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Reading Robinson: Companion Essays to George Robinson’s Friendly Mission


Reading Friendly Mission in the Twenty-First Century: An Introduction


FRIENDLY MISSION GENERATES INTENSE REACTIONS in its readers. Responding with fascination or revulsion, readers repeatedly invoke the experience of reading it. Several of the authors in this volume narrate their first engagement with Friendly Mission with the resonant glow of a foundational moment. Writing independently of each other, these authors attest to Friendly Mission’s status as an artefact, a multivalent icon of colonial and postcolonial culture, a meeting place between indigenous and non-indigenous people. Like other colonial artefacts forged in conditions characterised by intense curiosity and unequal power relations, Friendly Mission represents an ambiguous and often uncomfortable meeting place. Somewhat akin to local translations of the Bible in colonial contexts, Friendly Mission means much to a range of constituencies, but its meanings are neither singular, stable nor entirely predictable.

Reading Robinson explores how we might read Friendly Mission in the twenty-first century. In doing so, the essays in this volume are symptomatic – but not conclusively representative – of the multiple readers, readings and interpretations that this textual artefact can generate. Narratives of colonial encounter – explorers’ journals, ethnographies, letters, paintings – survive to be fathomed by later generations and, particularly in the former settler colonies (Australia, South Africa, New Zealand and Canada), such accounts of early contact between indigenous and invading cultures are crucial to understandings of nations and their politics. Like the contributions to Reading Robinson, interpretations of texts such as Friendly Mission originate from differing sites within regional, national and international contexts, from various private, public or community readings, as much as from scholarly analyses. Friendly Mission is a text which draws together these diverse readers and their interpretations into a community of engagement with the colonial past and its aftermath.

That aftermath continues to be fraught, and the potential of colonial texts to recall painful and traumatic pasts cannot be underestimated. Indeed, for some readers the decision whether or not to read Friendly Mission at all can be both political and deeply personal.1 The dearth of credible and systematic textual information about Tasmanian Aborigines at the point of and immediately following contact is well known. This notwithstanding, within the hotchpotch comprising Colonial Records (detailed and voluminous), newspaper reports and varied settler and other accounts, considerable detail is to be found. Oral histories, until recently seldom reaching an audience beyond the immediacy of those who sustained them, both confirm and contradict details in these disparate sources, but nevertheless contribute to a more nuanced understanding of Tasmanian Aborigines.

What early observers made of Aborigines was not only of contemporary import, but continues to bear significance and consequence as Aboriginal and other scholars revisit the assortment of data. Keith Windschuttle’s accusatory challenge to the orthodox interpretation of settler-indigenous relations in colonial Tasmania provided the impetus for a burst of interest in primary sources long neglected.2 For a range of reasons some parties search for information on their cultural and ancestral heritage. Both Land Rights legislation and the advent of Native Title, among other exigencies and imperatives, have inscribed early records with a new salience. Edward Micklethwaite Curr, younger than Robinson but whose decade on the Murray River in the 1840s overlapped with Robinson’s eleven years at Port Philip, published his Recollections of Squatting in Victoria (1883) some forty years after his experiences.3 More than a century and a half further on, Olney J, of the federal court, found against the Yorta Yorta, determining that ‘native title does not exist in relation to the areas’, both land and water, claimed.4 Curr’s Recollections was read carefully by both Olney and counsel, as were the journals that Robinson kept of his travels along the Murray. In reaching his determination, Olney J explained that ‘[t]he most credible source of information concerning the traditional laws and customs of the area … is to be found in Curr’s writings’; more weight ‘should be accorded’ to Curr’s Recollections than the ‘oral testimony of the witnesses from the claimant group’.5 There is no doubting the significance of early observations.

