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


Between Van Diemen’s Land and the Cape Colony1


TO LOOK AT VAN DIEMEN’S LAND from the perspective of the Cape Colony, through a reading of George Augustus Robinson’s remarkable journals, is to experience a disquieting sense of echoes across colonial divides despite profound differences between very complex situations. In part similarities existed because Van Diemen’s Land and the Cape Colony (in modern-day South Africa) were by 1806 both nodes in the same British imperial networks that overlapped in many ways. British settlers, administrators and humanitarian activists, in whose ranks Robinson would surely have liked to be counted, shared techniques and preconceptions and related to the same imperial centre. The same commercial economy bound indigenous peoples within its coils, even if the specific relationships connecting frontier pastoralists and British sheep farmers in the Cape or sealers and convicts in Van Diemen’s Land to the British imperial economy differed significantly. Before the Cape became a British colony it was an outpost of the Dutch East India Company, and thus part of the Indian Ocean commercial world, at the opposite extreme of which sat Australia. In both the Cape Colony and Van Diemen’s Land, violent conflict also had structural roots – at least in part – in the presence of merchant companies devoted to asset stripping, represented by local agents who did not have much capacity to be mobile but became embroiled in local warfare over resources. Beyond these material links there are also, however, less evident parallels, such as the extent of violence and its gendered nature, the existence of an ‘informal’ slave trade, or the seemingly necessary correlation between dispossession and dehumanisation.

In what follows I want to look at Van Diemen’s Land, and more specifically Robinson’s Friendly Mission journals, from the dual vantage points of the Cape Colony and of global networks, including transimperial debates about violence and civilisation, fuelled in part by Christian activists. I want first to imagine the Cape and Van Diemen’s Land as discrete entities, in order to remark on some contrasts and similarities that emerge from Robinson’s journals. Secondly, however, I will also look at some ways in which they were bound together, despite the difficulty for indigenous people in either place even to know of one another’s existence. French historians distinguish helpfully between ‘histoire comparée’ and ‘histoire croisée’, or between comparative history and ‘entangled’ history. As Jürgen Kocha argues, comparative and ‘entangled’ transnational histories are separate genres but overlap fruitfully.2 And as Alan Lester, David Lambert, Richard Price and a number of others have recently contended, the British Empire was made up of webs of overlapping relationships across different spaces that were indeed entangled while clearly distinct.3 Richard Drayton reminds us of the way in which people borne by maritime currents in early modern empires were simultaneously cut adrift and marooned and yet also the products of the networks, both material and intellectual, that allowed for their very presence in the first place.4 I think this is a useful reminder of the tension between locality and network. As was the case in the Cape Colony, Van Diemen’s Land surely included many people with differential access to diverse networks – a severe disadvantage for indigenous peoples. Therefore a dual approach to comparison and contextualisation seems helpful.

Most significantly for the purposes of reading Robinson’s journals, Van Diemen’s Land and the Cape Colony were imagined by a small but briefly influential circle of British and South African humanitarian activists and missionaries in the late 1820s and early 1830s to be instantiations of the same tendency to the destruction of indigenous people that was, they argued, characteristic of British settlements around the world; this viewpoint was most cogently expressed in the two volumes of reports of the 1835-36 House of Commons Select Committee on Aborigines (British Settlements).5 In this sense, Robinson was participating in a transimperial trend. More particularly, his actions had parallels with those of a handful of evangelicals in the Cape Colony (who were more influential than Robinson at the imperial level) in the late 1820s and early 1830s. In both locations, according to this particular master narrative, the solution to a settler drive to extermination was to extend British citizenship, assimilation and putative equality under British law to indigenous groups. In reality this offer was hedged with multiple conditions that, among other things, often simultaneously infantilised indigenous people and, paradoxically, opened the door to coercive assimilation policies.6 Australian examples, including Robinson’s mission and its disastrous effects, also illustrate the costs to indigenous peoples of the usurpation of their sovereignty on which equal access to a shared law was contingent.

In the final section of this paper I want to comment, however tentatively, on the very vexed issue of historical memory.

