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


George Augustus Robinson and Imperial Networks



The purpose of this essay is to situate Robinson’s career as a humanitarian colonial official within the networks of debate and communication that spanned the growing British Empire in the early nineteenth century. I argue that although Robinson’s writings, including those in Friendly Mission, constitute unique narratives, those narratives can be read and understood more effectively if they are seen as a significant element in the contests over colonisation waged between British humanitarians, settlers and officials, and indigenous peoples not just in the Australian colonies but in Britain, and in many other sites of British imperialism. In particular, if we are properly to contextualise Robinson and his work, we have to position them in relation to an extensive ‘propaganda war’1 waged between humanitarian and settler lobbies in and between the West Indies, Australia, the Cape Colony, New Zealand, British North America and India among other places. This propaganda war was fought over the legitimacy of prevailing and prospective relations between Britons and indigenous peoples. Its resolution would help to define colonial relations in each imperial site, through the remainder of the nineteenth and into the twentieth century. Robinson’s own career trajectory was fundamentally bound up with it.

Robinson’s influence within this propaganda war is not that surprising when one considers his extraordinary career. As Henry Reynolds has noted, ‘Robinson probably had more first-hand experience of the impact of settler violence than any other European. He was deeply involved in the politics of dispossession from 1829 to 1849 in Tasmania and Port Phillip.’2 But Robinson was acknowledged, certainly within humanitarian circles, as the leading expert on Australian Aborigines for a time, because his narratives of encounters between Aborigines and Britons were disseminated through imperial channels of communication, to be read elsewhere in Australia, in Britain and in other settler colonies. Although they may have been dismissed or even ridiculed by many of their ‘consumers’ (including his own administrative superiors in New South Wales), his narratives were read by many as powerful support for a trans-imperial, humanitarian campaign against settlers’ brutal dispossession of indigenous peoples. Correspondingly, they represented advocacy for an alternative, evangelical-inspired model of British colonialism.

This alternative, humanitarian model of colonial relations was premised on the assumption of a universal humanity created in God’s image, but with British civilisation and culture its greatest, divinely sanctioned achievement. A core feature of humanitarian ontology – and one that clashed with the invective of settlers not just in Australia, but also in the West Indies, southern Africa, New Zealand and North America – was that the more ‘backward’ enslaved and indigenous peoples had the potential to be reclaimed, Christianised and civilised so as to assimilate into this superior culture. If they were to do so, though, the British colonial presence had to be turned to morally laudable objectives, and it was this which humanitarian political agitation sought to achieve.3 British agitation along these lines had its roots in the late eighteenth-century campaign for the emancipation of slaves in the West Indies. It was further inflected by contemporaneous evangelical and educational projects founded on the attempted Christianisation of Hindus and Muslims in India.4 By the late 1820s, British colonial humanitarianism (or philanthropy as it was more commonly referred to at the time) had come to be associated primarily with the pursuit of conciliatory relations with indigenous peoples in the ‘new’ settler colonies of New South Wales, Van Diemen’s Land and the Cape Colony. For their part, settlers in each of these colonies tended to resent what they saw as sentimental, naïve and ill-informed philanthropic interference in their practices of land acquisition and labour subordination.5

The propaganda war that such agitation initiated among colonial and metropolitan Britons can be seen as a shifting frontier in its own right. Although it was a continual presence within trans-imperial discussion throughout the first half of the nineteenth century at least, it had particular moments and locations of peak intensity. During the years in which Robinson was an active participant, there were three major episodes of activity, each shifting in space as well as staggered in time. The primary locus shifted from the Eastern Cape in 1834-36, when debate raged about the provocations which had caused a Xhosa attack on the colony, to New South Wales and the Port Phillip District in particular in 1838-c.1843, as the Myall Creek trial and Robinson’s own Port Phillip Protectorate ignited settler opposition to humanitarian ‘interference’. Thereafter, and as Robinson’s Protectorate was progressively whittled away, the locus of fiercest debate shifted again to New Zealand, as the humanitarian-inspired Treaty of Waitangi (1840) and the Wairau ‘Affray’ (1843) aroused settler antagonism to Maori land rights and to the political and territorial integrity of indigenous peoples in general. This trans-imperial sequence of flash points was, in large part, a product of the chronology and geography of large-scale British settler encroachment, and resulting indigenous resistance.

