The curious colonial afterlife of the 1837 Select Committee Report on Aborigines

Penny Edmonds and Zoë Laidlaw

In August 1838 from his base in Cape Town, senior Quaker James Backhouse sent the 1837 House of Commons Report from the Select Committee on Aborigines (British Settlements) to at least twenty-five men and one woman of influence across the Australian colonies The precious package, wrapped in sturdy paper, addressed in purple-black iron gall ink and secured with string, was posted across oceans by ship, and later by road, into the hands of a multi-denominational network of humanitarians, religious figures, colonial officials, police magistrates and powerful settlers. Backhouse attached the highest import to the report as a means of bringing moral reform and humane colonization to violent frontiers, where Aboriginal people fought settlers for their lands.

Short letters were attached to each parcel. Backhouse wrote to Reverend John Espie Keane of Bathurst, New South Wales: “The British Government is now awaking to a sense of its error of conduct towards the Native Tribes of its colonies … I hope that reading the Report may stir up thy zeal … on this interesting and highly important subject.” To George Langhorne, a missionary at Port Phillip, Backhouse write that the report was “a work deeply interesting, and well calculated both to restrain outrage against the Aboriginal inhabitants of our Colonies, and to promote rational sentiments respecting their rights.”

The 1837 Report of the Parliamentary Select Committee on Aboriginal Tribes (British Settlements) ushered in a new era of Aboriginal protectorates across the Australian colonies and New Zealand that would have far reaching consequences for Indigenous peoples, and its regulations and effects under the rubric of “protective governance” resonate still today.   The report has been frequently invoked by scholars as a touchstone or “blueprint” of British humanitarian policy in new settlements in the 1830s, including in Australia, North America, and New Zealand and the Pacific, at the high point of humanitarian reform. It was released in the wake of the abolition of slavery in British settlements (1834), when humanitarians turned their attention from the abolitionist cause to the fate of Indigenous peoples in Britain’s colonies, and coincided with the violent land rush in these new settlements. Alongside its recommendations, the report contained hundreds of pages of affective testimony delivered to the select committee by Indigenous peoples and humanitarians, as well as colonial and military officials.

The 1837 report is well known to historians. Yet, as our research reveals, it is less widely known that there was not one but three editions of the select committee’s report circulating at that time. As a result, most accounts routinely conflate the different versions of the report, and have paid scant attention to their construction as material, textual artefacts, and even less to their various meanings as textual missives, or their circulation in the colonies. Our research revisits an imperial text that has been regarded as canonical, to ask what its sometimes complicated history, as both an embodiment of knowledge and a circulating paper artefact, might tell us. 

Curiously, Backhouse had chosen to post from Cape Town a version of the report published by the Aborigines’ Protection Society (APS), rather than that published by his own Quaker cohort, the Society of Friends.

Why did he do this? And who repackaged the report and why?

The answers lay within the story of Backhouse’s parcels.

We examine the linked histories of humanitarianism and protective governance in the new book Aboriginal Protection and Its Intermediaries in Britain’s Antipodean Colonies, by historians Samuel Furphy and Amanda Nettelbeck.

Our chapter, ‘The British Government is now awaking’: how humanitarian Quakers repackaged and circulated the 1837 Select Committee Report on Aborigines’, is one contribution to a volume that explores how the concept of “protection” was applied to Indigenous peoples in Britain’s Antipodean colonies. The collection maps the changes and continuities that marked protective governance as an inherently ambivalent mode of colonial practice from the 1830s until the end of the nineteenth century. As the editors point out, critical scrutiny of such forms of protection reveals how humanitarian initiatives to ameliorate colonial violence could be coupled with forceful and regulatory measures to build the terms of governance in the British Empire. Indeed, such measures could codify new forms of violence, which too often compromised the lives and sovereignties of Indigenous peoples.

We explore the report’s curious and unofficial afterlife via the production of three different versions: the official Parliamentary Papers; an edition by the Society of Friends (Quakers); and an extended version published by the (then) newly founded Aborigines’ Protection Society (APS).

