Category Archives: Settler colonialism

‘In Good Faith? Governing Indigenous Australia Through God, Charity and Empire 1825-1855’ by Jessie Mitchell


2011, 197 p & notes

Available for download (free) at

1825 to 1855- just thirty years. Thirty years to start off with a timorous hope that perhaps it might be possible to spread Civilization among the Aborigines and lead them to the Christian Religion, only to end with an acknowledgement that it hadn’t worked, and that the whole situation had to be turned over to God’s mercy and his wondrous ways.  In 1825 L. E. Threlkeld established a mission at Lake Macquarie in NSW; in 1855 John Smithies closed his Methodist mission in Western Australia.  These two events form the bookends for this analysis of Australia’s first missions and protectorate stations.

In this book, based on her PhD. thesis, Jessie Mitchell writes:

My work has been guided by key themes of governance, subjecthood and rights, and the need to understand these ideas as developing through complex exchanges between imperial centres and mission outposts…and to consider how they were shaped by charity, religious beliefs, personal relationships and commitments to empire  (p.5)

Her work concentrates on Protestant missionaries working both on Church-based missions and government-sponsored Protectorate Stations.  Although there was a  high degree of cross-over, the distinction is important (and perhaps could have been emphasized even more strongly). The interconnection between the church-directed missions and government-directed model was there from the start, when the idea of government-funded Protectorates was first recommended by a Select Committee with a strong representation of Evangelical Christians, several of whom had been involved in anti-slavery campaigns in the past.

But the Port Phillip Protectorate was established and funded by government – not the churches. Protectors were expected to attach themselves to the tribes in the district and attend them until they could be induced to assume more settled habits; watch over the rights and interests of the natives and protect them from encroachment on their property and acts of injustice;  instruct them in cultivation should they settle in one place; educate and instruct the children; learn their language; be accountable for provisions and clothing and obtain accurate numerical information about them.  They were also were expected to instruct  in ‘elements’ of the Christian religion, with the expectation that other specialized teachers would take over instruction in the knowledge and practice of Christianity. (Note 1)   It was this emphasis on religion that distinguished church-based and government-based models, because in many other regards they were very similar.   But of the Protector and his four assistants who were appointed, all but one were Evangelical Christians, and their own religious fundamentalist beliefs very much influenced their perception of their task and the Indigenous people under their charge.   When the Protectorate all went pear-shaped, several of these Protectors sheeted home the blame partially to the secular nature of the government scheme.

Mitchell has consciously decided not to use the term ‘humanitarian’, which was not coined until 1844 and has since been overlaid with many latter-day connotations, especially in the last half-century.  Instead, she conceptualizes the impetus as ‘philanthropy’, with all its nineteenth-century connotations of benevolence, gratitude, control and religion.  Nonetheless, I was surprised to note that the Aborigines Protection Society itself in its 1840 Annual Report spoke of ‘rights’:

the rights of a common humanity, the rights of citizens, the right to possess and retain their own, the rights of protection and security to life and property, and the rights of unfettered liberty of mind, of free action and self disposal. (Third Annual Report 23 June 1840 cited on p 41)

The book explores the many tensions that are implicit in this declaration of ‘rights’, so to speak, and the aspirations for a God-centric, settled, institutionalized mission.  Philanthropists were aware of the cruel dispossession of indigenous peoples, but they were not necessarily opposed to colonialization itself.   In their attempts to foster agricultural labour on their own reserves amongst the people in their charge, missionaries themselves encouraged them to move away from traditional land use- something that became of crucial importance in late 20th century court cases (Mabo and Wik).  Those missionaries and protectors who expressed the strongest support for Indigenous land rights were those who were most opposed to an Indigenous presence in the cities.

