08.26.2011

Responsible Imperialism

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Between 1836 and 1909, the British Empire grew to take in New Zealand, much of Australia, Fiji, New Guinea, Southern Africa (beyond the Cape), and much more — from 2,824,040 square miles to 12,700,000. As we now know, imperial rule tore the lives of millions of native peoples apart, uprooting them from the land, pushing them aside into reservations and turning them into wage slaves, sucking resources and wealth to feed Britain’s industrial expansion. Today, of course, we have much more enlightened views. The United Nations declared an International Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in 2007, after dedicating first 1993 and then the decade 1994–2005 to their rights. The wrongs done to indigenous peoples in the Americas, Australia, and New Zealand have been addressed in apologies, declarations, commissions, land and political reform.

It might come as a surprise, then, to discover that the duty to protect Aboriginal peoples is not a recent idea at all. In those years between 1836 and 1909, the Aborigines’ Protection Society, a powerful lobby of British parliamentarians, colonial officials, churchmen and the Great and the Good worked on behalf of native peoples. The Aborigines’ Protection Society played a key role in the development of imperial policy, writing special laws into the new colonies that enshrined the protection of native custom, leadership and land. Even more surprising, as you read over the parliamentary debates and the colonial office records, you will discover that as each of the new colonies was brought under the British Crown most of that territory was taken with the stated aim of protecting the native peoples there. The Members of Parliament pushing for colonization were all leading lights or friends of the Aborigines’ Protection Society — Alderman M’Arthur, William Forster, Lord Shaftesbury, Joseph Chamberlain.

They did not call them “indigenous” in those days — they were “aborigines” a word not just for the original people of Australia, but for all First Peoples, who they called “Caffres” in South Africa, Chippeway in Canada. The United Nations brought Guatemala activist Rigoberta Menchu to London in 1993. More than a century earlier the Aborigines’ Protection Society brought the Zulu Cetshwayo and then the Maori Chiefs to the Lord Mayor of London’s Mansion House. (Bemused at the fashion for romanticizing the Iroquois, Karl Marx noted that “each century . . . produces its own primitives.”)

In 1835, a Select Committee of the British Parliament sat to decide “what measures ought to be adopted with regard to the native inhabitants of countries where British settlements are made.” The Select Committee had been proposed by Thomas Fowell Buxton a leader of the anti-slavery movement who went on to found the Aborigines’ Protection Society. In the Committee Members of Parliament heard of the terrible persecution of the Xhosa in South Africa, of natives at the hands of the Hudson’s Bay Company, and of the coming extinction of the Tasmanian Aborigines.

There were two strong influences that led to the Select Committee. The first was the great success of the evangelically-inspired anti-slavery campaign (slavery was abolished under the 1833 Act). Britain’s commercial elite embraced anti-slavery to show that they were about more than making money. Many of the activists and supporters of the church-based anti-slavery movement took up the Aborigines’ Protection Society as their new cause.

The second influence on the 1835 Select Committee was fierce metropolitan loathing for emigrants. More and more of the poor and displaced were trying to escape boom-and-bust Britain — they suffered miserable trips of many months in the holds of stinking ships to get away, some economic migrants, others in chains as ”transportees.” The emigrants were called “scum,” or ”human dregs” that had overflowed Britain to settle elsewhere — a strong image for people whose sewage collected in septic tanks. The British middle classes were most upset when these renegades made their fortunes overseas. Assertive colonists in the Canadian colonies, New Zealand and the Cape were calling for a greater say over their own government — and Westminster was still smarting over the American Revolution. The Aborigines’ Protection Society, and the Select Committee that came before it, were full of sympathy for “the aboriginal populations of countries into which the white peoples of Europe were constantly pouring their surplus populations.” A greater concern for natives was one way of undermining the grasping settlers.


The Select Committee Report, published in 1837 sent shockwaves around the Empire. In South Africa, the Governor Benjamin D’Urban was recalled for his role in a smash-and-grab seizure of the territory known as Queen Adelaide Province (one of few times that the colonial office disallowed the colonization — the territory was set free, at least until 1847). Under its new dispensation, the British Crown decided not to seize New Zealand, but instead negotiated a treaty at Waitangi in 1840, promising “Her Majesty the Queen of England confirms and guarantees to the Chiefs and Tribes of New Zealand . . . the full exclusive and undisturbed possession of their Lands.” And as a check to the emigrants to Australia, the Secretary of State for the Colonies, Lord Glenelg appointed a Protector of Aborigines, and gave instructions to the governors to safeguard the natives.

To defend the ambitions of the Select Committee Buxton formed the Aborigines’ Protection Society. The Society gathered the most forward looking people to think about the colonies. Herbert Spencer and De Tocqueville were subscribers, and Secretary Thomas Hodgkin was a leading light in medicine as he was in anthropology. Against the trend of nineteenth century race theory the Society took as its slogan, “ab uno sanguine” — Latin for “of one blood.”