For a while, in the late 1830s and early 1840s, the period in which Robinson acted as Chief Protector of Aborigines in the Port Phillip District, it seemed to many humanitarians and settlers that the alternative, humanitarian model of colonial relations was prevailing over the more brutal practices of dispossession and labour exploitation espoused and enacted by many settlers across the Empire. Policies directly attributable to humanitarian agitation were being implemented, to a greater or lesser extent, in the Australian colonies and the Cape Colony, and then in New Zealand. But settler counter-mobilisation within each colony, culminating in the staggered achievement of settler self-government, and the ways in which humanitarians themselves envisaged a future of assimilation for indigenous peoples without ever conceiving of their desire for self-determination, all combined to ensure that the struggle turned largely in settlers’ favour thereafter.

Robinson’s career and writings constitute an important thread running through this trans-imperial contest between humanitarian and settler discourses and politics. They should therefore figure within our understanding of the construction of several significant nineteenth-century notions, including those of Britishness and otherness, freedom and civilisation, the nature of racial difference, and the ultimate purpose, morality and effects of British imperialism.

Becoming a humanitarian official

Conventionally, Robinson’s ascendancy to trans-imperial renown as a ‘civiliser’ of indigenous peoples is attributed to the effect of Lieutenant Governor Franklin sending his 1837 report on Wybalenna, the Aboriginal settlement on Flinders Island, to the Colonial Secretary in London, Lord Glenelg. Glenelg commented that Robinson’s experiment there might ‘be highly useful in suggesting plans for the civilisation and improvement of the natives in those parts adjacent to British settlements’6 elsewhere in the Empire. This is seen by both Keith Windschuttle and Vivienne Rae-Ellis as the defining moment in establishing Robinson’s ‘fame throughout the British Empire’.7 However, Robinson had both drawn inspiration from, and himself figured within, trans-imperial discussions before this. Indeed, it was the fact that his report on Wybalenna could be placed in the context of important, ongoing debates about settler-indigenous relations across the Empire as a whole, which made it seem so significant to Glenelg.

Robinson turned to specifically evangelical, humanitarian ways of configuring colonial spaces and encounters as soon as he contemplated an official role in Van Diemen’s Land. Missionary periodicals were one of the most popular genres of publication among men and women of the sober, religious middle classes to which Robinson aspired in the early nineteenth century. The vision of cultural transformation that he outlined in his letter of application for the post among the Aborigines on Bruny Island was grounded in their discourse. In particular, Robinson drew on the reports of the London Missionary Society’s Pacific and southern African missions, claiming that he wanted to replicate the process by which ‘the degraded Hottentot has been raised in the scale of beings and the inhabitants of the Societies Islands are made an industrious and intelligent race’. Robinson also displayed an early familiarity with the politics of humanitarianism elsewhere. Borrowing the terminology of intervention for the reform of slavery in the West Indies, he wrote that he was ‘fully persuaded that the plan which your Excellency has devised’ for a well-run Aboriginal settlement on the island, is ‘the only one whereby the aborigines of this territory can be ameliorated’. He then listed the methods that he proposed to employ: ‘1. Civilisation; 2. Instruction in the principles of Christianity’.8