In her introduction,  Jessie Mitchell mentions that she herself has worked in the community sector where

tensions between rights and charity and questions about the supposed (in)gratitude of vulnerable people towards state and benevolent agencies continue to have a strong relevance. (p.1)

Her analysis of ‘charity’ is insightful. Missionaries and protectors saw the distribution of food, blankets and clothing as a form of recompense for the loss of land and livelihood, but it was conditional on the Aborigines remaining on the mission.  The ‘settling’ of Indigenous peoples on a mission was seen by the government as a sign of success, but if it was done through the distribution of food, then the missionaries and protectors were accused of profligate generosity.  The missionaries’ dilemma goes on today: there were many echoes of the current government’s attempts to break the concept of ‘sit-down’ money and achieve school attendance through punishing the parents.

Perhaps the ultimate tension was in the religious missionary task itself.  We are now more attuned to the deep significance of the afterlife for Indigenous people, and are aware of the sensitivity about the names and images of people who have died.  For the missionaries, however, the afterlife and death was the major ‘hook’ to evangelize to their charges.  Mitchell emphasizes what we would now call the ‘born-again’ aspect of these missionaries’ religion: the whole  penitence, conversion, personal-relationship-with-God thing still being preached in evangelical super-churches today.  They wanted Indigenous people to have the individualistic, personal conversion experience, but they also wanted their church pews to be full with people streaming into church each Sunday, even if they didn’t yet believe.  They wanted individualism, but institutionalization as well.

And so, Mitchell suggests, we need to read the missionaries’ declarations of failure and disappointment carefully.  As born-again Evangelicals themselves, they were much given to self-examination and confession of weakness, and this was a trope that played out well in the metropolitan churches and missionary societies as well.   The Colonial Office, ever keen to reduce expenditure, took up these expressions of failure with alacrity, arguing that the whole project was futile and best ended.

While it is wonderful that this book is available as an e-book, I found myself wishing that it had a few more book-like features.   I read it in hard copy, and I missed an index in particular, and for some reason that I can’t quite fathom, I found the absence of chapter numbers frustrating.  It is not difficult to read, but you’re still aware that the thesis is not far distant.  I liked the way that the chapters started off with an anecdote or episode, and the logic of the argument was clearly laid out in the chapter structure.  Conceptually, it’s a complete, well-managed project. As a narrative, the thirty-year time span gives a coherence and almost elegiac quality to this humanitarian experiment that was tried and found wanting.

Note 1: Glenelg to Gipps 31 January 1838

aww-badge-2015-200x300My first posting to the Australian Women Writers Challenge for 2015

‘Connecting’ at the masterclass

Well, now I can tell you what happens at a masterclass!  There were about eighteen or so participants, drawn from universities across Australia, but the majority were from the University of Tasmania. The masterclass was hosted by Penny Edmonds from the University of Tasmania,  and several Uni of Tasmania academics attended including Anna Johnston (who wrote The Paper Wars which I reviewed here), Hamish Maxwell-Stewart and Kristyn Harman, whose book Aboriginal Convicts: Australian, Khoisan and Maori Exiles recently won the Kay Daniels award.

But the major drawcard, for me at least, was the presence of  Dr. Zoe Laidlaw, Reader in British Imperial and Colonial History at Royal Holloway, University of London. Continue reading

‘A Swindler’s Progress’ by Kirsten McKenzie


2009, 303 p. & notes

A couple of weeks ago I thought that I had finished the best book that I would be reading during 2013.  I was premature in my declaration.  This is the best book that I have read this year, and in this case, I have no qualms at all about the  behaviour of its author as a professional historian.  Kirsten McKenzie’s earlier book Scandal in the Colonies is one of the books that has shaped my approach to my own research.  Her portrayal of colonial life in the early nineteenth century as a criss-crossing of networks and connections between different colonies across the globe rings true for ‘my’ judge and the other officials that he encountered during his career, as a quick glance through the Australian Dictionary of Biography will attest.  She writes clearly, with humour, and interweaves human stories into a robust and insightful theoretical framework.  She’s the sort of historian I wish I could be.