Olney J correctly noted that:

Neither Curr nor Robinson had any special qualifications or training that fitted them for the task of recording or interpreting the information they acquired about the Aboriginal people with whom they made contact … Although [Robinson] recorded many details in his journal he made no attempt to collate or interpret this information and indeed much of what remains is extremely hard to decipher. 6

This was in what was then New South Wales (later Victoria). In Van Diemen’s Land (later Tasmania) Robinson was in more intimate contact with Aborigines, and did establish rapport with individuals. However, he was untrained in the specialist fields of recording and interpreting observations of Aboriginal life. But so were all early observers of Aborigines. The discipline of anthropology was yet to come, and while, following Malinowski,7 participant observation became the cornerstone of anthropological research, it was a very gifted few who prior to anthropological theorems could systematise their day-to-day observations into a coherent schema in which the institutions of cultural and social life can now be confidently discerned. It is difficult to distinguish the social and cultural institutions of a society from generalist day-today observations recorded without thought to organisation. While in such inchoate evidence certain patterns do become evident and provide much relevant data as to the how and why of the lives observed, some patterns might be ostensible in that they are exceptional rather than usual, and much of pertinence is also overlooked and not recorded.

It would be somewhat churlish to upbraid Robinson for the anthropological, even ethnographic, shortcomings of his journals. As noted by Olney J, and leaving Robinson’s personal foibles aside – in which, among other concerns, self-regard stains his observations8 – Robinson neither had the skills nor the training to undertake the rigours of specialist fieldwork. Nor did he have a mentor guiding him in this specialist area. Compare, for example, the work undertaken by the Rev. Lorimer Fison and Alfred W Howitt, whose landmark Kamilaroi and Kurnai was first published in 1880.9 Fison, a Wesleyan missionary, was in frequent communication with the American ethnologist Lewis Henry Morgan, who provided Fison with a regulatory framework for the systematic theoretical study of indigenous societies. In 1872 Howitt, who was already well read and had begun recording information on Aboriginal life in southeastern Australia, began corresponding with Fison. This collaboration provided Howitt with the theoretical competence and methodological expertise necessary for systematising his inquiry, observations and subsequent analysis. Besides Kamilaroi and Kurnai, both men published scientific papers based on their work, demonstrating regard for and knowledge of analytical rigour. Robinson did not publish his journals, though in his retirement he certainly had the time and leisure to do so. He also had the time to reconsider his observations of Tasmanian Aboriginal life and, retiring to Europe, he was close to the intellectual debates providing impetus to the emerging discipline of anthropology. Yet Robinson’s experiences preceded these developments. And besides, he was undertaking other roles with different agendas, and influence was drawn from other sources, as canvassed in a number of essays in this volume.10

THE COMMUNITY OF READERS ENGAGING with George Augustus Robinson’s writings – whether in their original form or in NJB Plomley’s edited collection – has always been wide and diverse. Robinson’s opinions, reports and recollections of Aboriginal people, and his work among them, have always circulated widely and brought together a geographically dispersed readership. While Plomley’s authoritative Friendly Mission made Robinson’s writing more accessible than it had ever been before (not least because of Robinson’s notoriously dreadful handwriting), ideas about Robinson and his mission to Tasmanian Aborigines have continuously circulated in popular culture and art from the 1830s onwards. A variety of mechanisms have kept Robinson in the popular imagination. Benjamin Duterrau’s portrait of Robinson in The Conciliation memorably pictures a soft-faced Briton surrounded by his Aboriginal ‘charges’,11 but colonial and imperial commentators positioned Robinson equally often within the racial science of high imperialism (from Charles Darwin to James Bonwick12). Alongside such representations, Robinson and the Tasmanian Aborigines were envisioned by popular newspapers, pamphleteers and writers in the Victorian economy’s commodification of empire, and, as Anne McClintock argues, commodity racism.13 These imaginings of Robinson were as vigorous in the imperial centres as in the colonies, and have continued to be so. Both Australian and international twentieth-century novelists – from Robert Drewe, to Mudrooroo, to Matthew Kneale – seem compelled to reimagine Robinson’s story. Perhaps in the early twenty-first century we need to consider Plomley’s Friendly Mission as much a construction of Robinson as it is a crucial source of information about pre-contact Aboriginal society.