In order to encourage ‘civilisation’, Robinson at first proposed the construction of regulated, model villages. This too was an established notion within humanitarian discourse. The community that Robinson envisaged would be run along the lines of those surrounding the Nonconformist mission stations in the West Indies and the Kat River settlement in the Cape. With their encouragement of enslaved people and Khoisan respectively to wear European clothes, adopt square houses and practise an agricultural and domestic, gendered division of labour modelled on that of English smallholders, these sites were upheld as exemplary within humanitarian circuits of communication.9 Some of the individual inhabitants of these villages were also celebrated within humanitarian circles. The Khoisan man Andries Stoeffels from the Kat River settlement, for instance, was later taken to London by the Cape’s London Missionary Society Director, Dr John Philip, to testify before the Aborigines Committee (see below).10 Such individuals, who had performed the kind of conversion that humanitarians saw as redemptive, were living proof of indigenous capacity and a taste of the broader conversion yet to come. They embodied a powerful challenge to the prevailing settler view of indigenous peoples. While, as Robinson himself noted, Aborigines ‘have been represented [by settlers] as only a link between the human and the brute species’, characters such as Stoeffels and the Aborigine ‘Robert’, whom Robinson requested be brought from Hobart to Bruny Island in order to become a model independent farmer, proved that ‘nothing more false could proceed from the lips of men – they are equal if not superior to ourselves’.11

If Robinson’s initial plan for the ‘civilisation’ of Bruny Island’s Aborigines drew indirectly on Caribbean and Cape precedents, it was India that served as the point of origin for his proposals for Christian education. He noted his intention to adopt Dr Bell’s education system on the island. This had been devised for mixed-race children of East India Company soldiers, many of them Anglo-Indian, in Madras. It was a system that Robinson also claimed to have implemented later on Flinders Island, and was the forerunner of (and soon competitor with) Joseph Lancaster’s metropolitan-based monitorial system, in which more senior pupils taught the younger ones by repetition and rote learning.12

Robinson’s deployment of a recognisable, trans-imperial, humanitarian discourse impressed Lieutenant Governor George Arthur enough for him to secure the job of superintendent at the Bruny Island settlement. But it was, of course, a large step from this role to that of the famous ‘conciliator’ that Robinson went on to become. Robinson would have to actually feature within humanitarian circuits of discussion rather than just draw inspiration from them if he was to make that leap. He would also have to come to terms with the crucial differences between an established discourse of amelioration, based on the reform of captive, enslaved people, and the conciliation of an, as yet, defiantly non-captive indigenous population. How he managed to effect this career transition, despite being hated by a majority of settlers and ridiculed by many officials, and despite his inferior class position, can be understood only if we bear in mind the promotion of his activities through both humanitarian and official channels of communication that connected Van Diemen’s Land to other imperial sites. Two men in particular were critical to his coming to the notice of imperial officials and humanitarian campaigners: George Arthur and James Backhouse.

In order to comprehend Arthur’s promotion of Robinson’s interests, we have to begin with Arthur’s own trajectory through the Empire. Like so many early nineteenth-century colonial officials, Arthur first came to the attention of the British governing elite as a result of his distinguished participation in the Napoleonic War.13 Although he missed the climax of that war at Waterloo (by 1815, he had already purchased a promotion in the West Indies), he had fought bravely in the Mediterranean and in the disastrous Walcheren campaign. As well as being an acceptable candidate for an official posting at Army headquarters, where the Duke of Wellington reigned supreme, Arthur was familiar with humanitarian discourse and practice. This qualified him for the superintendence of the slave colony of British Honduras, during a period in which the governing emphasis was on amelioration. Arthur’s religion was by no means simply instrumental. He was a committed and pious Christian, and he gained a reputation for being sympathetic to humanitarian causes. While in British Honduras he had struggled, perhaps above and beyond the call of official duty, to rein in the brutality of the plantocracy against their slaves.14

