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


George Augustus Robinson in Van Diemen’s Land: Race, Status and Religion


WRITING IN HIS JOURNAL WHILE on Flinders Island, a few days before Christmas in 1835, George Augustus Robinson reflected on the situation of the Tasmanians. They had been, he concluded, treated as bondsmen:

For the conduct persued towards them was such has would be persued towards bondsmen and this is the light in which they have been considered – whereas they are or ought to be freemen of the highest order – patricians not plebians – for they and not us are the legitimite proprietors of the soil – we hold by might not by right – oh, it is cruel not to provide abundantly for this remnant of the aboriginal race – parsimony in such a case is not only niggardliness but injustice – gross injustice – we have desolated them – despoiled them of their country – the land of their forefathers – and having placed them on an isolated spot. The least we ought to do is abundantly supply their wants.1

In this passionately expressed, indifferently spelt passage we can learn much about Robinson and his ideas – about race relations, about status and hierarchy – and above all about the Tasmanians.

Opinions of Robinson fluctuate widely and have done so since the 1830s. He has been both revered and reviled, viewed as a saviour and as a destroyer and agent of genocide. But many twentieth-century writers have rushed to judgement with little attempt to place him in his cultural milieu, to see him as a man of his time.

One of the most obvious things to notice, and one frequently overlooked, was that Robinson was both curious about, and deeply interested in, the Tasmanians at a time when many of his contemporaries thought them contemptible and unworthy of any attention at all. It was this interest that inspired him to write, often in the most difficult circumstances, the vast compendium of observations about their behaviour, beliefs and way of life in his private journal, his personal letters and his official correspondence. His writing is a kind of tribute, a gesture of respect. And respect is not too strong a word. He showed far more respect and empathy than most of his contemporaries – even more than missionaries like Lancelot Threlkeld, William Watson, Joseph Barton and JC Handt – with whom he can be usefully compared. No missionary spent as much time in the bush with the Aborigines they sought to convert and none of them would have been as willing as Robinson to live in close physical intimacy with their charges. He also expressed a degree of compassion for the Tasmanians which was unusual at the time. Few of the many mission journals written in nineteenth-century Australia contain a passage like that of 15 November 1830 when Robinson reported how the Aborigines he was with heard about relatives who had been shot by Europeans. This information, he recorded,

was the occasion of general lamentation and there was not one aborigine but wept bitterly. 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.2

Running through Robinson’s Tasmanian writing is an emphasis on the equality of the Aborigines, albeit asserted fitfully and unevenly. But it demands investigation. ‘I hope ere long’, he wrote in February 1836, ‘that I shall be able to prove to the world that these people are not the degraded race has [sic] they have been presented’, that they have ‘as much interlect’ as their white opponents.3

Robinson was largely self-educated but he clearly read widely and was aware of many of the major intellectual and theological currents of the time, including the swelling debate about racial difference and hierarchy which was to persist until the last years of the nineteenth century. In the late eighteenth century the European passion for classification had been directed to humankind with varying and conflicting results. One tradition moved in the direction of difference and inequality, drawing validity from the popular notion of the Great Chain of Being – a static hierarchy of all life on Earth in which nature descended ‘by gradual and imperceptible steps from man down to the least organized beings’.4 When combined with the contemporary passion for racial classification it was inevitable that numerous writers would place human beings in hierarchical order with Europeans at the top of the chain and Africans and Australians at the bottom, where they were ‘nearer to the brute creation than any other human species’.5 Such perceived inequality of condition suggested the possibility of separate, racially specific creations, or polygenesis, a view which was growing in popularity in the 1820s with the development of physical anthropology and the emergence of phrenology. The utility of such ideas to settlers on Europe’s colonial frontiers scarcely needs emphasising.

Nevertheless the barriers to an easy acceptance of polygenesis and radical racial inequality were still formidable in early nineteenth-century Britain. Evangelical Christians like Robinson took their stand on the literal truth of the Bible, which proclaimed that all human beings were descendants of Adam and Eve; they were ‘of one blood’, made in the image of God and all alike capable of salvation. This was the bedrock on which the monogeneticists built their case and which lay beneath claims of human equality and brotherhood. Anna Johnston perceptively observed that missionaries fundamentally ‘had to believe in indigenous salvation and hence in a degree of common humanity’.6 Robinson epitomised the traditional Christian view in his journal entry of 15 November 1830, which read:

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 and I am not ashamed to call them brothers and would to God I could call them brethren by redemption … They have been represented as only a link between the human and brute species, and nothing more false could proceed from the lips of men—they are equal if not superior to ourselves.7

