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


King Billy’s Bones: Colonial Knowledge Production in Nineteenth-Century Tasmania


To his quixotic, government-sponsored venture with the savages – in the service of which he had travelled the length & breadth of the dark, wild woods … Robinson had given the grand title of the Conciliation …


THE RECENT ATTEMPT BY KEITH WINDSCHUTTLE to whitewash the destruction of the first Tasmanians entails, among other tactics, the denigration of George Augustus Robinson’s character and achievements. To make his case that Robinson is not to be trusted, Windschuttle cites Vivienne Rae-Ellis’ debunking biography, in which she declares that, for a variety of selfish motives, the Great Conciliator ‘became “a liar and a cheat, a man of little honour”, whose reports about the conditions of the aborigines under his control turned out to be largely fraudulent’.2 It is true that Robinson’s reports from Flinders Island are hyperbolic about the progress his unhappy charges were making en route to Christianity and civilisation. Robinson was a self-promoter, quite capable of exaggerating the perils and successes of his errands into the wilderness. But it is not the case that he deliberately fabricated any of the information he so patiently, obsessively compiled in his journals. There is nothing in them concerning the behaviours and beliefs of the first Tasmanians that contradicts others’ firsthand observations.

Robinson’s journals and his other writings provide much evidence that, contra Windschuttle, the culture and society of the first Tasmanians was not ‘dysfunctional’3 and that the violence they aimed at white settlers, including their raids during the so-called Black War, was retaliatory. ‘Can we wonder then at the hatred they bear to the white inhabitants?’ writes Robinson – ‘This enmity is not the effect of a moment. Like a fire burning underground, it has burst forth. This flame of aboriginal resentment can and ought only to be extinguished by British benevolence. We should fly to their relief.’4 The view, expressed by Windschuttle and inscribed in the early legal doctrine of terra nullius, that both the Tasmanian and the mainland Aborigines had no conception of territoriality, or of owning the lands they inhabited, is the opposite of what Robinson repeatedly declares: ‘Patriotism is a distinguishing trait in the aboriginal character …’5 In an earlier report, Robinson writes:

The chiefs assigned as a reason for their outrages upon the white inhabitants that they and their forefathers had been cruelly abused, that their country had been taken from them, their wives and daughters had been violated and taken away, and that they had experienced a multitude of wrongs …6

Robinson also frequently expresses admiration for the moral virtues of his ‘sable friends’, including, when treated with benevolence, their ‘great tractability … My ears is not assailed by impious execrations, as would be the case with the same number of white men …’7 Elsewhere he expresses concern about the ‘indelicate’ – probably sexually explicit – language of some of their songs, though about one of these he also records that ‘the tune is very pleasing’.8 And about their family relations, Robinson says: ‘The natives are very fond of their children, and the husbands of their wives. I know of no case of polygamy among them; nor any petulant or dishonest acts’.9

Given the controversy about whether what happened in Tasmania as well as on the mainland was genocide, Robinson’s testimony is crucial. It is also the case that, whatever the flaws and limitations of his character and of his account of Aboriginal beliefs and behaviours, his story is remarkable in many respects, including what it says about early colonial life and about the early forms of colonial knowledge. In The Last of the Tasmanians, James Bonwick writes, ‘All honour to [Robinson’s] intrepidity,’ and he acknowledges the ‘wonderful fidelity’ of ‘his Black guides’.10 Bonwick is one of the most important commentators about the fate of the Tasmanian Aborigines and about Robinson’s Friendly Mission, and I will compare aspects of his books to Robinson’s Friendly Mission in terms of the emergence of anthropology as one type of colonial knowledge.