In Van Diemen’s Land, Arthur faced yet more formidable challenges. The overriding imperative of colonial governance, as a project in its own right, was to balance the books so that colonies were not a drain on the metropolitan exchequer, especially during the post-war economic downturn. This meant not only that the settler economy had to be healthy, but that costly outbreaks of conflict, either with settlers themselves or with indigenous peoples, had to be avoided by securing ‘order’, itself the key watchword of the governmental project. Arthur became convinced of the value of Robinson’s proposed Friendly Mission essentially because, as a humanitarian-inclined Lieutenant Governor, Arthur was progressively trapped between implacably contradictory objectives within this overall aim of colonial government. He had to run the colony in such a way that increasing numbers of settlers were able to derive economic prosperity and feel secure on lands wrested from Aboriginal people. But he also had to strive to protect Aboriginal people from the dispossession that settler colonialism necessarily entailed, or at least to deal with the resistance that it provoked.15 With Aboriginal resistance to settler encroachment and to discrete acts of settler violence intensifying, Arthur was facing a ‘public voice … clamorously raised in behalf of a general extirpation of the unfortunate blacks of this Colony’, as Robinson put it.16 If he attended to such a demand, he betrayed both his conscience and the government’s ‘civilising mission’. If he protected Aboriginal people from further settler expansion, he could provoke a settler revolt.

With this dilemma of colonial governmentality in mind, it is easy to see why Arthur grasped at Robinson’s Friendly Mission as a middle way – especially after his own, more drastic attempt at resolution, the Black Line, had failed. By effecting the shift from the ‘amelioration’ of a few Aboriginal people on Bruny Island to the ‘conciliation’ of Van Diemen’s Land’s Aborigines as a whole, Robinson provided salvation for Arthur’s reputation, both as a humanitarian and as a governor. Windschuttle has a point when he states that Robinson, by effecting the Aboriginal people’s removal to Flinders Island, also ‘helped salvage his Lieutenant Governor’s reputation among the colonists and restored at least a little credibility to Arthur’s Aboriginal policy. In return, the government threw its weight behind him.’17 One can sense the relief with which Arthur, with apparent sincerity, told his superiors in London that ‘it cannot hereafter be said that [the Aboriginal people] were torn from their kindred and friends … No! their removal has been for their benefit, and in almost every instance with their own free will and consent. They have been removed from danger, and placed in safety in a suitable asylum … where they are brought under moral and religious inculcation.’18 With Arthur informing the Colonial Secretary in London, Viscount Goderich, in 1831, that Robinson had rendered ‘a most important service to the whole community’, one ‘worth ten times the amount’ he was paid,19 Robinson was figuring within official circuits of communication well before reports of his work on Flinders Island reached Goderich’s indirect successor, Glenelg.

Robinson had also come to the attention of humanitarians and officials elsewhere, through an alternative channel. The reports on their investigations in the Australian colonies by the two Quaker men, James Backhouse and George Washington Walker, made quite a stir in the early to mid-1830s. Backhouse came from the same community of Quakers in Norwich as the Gurneys, and it was Elizabeth Gurney who introduced he and Walker to her relative Thomas Fowell Buxton, the leader of the antislavery lobby in the House of Commons. Buxton ensured that the two men met officials at the Colonial Office, who smoothed their passage for what they saw as a religious duty to inquire into the processes of colonial governance in Britain’s possessions in the southern hemisphere. Thus, they received introductions in turn to each of the colonial governors in Australia, as well as in the Cape Colony and Mauritius. Within each colony, governors ensured that they were able to meet and interview key actors on the colonial stage (although they missed meeting Robinson himself, who was absent from Flinders Island when they inspected the place). Their reports circulated in turn back through the official channels which had facilitated them. They were published, read and, in many cases, acted upon by the colonial governors themselves and by the Colonial Office. They were also popular reading for committed humanitarians both in Australia and in other colonial sites. Indeed, they were a key source of information, especially on Australia, for Buxton himself when he decided to mobilise a parliamentary inquiry into settler practices across the Empire (see below).20

After describing the ‘absurd’ failure of the Black Line, Backhouse wrote, apparently drawing on Robinson’s own self-serving reports:

At length George Augustus Robinson, a benevolent individual, professing to be actuated by a sense of religious duty, offered to go into the woods … and to endeavour to conciliate the Aborigines, and to persuade them to give themselves up to the protection of the Government, on condition of being well provided for, on an island in Bass’s Straits. This project was considered by most, as one of madness, but it met the patronage of the Lieutenant Governor … and Robinson set forth on his mission of mercy, and succeeded in his object. He was sometimes exposed to considerable danger, and had difficulty in obtaining interviews with the alarmed natives; but in order to inspire them with confidence, he put away everything that they could mistake for weapons, and approached them with extended hands, even when the Blacks who accompanied him, shrunk back through fear.21

One might, with good reason, question the accuracy of this account of Robinson’s mission but such was the ‘knowledge’ of Robinson and his achievements that had already travelled through both humanitarian and official networks of communication prior to his 1837 Flinders Island report. By the mid-1830s, Robinson had successfully managed not only to deploy humanitarian discourse; he had also put himself in a position to shape it by gaining a trans-imperial reputation as an innovative and humane expert on Aborigines.

Becoming Chief Protector

If Backhouse’s report was a key layer in the accretion of Robinson’s reputation through the 1830s, another crucial layer was added when the House of Commons Select Committee on Aborigines (British Settlements), or rather Buxton, Gurney and their immediate circle, came to write their report at Buxton’s Norfolk retreat during 1837.22 This Committee was itself the product of extensive trans-imperial networking among humanitarians. What first prompted Buxton to agitate for it was news from Dr John Philip, the Director of the London Missionary Society in the Cape, of how the Xhosa had been provoked into launching a war against the colony in December 1834, by settler incursion on their lands, humiliation of their chiefs and punitive expeditions against their people. With his numerous evangelical contacts around the Empire, it was clear to Buxton that such provocations were characteristic of settler colonialism in general and, with the campaign for the abolition of slavery reaching its fulfilment, it was time to turn humanitarian attention to this new source of national shame. Buxton argued that ‘Great Britain has, in former times, countenanced evils of great magnitude, – slavery and the Slave Trade; but for these she has made some atonement … An evil remains very similar in character, and not altogether unfit to be compared with them in the amount of misery it produces. The oppression of the natives of barbarous countries is a practice which pleads no claim to indulgence.’23

As Philip continued to supply damning indictments of settler brutality derived from missionaries on the eastern Cape frontier, Buxton succeeded in establishing the Committee. Its brief was to investigate colonial policy throughout the overseas Empire as well as in New Zealand and the South Sea Islands, where many Britons resided. The Committee’s narrative of the recent history of colonial relations in Van Diemen’s Land allows us to appreciate the role that Robinson had taken on as potential saviour of indigenous peoples, struggling against settlers’ exterminatory invective:

The natives of Van Diemen’s Land, first, it appears, provoked by the British colonists, whose early atrocities, and whose robberies of their wives and children, excited a spirit of indiscriminate vengeance, became so dangerous … that their remaining in their own country was deemed incompatible with the safety of the settlement … such was the unfortunate nature of our policy, and the circumstances into which it had brought us, that no better expedient could be devised than the catching and extirpating of the whole of the native population … The Governor Colonel Arthur’s words on the subject are these: “Undoubtedly the being reduced to the necessity of driving a simple, but warlike, and as it now appears [in the light of Robinson’s reports], noble minded race from their native hunting grounds, is a measure in itself so distressing, that I am willing to make almost any prudent sacrifice that may tend to compensate for the injuries that the Government is unwillingly and unavoidably made the instrument of inflicting.”24 The removal accordingly proceeded under the management of Mr. Robinson (which is described by Colonel Arthur as able and humane); and in September 1834 it was so nearly effected, that the Governor writes thus: “The whole of the aboriginal inhabitants of Van Diemen’s Land (excepting four persons) are now domiciliated, with their own consent, on Flinder’s Island.” From still later reports it appears that not a single native now remains upon Van Diemen’s Land … But with whatever feelings such an event may be looked forward to by those of the settlers who have been sufferers by the collisions which have taken place, it is impossible not to contemplate such a result of our occupation of the island as one very difficult to be reconciled with feelings of humanity, or even with principles of justice and sound policy; and the adoption of any line of conduct, having for its avowed or secret object the extinction of the native race, could not fail to leave an indelible stain upon the British Government.25