Points of comparison

As the new edition of Robinson’s Friendly Mission journals is being brought to press, the so-called ‘history wars’ continue to rage in Australia over the extent of frontier violence – and therefore in part over the validity of Robinson’s witness to violence and atrocity in precisely these journals.7 This is of course a debate that must be settled by Australian specialists. Nonetheless a debate that has been largely about national virtue can be expanded through attention to comparisons and linkages with other colonial places in the early nineteenth century. Alan Lester has recently intervened in this debate to argue that ‘we cannot understand the processes and effects of Australia’s colonisation that are at the heart of the current “History Wars” unless we conceive of multiple colonial projects being pursued through networks of communication and trajectories of power that were stretched across imperial space as a whole’.8 This insight certainly applies to Robinson’s journals.

It is surprising to a non-Australian observer (at least to this one) that Keith Windschuttle should have obtained as much traction as he apparently has in his drive to question the extent of frontier violence in Australian history and more particularly in early nineteenth-century Van Diemen’s Land in his 2002 book The Fabrication of Aboriginal History. His argument is based on a highly optimistic reading of carefully selected sources, including Robinson’s Friendly Mission journals. It also rests in part on an effort to discredit key observers such as LE Threlkeld and GA Robinson who were taken quite seriously in the context of international debates (even if they were often disagreed with on a variety of issues).9 The extent of frontier violence did not seem implausible at the time, perhaps particularly to transimperial evangelical publics weaned on narratives about the violent treatment of slaves.10 The levels of violence in Australia, while high, are in line with colonial experience elsewhere, as a brief glance at the Cape Colony and in particular the frontiers of the Eastern Cape in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries underscores. Within the British world, the most pertinent comparison is perhaps with the violence without which the slave trade and indeed the slave societies of the Caribbean could not have been maintained. Violence was part of the warp and weft of early nineteenth-century colonial empires and trading systems, in other words, in a way that went beyond the Australian example but which is easily missed if one looks to early nineteenth-century Australian experience for evidence about a national narrative alone. Indeed, the lashed backs of convicts bore evidence of the reliance of imperial trading systems (in which convict labour was among other things a good to be traded) on violent coercion. The world of sailors and workers on the sea, such as sealers and whalers, was particularly difficult; ships were themselves small worlds that functioned through violence and the control of the bodies of sailors.11 There is little in Robinson’s journals to make a case for Australian exceptionalism; on the contrary they set off echoes of frontier conflict and ethnicised warfare in other colonial contexts. It is also unclear why Henry Reynolds’ depiction of the indigenous inhabitants of Van Diemen’s Land as carrying out guerilla warfare, before the final few agreed to make what they saw as agreements with the colonial state, should be seen as implausible on a priori grounds.12 Again such struggles are in line with colonial experience elsewhere, including at the Cape, where the Khoekhoe and San used a wide range of techniques to come to terms with settler power, including fierce resistance (by some), accommodation (by some) and the use of white technology to establish regional sub-imperialism.

The Cape Colony was established by the Dutch East India Company (Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie or VOC) in the seventeenth century as a refreshment station for ships sailing from Europe to VOC territories in Asia. Former employees of the Company often became freeburghers and set themselves up as farmers on ‘loan farms’ provided by the company as well as inexorably pushing past the frontiers of formal settlement into the lands of the Khoekhoe and San, nomadic cattle herders and hunter-gatherers (the relationship between the two groups in this period is unclear and is the subject of debate). On the mobile frontiers of settlement, European-origin farmers incorporated some Khoisan people as labourers and exterminated others. When the British first took over the Cape Colony in 1795 they were met by rebellious rural settlers; in 1799 the frontier districts exploded in complicated warfare that pitted Dutch-speaking settlers against the British Empire and Xhosa and Khoisan rebels against the Dutch.13 Many observations of violence between Dutch-speaking pastoralists and indigenous peoples come to us from this period of open warfare and may therefore reflect a period at which violence was its height. This does, however, help create a useful parallel with the more telescoped Tasmanian experience of frontier warfare. South African scholars have traditionally distinguished between ‘open’, ‘closed’ and ‘closing’ frontiers, following the typology of Hermann Giliomee. For Giliomee, the salient point is that ‘open’ frontier zones, in which the hierarchy of relationships between groups was still unclear and different groups struggled for power, were marked by great violence and frequent warfare, but also by more inter-group negotiation, more sexual interaction, more fluidity between ethnic categories and more cultural exchange than would be the case in a so-called closed frontier zone in the aftermath of complete conquest.14 In the Cape, the British tried to close the frontiers of the Eastern Cape but soon became embroiled themselves in bitter warfare with the Xhosa (Bantu-speaking farmers whose lands fringed those of the Khoekhoe and were impinged upon by both Dutch and British colonists, but violently and permanently incorporated into the colony by the British).15 In the early years of British possession, British administrators codified local legal custom and thereby entrenched Khoekhoe and San subordination (possibly inadvertently); in 1828 people defined as ‘Hottentot’ were accorded the same legal status as white people.16 Through the 1820s and 30s, nonetheless, British settlers in frontier districts promoted commercial agriculture, including sheep farming, in a manner that entailed bitter competition with Africans over land and labour, and helped precipitate a further explosion of frontier warfare in 1834.