In 1989 Bain Attwood published his The Making of the Aborigines.14 Attwood explains his main thesis as one in which he sees ‘Aborigines as an historical phenomenon which can only be understood in the context of colonisation and of their relationships with Europeans’.15 Attwood’s focus is on the forms of domination subsequent to first contact and the initial thrust of colonialism. While Tasmania is outside Attwood’s purview, Robinson the Conciliator’s Friendly Mission foregrounded episodic interventions pivotal to the formation of a subsequently realised politics of identity, notwithstanding current contestations and fractures.16 In contemporary times, Robinson functions as a sign upon which are aggregated the egregious and despoiling exigencies of colonial administration. Consequentially, Robinson is often reviled by Tasmanian Aborigines, both as colonial agent, and personally (his motives are suspected – he is an arriviste, a mercenary, a self-seeker, a cozener). Yet his observations are excavated to be struck against a cultural temper – oral histories, continuing practices, invented traditions, day-to-day exigencies, and so forth – to reconcile with lived memory and to be fashioned into cultural traits which resonate with attributed meanings.

For these reasons Robinson’s observations in the context of fraught Tasmanian Aboriginal history have an added poignancy. Tasmanian Aborigines – long denied recognition, and suffering the legacy of rapid dispossession and cessation of their pre-contact livelihoods – have in Robinson’s journals a rare window onto their ancestral cultural and social heritage. Yet Robinson’s agency in their dispossession provides many reasons to regard this source of information with antagonism and scepticism.17 Despite their significance, Robinson’s journals were for the most part inaccessible until Plomley commenced his meticulous transcriptions.

Friendly Mission, therefore, is a text upon which contradictory demands are made. For Tasmanian Aborigines, as for others, it is at once an historical source explicating both formal detail and the minutiae of Robinson’s Friendly Mission, and a wellspring from which heritage issues. David Lowenthal explains that the contradiction between history and heritage lies in the fact that they

transmit different things to different audiences. History tells all who will listen what has happened and how things came to be as they are. Heritage passes on exclusive myths of origin and continuance, endowing a select group with prestige and common purpose.18

Lowenthal is not ascribing to history uncontested facticity, but explaining how history and heritage are popularly put to work. To this end ‘[h]istory strives to know as much of the past as well as possible; heritage is helped by imprecise impression and sketchy surmise’ and it ‘lumps together all the past, commingling epochs without regard to continuity or context’.19 Many details of the Friendly Mission are subject to interpretation: Robinson’s observations, his interactions with Aborigines, the extent and nature of his intimacy with them and the context in which relations formed, Aboriginal understanding of Robinson and his motives (both as person and as colonial agent), their reasons for intimacy and for their varying complicity and recalcitrance. The paucity of credible anthropological detail of precolonial Tasmanian Aboriginal life furnishes scant evidence upon which to corroborate or contradict how this material is interpreted, imaginatively or otherwise. If the ‘past is more admirable as a realm of faith than of fact’,20 then Robinson’s journals furnish important, significant detail for Aborigines seeking to reclaim and rebuild heritage, identity, dignity and pride. If not the collapsing of epochs then the knitting of a timeless fabric through them is evident in the admonishment that ‘Pallawahs now demand that our cultural and racial history be recognised as being an unbroken, continual survival (sic)’.21 On any number of grounds white histories such as Robinson’s are challenged. Such challenges and the claiming of a heritage that settlers long refused to acknowledge allow Aborigines to assert a privileged reading of the ethnographic description in Robinson’s journals. Notwithstanding the ambivalence in which they are held, these ethnographic narratives provide evidence for some of their own ‘exclusive myths’ and items of ‘continuance’, where reason and understanding are found between themselves and the Aborigines about whom Robinson writes.