With the humanitarian Glenelg in office as Secretary of State for the Colonies, and with James Stephen (also connected intimately to the Clapham sect of evangelical reformers) as his Permanent Undersecretary, the Aborigines Committee’s report found extraordinary favour with the government during the late 1830s. In the Cape, it informed an official denunciation of British colonial activities as having provoked the Xhosa’s attack, and contributed to the unprecedented directive to hand confiscated land back to indigenous chiefdoms. In New Zealand it established the principles by which the Treaty of Waitangi would be enacted so as to preserve Maori land rights, and laid the foundations for a Protectorate modelled on that of New South Wales. When Glenelg turned to the Australian colonies, it was George Arthur, now back in England, who acted as his most important informant and adviser on means by which the Committee’s recommendations might be enacted. Although Arthur had not testified directly before the Committee, he had provided the initial idea of a Protectorate of Aborigines. Private meetings with Glenelg having canvassed support for the notion, the idea was subsequently written into the Committee’s recommendations. Glenelg was happy to hand over the process of determining principles and personnel for the New South Wales Protectorate to Arthur. By July 1837, Arthur was proposing that Robinson be appointed Chief Protector, and by December he had chosen his four assistants from among eleven applicants. Glenelg, who had recently read Robinson’s account of his ‘successes’ on Flinders Island in the despatch from Governor Franklin, was happy to rubber stamp Arthur’s appointments.26

As a ‘conciliator’ in Van Diemen’s Land, Robinson had been forced to rely on key allies such as Arthur and, less directly, Backhouse, to accomplish what we might today call his ‘networking’ for him. But as the Chief Protector of Aborigines in New South Wales, as the man appointed to carry into effect the metropolitan government’s new, reformed, colonial policies, he now had the status to build his reputation through personal contact and communication (or so he thought). His first task was to make best use of the period spent in Sydney waiting for instructions and supplies for the new Protectorate, which would be headquartered in Melbourne. The timing could not have been better. Robinson was in Sydney during September 1838, just as public discussion of colonial policy towards Aborigines was at its height. The fate of the men accused of the massacre of twenty-eight Aborigines at Myall Creek was turning into a flashpoint for settler-humanitarian polarisation in the colony and a test of Governor Gipps’ resolve in implementing humanitarian-inspired policy. Robinson engaged in an intensive round of meetings with key humanitarian and official figures, which became the main catalyst for the institutionalisation of a local humanitarian lobby.

Having already met Rev. Lancelot Threlkeld, the outspoken humanitarian informant based at Lake Macquarie, Robinson went to dinner with JD Lang, editor of the most consistently humanitarian newspaper in the colony, and thence directly to a meeting with the Baptist minister, John Saunders. As a result of discussions between these figures and other missionaries who happened to be in town, including the famous South Seas missionary John Williams, Sydney’s own Aborigines Protection Society was founded. It was modelled on the one established in London by Thomas Hodgkin in the aftermath of the Aborigines Committee of the previous year. Saunders was its Chairman and Threlkeld, Lang and Robinson all spoke as well at its founding meetings. The response of the squatters’ mouthpiece, the Sydney Herald, was predictable. It noted that the ‘sentimental ravings of a “parcel of European canters” whose “saintly liberalism” would deliver the whites to the will of “the most degraded barbarians known to exist on the face of the earth”, seemed to have taken hold in the colony as they had in England’.27

Once he had played a key role in setting the stage for a localised Australian struggle between institutionalised humanitarianism and squatter interests, Robinson eventually departed Sydney to assume his post in the Port Phillip District. There is no space here to enter into an analysis of the Protectorate’s activities, and the travails of Robinson and his assistants.28 The general tendency in the historiography is to dismiss the Protectorate as an ineffective gesture towards humanitarianism while the ‘real’ processes of brutal Aboriginal dispossession unfolded.29 While such a construction is in need of some qualification to highlight small-scale, but enduringly significant ‘successes’,30 it may not be too far from the truth. But there is also a tendency to blame the Protectorate’s failures on the personalities of its personnel (especially that of Robinson) or on their lack of commitment to their envisaged role.31 This, I think, is disingenuous.