Although comparison is always risky and empiricist historians are rightly leery of model-building, one can argue that there were structural parallels between the position of the Khoekhoe and the San at the Cape Colony and that of the Aboriginal inhabitants of Van Diemen’s Land despite evident differences. A key parallel lies in the centrality of frontier conflict, if one can perhaps re-conceptualise Van Diemen’s Land as a series of mobile frontiers, given British technological capacities. This speaks to the sheer inherent plausibility of extensive frontier violence in an Australian context. There are, for example, some striking parallels in the interaction between Dutch-speaking farmers in frontier districts in the eastern Cape with the Khoekhoe and San, and that between sealers and the indigenous inhabitants of Van Diemen’s Land. Sealers and frontier farmers alike were at war with those whose land and resources they were colonising and yet in some ways also dependent on them, or at least on certain groups whom they attempted to separate from their original communities. This was so even if, at the same time, the dominant interest of many other white settlers in Van Diemen’s Land was in ridding themselves of threats from indigenous groups altogether. In both places, British middle-class observers tended to blame others for the actual violence against indigenous groups (supposedly unruly Dutch-speaking farmers in the Cape, or ‘degraded’ sealers and violent convicts in Van Diemen’s Land), while surely benefiting themselves quite substantially from the outcome of conflict and creating structural conditions that perpetuated it.

Although, again, there are limits to comparisons, the systematic effort on the part of frontier settlers in southern Africa from the seventeenth to early nineteenth centuries to eradicate those they termed ‘bushmen’ through an elaborate system of commandoes and frontier warfare also suggests continuity. The Northern Cape frontier, characterised by extensive warfare between colonists and the Khoisan, had particularly high levels of eliminationist violence.17 The settlers fought with those whom colonial records term ‘bushmen’, now often termed ‘San’ – nomadic hunters who launched raids on settler lands, cattle and people – and received in return commandoes dedicated to the eradication of men and the capture of women and, especially, children. These children were in turn coerced into the colonial economy (and thus often passed into the category ‘Hottentot’, or Khoekhoe).18 Violence was also deployed clearly to keep labourers in line, in ways that were consonant with exemplary violence used against slaves both in the slave-holding regions of the Cape Colony and on slave plantations elsewhere. As Susan Newton-King astutely comments, many frontier farmers feared their own dependents, the ‘enemy within’.19 It was, commented the Khoekhoe man Hendrik Smit in 1834, like being rolled downhill in a cask full of nails that “that was ‘always rolling’”.20 As Andries Stoeffels put it in testimony to the House of Commons Select Committee on Aborigines (British Settlements) in 1836, ‘we were destroyed day after day, till there was no deliverance’; once large-scale British settlement consolidated conquest, he added, it was no longer ‘murder’ but rather ‘like a newspaper that you put in the press and press down’. The Khoekhoe and San population shrank rapidly; Stoeffels spoke of the missionaries picking up remnants.21 At the same time, many people of Khoekhoe descent who were able to break free of the web of labour coercion, particularly men, migrated away from colonial territories, often in fact to establish hegemony over peoples further from the colony by dint of their superior access to guns and horses. Many of these migrants were of partial white descent as well, especially in the male line.

As the above discussion suggests, a critical difference between the Cape and Van Diemen’s Land was that Dutch-speaking farmers at the Cape relied on the labour of indigenous people, whom they went to great lengths to coerce in order to obtain herders for their cattle, sheep and goats, as well as domestic labourers including wet nurses and household servants. The same techniques of violent coercion were deployed against Khoekhoe and San herders as were used in more prosperous and cash-rich areas of the colony against slaves, including the use of shaming mechanisms such as poor clothes and housing and bodily violence to maintain a boundary between white and black, masters and labourers, that was in reality quite porous.22