BONWICK RIGHTLY RECOGNISES ROBINSON AS a hero, although he also criticises him in two ways. First, Bonwick points to ‘weaknesses of character,’ common to ‘many great and good men’. The main weakness is Robinson’s ‘perfect satisfaction with himself. This made him at times rather pompous and overbearing …’.11 Friendly Mission offers many examples of this failing. Robinson boasts: ‘Providence had certainly crowned my labours with abundant success and I remarked that with me the motto veni, vidi, vici was applicable’.12 Later, after returning to Hobart with a group of Aborigines, he declares: ‘The natives was highly pleased. The newspapers extol my exertions’.13 And he claimed that his rescue mission was ‘the most dangerous and arduous service that ever was entered upon’.14 Bonwick’s second criticism relates more directly to the issue of how to judge especially the anthropological utility of Robinson’s Friendly Mission. Although Bonwick probably never saw the field notebooks that make up Friendly Mission, he was able to read many of Robinson’s letters and reports. Bonwick describes plunging into Robinson’s ‘ready-letter writing’,15 but he complains:

I have been struck with the barrenness of information about the habits of the Tasmanians, when perusing the letters of Mr. Robinson, at the Record Office of the Colonial Secretary. No one could have told us so much, and yet we hear so little from him. A few stray statements have appeared, bearing his authority; but all must regret that a man of such observation and opportunity, and who lived in ease upon the pension of the Colonial Government so many years, made known scarcely anything of these curious and interesting tribes.16

Perhaps Bonwick would have been less frustrated if he had seen Friendly Mission. As NJB Plomley writes, these give

important information not only on the geography of Tasmania, many parts of which he was the first to see and the first to describe; but also on the Tasmanian Aborigines, about whom he has left the only account of many of the tribes; as well as upon certain aspects of history and in particular the origins of a native policy in the Australian colonies and the vital part which Lieutenant-Governor Arthur played in its development.17

‘Our knowledge of social organisation among the Tasmanians is slight,’ Plomley adds, ‘and most of what we know has its basis in Robinson’s statements.’ Plomley also notes that Robinson provides information about the flora and fauna of Tasmania ‘in their natural state’, that ‘his comments on the Van Diemen’s Land Company are of interest’, and that his account of ‘the sealers is the most complete available.’18

Yet as Plomley acknowledges, Robinson was hardly a systematic anthropologist, geologist or naturalist. To Bonwick, the journals might have seemed almost as devoid of useful information about the Aborigines as Robinson’s correspondence and reports. The journals are first and foremost an account of his famous conciliatory manhunt. He understood his mission to be of historical importance, and he presents himself as the last hope and rescuer of the nearly vanished Tasmanian ‘race’. Scattered throughout the journals are numerous passages in which he describes the behaviours, beliefs and what Plomley calls the ‘social organisation’ of the Tasmanians. But Robinson seems not to have viewed such information as crucial to the task of rescuing the ‘race’ from extinction. This is probably because, though concerned about their physical preservation, Robinson believed their spiritual salvation to be even more important; his chief aim was Christianising and civilising them. Their ‘native’ culture was of only passing interest because it was something that he wished to help them eradicate. As Robinson wrote to Governor Arthur on 15 April 1829, ‘the amelioration of the aborigines of Van Diemen’s Land’ meant ‘1. Civilisation; 2. Instruction in the principles of Christianity’.19

Something of Robinson’s missionary zeal is evident in how he interprets Aboriginal stories about the creation and about supernatural beings. He cites at length Woorrady’s response to his question of ‘how and where the first black man came from’, apparently without any attempt to refute him.20 But he subsequently records telling them that ‘one God made black man and white man. When I spoke of heaven and how the good spirits live without food, Tom said how could they live without eating; and I explained’.21 Just how he explained the anorexia of the angels he does not say. But he also tells them there is only one devil, instead of many. And he later preaches to them about the ‘one God [who] made us all’ and says that their belief in and stories about various ‘devils’ are ‘nonsense’.22 Repeatedly, Robinson uses the words ‘devil’ or ‘devils’ to translate what the Aborigines probably regarded as spirits or unseen powers that could do either good or evil, as they saw fit. Robinson’s misinterpretation of non-Christian or ‘heathen’ idols and spirits as ‘devils,’ or as manifestations of the devil, was an evangelical commonplace and a drawback in most versions of ‘missionary ethnography’.

