The Aborigines’ Protection Society: Humanitarian Imperialism in Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, Canada, South Africa and the Congo 1836-1909 by James Heartfield, 379 pp, Columbia University Press, distributed via Footprint Books, Sydney, 2011, ISBN 1849041202, $62.00.
‘Accounts of the rise of the British Empire in the nineteenth century have properly taken economics and race as the overriding drivers.’ So argues James Heartfield in the concluding chapter of his impressive new history of the Aborigines Protection Society (APS). Heartfield does not wish to disrupt the prevailing wisdom, but contends that recognising ‘the humanitarian wellsprings of colonial policy’ adds an important dimension to the historiography of the British Empire. In a wide-ranging study taking in several sites of British imperial endeavour, Heartfield shows that the APS regularly advocated greater powers for the Colonial Office in a quest for what it conceived as ‘responsible imperialism’. In this way, it played a significant role in Britain’s imperial expansion.
The APS was formed in 1837 at a high point of humanitarian influence in Britain. The Reform Act of 1832 had recast the Westminster parliament, increasing the power of the so-called ‘philanthropists’, a diverse group consisting of Quakers, evangelicals and non-conformists, who campaigned against slavery and supported missionary endeavour. After the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833, many prominent philanthropists turned their attention to the plight of Aboriginal peoples in British settlements. Led by Sir Thomas Fowell Buxton, they convinced the House of Commons to conduct a Select Committee on Aborigines (1835–37). The committee’s report advocated a policy of Aboriginal ‘protection’ and the APS was formed to lobby the British government to implement this policy. For seven decades it was a prominent and sometimes controversial voice in colonial affairs before finally merging with the Anti-Slavery Society in 1909.
Heartfield’s book is divided into two parts: the first provides a broad outline of the APS in a predominantly metropolitan context. He explores the origins of the society in the anti-slavery movement, analyses the Select Committee hearings and report, and charts the society’s ‘difficult relationship to Empire’ (p. 43) over subsequent decades. A good example of this difficulty is the society’s ambivalent response to Edward Eyre’s brutal suppression of the Morant Bay Rebellion in Jamaica in 1865; Eyre’s earlier experience as Protector of Aborigines in South Australia, and his friendship with APS secretary Thomas Hodgkin played a role here.
The thematic approach of much of the first part is somewhat counter-intuitive; this reviewer wondered whether a chronological treatment might have provided a more coherent introduction to the society and better demonstrated its shifts in policy as it negotiated key changes of the nineteenth century, such as the rise of settler self-government, the Darwinian revolution, and the intensification of racialist ideology. Nevertheless, Heartfield introduces several themes of importance, most notably the society’s gradual embrace of Imperial power as the best solution to its humanitarian aims. He shows that APS changed from opposing the annexation of new territories to supporting it, in the hope this would enable the Colonial Office to rein in the excesses of settlers who were beyond British jurisdiction. Under its final secretary, Henry Fox Bourne, ‘the Aborigines’ Protection Society came close to becoming a champion of imperialism’ (p. 47).
Heartfield gives some consideration to the view that the APS was a socially superior institution, noting that many members (especially the Tory ones) were anti-democratic. This is evident in the society’s support for the traditional authority of chiefs and suspicion of egalitarian forces within indigenous populations. A disdain among APS members for settlers in the colonies is also identified: Heartfield argues that many Britons looked down on the ‘dregs’ that they perceived were the typical settlers and suggests that the APS fed off this prejudice. Similarly, he shows that opposition to the APS often pointed to the apparent hypocrisy of the philanthropists and their love of distant causes, such as the conclusion of the satirical Punch magazine: ‘with many of the worthy people of Exeter Hall, distance is essential to love’ (p. 59).
Part 2 of Heartfield’s book provides six varied case studies, which examine the path of native policy in Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, Canada, South Africa and the Congo. Each location attracted the attention of the APS during its seven decades of lobbying: Australia was a significant site of experimentation in protection policy in the 1830s and 1840s; the New Zealand Wars were high on the society’s agenda during the 1860s; while South Africa (with its large indigenous population) was prominent throughout. The book is a clear demonstration of the value of transnational history, with each case study presenting a unique story. For the most part, however, these contrasts are mediated through an analysis of metropolitan policy. The author makes this clear in his introduction: ‘first and foremost it is a history of the Aborigines’ Protection Society and the way it shaped the policy of the British Empire towards natives’ (p. xi). With this aim in mind, his book is a clear success; collectively, the case studies paint a detailed picture of the society, its aims, its challenges and its failures.
The Australian material is dealt with intelligently. Although Heartfield’s research is necessarily broader than it is deep (a synthesis of a few secondary sources) his account is a valuable addition to the literature. He gives a good account of Australia’s significant role as a laboratory for ideas of Aboriginal protection in British imperial policy, pointing to the influence of the Black War in Van Diemen’s Land and George Augustus Robinson’s ‘friendly mission’. The Port Phillip Protectorate features prominently, but relevant material from other colonies, especially South Australia and Western Australia, is also provided. Heartfield describes the rebirth of Aboriginal protection in South Australia and Victoria following the emergence of self-government in the 1850s, although his account is relatively brief. Some more detail about the changed political circumstances and a sense of how the APS viewed these developments would have been welcome, but perhaps this would be to ask too much of such a wide-ranging study. Heartfield briefly traces the Australian experience of protection into the twentieth century and notes the painful legacy of the Stolen Generations, which he argues was a logical outcome of the policies of the 1830s Select Committee.
James Heartfield’s prose is more often descriptive than it is analytical, but he lets his account of the society and his six varied case studies speak for themselves; the result is a compelling book, rich in historical detail, that will be of considerable value to a range of scholars working in related fields.
The Australian National University