The Passing of the Half-Castes: Gavin Casey, Leonard Mann and the Postwar ‘Half-Caste’ Novel

Rich Pascal

Abstract


The two decades following the end of the Second World War marked a historically significant shift in mainstream Australians’ attitudes toward what had previously been thought of as the ‘Aboriginal problem,’ culminating in the famous referendum of 1967 that for the first time endorsed federal empowerment over Aboriginal affairs.  Not coincidentally, it was in that period that an unprecedented number of narratives appeared that focused upon Indigenous Australians, especially the so-called ‘half-castes.’  Most of the texts that registered that shift, and perhaps helped to accelerate it, have since been ignored or regarded dismissively by literary scholars and cultural commentators.  Among them were some remarkably observant and well crafted novels that are, as such, worthy of reclamation from obscurity; several repay close analytical readings.  Of greater interest still, perhaps, is their collective importance as a genre that signified the change that was occurring in the social milieu that produced them.  This discussion focuses upon two of the most interesting of the postwar “half-caste” novels: Gavin Casey’s Snowball (1958) and Leonard Mann’s Venus Half-Caste (1963).  It argues that both of these now largely forgotten works, in aspiring to present the postwar social world to mainstream readers as though through Aboriginal eyes, were not only rewardingly complex works of fiction, but of considerable cultural significance in a time when Australia was revisiting longstanding assumptions about the position of its most oppressed minority.  Ultimately, it further suggests, these and other narratives focusing on mixed-descent Australians may well have contributed to the demise of the very notion of the now antiquated and distinctively offensive term ‘half-caste’—as well as to the major shift in mainstream opinion registered in the 1967 federal referendum by a vote that overwhelmingly endorsed the incorporation of Indigenous people within the national community.

Keywords


half caste; Aboriginal; Indigenous; postwar

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