I’ve been reading the Port Phillip journals of George Augustus Robinson. Note that these are the Port Phillip ones, not those that he wrote in Van Diemen’s Land which were edited by N.J.B. Plomley. Actually, Plomley’s work has had a bit of renaissance lately, with the republishing of his Friendly Mission and the release of Reading Robinson, a set of essays by various authors which extends Robinson’s work into a broader imperial context. I have this book of essays on hold, and shall report anon.
Robinson himself seems to be undergoing a reconsideration. Until recently, his main biography has been Black Robinson by Vivienne Rae-Ellis, a vehement portrayal that depicts him as an incompetent and dishonourable liar and cheat. Rae-Ellis’ book had a troubled publication history and received much critical comment on its publication (Pybus, 2003). Keith Windschuttle in his Fabrication of Aboriginal History interprets this as an attack on Rae-Ellis for her negative depiction of Robinson, who has been treated more benignly by Henry Reynolds, Lyndall Ryan and other historians that he himself attacked for their depiction of Aboriginal history. Perhaps it’s a matter of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” because Windschuttle certainly did not extend the same level of scrutiny to Rae-Ellis as he did to Reynolds and Ryan.
Robinson’s Tasmanian journals have received most of the attention, but the ones I’ve been reading are his Port Phillip journals, written after he had spent several years on the blighted Flinders Island with his dwindling band of natives. He took with him to Port Phillip several Aborigines from Flinders Island, including Truganini and Wooredy. He arrived in Melbourne in February 1839, prior to La Trobe. His instructions were vague. Glenelg at the Colonial Office in London sent a copy of the report of the 1837 parliamentary Select Committee to Gipps, with recommendations to protect, educate, provide religious education for and ‘civilize’ the aborigines. Glenelg told Gipps to fill in the details, but Gipps was loathe to do so. He argued that Robinson had been appointed Chief Protector on the strength of his “acquired experience superior to that which is possessed by any other individual in the Colony”, and he was left largely to define the role himself. It seems that La Trobe was keen for Robinson to move around the District: he sent him on his trips to the Western District and was reluctant to appoint Robinson as a town magistrate lest it “seem to form the idea that his Duties lie in Melbourne instead of in the Bush” (Gipps to La Trobe 11 Feb 1843). But his role did, indeed, involve both administration in Melbourne- in fact, he was appointed an office in Willis’ “old” Supreme Court building once the “new” courthouse was opened- and field work both supervising the Assistant Protectors and recording the language, names and habits of Aborigines throughout the District both as a form of ethnographic study and census.
This dual focus of acting both as administrator and protector is reflected in his journals. Inga Clendinnen tells us in her memoir Tiger’s Eye that she drew on Robinson’s diary of his Western District journey between 20 March and 15 August 1841 as her first step back into the academic waters after a long period of illness. Her essay ‘Reading Mr Robinson’ focusses on Robinson’s journey, but the George Augustus Robinson we see in the saddle, riding from tribe to tribe and outstation to outstation is not the same fussy, petty man that we see around the streets of Melbourne. His role was not just to observe and count: he was also a minor bureaucrat puffed up with self-importance but ultimately impotent and compromised when the pointy end of the law intersected with the humanitarian aspects of his task.
Clendinnen admits “I have become very fond of Mr Robinson”. I’m not quite as fulsome. The ‘town’ Mr Robinson is rather wearing; in management-speak he is unable ‘upwardly manage’ his relationship with his superiors (if indeed, he even perceives them as such), and he undermines and backstabs the assistant protectors under his supervision- although admittedly some of them were a rum lot too. His attitude towards the Aborigines he brought over with him from Flinders Island is puzzling: he distances himself emotionally from the execution of “Bob” and “Jack” for murder in January 1842, fulminating about process but oblivious to the tragedy; he goes into organiser-mode for the return of the women to Flinders Island without expressing any regret. The death of Peter Brune, who did not return to Flinders Island but remained with him as his native right-hand man, is brusque and matter-of-fact.