Robinson’s diverse writings constitute a body of work that typically has one set of meanings for local readers, and quite another for those outside its sphere of production. Robinson’s texts are exemplary of the ways in which colonial texts circulated around what Alan Lester has called ‘imperial networks’. Not only material aspects of empire connected colonial and metropolitan sites through the circulation of personnel, finance and products: so too newspapers, letters, books and ideas travelled the trade routes opened up by empire.22 Robinson’s experience with Aborigines was widely known in the nineteenth century. Indeed, the notoriety of settler-indigenous relations in Van Diemen’s Land ensured that this experiment with race relations – after the failure of the Black Line, another well-publicised attempt to deal with colonial frontier conflict – was highly visible. As Patrick Brantlinger has shown, colonial, American, European and British commentators were acutely interested in the fate of indigenous peoples when they encountered white, Western civilisation: the Tasmanian genocide (as it was known) ‘offered a moral and political lesson in how the progress of empire and civilization could be badly botched’.23 Each of these elements, added to Robinson’s extraordinarily successful self-belief and self-promotion, ensured that interested readers in the nineteenth century – and there were a great number of those – were well aware of Robinson’s writing, even if it was not available as an accessible whole until Plomley’s edition of Friendly Mission was published in 1966. Profoundly local information, then, circulated globally, enabled by empire.

In a conference paper outlining his vision to reinvigorate and expand the relevancy of Australian literature and literary studies, Robert Dixon argues that

our future prospects are related to [the need to] explore and elaborate the many ways in which the national literature has always been connected to the world … There are things we need to know about beyond Australia, even beyond Anglophone culture, to understand them fully.24

The same is true for much of the literature analysing and explaining the colonial frontier and subsequent settler-Aboriginal contact. It is especially true of Robinson’s journals, where analysis by and large is marked by a stifling parochialism. This is not to suggest that the specificities of the Vandemonian story should be subordinated to a generalist overview, but that any specificities need considering within a corresponding context to that suggested by Dixon vis-à-vis Australian literature.

The historian Geoffrey Bolton made a similar point in a discussion provoked by Windschuttle’s The Fabrication of Aboriginal History. Bolton lamented that it is

often a misfortune in Australian historiography … just as it is in so many aspects of Australian public life, that we often tend to address these issues as if they were unique to Australia; as if no other societies had undergone experiences that might provide benchmarks, examples, even processes of learning and accommodation from which Australian practice might benefit.25

Rarely is Friendly Mission considered, systematically at least, in a context beyond the immediacy of Van Diemen’s Land / Tasmania, except by way of hackneyed repetition of sometimes undertheorised frameworks of racism. Racial discourses certainly warrant investigation, but they too need careful comparative analysis with experience and policy in other contemporary colonies. Furthermore, the familiar trope of atrocities justified by racist categorisations of Aborigines downplays (or ignores) the more complex, subtle intertwining of other influences and concerns. Friendly Mission is a rich document revealing the ambiguities and ambivalence of reciprocity and exchange between Aborigines and colonial / settler agents. Yet these aspects of Van Diemen’s Land history are rarely elaborated beyond the cursory. Between the two dominant strands of competing Australian nationalist history – triumphalist versus so-called Black Arm Band26 – is a messy, inchoate experience. That such experience in Van Diemen’s Land is subordinated to dominant, Manichean narratives is at least partly explained by the very few analyses of Friendly Mission. Friendly Mission not only needs further excavating by a broader range of historians, but also by anthropologists, literary analysts, postcolonial scholars and novelists, among others. Such analyses would assist in revealing further Friendly Mission’s complex, delicate and nuanced detail, in all its purpose, spontaneity, naivety and ambiguity. Wrenching Friendly Mission from parochial particularity and situating it within international contexts, both in terms of contemporary accounts of colonial / settler contact and conflict with indigenes and current scholarship analysing this material, is vital to a more comprehensive analysis and understanding. For example, Friendly Mission exists within a genre of literature evoking colonial encounters. It too is a text of an account of a particular era of ‘first meetings’ that has parallels in other settler colonies. Neither Plomley nor Robinson are considered in the context of foundational regional narratives. The issue of how such texts circulate and are used, and what meanings are ascribed to understandings drawn from them by both settlers and indigenes, is pertinent to Friendly Mission. Much of this work remains to be done, and while also being cognisant of the particularities of Vandemonian history as detailed in a number of essays here, other essays in this volume demonstrate the broader imperial, cultural, political and ideological networks in which these particularities are nested.

