Feoffment? – Gough pours soil into Lingiari’s hand

'Handing back' country

In August, 1975, the Commonwealth of Australia ‘handed back’ land to the Gurindji, who had fought a long battle for their country and helped usher in the era of land rights.
The Prime Minister, Gough Whitlam, symbolically poured a handful of Gurindji soil into Lingiari’s hand and said:

“Vincent Lingiari, I solemnly hand to you these deeds as proof in Australian law that these lands belong to the Gurindji people, and I put into your hands part of the earth as a sign that this land will be the possession of you and your children forever.”

I had always assumed this was a gesture towards Aboriginal attitudes to land, an earthy complement to the European title deeds on paper.

However, reading Bain Attwood‘s Possession, I’m sure that the lawyer Whitlam must have been harking back to the feudal English practice of feoffment.  As Attwood says (p.44):

“Feoffment entailed a set of acts that amounted to a ritual of possession.  First, the actual delivery of the land took place by a means known as livery of seisin (which was a term for having both possession and title of real property).  This was customarily done by handing over a lump of soil, a twig of a tree, of some other small part of the property that was regarded as symbolic of its whole … feoffment was a form of conveyance that had to be carried out on the particular land in question”

Given his sense of history, as well as early legal work that concentrated on tenant/landlord matters, Whitlam must have been well aware of this practice.


About bobthebauer

Einige Sache.
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