In fact, as she explains in the epilogue,  it was her concern as a professional historian with the accuracy of her footnotes just as Scandal in the Colonies was about to roll off the press that brought her to writing this book.  As part of the History Wars of the Howard era, Keith Windschuttle challenged the historiography of aboriginal/settler conflict, largely on the basis of the accuracy of footnotes.  Like many historians, I should imagine, McKenzie became increasingly “twitchy” (as she puts it) over her own footnotes, and so, suffering “footnote paranoia”,  she returned to the story with which she opened Scandal in the Colonies and found it even more fascinating than when she encountered it the first time.  It was the case of  the putative Viscount Lascelles – in reality, the implausibly but actually named John Dow- a convict who served out his time in Van Diemen’s land after being transported for swindling using yet another false identity. On the expiry of his sentence, he traversed the NSW interior, claiming that he had been commissioned by the Secretary of State to inquire into the proper treatment of assigned convicts.  He claimed that he was the eldest son of the second Earl of Harewood- a claim haughtily denied by the Earl back in England whose eldest son, in fact had been disinherited after making a series of disastrous liaisons. As part of his ruse as Commissioner of Inquiry, ‘Viscount Lascelles’/John Dow eloped with a young woman and ended up in the Sydney Supreme Court in an unsuccessful attempt to rescue her from her parents who had reclaimed her, only to see her married some time later to the nephew of the future Chief Justice Dowling who heard the case. He was subsequently returned to the Supreme Court after his deception was discovered- where, yes! he encountered ‘my’ Judge Willis!  In Scandal in the Colonies, the anecdote takes less than two pages. In A Swindler’s Progress it effortlessly fills 300 pages.

The distance and dislocation of the colonies gave scope to false identities and reinventions.  There are many famous ones both in literature and in real life: Robyn Annear’s book The Man Who Lost Himself about the Tichborne Claimant springs to mind. But this book is much more than the story of an antipodean imposter. McKenzie shuttles between the real Earl of Harewood and his son, bringing in parliamentary politics in 1807, West Indian plantation ownership, elopements and disinheritances, and the imposter son Viscount Lascelles and his deceptions in England, Scotland and New South Wales.  The real skill of her book is integrating the two stories, on opposite sides of the globe to explore the way in which the British world was convulsed in this period by debates about identity, wealth, demeanour and masculinity.  Note that it is “the British world”- an arena which interweaves both metropole and peripheries as a conceptual transnational whole:

As I began my hunt for Dow and the Lascelles, scholars of empire were calling for histories that recognised that developments in British and colonial societies were part and parcel of the same process.  The problem was: how to write it? How could this miracle of synthesis be achieved in anything like a readable manner?  How could you show it was happening? And how could you show what it was like to be caught up in these interconnected events?  Here I had the story of two men: of one who had come to vanish, and another who had stolen that identity to pursue his own ends.  But their fates were part of far bigger events. (Epilogue, p. 296)

Her earlier book Scandal in the Colonies is a tapestry of such stories, woven between Sydney and Cape Town between 1820 and 1850.  It has many theoretical insights that make you stop, reread, and realize that things are falling into place.  In this second book, she makes this theory come alive as she meanders along a story that crosses years and oceans, looping back on itself, with deceptions and evasions and disappointments and anxieties in multiple settings.  It is not necessarily a straightforward chronology, first in one country, then the other, although the structure of the book does support this rather simplistic approach.  The book is far more discursive than this, stopping to explore phenomena and events only tangentially connected with the main narrative thread. It is far more a ‘life and times’ of a phenomena than a biography of Lascelles in both his authentic and false identities.

Her epilogue betrays a slight defensiveness about her use of narrative to explore these all-too-human responses in the face of sweeping social change:

Is narrative simply a way for historians to smooth over the mess that is the past; to re-arrange it into comfortingly familiar patterns that have beginnings, middles and ends?  and yet, for all our scholarly suspicion of the neatening effects of stories, they still possess a powerful explanatory energy.  What was it like to be buffeted by those forces that were transforming so profoundly the British imperial world in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries? Those caught up in them would not live their lives according to the synthesising arguments of scholars.  Rather, they would act according to the dictates of narrative and plot: finding opportunities, being thwarted, experiencing greed, hope despair.  To follow these twists and turns is to highlight the way their world was changing.  It is luck and chance and swindles and lies and unexpected opportunities that direct lives and fates. (p.298)

She need not be defensive.  She is a master storyteller who uses the human to enliven the theoretical, and the insights of the scholarly enrich her narrative of lives lived with contingency, imperfection and incomplete endings.  This is the best book I’ve read all year.

