp.

1928 – In March 1928 William Harris headed the first Aboriginal deputation to meet with a West Australian Premier Philip Collier. Wilfred Morrison, Edward Jacobs, Arthur Kickett, William Bodney, William Harris, his brother Edward and his nephew Norman Harris met with the Premier for an hour and half.[1] They asked the Premier to repeal the Aborigines Act 1905 and give Aboriginal people the same rights at the white community. Describing the conditions at Mogumber as intolerable, they implored him to close it down. Because Aboriginal people were prohibited from entering central Perth, throughout the meeting they referred to Perth as ‘white city’.[7] William Harris also told Premier Collier that Mrs Daisy Bates and Chief Protector Neville were the worst enemies of the Aboriginal people.[8]

1930 - William Harris moved to the town of Geraldton where he died on 13 July 1931 and is buried in the Aboriginal cemetery at Utacarra, Geraldton.

The Aborigines Act 1905, continued to govern the lives of all Aboriginal people in Western Australia until it was repealed by the Native Welfare Act 1963. Mogumber (Moore River Native Settlement) continued as a segregation facility until 1974.


  1. ^ "Biographical Entry". Australian Dictionary of Biography Online. 
  2. ^ Lomas, Brian (2015). Queen of Deception. Amazon. p. 47. ISBN 9781517053857. 
  3. ^ Bates, Daisy (13 May 1921). "ABORIGINALS STILL CANNIBALS". Barrier Miner (Broken Hill, NSW). 
  4. ^ Harris, William (4 September 1921). "Proposed Aboriginal Reserve". Sunday Times (Perth WA). 
  5. ^ Bates, Daisy (2 October 1921). "Aboriginal Reserves". Sunday Times, Perth WA. 
  6. ^ Harris, William (8 January 1922). "TREATMENT OF HALF-CASTES, Mrs Daisy Bates Reproached.". Sunday Times, Perth WA. 
  7. ^ "NATIVES' WORST ENEMY". The Daily News (Perth, WA). 9 March 1928. 
  8. ^ Lomas, Brian (2015). Queen of Deception. Amazon. p. 184. ISBN 9781517053857.