The framework set out in the Select Committee report saw Governors negotiate land titles with hand-picked native leaders, in an attempt to set limits on the rapid expansion of the European settlements. The theory that lay behind the proposals was that of “controlled emigration,” most clearly laid out by Edward Gibbon Wakefield, an advisor to the colonizer’s champion Lord Durham. Along with the Aborigines’ Protection Society Secretary Thomas Hodgkin Wakefield and the Colonial Office, Wakefield worked out a scheme that would

see the Crown reserve land for natives so as to withhold it from settlers. Pointedly, the goal of the policy was aimed as much at controlling the settlers as it was at controlling the natives. The Wakefield system of colonization, said another APS pamphleteer, the Reverend Montague Hawtrey would bring “into the new country not individuals alone, but . . . a compact well-ordered society” that “gives labor to the capitalist and wages to the labor.” Hawtrey’s great fear was “uncontrolled emigration” that would let the settlers grab land to farm for themselves — and for that reason he wanted the Maoris honored as “the aristocracy of New Zealand.” Later, New Zealand Governor Sir George Grey would use the Aborigines’ Protection Society to lobby the Colonial Office in London to derail plans to give the settlers more control over their government. Once again the Maori were being wheeled on as a stage army in the struggle between the authorities and the grasping settlers. In South Africa, the Native Affairs Secretary Theophilus Shepstone brought Cetshwayo’s Zulu warriors to the border in an attempt to scare the rebellious Boers into accepting British rule.

Shepstone, and the Aborigines’ Protection Society, were strongly of the view that native people ought to be ruled according to native customs, through their own chiefs, in reserved territories. At the Annual Conference of the Aborigines’ Protection Society, delegates could tie themselves in knots trying to make the case for native customs. In 1867, William Craft tried to persuade the Society that human sacrifice in Dahomey was “held not simply for the sake of shedding blood” but was instead “religious festivals performed with great ceremony.” The Reverend Hawtrey thought that on balance “cannibalism, infanticide and the murder of another in cold blood . . . cannot be tolerated.” But slavery should not be abolished if that was “subversive of the unwritten but customary law” of the Maori Chiefs. Does the Society believe in the “divine right of kings?” asked one colonial undersecretary.


In truth, the policy of administering the Empire through customary authority was not meant to raise natives up, but to keep them in their place. This was the policy of divide and rule, and “Protection” was often worse than the alternative. Harriette Colenso, daughter of Bishop Colenso was a champion of the Zulu cause and one of the Aborigines’ Protection Society’s star speakers. She saw that Shepstone’s native policy was a trap. But she shocked the Society in London when she told Sir Arthur Havelock that the Zulu’s “might prefer to die fighting” than submit to British rule. The APS confidently put its own thoughts into the mouths of the Usuthu: “The Zulus are patiently waiting in the hope that Her Majesty’s Government will, by the establishment of a protectorate relieve them.” It became the Society’s dogmatic belief that the duty to protect the natives could only be carried out by integrating their territories into the British Empire, first as protectorates, and then later as full-blown colonies.

This was the policy the Society called “responsible imperialism.” As they saw it, the real danger to native peoples came not from the Empire, but from the unregulated white settlers. Of course, it was true that the settlers often brutalized and robbed natives of their land. But there were also cases where settlers cooperated with natives, renting land and trading. The policy of “native protection” was one of divide and rule that set the two races against each other, and its end result was to build up the power of the Colonial authorities over both.

Harriette Colenso was in the end convinced that she should tell the Zulu chief Dinizulu to submit for his own sake — only to see him jailed. “I told them to trust to English justice to protect them, I can never again urge that on anyone,” she said. But that was a lesson that the Aborigines’ Protection Society never learned. They campaigned to have Bechuana, Basutoland and finally the whole of South Africa incorporated into the British Empire — for the sake of the natives, of course. They called for the annexation of Fiji, New Guinea, Tonga, and advised on the administration of the Australian colonies. They promoted, too, the creation of the Confederation of Canada, bringing Ojibwa Chief Henry Pahtahquahong Chase to address an audience at the Mansion House alongside its champion Sir Charles Tupper.

To these Victorian gentlemen there was no other remedy for a wrong than British justice — just as today it is usually taken as read that the proper answer to the problems of indigenous peoples are intervention by government programs or even the armed force of the “international community.” They could see Aboriginal peoples as victims, but not as authors of their own destiny. Their policy was to protect, with all its hidden patrician intent.

The starkest example of what the policy of protection meant for Aborigines was in Tasmania. There the Chief Protector of Aborigines George Robinson’s “friendly policy” brought the Tasmanians in from the bush. Robinson was made commandant of a settlement on Flinders’ Island for the surviving Tasmanians. He taught them hymns, gave them European names, and gathered a ramshackle compound of poorly built huts. But the Tasmanians quickly sickened, were demoralized and began to die. Robinson managed to keep the death toll under wraps until he was appointed to a new post as head of the Port Phillip Protectorate.


The policy of native protection was challenged by settlers, who were greedy for land, and by governors who had few resources. Protectorates failed not just in Port Phillip but across Australia. The Protectors had little to offer wandering people, and felt compelled to “civilize” them against their will. As Australia grew and its settled white population felt shamed by the treatment of the Aborigines, the policy of reserved areas was re-launched, but once again the results were generally worse for native peoples. Their situation was dramatized in the film Rabbit Proof Fence, and addressed in the government report “Bringing Them Home.” The document is blunt:

“In the name of protection Indigenous peoples were subject to near-total control. Their entry and exit from reserves was regulated as was their everyday life on the reserves, their right to marry and their employment. With a view to encouraging the conversion of the children to Christianity and distancing them from their indigenous lifestyle, children were housed in dormitories and contact with their families strictly limited.”

One of the first Aborigine adoptions was that of Edmund Warulan, brought back to England by Protector Edward Eyre, and made a ward of the Secretary of the Aborigines’ Protection Society, Thomas Hodgkin. He was apprenticed as a saddler, but died of a pulmonary attack when he was seventeen. Another boy proved difficult, and was sent back home.