My rating: A big fat, unequivocal 10

Read because: I enjoyed Scandal in the Colonies so much and I can reassure myself that at least I’m reading about the 19th century British empire this time

Sourced from: my shelves- a Christmas present from my husband in 2009.  Hmmm…… it took me a little while to get round to reading it.

awwbadge_2013This will be, I think, one of my last postings to the Australian Women Writers Challenge for 2013.

‘Babes in the Bush: The Making of an Australian Image’ by Kim Torney


2005,  241p.

I feel as if the McCubbin image that graces the front cover of this book has been hanging in the corridor of every school I have ever attended.  Just looking at it evokes for me the smell of squashed sandwiches and pencil cases.  Likewise, the mere mention of the “Lost in the Bush” story in the primary school reader brings back memories of brave little Jane Duff, struggling with her brother to carry their baby brother through the ravines of the endless bush, tenderly covering him with her cotton dress at night.  Of course, that’s the whole power of an image:  just a glimpse or uttered word evokes a cascade of remembrances and associations. And as the title of this book suggests, the lost child in the bush is a particularly durable and potent Australian image. Continue reading

“A Search for Sovereignty” by Lauren Benton

2010, 300 p & notes

Lauren Benton A Search for Sovereignty: Law and Geography in European Empires 1400-1900

As a 1960’s schoolgirl, there was something rather comforting about all that red (or was it pink? or just faded?) territory on the map of the world that graced every classroom.  So much red; so neat and decisive.  In the same vein,  I think that John Howard was also drawing on the soothing idea of defined borders- so easy in an island continent- when he thundered that “we will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come”.

But as Lauren Benton argues in this book, borders (even for islands) are porous and contested. Although laws might be passed to regulate who comes, they often cannot be enforced-  or I’d suggest can only be enforced at significant financial and moral cost.  Nor did all that red on the map unfurl in an orderly, deliberate fashion.  Instead,  European control in new colonies was often “lumpy”. It was thick along river-banks, but sparse to non-existent inland; harsh on islands; cocooned in enclaves; and subsumed by the larger ‘law of the sea’ in open waters.

Benton divides her book into four geographical sites: rivers regions, oceans, islands and hill enclaves, and she ranges across a number of European empires to illustrate the contingent, fragile and contested nature of legal authority in these settings.

Rivers were “corridors of elusive but essential imperial control” and counterintuitively, it was the law of treason that colonists wielded against both whites and indigenous peoples perceived to be hindering exploration.  Quite a deft legal move there: using the crime of treason against people to whom legal protection was not offered!

She depicts the oceans as an even legal space, divided into long, thin zones of imperfect control that connected port towns, coasts, garrisons and islands.  Pirates and privateers drew on several competing legal regimes in drawing up commissions and in transacting privateering schemes, and they operated in the margins of the distinctions between the right to navigate and the right to exclude others from navigating.

Islands were used by empires as sites of exile with their own anomalous legal regimes (Van Diemens Land, Norfolk,…Guantanamo, Nauru,  Manus….) underpinned by military discipline of civilians and justified by evocations of vaguely defined emergency.  In such places,

…nature would corral criminals, military rule would ensure order, and systemic violence would respond to vaguely defined necessity (p.220)

Hills, too, were defined either as sites of lawlessness (think bushrangers in VDL, the maroons in Jamaica) or purity (Indian states- even Shangri-la??) and often became little enclaves, carved out and separate from surrounding legal, social and political regimes.