The Bible was not the only source of Robinson’s ethnographic ideas. He was clearly familiar with contemporary ideas about non-Europeans and it seems likely that he had either first- or second-hand knowledge of the dominant figure in British ethnography during the first half of the nineteenth century, JC Prichard, whose Researches into the Physical History of Man was first published in 1813 and republished numerous times over the next generation. Prichard saw himself as the interpreter of the earlier work of JE Blumenbach, whose 1775 book On the Natural Varieties of Mankind he set out to ‘illustrate and extend’.8 Blumenbach was a strong supporter of monogenesis, arguing that no doubt could any longer remain that ‘all and singular as many varieties of man’ that were ‘at present known’ were ‘one and the same species’.9 Prichard maintained that all mankind constituted ‘but one race’ and proceeded from a single family.10 This religious orthodoxy underpinned his ethnography. He argued that the ‘Sacred Scriptures’ declared that it pleased the Almighty Creator to make ‘of one blood all the nations of the earth, and that all mankind are the offspring of common parents’.11

Prichard was writing with one eye on his opponents, who maintained that the traditional Biblical story did not ‘comprehend the uncivilized inhabitants of remote regions’ who were not, in fact, ‘men in the full sense of that term, or beings endowed with like mutual faculties as ourselves’. Such writers, he observed, contended that such ‘rude and barbarous tribes’ were ‘inferior in their original endowment’, that they were organically different and could never ‘be raised to an equality’ with Europeans.12

The dangerous implications of these views were clearly apparent to Prichard and his supporters, for if the ‘Negro and the Australian’ were not ‘fellow creatures and of one family with ourselves’, relations with them would not differ from those which would subsist with a race of monkeys. The ultimate lot of the ‘under tribes’ would be a state of ‘perpetual servitude’. If some of them should ‘continue to repel the attempts of the civilized nations to subdue them, they will at length be rooted out and exterminated in every country on the shores of which Europeans should set their feet’.13

What Prichard feared from a distance Robinson experienced at first hand. Like his mainland Australian contemporary Lancelot Threlkeld, he was acutely aware of the direct relationship between racial contempt and frontier violence. Reminiscing in later life on his experiences in Van Diemen’s Land, Robinson wrote, ‘Everything was said by a certain class to their prejudice. They were represented as a bare remove from the brutes’. Robinson observed that the Tasmanians were left prey to the ‘designing of the depraved of the white population’ and thus ‘grossly maligned to cover their own malpractices’.14

There was an inescapable logic inherent in the situation. The more debased the Tasmanians were declared to be, the easier it became to dispossess and destroy them with a clear conscience. On the other hand, recognition of their fundamental humanity called for an unflinching acceptance that deaths resulting from frontier clashes were cases of murder, flouting both the laws of man and of God. ‘Can I imagine for a moment’, Robinson wrote in April 1830,

that the white man, my fellow man, has murdered their [the Tasmanians] countrymen, their kindred and their friends, has violated their daughters, and has forcibly taken away their children under pretext of taking care of them? Yes, it is only too true. Regardless of all laws, human or divine, they have imbued their hands in the blood of these poor unoffending people.15

It was this moral outrage which made men like Robinson and Threlkeld such challenging and at times hated members of colonial society. They refused to accept the popular justifications for the destruction of Aboriginal society; they reminded their fellow settlers of their own professed Christian convictions and in so doing scarified already tender consciences. When asked by Governor Gipps in 1838 about his involvement with the Tasmanians, Robinson replied that he had reflected upon the subject and ‘considered them as Human beings and thought they should be treated as such’.16

This view informed Robinson’s conviction that the Aborigines, both in Van Diemen’s Land and New South Wales, were the legitimate owners of their ancestral lands who had been dispossessed by the settlers. It was central to his sense of injustice. Writing to his Launceston-based friend George Whitcomb in 1832 he declared that he was ‘at a loss to conceive by what tenure we hold this country, for it does not appear to be that we either hold it by right of conquest or right of purchase’. He added that the great Spanish crusading bishop Las Casas had ‘to his dying day’ maintained the right of the Indians to fight settlers for the purpose of obtaining the restitution of their property and their freedoms.17 Robinson carried these convictions with him to Port Phillip where he became the Chief Protector of Aborigines and argued over and over again that the local tribes should be allowed ‘a reasonable share in the Soil of their fatherland’.18

Eventually this appeal was taken up by the Colonial Office, which created the pastoral lease to provide for the concurrent use of the same land both by pastoralists and Aborigines, who were not to be deprived ‘of their former right to hunt over these Districts, or to wander over them in search of subsistence, in the manner to which they have been heretofore accustomed’.19 The long-term legal implications of the Aboriginal rights over land held under pastoral lease were not fully appreciated until the High Court decision in the Wik case in 1996.20

The pastoral leases were the one great achievement which can, at least indirectly, be attributed to Robinson’s crusade against injustice. His Tasmanian career ended with such tragic results for the Aborigines exiled on Flinders Island that many writers have assumed his professed humanitarian principles and compassion were little more than hypocritical humbug and that at every turn he put his own interests ahead of those of the Tasmanians whose welfare he frequently talked of but did little to promote. Robinson can be easily ridiculed. He was never a professional missionary, and later clergyman, like Threlkeld, let alone a bishop like Las Casas, with whom he identified. Rather, Robinson was an ambitious, self-educated settler who travelled to the far antipodes to advance himself. He grew up in London, a city of vast inequalities and, for someone in his position, abiding insecurity. The Britain of his youth was not yet a class-based society but one where status was preeminently important. Robinson was the archetypal colonist – able and ambitious, but acutely aware of the almost imperceptible barriers in the way of his social advancement.