FRIENDLY MISSION CONTINUES TO OPERATE as a vibrant cultural artefact for a variety of reasons: its mammoth status on bookshelves of colonial narratives, its tendency to polarise readers, its window onto an intriguing if disturbing colonial past. But its cultural capital is considerably more than the sum of its parts would indicate. Friendly Mission stirs emotions in readers that are difficult to analyse: guilt, curiosity, anger, resistance, engagement, fascination. It provides evidence, which is self-evidently partial and not necessarily reliable, about a foundational period not only in the Australian colonies, but indeed in the nineteenth-century British Empire. Friendly Mission both records and produces a dense cultural history of early colonial encounters, in all their violence, intimacy and wonder. Through the pompous and fallible figure of Robinson, readers try to see what was really going on, what the Aborigines about whom Robinson writes thought of him, whether Robinson’s records of their reactions and their culture are accurate or not. Friendly Mission promises much detailed information, but as an encyclopaedic compendium it somehow exceeds itself. Jacques Derrida suggests that late twentieth-century Western cultures suffer from ‘archive fever’, a desperate need for and fascination with archives and their contents. We see this passion for archives in the millions of family historians tracking down the documents of their ancestors’ lives; in the anthropological industry stimulated by legal demands for evidence to support native title claims; and in the fantasy of universalised, democratised knowledge offered by the worldwide web. Derrida suggests that this fever approaches a pathological condition: ‘It is never to rest, interminable, from searching for the archive right where it slips away … It is to have a compulsive, repetitive, and nostalgic desire for the archive, an irrepressible desire to return to the origin, a homesickness, a nostalgia for the return to the most archaic place of absolute commencement.’27 Friendly Mission offers its readers a promise of complete knowledge, of unmediated access into the moment of first encounters between Europeans and Aborigines, of the primary source of subsequent knowledge. That Friendly Mission is not such an authoritative document – because like all texts it is only a representation, selective, partial and subject to varied processes of production – can be both disappointing and liberating. Reading Robinson demonstrates the varied responses of professional and private readers of Friendly Mission and posits a therapeutic response to archive fever: to engage energetically and variably with the imperial archive in order for its power to be understood and transcended.

WHILE FRIENDLY MISSION BRINGS FORTH journals from a specific era and episode in Australian colonial history, the work undertaken in their transliteration reflects another era of scholarly endeavour. This cornucopia of information comes to us through the lens of Brian Plomley, the editor and compiler of Robinson’s primary material. Norman James Brian Plomley (1912-94) was something of a polymath, more in the mode of a nineteenth-century gentleman scholar than the professional academic of the late twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Plomley’s training was in science.28 His Australian education was augmented by early experience at the Imperial College of Science in London and at the University of Cambridge, and later at the Galton Laboratory, University College, London. He was employed in various capacities within a range of cultural institutions, moving between museums and universities: as Acting Curator at the Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery (QVMAG) in Launceston, Tasmania, in 1938 (where he later served as Director); as a research biologist at the University of Tasmania in the Department of Physics from 1939; and as senior lecturer in anatomy at a number of institutions in Australia and Britain.29 It was, perhaps, only in his final appointment as Senior Associate in Aboriginal and Oceanic Ethnology in the Department of History at the University of Melbourne (1973-76) that Plomley’s publications on Tasmanian Aboriginal history were matched to his professional position.