The structure of this book works well in explicating  the argument by jolting the reader loose from a focus on a particular territory or  empire. Instead, it ranges across the globe in exploring a geographical rather than territorial topic, and it includes Spanish, Dutch, English, Portuguese empires.  The structure also works chronologically as well, and the book ends with a  reminder of current fault lines between geography and law: the contentious status of Guantanamo Bay, the bare sovereignty offered to Iraq and Afghanistan, jurisdiction within US Indian reservations, and part-sovereign enclaves like Gaza.

‘Bogle Corbet’ by John Galt

1833, 334 p.

You may not have heard of Bogle Corbet, or of its author the Scottish writer John Galt but he was an incredibly prolific author, celebrated in both Scotland and Canada as an important Romantic-era author who based his narratives on “theoretical history” drawn from his observations and empirical facts . Indeed, there is a whole field of “Galt Studies” with books and conferences- none of which had entered my Antipodean awareness, I must admit.   I have a particular interest in John Galt because he socialized with my research interest, Judge Willis, when they were both in Canada in 1828.  But although John Galt may have a higher profile in Canada, and especially in Guelph which he helped establish in the 1820s, he’s not exactly a household name in Australia.

Bogle Corbet  is fiction, but it is very much the sort of book that you might expect a land and emigration entrepreneur, as Galt was, to write.  It is not autobiography, but instead a distillation of the ‘typical’ immigrant experience that he observed as part of his own role, especially as it related to the Canada Company.   However, the span of his narrative works, and particularly Bogle Corbet has prompted a reappraisal of him as a transnational author, and hence important in historical and cultural studies today.

Bogle Corbet is,  I gather, amongst his many books the one  that deals most with the immigrant experience. It is a product of its time and taste, and rather forgettable.  It comes as a three-volume edition, available through the Internet Archive and, dear me, if ever a format encouraged verbosity it must have been the three-volume novel. It is a thinly-disguised immigrant tract, aimed at the gentleman settler market, and although the fictional young Bogle travelled far from his Scottish origins- London, West Indies, back to Scotland, then Canada- not much seems to happen in this book.

The historian in me enjoyed seeing the historical reality of British emigration fictionalized, but it’s not exactly riveting stuff.  Originally of Jamaican birth of Scottish planter parents, Bogle Corbet was sent back to Scotland for his education, as was the usual practice. He seemed to fall into a career as a Glasgow merchant, a very Scottish profession, and when business faltered after the Napoleonic Wars, he travelled to the West Indies to see how their contacts were faring over there.  His observations of slavery were of the time, but the language used in characterizing the negroes sits very uncomfortably today.  I don’t even want to quote from it:  it is better left submerged in this rather obscure book.  He returned to Scotland, married rather diffidently, and when his financial prospects failed to improve, he decided to emigrate to Upper Canada instead.  His status and contacts ensured that he became the leader of an emigration scheme, shifting poor Scottish labourers over to a dedicated settlement in Upper Canada, and although some were tempted to go south into America, several soon returned chastened by their experience to take up labouring jobs to raise the money to purchase their own farms eventually (in good rather Wakefieldian fashion).

There’s a rather neat little switch where his reminiscences all of a sudden burst into the present tense, and some clever meta-narrative with a couple of self-referential passages where he comments on the act of writing. But to be honest, such gems are few and far between.  I have a particular reason for reading this book, but you probably don’t and frankly, there are better ways to spend 300-odd pages.

If I haven’t discouraged you completely, you can download all three volumes at the Internet Archive or as an e-book at Google Books.

‘Bunyip Aristocracy’ by Ged Martin

Ged Martin Bunyip Aristocracy: the New South Wales constitution debate of 1853 and hereditary institutions in the British Colonies, Sydney, Croom Helm, 1986, 198 pages & notes.

To understand the past in its full roundness, the historian must acknowledge that the ideas and plans which did not come to fruition are sometimes as significant as those which did.  Any other approach is tantamount to accepting that what has happened had to happen, it which case there is really no point in writing history at all. (p. 197)

“Bunyip aristocracy”- what a delicious phrase! It was coined by Daniel Deniehy to describe the squatters and pastoralists who, if they got their way in the constitutional debates of the early 1850s,  would style themselves as earls and lord it over the rest of the people. He was speaking  at a protest meeting held at the Victoria Theatre (in Sydney) on 15 August 1853, on the eve of the Select Committee of NSW’s debate about a hereditary aristocracy.