Both Van Diemen’s Land and the Cape Colony (both during the Dutch period and afterwards) were marked by a gendered slave trade that flew beneath the radar screen of the formal economy but was of great importance in maintaining settler economies and in diminishing the number of indigenous people. In both cases, the slave trade was very violent, not only in the maintenance of slavery but also in the capture of women, as Robinson’s journals suggest and as Tasmanian historians have underscored, whatever the nature of subsequent community experience.23 In this sense, both Van Diemen’s Land and the Cape Colony maintained slave trades without extensive intermediary supply chains, in which masters had often been directly involved in the capture of women and children, or at best were removed from the capture by one indigenous intermediary, as appears to have been the case in some instances in Van Diemen’s Land, judging from Robinson’s journals. In commando attacks against Khoisan groups, settlers killed as many men as possible. They took children whenever they could, and sometimes captured women. In both Van Diemen’s Land and the Cape Colony a trade in women and children was surely part of a wider environment of labour coercion. Better-off white individuals at the Cape owned slaves, rather than being reduced (in contemporary eyes) to coercing Khoekhoe and San labour: more broadly, to control the labour of non-white people was a source of honour and respectability.24

One might also argue that although chattel slavery was not a feature of the other southern African kingdoms with which the Khoekhoe, San, Dutch and British interacted, the power of chiefs nonetheless depended on the accumulation and control of people. The relationship of powerful lineage heads to women is a complicated and controversial topic which there is not space to discuss here: the only point I want to make is that it was a source of power for lineage heads to be able to command the labour of women, and to translate that labour and procreative capacity into cattle through bridewealth. In other words, the colonial economy at the Cape was motored by chattel slavery and other forms of coerced labour, while there was also, both in the Cape Colony and in neighbouring regions, competition for the control of women’s labour, linked to particular ideas of masculinity and of honour.25 In Van Diemen’s Land, the activities of the sealers in seizing women and compelling their sexual and economic labour (despite other moments of more voluntary exchange) also took place in a wider environment of coercion, in which convict labour took the place of slave labour.26 In addition, the behaviour of men in groups who tried to incorporate women by force in order to add to their own strength (and perhaps to create new identities) has many parallels in other situations; the sealers and convict shepherds of Van Diemen’s Land are not a thousand miles away from the bands of the formerly enslaved in Mozambique and elsewhere who tried to reconstitute communities through capturing local women, as Allen Isaacman has so well documented.27 In Van Diemen’s Land too there was a wider context to the use of violence to maintain labour servitude. Finally, the notion of competing views of masculinity and settler attempts to emasculate indigenous men seems a potentially fruitful path for analysis of Robinson’s observations.

I take it from the accounts of women reproduced by Robinson that the sealers used violence as a form of spectacle to maintain their authority. On 28 May 1831, Robinson reported, for example, that Munro had told him that a man called Anderson had advised Munro that sealers on Kangaroo Island had tied an Aboriginal woman to a tree after she attempted to escape, cut off her ears and some flesh from her thigh and compelled her to eat her flesh.28 Although this story was transmitted at third hand and it fitted with Robinson’s desire to portray the sealers as deeply immoral, this type of violence, designed to provide a spectacle and to fill both its recipient and a wider audience with horror, was characteristic of slave societies (and indeed of the British criminal justice system in the eighteenth century, which depended on the public display of both bodily violence and mercy).29 It must be said that Keith Windschuttle claims this story is false, since he assumes Robinson lied about it to support his efforts to remove indigenous women from the hands of sealers; readers will be able to judge for themselves but Windschuttle does not have additional evidence beyond Robinson’s account – he just finds it intrinsically implausible.30 Frontier farmers in the Cape in the late 1790s and early 1800s, at a time of warfare between white colonists and the Khoisan, carried out some similar acts of spectacular violence. A man named Ferriera, known for his brutality, similarly tied a messenger to a tree during the complicated 1799-1802 wars between Dutch-speaking settlers and the Xhosa, Khoisan and British; Ferreira also ordered the unfortunate captive to eat his own flesh.31 There are many other examples of violence that appear sadistic and beyond the level required for control. I hypothesise that this type of violence reflects the coercion prevalent in a society characterised by coerced labour, in the quest of masters to maintain power that was sometimes quite fragile in individual contexts, whatever the overarching relationships of domination at the macro level. This is consonant with slave experiences elsewhere, especially in the West Indies, in which coercion and intimacy existed in similarly uncomfortable proximity.