What caused the Protectorate’s failures, above all else, was vehement and relatively homogenous settler and especially squatter opposition, and their effective political mobilisation against the initiative. There is plenty of ammunition in Robinson’s own writings to condemn him for his insecurities, his vanities, his churlishness and his pettiness, but there is no doubt that he was sincere when he later wrote of his attempts to try to secure ‘a just and general restitution to the benighted inhabitants of this settlement for the injuries and privations they had suffered through the medium of the white population’.32 Although he wrote this in a draft of an autobiography focusing on his years in Van Diemen’s Land, he continued those attempts within the Port Phillip Protectorate and, despite their frequently coming into personal conflict with him, so did most of his assistants. Their failure was not, by and large, of their own making, as so many historians have accused. Indeed, I would suggest that, in making this accusation, some historians perpetuate the very settler discourse which ultimately proved so successful at undermining humanitarian interventions. It is easier to appreciate this argument, I think, if we place Robinson’s experiences, for one last time, within a broader imperial frame of reference.

In New South Wales, the establishment of the Sydney Aborigines Protection Society, and of the Protectorate, and the struggle over the Myall Creek massacre were closely connected during the closing years of the 1830s. Together, they amounted to a shift of focus in the trans-imperial propaganda war between humanitarian and settler projects, which brought the colony to centre stage. If the eastern Cape had been the arena of Empire in which this contest had been most starkly concentrated in 1834-36, New South Wales, and the Port Phillip District in particular, took on that mantle for the next few years. The incompatibility between humanitarian and settler projects was perhaps more stark here during these years than in any other site of the Empire. As Roger Milliss has shown so comprehensively, it was the debate over the punishment of the Myall Creek culprits which served to galvanise settler, and especially squatter, opinion in the colony against what they construed as dangerous humanitarian intervention.33 The squatters of the colony were first united by Robert Scott into an effective campaigning force when they rallied to the defence of the Myall Creek suspects by forming the ‘Committee on the Disturbed State of the North Western Districts’. Such was the outcry when white men were executed for the murder of Aboriginal people that Gipps simply dared not enact further humanitarian measures, accepting, for instance, a whitewash of an inquiry into Major Nunn’s massacre of Aborigines at Waterloo Creek.

As a humanitarian intervention that could not be avoided, the Protectorate, under Robinson’s management, served further to crystallise the conflict between settler and humanitarian projects in the colony. In July 1838, Gipps reported that settlers in the Port Phillip District were ‘migrating in search of pasturage’ at the rate of eighty kilometres a season, and penetration had advanced by 500 to 600 kilometres in the previous three years alone. Expressing his own predicament as governor, caught, as Arthur had been, between the conflicting calls of the squatters and the humanitarians, he continued:

If Proprietors, for the sake of obtaining better pasturage for their increasing flocks, will venture with them to such a distance from protection, they must be considered to run the same risk as men would do, who were to drive their sheep into a Country infested with wolves, with the difference however that, if they were really wolves, the Government would encourage the shepherds to combine and destroy them, whilst all we can now do is to raise, in the name of Justice and humanity, a voice in favour of our poor savage fellow creatures, too feeble to be heard at such a distance.34

Ultimately the ‘voice’ provided by Robinson and his assistants in the Protectorate, which was actually quite clear, was all but drowned out by the clamour of settler opposition. When the Protectors tried to have settlers prosecuted for the murder of Aborigines, they were stymied by the opposition of settler magistrates and police, by the legal system’s failure to recognise Aboriginal testimony in court and, perhaps above all, by the howl of outrage from the settler press.35 Gipps was in no position to lend them much support, given the colony’s poor financial state and the aversion to anything like a repeat of the opposition he had encountered after the execution of the Myall Creek murderers.