In an outline of the book he planned to write, Robinson listed the primary reasons for his taking charge of ‘the aboriginal establishment at Brune [sic] Island in 1829’. First on the list is ‘a missionary desire to benefit this portion of the human race (the aborigines)’. Second is ‘to benefit this land of my adoption …’. Last on the list is

to become acquainted with the history manners and language of this interesting portion of the human race particularly as very little or nothing was known of them more especially as I had entertained an impression that this race would ultimately and at no distant period become extinct.23

These priorities were probably those of most missionaries and humanitarians in the early 1800s. But as missionary and humanitarian endeavours to civilise and Christianise Aborigines throughout the British Empire proved more difficult than was at first believed, the priorities were reversed.24 Modern anthropology emerged partly as what James Clifford calls ‘“salvage” ethnography’,25 less concerned with saving primitive peoples from extinction and not at all concerned with converting or civilising them, but mainly focused on preserving a record of their cultures and societies.

In expressing the view that the Tasmanian Aborigines were a ‘race [that] would ultimately and at no distant period become extinct’, Robinson may seem to be contradicting himself; after all, he was supposed to be their physical as well as spiritual redeemer, whose job was to save ‘the race’ from both extinction and damnation. But the belief in the inevitable extinction of the Tasmanians and other primitive ‘races,’ although it underwent pseudo-scientific reification later in the century, was widespread in Australia, in North America and elsewhere by the early 1800s.26 However, Robinson would surely have rejected Bonwick’s conclusion that his ‘sable friends’ continued to die out on Flinders Island because of Robinson’s own ‘over-sanguine’ and narrow-minded attempt to civilise them. Bonwick quotes the Melbourne Argus to the effect that, on Flinders Island, civilisation was equated with ‘“a system of restraint and plodding methodised daily pursuits … [that] has terminated in those savages pining away, and dying en masse. They were, in the most literal sense, ‘civilised off the face of the earth’ …”’27 While this criticism is perhaps too harsh, Robinson clearly shared with most evangelical missionaries of his period the belief that savage customs could and should be eradicated in favour of Christianity and the settled – as opposed to nomadic – habits of the white colonists.

Robinson’s journals are not the sort of anthropological record that Bonwick compiled in his Daily Life and Origin of the Tasmanians (1870). In that book, the anthropological twin or sequel to The Last of the Tasmanians, Bonwick draws on dozens of authorities, including Robinson, many of them with first-hand knowledge of the Aborigines. Anthropology is just one type of colonial knowledge, however, one whose origins lie in the decades between Robinson’s Friendly Mission and Bonwick’s books, roughly 1840 to 1870.28 While one of its starting points was the increasingly systematic information-gathering about indigenous peoples conducted by the Colonial Office and also by the Aborigines Protection Society and its offshoots in places like Hobart, another was the writings of missionaries in such far-flung places as the Cape Colony and New Zealand. George Stocking, Christopher Herbert and others have made the case for ‘missionary ethnography’, at least in some instances. Texts such as David Livingstone’s Missionary Travels and Researches in South Africa (1857) and the Rev. Thomas Williams’ Fiji and the Fijians (1859) are examples.29

A typology of the forms of colonial knowledge would need to distinguish between the broad category of humanitarian, missionary and abolitionist discourse dominant in the first third of the nineteenth century, and the versions of ‘ethnology’, ‘anthropology’ and ‘scientific racism’ that grew in number and influence from the 1840s forward.30 Darwin and social Darwinism are one major aspect of this later development, as is the emergence of cultural anthropology in its evolutionary or Darwinian phase, marked in Britain by publication of Edward Burnett Tylor’s Primitive Culture (1871). In Victorian Anthropology, George Stocking examines the split between ‘ethnology’ and ‘anthropology’ in Britain, with the former adhering to the theory of polygenesis or the multiple origins of ‘the races of man’, viewed as separate species, and the latter stressing monogenesis, or the unity of homo sapiens as a single species. Darwin’s Origin of Species and Descent of Man supported the latter view: the similarities between the races were far greater than the differences, pointing to the probability, at least, of a single origin. As Stocking notes, prior to mid-century and the ‘ethnological’ stress on the physical differences among the races, supposedly demonstrable through craniology and other pseudo-scientific measurements, most discourse on race adhered to the biblical version of genesis, and hence to monogenesis. This means that, paradoxically, there is a commonality between early missionary and abolitionist views about race and later anthropological views, from Darwin, Huxley, Tylor and other evolutionists into the twentieth-century era of cultural relativism.