An additional significant point of both comparison and contrast between Van Diemen’s Land and the Cape Colony that emerges from Robinson’s journals is the treatment of children and the role of so-called ‘mixed-race’ children in society. Research by Elizabeth Eldredge, Fred Morton and others suggests that there was an extensive covert trade in captured children in the rural regions of the eastern Cape. Indeed, the trade continued in the new Afrikaner republics of the Transvaal and the Orange Free State until quite far into the nineteenth century.32 Children raised on white farms were termed apprentices or inboekelinge: in exchange for food and shelter as children they were considered to owe labour until the age of twenty-one or in some areas twenty-five. At the same time, whether sexual relationships between farm labourers and farmers were voluntary or coerced, there was a large group of people on the Cape frontiers with mixed white and Khoekhoe or San ancestry. These children provided an interstitial category that was unsettling at a time of hardening racial divisions in the early nineteenth century and beyond but was more readily incorporated in the eighteenth. Fathers would recognise or not their ‘mixed-race’ children at the baptismal font, Robert Shell suggests; those who were recognised might pass into the ‘white’ community, which was closely identified with the ‘Christian’ community.33 Those who were not so recognised might, however, be incorporated rather as labourers on white farms.

In Van Diemen’s Land, Robinson describes the capture of female children by sealers. Robinson’s journals suggest that sealers initiated sex with girls before the age of puberty. The London Missionary Society missionary LE Threlkeld (whom Windschuttle is equally keen to discredit) suggested similarly that shepherds abducted prepubescent girls in New South Wales. Historian Lyndall Ryan describes both the hiring and, as early as 1810, the kidnapping of Aboriginal children in Van Diemen’s Land by agricultural settlers in search of labour.34 In 1838, in his later position as Protector of Aborigines in New South Wales, Robinson contended that ‘at Port Philip, Portland Bay and other recently formed settlements along the south coast of New Holland, the Aborigines had been most harshly treated’ and ‘their wives and children had been forcibly taken from them, and sent into captivity in distant isles’.35 The apparent trade in Van Diemen’s Land in women and children, especially female children, seems consonant with slave trades elsewhere in which children were valuable because they were potentially malleable. As the history of a number of colonised regions including Australia, South Africa and Canada suggests, under different regimes children might also be seen as a gateway to ‘civilisation’ and assimilation; the sending of children to boarding schools seems to me to have some parallels, despite very obvious and important differences, with the attempted incorporation of children into sealer communities.

Finally, how did indigenous people react in both places? This is a critically important question although source material is frustratingly skewed to the colonisers. One of the great values of Robinson’s Friendly Mission journals, nonetheless, is surely his recording of the voices (in however mediated a form) of a small group of people as their world collapsed in a terrifyingly short period of time. Woorrady told Robinson he remembered the arrival of European ships: ‘when they saw the first ship coming at sea they were frightened, and said it was WRAGEOWRAPPER’.36 A few years later almost all his companions would be dead. Even though these are problematic accounts, they remind the imperial historian of how many words are missing in other places, and of how central humility is to the craft of the historian.

There is a great deal that historians of both colonial situations have written about resistance and response that it would be inappropriate to summarise here. Let me simply close on the point that in both the Cape and Van Diemen’s Land, people seem to have begun using a language about ‘black’ and ‘white’, perhaps partly in response to the relentless valorisation of whiteness by settlers. This was a clear dynamic in South Africa, as, for example, ideas about war between ‘black’ and ‘white’ or even ‘race war’ took hold during the terrible frontier conflicts of the nineteenth century among a number of different groups on both sides. It is striking to hear echoes in Van Diemen’s Land. ‘Whilst WOORRADY related his story of the Creation, Tom said he would not believe it, he only believed the white people’s story. TRUGERNANNA was angry with him and said: “Where did you come from? White woman?” ‘37

Of course there are limits to comparisons. It is striking that the settlement of Van Diemen’s Land saw a far more sudden colonialism than that at the Cape, characterised by greater initial technological disparity and a more constrained land surface. Early nineteenth-century British colonialism in southern Africa was equally aggressive but the British settlers who began to arrive in larger numbers after 1820 encountered substantial farming populations who suffered greatly in their encounters with British colonialism but did not die out, despite the extensive wars of conquest waged by the British throughout the nineteenth century. It became progressively harder to see Van Diemen’s Land and southern Africa as structurally parallel as the nineteenth century developed and as the colonies of the future South Africa became increasingly hybrids between white settler colonies and colonies elsewhere in Africa.