He doesn’t really seem to “get” Aboriginal communication, despite his compiling of long lists of words. The whole idea of bringing the Van Diemen’s land natives over to smooth his path with the mainlain Aborigines highlights his lack of awareness of the distinctiveness of the Tasmanian tribes. His interaction is often completely utilitarian on his own terms: he is dismissive of the context of communication wanting only the content:
When the natives appear I brake through all Aboriginal ceremony [sic] (which to observe would be a waste of time) and go forth and meet them (10 May 1841)
There are several occasions of riding into a location incognito, and pumping people for information about “Robinson”- a curious way of gaining feedback, if that’s what he was doing.
Although, having said all this, there are times when the humanitarian breaks through, and I think that this side of him is what Clendinnen is responding to. He is genuinely filled with admiration when he sees the construction of eel-traps, and acknowledges the ingenuity, strength and dedication of the men who created them, quite irrespective of race. He is sceptical of the numbers of deaths reported by the settlers; he decries the preference for emancipated convicts as workers who, unlike new emigrants were not frightened of the natives. He hears, and understands, the aboriginal claims on the land:
I should remark that, when Tung.bor.roong spoke of Borembeep and other localities of his own nativity he always added ‘that’s my country belonging to me!! That’s my country belonging to me!!” This language language is [plain] but not the less forcible on that account. Some people have observed, in reference to the natives occupying their country, what could they do with it? The answer is plain- they could live upon it and enjoy the pleasures of the chase as do the rich of our own nation (17 July 1841)
He is dismissive of the stories of cannibalism relayed to him by the settlers- “Fudge!”. And when he comes across a settler who freely admits murdering five natives, he is chilled and repulsed by the man. He is determined not to partake of the lonely man’s desperate hospitality:
Francis pressed me to sleep in his hut and it was evident the bed had been prepared, clean sheets and pillow case. He entreated and said he would play me a tune on the fiddle and I was to make myself at home, &c. I however had made up my mind to sleep in the van and got away. I could not sleep in the place; I was disgusted and my heart sickened when I thought of the awful sacrifice of life done by this individual. He acknowledged to five, the natives say seven. (30 July 1841)
On leaving the man as quickly as he can, he passes a skull planted nearby- shades of Kurtz. Robinson knows the message it is sending- and no doubt the local tribes do too
I cannot conceive why this skull was permitted to remain exposed in such a situation; it is doubtless best known to Francis. (30 July 1841)
With my almost endless ability to be diverted from actually writing my thesis (as distinct from wool-gathering about it), I’m looking forward to reading the new Robinson essays. I’ve also borrowed a book of Sievwright, the assistant protector who was the cause of much scandal and criticism from all sides. More on him anon too.
Ian D. Clark The Journals of George Augustus Robinson, Chief Protector, Port Phillip Aboriginal Protectorate, Volume Two: 1 October 1840-31 August 1841 Melbourne, Heritage Matters, 1998.
Ian D. Clark (Ed) The Journals of George Augustus Robinson, Chief Protector, Port Phillip Aboriginal Protectorate, Volume Three: 1 September 1841- 31 December 1843Melbourne, Heritage Matters, 1998
Inga Clendinnen Tigers Eye 2001 (includes the essay ‘Reading Mr Robinson’)
Anna Johnston and Mitchell Rolls (eds). Reading Robinson 2008
N.J.B. Plomley Friendly Mission 1966
Cassandra Pybus ‘Robinson and Robertson’ in R. Manne (ed) Whitewash: On Keith Windschuttle’s Fabrication of Aboriginal History, Black Inc, 2203
Vivienne Rae-Ellis Black Robinson: Protector of Aborigines 1988
A.G. L. Shaw A History of the Port Phillip District: Victoria before Separation 1996
A.G.L. Shaw Gipps-La Trobe Correspondence
Keith Windshuttle The Fabrication of Aboriginal History, 2002