Robinson’s ‘failure’ to overcome squatter and settler opposition must be seen in the light of humanitarians’ failure across the Empire as a whole to sustain the momentum that had enabled them to move from the abolition of slavery to the heights of influence that they attained with the Aborigines Committee. In the West Indies, humanitarians became disillusioned when freed slaves ‘failed’ to live up to their expectations of sober, Christian industry on their former owners’ estates;36 in the Cape, settlers mobilised swiftly and successfully against the new humanitarian Lieutenant Governor Andries Stockenstrom. They lacked the influence on the Legislative Council that the squatters had in New South Wales, so they worked through unofficial, but perhaps equally effective channels, including petitions, press editorials and letters, appeals to family and friends in Britain, and books published in Britain, all of which harped on the ‘irreclaimable savagery’ of the Xhosa. Together they secured both Stockenstrom’s recall and the repossession of the frontier Xhosa chiefs’ land during the mid-1840s.37 In New Zealand, even the humanitarian triumph of the Treaty of Waitangi was progressively undermined. Settlers scored a first propaganda victory with their mobilisation against Governor FitzRoy over the Wairau ‘Affray’ in 1843. Their claim that he had pusillanimously favoured Maori ‘savages’ and murderers over ‘innocent’ British victims of the ‘affray’ secured his recall, and their opposition to the protectorate there culminated in its closure under Governor Grey. In New South Wales itself, after repeated attempts, the squatter and settler press’ unceasing critique of the Protectorate gave the Legislative Council the excuse it needed to institute an inquiry which, having interviewed only the enemies of the Protectorate, ensured its closure in 1849.38


If Robinson’s rise to the status of humanitarian official can be understood only in the light of his first drawing upon, and then establishing, his own presence within humanitarian and official networks, so the demise of his protectorate in the late 1840s has also to be placed in the context of the Empire-wide struggle between humanitarian and settler notions of British colonialism. In the 1830s, when Robinson’s career was in the ascendancy, so, crucially, was the humanitarian political campaign. With its associations with antislavery and reformism ‘at home’ in Britain, and with key governmental personnel having come from within its ranks, the humanitarian movement for a more benign British ‘civilising mission’ was one that could provide men like Robinson with opportunities for advancement. But by the mid-1840s, the oppositional networks of Empire constructed and maintained by settler interests were proving more effective in influencing both metropolitan and colonial governmental agendas. We cannot adequately comprehend either the establishment or the failure of Robinson’s Protectorate outside of these broader struggles for Empire.

On the other hand, though, we still need to appreciate that the seeds of humanitarian failure to protect indigenous land rights and autonomy also lay in their own prescriptions for the transformation of other cultures. If settler networks activated a trans-imperial discourse that legitimated indigenous land loss, subjugation, marginalisation and even murder, humanitarian evangelical networks justified assimilation or integration on white terms, embodied ethnocentric assumptions of cultural superiority and, in their twentieth-century afterlife, underpinned traumatic ‘welfare’ interventions such as the forced fostering of Aboriginal and ‘mixed race’ children. Like other humanitarians, Robinson felt that he could ‘save’ and ‘redeem’ Aboriginal people only by converting them to Christianity and pressuring them to adapt to European norms of ‘civilisation’. The humanitarian, assimilationist agenda did not account for the desire of many indigenous (and formerly enslaved) peoples not to be assimilated. The paternalistic assurance that British humanitarians knew what was best for colonised peoples was, it would seem, deeply resented and resisted by indigenous peoples and former slaves, who would rather be left to recreate their own, often hybrid, modes of cultural, social and economic practice. In their assumption that the measure of success was the degree of other people’s adaptation to their own norms lay the seeds of humanitarians’ disillusionment, from the ‘failure’ of emancipation in the Caribbean onwards. And it was this disillusionment upon which settlers were able to seize so productively in the dissemination of their own propaganda about the ‘irreclaimable savage’.

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

   by Anna Johnston and Mitchell Rolls