Points of connection

In the early nineteenth century the voyage to Van Diemen’s Land from Britain lay through the Cape Colony. Ships still stopped at the great port of Cape Town in order to rest and take on fresh provisions. There were literal connections between the Cape and Van Diemen’s Land provided by shipping lanes, whatever the additional intellectual and political ties. The two colonies were brought under British control at roughly the same time; the British regained the Cape Colony from the Batavian Republic in 1806 and established a penal colony in Van Diemen’s Land in 1803. Not surprisingly, the evangelical Quaker reformers James Backhouse and George Washington Walker, who undertook extensive tours of inspection of the Australian colonies in the 1830s, spent a number of days in Cape Town en route to the antipodes. Research in Cape Town later provided a natural coda to Backhouse’s inquiries in the Australian colonies.38 While in Cape Town during this first visit, Backhouse and Walker were the guests of Dr John Philip, the African superintendent of the London Missionary Society, and of his wife Jane, a powerful figure in her own right.39 ‘In company with Dr Philip’, Walker recalled, ‘we visited several schools and other public institutions for the amelioration of the human race.’ These institutions included a meeting of the ‘Philanthropic Institution, for redeeming female children from slavery’, the ‘noble Library, the reading room of which is open to all classes’, the ‘College, Hospital, and Prisons’ and ‘a meeting for the formation of a Temperance Society’.40 Backhouse and Walker would have seen in Philip a fellow worker in the evangelical project to remake the early nineteenth-century world in a Christian reformed image. In reality Van Diemen’s Land was largely understood by British activists on indigenous issues through the filter of other settlements, in particular the Cape; the flow of information, particularly about indigenous people, was not strong, but Christian reformers nonetheless looked for universal patterns.

In the 1830s, colonial politics still functioned to a large extent through informal contacts in a relatively small world. The colonial undersecretaries, Wilmot Horton and James Stephen in this period, had considerable influence in an era of small bureaucracies and limited information-gathering. They occupied restricted social worlds. The powerful Macarthur family of New South Wales understood well the need for local representation to promote its political and commercial interests, for example, sending John Macarthur to be schooled in Britain and then to function as an unofficial agent of the Australian Agricultural Company, marketing Australian wool as he attended country house weekends and drank at his club with Horton.41 In similar ways, the MP Sir Thomas Fowell Buxton and a small group of other MPs were able to influence colonial policy in the 1820s and 1830s, presumably primarily because of their involvement in the abolitionist movement, the size of which seemingly alarmed ministers, but also partly because they had good contacts in the Colonial Office.42 They were involved in the same social and religious worlds as a few influential bureaucrats, particularly the fervently Anglican Sir James Stephen. The visible influence of men was, however, only part of a dense cluster of family networks, strengthened by religious ties, in which women, and the less formal networks they nurtured, also played crucial roles. In Britain itself, the Quaker Backhouse family was part of a nexus of reformers, many of them well-off Quakers, with both penal and imperial interests. Alan Lester explores this topic further elsewhere in this volume. I do, however, want to underscore here that it is significant both that the views that many commentators attribute to the ‘British imperial’ administration were in reality those of a small group of people, and that the influence of the Buxton-Gurney circle was relatively short-lived, as the steady rise in influence of settler lobbies, the growth of mass politics and the greater bureaucratisation of the Colonial Office increasingly made such informal personal influence as had been wielded by Buxton hard to duplicate and indeed helped discredit many of the premises of the so-called ‘friends of the aborigine’ by the late 1840s.

Be that as it may, a core belief of this small circle of Christian imperial activists in the 1830s was that the condition of indigenous people in different white settler colonies was parallel. White settler colonies were seen through the lens of slavery, at a time at which many of these evangelicals were deeply involved in the struggle against slavery in the British Empire. Like both Philip and Buxton, Robinson compared the treatment of indigenous people to African chattel slavery. He reported, for example, that Fanny told him with regard to the trade in indigenous women that ‘this slave traffic is very common at the Straits and that the women so bartered or sold are subjected to every hardship which their merciless tyrants can think of, and that from the time their slavery commences they are habituated to all the fatiguing drudgery which their profitable trade imposes’. Robinson concluded: ‘[s]urely this is the African slave trade in miniature, and the voice of reason as well as humanity calls for its abolition’.43