People may have laughed at the idea of a jumped-up bunyip aristocracy  but, as Ged Martin points out

From the standpoint of modern Australia the scheme is exotically bizarre. To men who saw themselves as a resident outpost of a British world, it was eminently appropriate… In many ways, New South Wales and 1853 were the logical place and year for the idea to surface.  As a colony of large pastoralists it had a superficial similarity to landed society in Britain. Its convict past had accustomed its landowning and conservative classes to equate the defence of political control with social exclusivism.” (p. 195, 196)

The idea of a hereditary colonial aristocracy that could sit in an upper house was not new, however, and nor was it confined to New South Wales alone.  In the early chapters of this book, Martin examines the idea of hereditary institutions across the empire.  Hereditary honours for Canadian colonists were mooted in the British parliament during the debate over the 1791 Canadian constitution, but the suggestion was not acted upon.  The governor of British Guiana, Sir James Carmichael Smyth, urged the establishment of a colonial order of knighthood in 1831 and again in 1837.  It was an idea that bubbled up from time to time, only to subside again when derided or frowned upon at either the London or colonial end.

In its favour was the argument that as British subjects, colonists should be able to be considered for imperial honours.  It was felt that by instituting a framework of honours, not-quite-aristocratic-but-close-enough families would be encouraged to migrate to the colonies, where they would improve the temper of society.  An upper house composed of hereditary peerages, with perhaps the odd lifetime peer thrown in to give people something to aspire to, would act as a brake on democratic excess. After all, the colonial lords would have the long-term interests of their families and their dignity at heart, and so could be trusted to do the right thing.

But should they be ‘proper’ titles, that had good standing back home? What if England was flooded with newly minted lords, flaunting their new titles when there was such demand for titles in Britain itself?  Was it possible to invent an instant aristocracy, or was it the outcome of centuries of slow growth?

These problems were never really resolved, and by the time the British government considered the new constitution for New South Wales, the proposal for a hereditary upper house had been withdrawn at the colonial end.  Not that it was envisaged that it would be an instant House of Lords in New South Wales: instead, it was envisaged that an order of baronets, uniting wealth and merit, would be established by nomination, which over time would become an electoral college for the upper house.

As Martin points out, it turned out that Australian politics ended up with a number of legislators styled ‘Sir’ and a number of families that developed a tradition of political service anyway : Sir Robert Menzies, Sir Richard Casey and political dynasties like the Anthonys, the Downers, the Jenkins, the Cains and the Newmans.   It was sobering to remember the occasional re-emergence of quaint ideas of Australia as a cadet monarchy with suggestions that Prince Charles might become governor-general, or a rather weird suggestion that Princess Alexandra might become Queen of Australia.  Sir Robert Menzies was her first son’s godfather, and his middle name was Bruce (after Sir Stanley Bruce, I assume, and not because the name ‘Bruce’ summons up a broad-shouldered farmer with big hands?)

Queen Sandy of Australia?

Apparently this idea was treated with derision, with critics suggesting that Sir Robert Menzies or Sir Richard Casey could be appointed governor-general of Great Britain instead.

In many ways this book is a good counterpart to Peter Cochrane’s Colonial Ambition, although it lacks the rollicking characterizations of Cochrane’s book. The typesetting is of its time and awful: dense, single-spaced, typed pages with footnotes jammed up against the lines of text.   It’s not a what-if history, but it does finish by noting the things that could have brought a hereditary honours system or a cadet monarchy into existence, had they fallen differently.  And had a more systematic association with the royal princes developed,

Historians would still have gently derided the whole thing, because historians are usually good-humoured progressives.  But historians are also very good at being wise after the event.  If the persistent rhetoric of transferring British institutions to the colonies had actually led to an attempt to imitate the distinctively hereditary features of Britain’s constitution, no historian today would express much surprise. (p. 198)