Plomley’s career and his wide-ranging interests situate him as a scholar of another generation both in his diverse publications and in his approach to scholarship and publishing. While he is now immortalised as ‘one of the most respected and scholarly of historians writing about the Tasmanian Aborigines’,30 Plomley also published prolifically in other fields: A Manual of Dissection for Students of Dentistry; articles on Tasmanian zoology, natural history and early convict artists; journal articles on insects, fungi and flying fish; work published in journals of natural history, medicine, Australiana, gallery and museum studies, anthropology, biological sciences, human genetics and so on. If his professional life mirrored that of many other ambitious and successful transnational Australians of his era – oscillating between Australia and Britain for training, accreditation and employment – his passion for Tasmanian Aboriginal history remained somehow more local. Most of Plomley’s output in this field was published by the institutions with which he was affiliated – the QVMAG, most conspicuously, and the Centre for Tasmanian Historical Studies – and by small local publishers (Blubber Head Press). Some texts were virtually self-published. Late in life, Plomley was clearly dissatisfied with the impact his prodigious historical work had made: despite receiving Membership of the Order of Australia in 1979, and receiving the Clive Lord Medal from the Royal Society of Tasmania in 1983, he described Friendly Mission as in many ways a ‘wasted effort, because so few of the matters raised in Robinson’s journals have been investigated further’.31

In fact, Friendly Mission is precisely the text that has ensured Plomley’s longevity and his reputation. Rather like the self-styled missionary himself, Plomley’s popularisation of Robinson and his writings circulated well beyond the geographical confines of an island at the far reaches of the antipodes. Scholars working on topics in any way related to colonial Tasmania cite Friendly Mission, much more regularly than Plomley’s other publications on the topic: writers on anthropology, archaeology, historical studies, cultural studies, literary studies and Aboriginal studies are indebted to Plomley’s meticulous research and editorial skills, and their footnotes are densely imbricated with this work. This was accelerated exponentially with the scholarly response to Windschuttle’s The Fabrication of Aboriginal History, itself heavily reliant on Friendly Mission.

Yet Plomley’s disappointment does ring true in terms of the subsequent work that he imagined, and indeed prescribed, for other researchers. Working outside of the theoretical and cultural turns within the humanities, Plomley could not respond to the profound changes in those disciplines, nor to the challenges that scholars and activists made to the kinds of scholarship that Friendly Mission represented. In the lag-time of scholarship and academic publishing, Plomley’s scrupulous but ideologically old-fashioned approach to his subject fell out of fashion just as Friendly Mission was making its presence felt. Even in 1988, Plomley wrote that there were only ‘three classes of data’ from which to learn about Tasmanian Aborigines and their culture: European written records, Aboriginal ‘artefacts and bodily remains’ and ‘archaeological and related studies’.32 Drafted in Australia’s Bicentenary year – a year characterised by political activism, loud debate about the relationship between ‘celebration of a nation’ and ‘invasion day’, amid a concerted campaign by Australian publishers to promote diverse Australian voices including now iconic Aboriginal authors such as Sally Morgan and Ruby Langford Ginibi – Plomley’s musings in consideration of a planned second edition of Friendly Mission reveal his investment in an earlier mode of settler Australian engagement with Aboriginal affairs. The conjunction of those early twentieth-century modes of scholarship with governmental policies and practices of child removal, assimilation and discrimination ensured that Plomley’s genuine engagement with Aboriginal Tasmania as a real, rich culture got lost in (justifiable) critiques of his blindness to Aboriginal oral history, to modes of indigenous identity decoupled from notions of blood and purity, to the sensitive politics of who can speak for whom, and on what authority. This collection of essays emerges in the aftermath of such rancorous and painful debates, and it is compiled in the hope that, through careful and comparative dialogue, Friendly Mission will begin to be read again, by diverse communities, in new and productive ways.

Reading Robinson: Companion Essays to George Robinson’s Friendly Mission

   by Anna Johnston and Mitchell Rolls