Robinson adheres to the early, monogenist and humanitarian view about the equality of the races and the unity of the human species. In contrast, Bonwick is torn between this early position and the later, ethnological one that emphasised the physical differences among the races. In terms of the forms of colonial knowledge, Robinson’s Friendly Mission bears comparison to other explorers’ narratives, especially in the Australian context. But just as importantly, they are characteristic of humanitarian, missionary and abolitionist discourse from the 1790s into the 1840s. They are so in part because Robinson expresses little interest in the physical differences between the Aborigines and the European settlers, either in Tasmania or on the mainland. He is far more concerned about the issue of slavery than about any physical or for that matter mental inequalities between himself and his Aboriginal guides and charges. In his dealings with the sealers especially, Robinson understood his ‘mission’ as directly related to the broader antislavery cause (the British Parliament outlawed the slave trade in 1807 and abolished slavery in all British territory in 1833).

Regarding the sealers’ kidnapping and abuse of Aboriginal women and children, he writes: ‘The aboriginal female Mary informed me that the sealers at the Straits carry on a complete system of slavery; that they barter in exchange for women flour and potatoes … that they took her away by force … Surely this is the African slave trade in miniature, and the voice of reason as well as humanity calls for its abolition’.31 And he later declares: ‘To abolish the slave trade the government at home has expended millions; and that it should exist in her colony is certainly improper and disgraceful’.32 Robinson was probably familiar with abolitionist discourse before he emigrated to Tasmania; as Catherine Hall demonstrates,33 the crusade against slavery influenced many aspects of British as well as colonial culture. Governor Arthur and Colonial Secretary Lord Glenelg seem to have understood the Friendly Mission in the same way; indeed, the 1830s were the period of most intense, evangelical humanitarianism emanating from the Colonial Office in London. Robinson’s expressions of humanitarian sympathy for the Aborigines are often awkward and unsophisticated, but they are unmistakably sincere:

My feelings was overcome. I could not suppress them: the involuntary lachryma burst forth and I sorrowed for them. Poor unbefriended and hapless people! I imagined myself an aborigine. I looked upon them as brethren not, as they have been maligned, savages. No, they are my brethren by creation. God has made of one blood all nations of people …34

In contrast, though Bonwick also expresses humanitarian sympathy for the fate of Aborigines both in Tasmania and elsewhere, he cites authorities on all sides of the ethnological versus anthropological divide on many issues, including whether the first Tasmanians were an entirely separate species and whether they, perhaps like all other ‘primitive races’, were doomed to extinction. In The Last of the Tasmanians, Bonwick quotes various experts who held that, in the words of Professor Waitz, ‘“The extinction of the lower [species and/or races] is predestined by Nature; and it would thus appear that we must not merely acknowledge the right of the white American to destroy the Red man, but perhaps praise him that he has constituted himself the instrument of Providence in carrying out … this law of destruction”’35 – a ‘law’ reinforced, from the 1830s forward, by evolutionary theory. By citing all sides on these and other issues, Bonwick vacillates between a humanitarianism like Robinson’s and a reified, hardboiled – that is to say, scientific – point of view.

