“Reading Mr Robinson” by Anna Johnston and Mitchell Rolls (eds.)

“Reading Mr Robinson: Companion Essays to Friendly Mission”, Anna Johnston and Mitchell Rolls (eds.)


2008, 188p. + notes.

N. J. B. Plomley’s Friendly Mission was published in 1966, with a reprint in 1971.  It’s a big book, close on 1000 pages and it has been out of print for over thirty years.  It has been recently re-released, and this companion book of essays has been published to accompany the new edition.

Friendly Mission is a transcription of the journals of the Aboriginal Protector George Augustus Robinson, with a lengthy introduction by Plomley.  Plomley’s work made the Van Diemen’s Land journals of George Augustus Robinson available and accessible- because  Robinson’s handwriting was truly wretched- for the first time to a wider audience.  This book of essays celebrates Plomley’s work and they testify to the importance of Friendly Mission as a contested and influential text that over 40 years ago encapsulated many of the debates still pertinent today about Aboriginal and Australian settler history.

There are three themes that run through the essays.  The first is consideration of Friendly Mission in is own right, as a text.   It is obviously a book that has deeply impressed the people who have read it, or chosen not to do so.  Lyndall Ryan speaks in her essay of  purchasing the book in its blue covers from the top shelf in a bookshop and reading it transfixed on public transport on the way home, and the encouragement she received from Manning Clark and Rhys Jones to explore it further.  A counterpoint to this enthusiasm is the response of three Palawa (Tasmanian Aboriginal ) contributors who write short reflections on their response to the book.  Some choose not to read it at all: others feel negated and angered by the perceived inevitability of ‘extinction’ and the self-aggrandisement and nonchalance of Robinson in the face of such tragedy.

N.J. B. or Norman James Brian Plomley- although known as Brian-  was a scientist and curator who wrote widely on a variety of natural history, medical, dentistry and museum studies issues.  His long introduction to Robinson’s diaries reflects the historiography of his times: he did not even consider the use of oral histories with living Tasmanian Aborigines- if, indeed he even considered them that at all- and his views on hybridity and purity of bloodline reflect attitudes towards aboriginality and identity that are not accepted today.  Rebe Taylor’s essay points out that there are oral history sources available, through the Westlake Papers collected by the geologist  Ernest Westlake (1855-1922) which among other things included interviews with the descendents of  the Bass Strait sealers and their Aboriginal women from 1908-10.   Plomley himself edited a collection of these interviews in 1991.

A second strand of these essays deals with the diarist George Augustus Robinson himself, the Great Conciliator with the Van Diemen’s Land tribes, and then Chief Protector in the Port Phillip Protectorate during the 1840s.   Alan Lester’s essay ‘George Augustus Robinson and Imperial Networks’ highlights Robinson’s religious and humanitarian motivation, and places him within the context of evangelical approaches being implemented by British and American missionaries across the Cape Colony, the West Indies, and American and Canadian frontiers.  Elizabeth Elbourne’s contribution ‘Between Van Diemen’s Land the the Cape Colony’ compares these two colonies, particularly in relation to the coercion of women and children, and links these to the small, but influential anti-Slavery lobby in the Colonial Office and the Aborigines Protection Society which itself was distancing itself from Robinson’s approach by the early 1840s.

Henry Reynolds in ‘George Augustus Robinson in Van Diemen’s Land: Race, Status and Religion’ embraces Robinson as a conscientious missionary, outraged by the injustices he witnessed.  The name-giving ceremonies, Reynolds claims, were an attempt to replace the derogatory names conferred by hostile settlers with more others with more dignity.  Robinson’s Christian belief in the brotherhood and equality of all men contrasted with the polygenetic views that were coming into currency whereby different branches of humanity were distinguished and ranked – with the British ascendant of course.  This is not to say that Robinson was unaffected by the early Victorian emphasis on status and respectability: his career was an perpetual struggle to maintain and boost his own standing both in the colonies and with the Colonial Office, and the seating arrangements in the church services he organized reflected an acute consciousness of gradations of status.

Cassandra Pybus’ essay ‘A Self Made Man’ is less complimentary, portraying Robinson as a vain-glorious, manipulative man who carefully massaged his own image.  She introduces as a counter-point Gilbert Robertson, the capital-strapped chief constable at Richmond in Tasmania, who claimed to have been the originator of the concept of a “Protector” and who put himself forward as an applicant.  As she says, it is an unedifying spectacle to see

these two colonial misfits scapping over the paltry financial benefit and dubious social advantage to be got in taking credit for the almost complete destruction of a whole people (p. 109)

The final theme involves the use of the Robinson diaries through Plomley’s publication by other historians over time.  Ian McFarlane in ‘N J B Plomley’s Contribution to North-West Tasmanian Regional History’  places Robinson’s account of the Cape Grim massacre against Curr’s rather self-serving account found in the Van Diemen’s Land Company papers, and finds that Robinson’s estimate of 40 deaths (rather than Curr’s admission to 3) is likely to be correct.   Patrick Brantlinger’s paper ‘King Billy’s Bones: Colonial Knowledge Production in Nineteenth-Century Tasmania’  compares Robinson’s account with James Bonwick’s history The Last of the Tasmanians written in 1870 and  overlaid by later-Victorian ideas of racial superiority, craniotomy and scientific measurement.  John Connor in ‘Recording the Human Face of War: Robinson and Frontier Conflict’ uses Robinson’s observations on warrior behaviour and weaponry to conceptualise Aboriginal resistance as ‘war’.   Rebe Taylor’s paper ‘Reliable Mr Robinson and the Controversial Dr Jones’ examines the archaeologist Rhys Jones’ development of the regression theory that Aborigines lost the ability to fish and light fires- a suggestion repeated more recently by Jared Diamond and Keith Windschuttle- a shadowy, rejected commentator whose influence (and notoriety) pervades the book.

I’m wary of celebratory and clear-cut history with simple “goodies” and “baddies”.  I’m glad that the Robinson diaries are ambiguous and contradictory, and that he himself is a flawed man who, even at the time, did not fit comfortably into his society. And I’m pleased too, that the discussion continues about what we as historians and Australians do with such a tragic, conflicted story.  Plomley’s Friendly Mission and the diaries it makes available are an ur-text that is mined again and again by authors- Richard Flanagan in Wanting, Robert Drewe in The Savage Crow, Mudrooroo in Doctor Wooreddy’s Prescription for Enduring the Ending of the World, Matthew Kneale in English Passengers; Nicholas Shakespeare In Tasmania; Cassandra Pybus in Community  of Thieves, among others.  It’s like a scab that we need to keep picking; an itch that we need to scratch; a wound that has not yet healed.

3 responses to ““Reading Mr Robinson” by Anna Johnston and Mitchell Rolls (eds.)

  1. Pingback: ‘The hated Protector’ by Lindsey Arkley | The Resident Judge of Port Phillip

  2. Pingback: ‘This Whispering in our Hearts’ by Henry Reynolds | The Resident Judge of Port Phillip

  3. Pingback: ‘I Succeeded Once: The Aboriginal Protectorate on the Mornington Peninsula 1839-40′ by Marie Hansen Fels | The Resident Judge of Port Phillip

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