The 1820s-30s also saw the emergence of the argument that British settlers were responsible for the destruction of indigenous peoples wherever Britain had made settlements in a way that certainly goes beyond Windschuttle’s claims that violence was minimal or has been exaggerated. This overall position was the thrust of the report of the 1835-36 Select Committee on Aborigines orchestrated by Buxton. It was also the logic that underlay the appointment of Protectors of Aborigines in Australian territories in the late 1830s and early 1840s, one of whom would be Robinson himself. In sum, debates in Van Diemen’s Land and Robinson’s actions in particular were not taking place in a vacuum but in the context of the evolution of an international language about what might now be termed genocide, at a time when the British state was struggling to come to terms with the catastrophic level of violence against indigenous peoples in white settler colonies, in an era of liberalisation domestically (however limited) in economic and political spheres. In these debates, Van Diemen’s Land and the Cape were used as mutually reinforcing examples to argue for the necessity of civilisation as a means to save indigenous peoples from destruction.

This discussion raises the very complex issue with which a number of Australian historians have struggled (and British historians not enough) of how genocide is to be defined. Is genocide best seen as a linked policy of assimilation and destruction, as recent work by Ann Curthoys, John Docker and Dirk Moses argues, and as Raphael Lemkin himself thought? Or can these processes be disaggregated?44 Certainly, the circumstances of the 1820s and 30s formed a ‘perfect storm’ of the concatenation of the two approaches. The thrust of debates in the 1830s was, however, explicitly to juxtapose assimilation against mass killing, since activists felt that assimilation would give indigenous peoples the capacity to resist murder and moral decay. In this process, paradoxically, a language was being developed that would be used against indigenous people, even if indigenous groups and individuals – such as Trukanini and other indigenous people who accompanied Robinson in his quests through the bush – also tried to use the opportunities offered by interaction with Christian humanitarians. As a reading of Robinson’s journals suggests, there was a serious lack of attention to indigenous sovereignty in these debates. Robinson inadvertently reveals the coercive possibilities hidden behind paternalism.

Another critical set of links between the Cape Colony and Van Diemen’s Land that was pertinent to Robinson’s world was the emergence of a common sense – among early nineteenth-century British-origin settlers, particularly in frontier zones – of standing against similar threats. Some British settlers in the frontier districts of the Eastern Cape expressed a desire to extirpate the Khoisan and the Xhosa, and many, such as the virulently racist editor of the Grahamstown Journal, Robert Godlonton, saw frontier wars as race warfare. As Lester’s work on the circulation of settler discourse has suggested, English-speaking white settlers were developing a common language about race, colonialism and ‘savagery’ throughout the period in which Robinson was writing.45

Robinson’s journals also suggest a further and somewhat more banal point. This is that there was slowly emerging a group of people who saw themselves as professional experts in indigenous affairs and hoped in fact to make a career of giving advice. Saxe Bannister, Attorney-General of New South Wales from 1824-26, is an excellent example. He wrote many impassioned pamphlets on the topic of rights for indigenous peoples, even as he spent great energy writing private letters to wealthy individuals who he felt could assist him in his quest to be appointed to a new position by the Colonial Office, presenting himself as an expert for hire who could advise the government and others on the best road to living in peace with indigenous people.46 Robinson surely fits into that category also. The emergence of a pan-imperial master narrative about the interaction between settlers, indigenous people and the imperial government facilitated the rise of such interstitial figures as Robinson and Bannister.

Finally, although I have been attempting to situate debates about Van Diemen’s Land in the context of related debates about the destruction of indigenous peoples elsewhere, it is also significant that some at least of the ‘friends of the aborigine’ in early nineteenth-century Britain were uneasy about Robinson’s mission. It might be portrayed not as the dawn of a new era in white-indigenous cooperation but rather as a solution that was coercive or culturally inappropriate. Although Robinson’s speech to the auxiliary Aborigines Protection Society (APS) in Sydney in 1838 was enthusiastically reported in detail in the Annual Report of the Aborigines Protection Society for 1839, by the following year the British APS was cautiously critical of Robinson after reading a report of his on Flinders Island and reflecting on Robinson’s heavy-handed approach to ‘civilisation’.47 The APS reported that occasionally Robinson’s reflections on individuals were ‘interrupted by an addition which Mr. Robinson appears to think a mitigation of the virtues of his pupils, but which rather tends to indicate the unsuitable character of the discipline applied to them; the addition is – “but inattentive to his learning and fond of the chase”’. The committee regretted that from the first an approach had not been applied ‘more suitable to the habits of a roving people, instead of the highly artificial one whose details have been referred to’.48 By 1841, the annual report referred to ‘the remnant of the unfortunate Aborigines of Van Diemen’s Land, surviving at Flinder’s Island’ who had suffered ‘the accumulated injuries of indiscriminate war upon the race in their native land, deportation to Flinders’ Island, and subjection to a crude process of so-called civilisation there’.49