Thus, on the issue of cannibalism, Bonwick cites various authorities to the effect that both the Tasmanians and the mainland Aborigines practised it. But he also notes that ‘Mr. G. A. Robinson and Mr. M’Kay, who spent so much time among the race, deny the impeachment’.36 More importantly, Bonwick is grateful to be able to include the craniological chart given him by ‘Dr. Paul Topinard, of Paris,’ and he quotes Topinard at length in French about it.37 Topinard’s conclusion is that the skulls of the Tasmanians reveal ‘une organisation supérieure’ to that of the Australians and also that they have nothing in their crania (‘qu’ils n’ont rien dans leur crâne’) that suggests an affinity with African negroes.38

Why would Bonwick include Topinard’s minute, pedantic skull measurements if neither he nor Topinard believed in their scientific validity? Yet Bonwick later cites Topinard among the experts who debunked craniology as pseudo-science. Bonwick declares that ‘it is scarcely safe to pronounce upon any skull as a type of a nation’. He continues:

Mr. Crawfurd thought the attempt [craniology] an absurd one. Dr. Meigs, after a review of 1,125 crania, declared he could find none typical. Professor M.J. Weber acknowledges that “there is no proper mark of a definite race-form of the cranium so firmly attached to it that it may not be found in some other race.” Dr. Paul Topinard seemed to favour that view, when exhibiting to me some Tasmanian skulls in Paris … The great authority of Professor Huxley may be instanced, when he testifies that “cranial measurements alone afford no safe indication of race.”39

And so forth.

Yet the spell of craniology, phrenology and other attempts to quantify racial inequalities by physical measurement hovers over all of Bonwick’s text, as it did over the ethnological and anthropological debates of the mid- and late-Victorian eras. Together with these attempts went a materialist determinism, strongly associated with scientific knowledge, that underscored the inevitability of the extinction or extermination of the ‘lower races’ by the ‘higher’ ones in ‘the struggle for existence’. As an amateur physical anthropologist (or race scientist), Bonwick himself engaged in craniology both with Topinard in Paris and at the museum of the London College of Surgeons. It was in the latter location, he writes, that ‘I found the best collection of Tasmanian skulls’:

It was to enrich this noble collection that Dr Crowther is said to have performed the office of decapitator upon the body of the last man of the race in Hobart Town. My measurements were necessarily, from my unprofessional character, of a defective order. I confined myself to those of a simple kind.40

Why did Bonwick bother to take any measurements if he knew they were going to be ‘of a defective order’? He seems more convinced of the validity of his phrenological observations of the Tasmanian skulls than he goes on to enumerate.41 Whatever the case, it was clearly just as important to him to try to be scientific as to express humanitarian outrage, guilt or mourning about the vanishing of the first Tasmanians.

Bonwick situates his own admittedly flawed attempts at scientific measurement in the context of the story of what Dr WL Crowther did with the corpse of the last Tasmanian Aboriginal man, William Lanney, in 1869. In The Last of the Tasmanians, Bonwick tells at length the lugubrious tale of the final days and burial of ‘King Billy’. He does so with an evident humanitarian outrage directly opposed to the scientific pretensions of Dr Crowther and the other Tasmanian Frankensteins who coveted the bones, as they would later covet those of the last Tasmanian woman, Trukanini. After describing Lanney’s upbringing, his friendly personality, his alcoholism and his death, Bonwick turns to the reports published in the Hobart Town Mercury concerning Lanney’s burial and the multiple grave-robbings and grotesque ‘mutilation of his body’ that ensued.

Although the Colonial Secretary, Sir Richard Dry, ‘“sent positive instructions … that the body of ‘King Billy’ should be protected from mutilation”’,42 whatever protection was provided failed. The Mercury continues: ‘“It is a somewhat singular circumstance that, although it has been known for years that the race was becoming extinct, no steps have ever been taken in the interests of science to secure a perfect skeleton of a male Tasmanian aboriginal.”’ So with King Billy’s death, the scientific establishment was on the alert:

The Royal Society, anxious to obtain the skeleton … wrote specially to the Government upon the subject … The Government at once admitted their right to it, in preference to any other institution … Government, however, declined to sanction any interference with the body, giving positive orders that it should be decently buried …43

