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. Continue reading “The curious colonial afterlife of the 1837 Select Committee Report on Aborigines”

War heroes, armchair lawyers, and imperial legacies

Paulus Vladmiri, the Latin rendering of Paweł Włodkowic, author of the Tractatus de Potestate Papae et Imperatoris Respectu Infidelium (1415)

Edward Cavanagh
University of Cambridge

Complete autonomy in the waging of war is a proud attribute of countries like Australia. It has been so ever since the imperial crown finally got around to delegating this aspect of the royal prerogative to peripheral nations of the British Commonwealth in the wake of World War II. But with power comes responsibility, so the old adage goes, otherwise complacency is allowed to set in, blurring history and politics in the vindication of bellicosity abroad. If this trend cannot be countered with expressions of criticism, then history suggests that we might well have surrendered, for the time being at least, all expectations we might have for pacific reforms of any kind.

Chris Masters, a prominent Australian investigative journalist, has just published a book, No Front Line (2017), which provides a glimpse into the lives of that country’s special forces serving in Afghanistan. Eyebrows have been raised at the description it carries of an incident in June 2006, which saw an unarmed Afghani man gunned down by Australian soldiers fearful of revealing their secret location.

Sadly an affray like this is unexceptional in the scope of any war featuring foreign troops placed into a region and given objectives to defend their positions against elements of the population hemming them in. And its coverage in the book is even-handed, one of many incidents catalogued by the author in a mostly bland way, rescued only by the occasional quotation of soldiers accounting for the performances of their ‘mates’ with unflinching manliness.

What makes the incident noteworthy is Australia’s remarkable inability to separate the politics of war from the commemoration of its victims. Unhelpful here are the apparent aversions, more generally, of senior public servants, journalists, and returned soldiers to articulate with any nuance some of the problems associated with the politicisation and memorialisation of Australian participation in foreign wars. These might be the symptoms of a deficiency of criticism in popular discourse. They might rather suggest an intolerance to history. In any case, here is an ailment that can be treated by insisting upon an observation of war not just as a policy but, more importantly, as an idea plenty quarrelled over, across empires and epochs, and through time and space. Continue reading “War heroes, armchair lawyers, and imperial legacies”

Amanda Nettelbeck (Adelaide) on creating Aboriginal subjects of the Crown in colonial Australia – this Wed., May 3

Protection, conciliation and coercion: creating Aboriginal subjects of the Crown in colonial Australia

Centre for Imperial and Global History Seminar Series

When: Wed. May 3, 4:30pm

Where: Amory 115, University of Exeter

Amanda Nettelbeck
University of Adelaide

Recent scholarship has seen a spike of interest in the politics of colonial humanitarianism and its various expressions around the British Empire from the late 18th century onwards. In particular, the project of Aboriginal ‘protection’ that had its formal heyday between the mid-1830s and the mid-1850s has received renewed focus as one of the most important means through which nineteenth-century strategies of humane governance were put into operation. Once conventionally regarded as a relatively short-lived Colonial Office agenda to extend justice and rights to indigenous people, the mid nineteenth-century project of protection has more recently been reconsidered in terms of its role to help secure the Crown’s practical jurisdiction in unruly colonies, and its motivations to create indigenous people’s colonial subjectivity. Continue reading “Amanda Nettelbeck (Adelaide) on creating Aboriginal subjects of the Crown in colonial Australia – this Wed., May 3”

‘The Indian masseur’: How Teepoo Hall Kneaded Early ‘White’ Melbourne

Nadia Rhook
La Trobe University

I recently came across a photograph I can’t stop thinking about. Captured in 1905, it shows a Bangalore-trained masseur, Teepoo Hall, in the middle of a Melbourne Hospital room. One woman and twenty some men have clustered around Hall to watch him massage the bare shoulders of a reclining woman. Many of the students display bemusement in half-smiles. One of the men is positioned very close to Hall’s left shoulder and looks forthrightly at the camera, as if ready to learn from Hall; ready, even, to take Hall’s place.

The Weekly Times, 30 September 1905, State Library of Victoria
The Weekly Times, 30 September 1905, State Library of Victoria.