As Robinson was elaborating his policy of creating a de facto reserve in the mid-1830s, by 1836 Sir Francis Bond Head as Governor of Canada was attempting to move Anishinaabeg from their ancestral grounds to the barren confines of Manitoulin Island. Thomas Hodgkin, chair of the Aborigines Protection Society, attacked this policy before the Aborigines Select Committee, possibly with Buxton’s prior consent, as the two worked closely together and this was a carefully manipulated committee. Hodgkin abjured what he called a measure ‘rather more American than British’ of ‘removing the natives from spots where they may be supposed to be suffering, to other spots’. That method, he commented, had been tried in Van Diemen’s Land and he believed the result ‘had not been favourable’, although he claimed not to know much about Van Diemen’s Land. ‘With respect to the removal of the American tribes by the United States I have positive facts in proof of its being injurious’.50 Beyond the confines of the Select Committee on Aborigines, the Aborigines Protection Society worked hard to oppose Bond Head’s plans, helping to prevent this large-scale population move.

Robinson’s actions were being followed by at least some imperial policy makers and would-be advisors, in sum, as part of a wider discussion among British and British-origin ‘experts’ about the relationships between settlers and indigenous groups. An international language about ‘Aborigines’ and a nascent world of would-be policy ‘experts’ were already emerging, even at this early date. Ironically, much of the discourse about the need to prevent mass killing would in fact be taken over by later advocates of segregation. A key concept would be the idea of the ‘vanishing race’, an idea which had many mutations through time.51 This is a discussion beyond the scope of the current paper, however; my immediate point is that Robinson was at least in part trying to appeal to this international audience, although he failed to win the approbation he so eagerly sought. Another evident point is that indigenous people themselves had a limited voice in the process.


The Cape and Van Diemen’s Land are mirror images of each other in some interesting ways, underscoring the contingency of the politics of historical memory. At the Cape, John Philip and other activists of the London Missionary Society, chief architects of policies designed to save indigenous groups through assimilation, have been largely perceived in a positive manner by historians (despite some lively debate), while Robinson is seen by some Australian scholars as an agent of cultural genocide. At the same time, there is little questioning, it seems to me, in South Africa of the actual events along the frontiers of the Cape Colony that led to such tragic outcomes. I would also venture to suggest that frontier violence against the Khoekhoe and San by agents of the Dutch East India Company is not seen at a popular level as a foundational feature of the South African state, given the many subsequent tragedies, and in some complicated ways has even been a source of shame for some of the descendants of the victims themselves.52

Among historians there was at one point an extensive debate about whether the Afrikaner-dominated frontier or the late nineteenth-century capitalist economy, particularly the mining industry, had the greater influence on the creation of apartheid.53 This dispute was at root a contest between an old view about the importance of the frontier, and challenges in the 1980s from ‘radical’ historians, as they termed themselves, who wanted a more materialist account of causation and who also wanted to shift blame from Afrikaner farmers to British capitalists. Given the victory of the latter school, there is certainly not consensus on either the popular or academic level about how foundational the frontier experience was to the South African state, although the issue is not settled. Australia has a very different form of public debate in which time is arguably more telescoped and frontier violence is indeed seen by some commentators as foundational, but perhaps because of that very centrality (and legal weight) the nature and extent of violence are far more hotly debated in Australia than in South Africa.54 The politics and complexity of historical memory are clearly on display. Finally, the extensive debate about memory, guilt and truth that has gripped Australia has clearly not gripped Britain itself. Should this be an entirely national debate about guilt? It is worth citing once again the 1841 annual report of the Aborigines Protection Society, already very much a minority voice in Britain, on what it termed the ‘mutual atrocities’ in Australia. ‘How long will such a system be allowed to continue? … so long as the English public are content supinely to acquiesce in the enormity, and guiltily to abide its consequences in the anger of infinite Justice’.55

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

   by Anna Johnston and Mitchell Rolls