Enter, therefore, Dr Crowther into the ‘“dead-house at the hospital”’ in the dead of night. Crowther skinned Lanney’s skull and, before he carried it away, inserted the skull of another corpse into ‘“the scalp of the unfortunate native, the face being drawn over so as to have the appearance of completeness”’.44 When this double decapitation was revealed, the Council of the Royal Society then ‘“resolved to take off the hands and feet and to lodge them in the Museum, an operation which was carefully done”’45 in order to make the rest of Lanney’s remains relatively valueless. According to the Mercury (Bonwick is less clear about it), Lanney’s ‘“body was of the greatest scientific value”’,46 and particularly in its entire, unmutilated condition. Its value seems to have fallen drastically after its decapitation and the removal of its hands and feet. Bonwick concludes:

It is sufficient to add that Dr. Crowther was suspended as honorary surgeon of the hospital, that the skeleton was in possession of the Royal Society of Tasmania, and that, according to the Launceston Examiner, “it is expected that one of the first orders on the assembling of Parliament will be a ‘return of King Billy’s head!’”47

This reunion of King Billy’s bones never took place. In The Aboriginal Tasmanians, Lyndall Ryan writes that another doctor ‘had a tobacco pouch made out of a portion of the skin, and other worthy scientists had possession of the ears, the nose, and a piece of Lanney’s arm. The hands and feet were later found in the Royal Society’s rooms in Argyle Street, but the head never reappeared’48 – although it seems to have found its final resting place with the College of Surgeons in London.

Another episode of scientific enthusiasm and grave-robbing occurred after the death of Trukanini. Her bones disappeared altogether until the 1890s, when they were discovered packed in an apple crate in the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery in Hobart. They were then unpacked and the skeleton exhibited in the Museum until protests by Aboriginal activists prompted its curators to remove it and allow its cremation in 1976, marking the centennial of Trukanini’s death. In What the Bones Say, John Cove declares: ‘A review of the literature prior to 1950 shows no evidence that Truganini’s skeleton had been used in any published research.’49 The same is undoubtedly true of King Billy’s bones; even if craniologists in London had measured his skull, no scientifically meaningful evidence could have been drawn from such an act of obsessive materialism.

The moral of my version of the story is partly that Robinson’s humanitarian point of view, despite his lack of sophistication and his Christian zeal, has much more to tell us about the Aboriginal Tasmanians than do later, supposedly scientific attempts to weigh and measure their remains. Even when sympathetic anthropological commentators such as Bonwick, Tylor and H Ling Roth emphasise cultural and societal factors rather than those preferred by the race scientists or ethnologists who thought they were finding evidence of racial inferiority and inevitable extinction in such physical factors as skull capacity, after Bonwick they ceased to have any meaningful firsthand experience among the Tasmanian Aborigines. Tylor and Roth are dependent on Bonwick, who is in turn dependent on Robinson and on the many other first-hand observers of the Aborigines – despite his many flaws, none of them more important than Robinson.50

As Henry Reynolds argues in Fate of a Free People, if there is anything misleading in Robinson’s Friendly Mission, it stems from his magnification of his role at the expense of that of the Aborigines who aided him:

By any measure Robinson’s six expeditions were significant journeys of exploration. But like comparable ventures on mainland Australia they were highly dependent on Aboriginal bushcraft and diplomacy. Robinson was the most inexperienced of explorers. He was neither bushman, squatter, surveyor nor soldier. He had no bush experience at all. He was guided, fed, sheltered and, in all likelihood, managed by his Aboriginal companions. It was they, and not God, who “led him in paths which he knew not”.51

Reynolds notes Robinson’s occasional acknowledgments that ‘I cannot affect anything without these people’.52 Nevertheless, as Robert Hughes puts it, the remnant of the Aborigines ‘followed their evangelical Pied Piper’53 to Flinders Island, which another historian, Lloyd Robson, has called ‘the world’s first concentration camp’.54 That was not, of course, how Robinson saw it. He meant Wybalenna to be a peaceable, Christian settlement, governed in the best interests of the Aborigines by benevolent white men like himself. But the rest, as they say, is history.

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

   by Anna Johnston and Mitchell Rolls