We show how and why the official report was repackaged by two distinct, but connected, groups of metropolitan humanitarians, each based on the activities of Quaker physician and co-founder of the APS, Dr Thomas Hodgkin. Previously unexamined archives show that the APS version of the report (not that of the Society of Friends) was given particular moral weight by the two key Quakers, Backhouse and Hodgkin, and was distributed through humanitarian networks to influential figures in the Australian colonies. Backhouse had met many of these figures during his nine-year tour. Recipients of the packages included at least three Quakers, various Methodists, major pastoralists, government officials and the police magistrates William Lonsdale in Port Phillip, Foster Fyans in Geelong, and Archibald Innes at Port Macquarie, who were charged with the double task of treating Aboriginal peoples as subjects of the Crown while advancing settler interests. Backhouse also posted the APS report to influential men in the Swan River colony, which he had visited in 1837. These recipients were lawyer and politician George Fletcher Moore and Captain Frederick Chidley Irwin, Commandant of the Western Australian forces. Both Irishmen, Moore and Irwin were closely associated with the capture and execution of Aboriginal leaders Midgegooroo and Yagan, and deeply implicated in the violence of an expanding frontier.

Backhouse and Hodgkin were heavily invested in the select committee proceedings, with Hodgkin favouring the APS edition of its report because it included material that had been excised from the official version. Backhouse sent the APS version of the report to three key men of influence whom he had met in Sydney – Colonial Secretary Alexander McLeay, Archibald Innes­ and the Reverend John Saunders – and they would be central to the formation of the Sydney branch of the APS or the “Australian APS” in October 1838, suggesting that the report’s distribution was part of a trans-imperial moment of humanitarian activism. Backhouse held the APS version in high esteem, believing that the recently formed APS, through its campaigns and, indeed, by its very existence, would correct colonial violence and promote the recognition, and hence protection, of Indigenous people. He wrote hopefully that societies like the APS would “help break weak principle by exposing delinquency, [and] are highly to be valued. The very knowledge of the existence of such a Society, is in itself, a protection to the Aborigines.” Backhouse believed the APS was powerful enough not only to awaken the Government and colonist alike, but also that it would cultivate “a better feeling” towards Indigenous peoples and potentially arrest “those deeds of atrocity toward them, which disgraced former times.”

The report was never a single defining narrative or a fixed blueprint for protection; rather, it was a constitutionally unstable and politically contingent text. Historians have emphasized the select committee’s endorsement of protectorates – particularly in light of the establishment of the Port Phillip protectorate – and their subsequent implementation in South Australia, Western Australia and New Zealand. Yet, as we have found, the humanitarian language of “protection” in the colonies was shaped by differences of opinion over the role of missionaries and also by outrage about settler and state violence in the region of southern Africa.

By drawing on the correspondence of Hodgkin, the metropolitan Quaker activist, and Backhouse, the Quaker travelling under concern, we show what the multiple textual narratives contained in the report reveal about attitudes to the culpability of the British nation and the protection of Indigenous subjects. Backhouse and Hodgkin conceived of “protection” as more an abstract imperial responsibility than a function of the state. In the 1830s they imagined an improved form of settler colonialism, in which newly empowered and civilized Indigenous people would lay claim to rights recognized by equally civilized and virtuous settler communities. Yet, while the Quakers objected to violence, their reformist vision upheld impossible notions of a “humane” colonization and rarely opposed colonization outright. If Backhouse and Hodgkin had hoped that the report would encourage well-meaning colonizers to feel the responsibility of “participating in the sin of the British government against these people,” it did not stop many colonial recipients of the report, including Quakers and clergy, from taking up a great deal of Aboriginal land. As Antipodean settler colonialism accelerated, Backhouse’s 1838 dispatch of the APS Aborigines Report from the Cape to the Australian colonies marked a critical moment, both chronologically and geographically, in the networked and global distribution of humanitarian ideas.

Penny Edmonds is Assoc. Professor of History at the University of Tasmania. She is a recent Australian Research Council Future Fellow and Chief Investigator of the project “Reform in the Antipodes: Quaker Humanitarians, Imperial Journeys and Early Histories of Human Rights.”  Her research area is in colonial and Indigenous histories, postcolonialism, humanitarianism, and Australian and Pacific-region contact and transnational histories.

Zoë Laidlaw is Professor of History at the University of Melbourne. Her research on Britain’s nineteenth-century empire focuses on networks and information flow, governance and humanitarianism, especially in the colonies of settlement.