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'They couldn't break me': Don McLeod, champion for Aboriginal justice in the Pilbara

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posted on 10.05.2020, 22:44 authored by Jan Richardson
In 1946 in the North-West region of Western Australia, a White man named Donald William McLeod came to prominence when he assisted Aboriginal pastoral workers to leave their employment during a strike that continued for three years. His membership of the Communist Party of Australia was thought to be his motivation, and he was kept under surveillance by Australia’s security organisation. He was arrested, fined and jailed for his actions but was undeterred and for the next fifty years lived with the strikers and worked with them to gain their freedom from the controls of government.
   Research was centred on documentary evidence in archives and libraries and drew on private collections and stories of some who worked with McLeod. It shows that McLeod identified Section 70 of the original Constitution of Western Australia as the British Crown’s intention to educate the Colony’s Aboriginal peoples and care for their welfare. When it was removed in the final Constitution Act, 1905, he brought this action into the public arena and campaigned to have its benefits reinstated. He established proprietary limited companies through which illiterate tribal elders could gain their civil rights, advised them on income-producing manual work and assisted them to buy land with the proceeds of their work. He helped them establish the first Western Australian Aboriginal-controlled independent school and culturally-appropriate medical service with an aeroplane to reach their outlying communities. He assisted them to sink water wells and make roads into the desert, enabling families to return to their country, and supported the Lawmen to develop social programs dealing with alcoholism amongst the younger generation. The question this thesis addresses is: who was this man and why was he committed to working for these Aboriginal people?
   Investigating McLeod’s characteristics and motivations expands the historical record of changes in the pastoral industry and the emergence of Aboriginal enterprises in the Pilbara. The study is a micro-historical record that offers evidence of a North-West culture imbued with a colonial philosophy. It offers insights into the incremental steps the previously disempowered Aboriginal pastoral workers took to manage their transition to the modern economy while maintaining their traditional Law. It also provides an insider’s account of the processes of social and change that brought Aboriginal people freedom from the controls of a state government.
   This biographical study is the first to examine McLeod’s life story and consider the reasons for his actions. Its findings establish that he had a coherent philosophy and that his actions were consistent with his transformative understanding of traditional Aboriginal Law. It theorises that he was an empathy-induced altruist who recognised the fundamental injustice perpetrated on Aboriginal
   people during the process of colonisation, and chose to help the people recover their previous autonomy. It demonstrates that a working man with no institutional base can challenge an entrenched idea and, if willing to suffer for his principles, can exercise power disproportionate to his position in society.


Principal supervisor

Lynette Russell

Additional supervisor 1

Jennifer Hocking

Year of Award


Department, School or Centre

Historical Studies


Doctor of Philosophy

Degree Type


Campus location



Faculty of Arts