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”