The photo shows the transfer of Indian knowledge in process in the medical heart of Melbourne. It does so four years after the institution of the racially exclusive federal 1901 Immigration Restriction Act (IRA), which was effectively reducing the numbers of Indians in Australia. And yet, as the picture shows, in the early 20th century Hall continued to promote the ‘art of massage’.[1] Indeed, Hall had recently become a founding member of the Australian Massage Association, and on this basis he features in histories of physiotherapy in Australia.[2]

The image thus tells an intriguing story, but not a typical one. Probing further, we can understand that the picture also reflects a tension of nation-building and empire. In Hall’s centrality and power, an inversion is at play. Most white-made representations of the day consigned Indians to the ‘slum’ margins of ‘Little Lon’, and showed them as an ‘undesirable nuisance’. But in this Melbourne Hospital room, Hall literally had the upper hand. Continue reading “‘The Indian masseur’: How Teepoo Hall Kneaded Early ‘White’ Melbourne”

“Malcolm X Exploded in My Mind”: The Transnational Imagination of Australian Indigenous Activists

The Black Power salute given by Chicka Dixon, Paul Coe and Bob McLeod Source: Audio Visual Archive, Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies, Canberra. Courtesy of the National Museum Australia website.
The Black Power salute given by Aboriginal activists Chicka Dixon, Paul Coe, and Bob McLeod in 1972. Source: Audio Visual Archive, Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies, Canberra. Courtesy of the National Museum Australia website.

Jon Piccini
University of Queensland
Follow on Twitter @JonPiccini

Recently, an upturn in indigenous struggles in Australia have seen the legacies of colonialism and genocide forced back onto the national radar. Protests against the closure of indigenous communities, the continued forced removal of Aboriginal children by welfare agencies, and the birth of youth-led groups like Warriors of the Aboriginal Resistance (WAR) are but a few examples of this. Instead of the sanitised government-sponsored campaign to ‘Recognise’ indigenous peoples in the Australian constitution, many of these activists are looking back to the global struggles of the 1960s and 1970s for their political inspiration. Continue reading ““Malcolm X Exploded in My Mind”: The Transnational Imagination of Australian Indigenous Activists”

Australia & the Fascist Idea of Greater Britain

Oswald Mosley at a BUF parade, 1936.
Oswald Mosley at a BUF parade, 1936.

Evan Smith
Flinders University
Follow on Twitter @Hatfulofhistory

‘Our world mission is the maintenance and development of the heritage of Empire,’ the leader of the British Union of Fascists (BUF), Sir Oswald Mosley, declared in the BUF’s journal, Fascist Quarterly, in 1936.[1] Although often overlooked by scholars of British fascism, this pro-imperial sentiment was central to the ideology of the BUF. For the BUF, the maintenance of the British Empire was imperative – key to keeping Britain’s place within the world and ensuring living standards in the domestic sphere. Continue reading “Australia & the Fascist Idea of Greater Britain”

Empires in Perspective: Baudin, Napoleon and the Exploration of Australia

Australiaexplore

Rachel Chin 
History Department, University of Exeter

Nicole Starbuck. Baudin, Napoleon and the Exploration of Australia. London: Pickering & Chatto, 2013. 208 pp. £60 (hardback), ISBN 978 1 84893 210 4; £24 (eBook), ISBN 978 1 84893 210 4.

Baudin_FrontAs the blade of the guillotine slowed in the aftermath of the Terror, Napoleon took up the reigns as First Consul and French explorer Nicolas Baudin proposed an ambitious voyage to “interest the whole of Europe” [12]. It is also where Nicole Starbuck begins Baudin, Napoleon and the Exploration of Australia (2013). A commoner by birth, Baudin made his name as a member of the French merchant marine and French East India Company, eventually captaining a scientific voyage to the Caribbean. However, his 1802 Australian voyage was unique in its narrow scope of exploration, and its unprecedented twenty-two participating naturalists and scientists. This voyage was the first to emphasize specialized knowledge acquisition and scientific detail, a shift from earlier Enlightenment explorations, when natural history was seen as “a sweeping and largely philosophical study of the natural environment…implicated in questions about rationality” [15]. Continue reading “Empires in Perspective: Baudin, Napoleon and the Exploration of Australia”