There was no simple relationship between his evangelical Christianity and his lack of formal education and what would have been called breeding. His faith almost certainly appeased his growing sense of inequality and provided him with a feeling of self-worth unavailable from secular activities and avocations. Robinson’s journals and letters illustrate both his piety and his pushing ambition, which sometimes worked together but just as often pulled him in opposite directions. It was his missionary zeal which led him to begin the Friendly Mission, which was scarcely a promising career move, but it was his aching search for recognition which was rewarded far more abundantly than he could have imagined when he set off for Bruny Island to take up his position as storekeeper at the end of March 1829.

Much of Robinson’s self-importance came from his conviction that he was doing God’s work and following in the footsteps of the missionaries whose exploits in Africa and the Pacific were well known to him. But he struggled to get anyone else to see him as he saw himself. He was constantly in contention with his fellows, forever asserting himself. His journals bristle with brief accounts of wounding slights from those above and irreverence from those below. He was frequently offended by the prominent landowners who refused to treat him as a gentleman and accord him the respect he was sure he deserved. His relations with convict servants were fraught. His journals are full of references to impudence, impertinence and insubordination. As a magistrate on Flinders Island he was constantly putting assigned servants in irons or sending them to be flogged, trying to enforce the respect which he craved.

For Robinson status was more important than race. He believed that everyone should observe ‘the rank due to their station’.21 The Aborigines were, he wrote, his ‘sable friends’ whom he esteemed in every respect equal to his own family.22 They were ‘further advanced in the scale of mental and physical improvement’ than a majority of the peasantry in civilised communities.23 Robinson believed that he could convince the sceptics that ‘these people had all the capability and the desire of becoming a great people’.24 They were ‘free subjects’, in contrast to the convicts with whom Robinson would never associate in social situations.25

On Flinders Island the Tasmanians were carefully placed in what Robinson considered their proper place in the social hierarchy that he imposed on the small community. At services in the chapel the civil officers and their families were seated at the front, followed by ‘Native chiefs and their wives’, the Tasmanian women, then the Tasmanian men and at the back of the congregation the convicts and their overseer.26 When Robinson held a dinner party at his residence he invited the officers and their partners and the ‘two principal chiefs … and their wives’.27 He had great respect for Mannalargenna who, when on a boat off the northeast coast, ‘paced to and fro’, Robinson thought, ‘like a man of consequence, like an emperor.’28 It was views such as these which led him to bestow new and, he thought, noble names on the Tasmanians, one of his most misunderstood actions. His list of new and old names makes it quite clear that what he was doing was replacing the colonial demotic, often derisive, names already in use and not original tribal ones. Thus Big Bet became Elizabeth; Cranky Bet became Daphne; Blue Poll became Agnes; Kangaroo Bell, Nimrod; Big Jacky, Constantine; Little Jacky, Buonaparte; and so on.29

Robinson did well during his fourteen years in Van Diemen’s Land. As a result of the Friendly Mission he prospered, was recruited to the prestigious position of Chief Protector of Aborigines at Port Phillip and retired to live like a gentleman in Bath. It was a classical colonial success story. As the Friendly Mission proceeded the immigrant overcame the missionary, and prosperity became more enticing than piety. Robinson was progressively more interested in the financial rewards. He felt compelled to bring in the last remaining groups from the west coast. To bring in ‘the whole’, he observed, would gain him ‘not only the reward but celebrity’.30 ‘My reward’, he wrote in March 1834, ‘depended on my bringing in the residue. All I had accomplished would have been as nothing without these.’31

Robinson became increasingly concerned about rivals and did his best to frustrate any others engaged in seeking the Tasmanians in the bush. In reflecting on competitors he unwittingly revealed much about himself. ‘I may sow the seed’, he reflected, ‘and there are not a few who would readily and greedily gather in the harvest.’32 Soon after he had arrived at Wybalenna he wrote in his journal:

There are many persons who expressed a wish to take charge at Flinders Island … Now, this desire to enter another man’s labours arose from ambitious or vain motives and partly curiosity. They wished to become somebody out of nothing, that is, they thought by being with those sinful people it would exalt their importance.33

Robinson’s twenty-year colonial career was both typical of many others while at the same time having highly distinctive characteristics. He became ‘somebody out of nothing’, succeeding beyond his own most expansive expectations and by means he could not possibly have imagined when he set sail for the antipodes. But he remains of interest today not because of his assiduous pursuit of wealth and status but because of his leading role, as both actor and witness, in one of the great tragedies of the early nineteenth century – the destruction of Aboriginal society in Van Diemen’s Land and Port Phillip and the demographic disaster which swept away men, women and children without distinction.

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

   by Anna Johnston and Mitchell Rolls