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Humanitarian imperialism in the age of Queen Victoria

The author of a new book explains how well-meaning but elitist Brits helped justified the spread of the Empire - and the uncomfortable parallels with present-day campaigners for Western intervention.

James Heartfield

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The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge – or Wills and Kate as they’re better known – were recently greeted by native Canadians in Charlottetown, on Prince Edward Island, Canada. One hundred and fifty-one years before, the then Prince of Wales visiting Charlottetown met the Micmac Indian Mrs Augustine Nicholas, who gave him a model canoe and some baskets. Afterwards she was asked what the Prince had given her: ‘Nothing’, she replied. But the visit did jolt the consciences of the Prince Edward Islanders. With the help of the Aborigines’ Protection Society in England, a fund was raised to buy Lennox Island, all five square kilometres of it, off the north of the greater land mass of Prince Edward Island (itself named after Queen Victoria’s father, the Duke of Kent, in 1798).

The Aborigines’ Protection Society (APS) had long been active on behalf of the Canadian natives -the Society was founded to draw attention to the abuse of Indians at the hands of the Hudson’s Bay Company – as part of a ground-breaking body of the UK parliament on the state of native people in the Empire, the Select Committee on Aborigines (as indigenous people were then called). The Select Committee heard about cruelty towards the ‘Caffres’ (Xhosa) in the annexation of Queen Adelaide’s Province, in what is now South Africa, and of the approaching extinction of the Tasmanian aborigines.

The Select Committee on Aborigines reported in 1837 and sent shockwaves around the empire. The governor of the Cape Colony was recalled, and – in what must be the only British act of decolonisation before 1922 – Queen Adelaide’s Province was handed back to the Xhosa. Native rights were recognised under the Treaty of Waitangi, in which Maori chiefs ceded sovereignty to the British Crown, and a protector of aborigines – George Robinson – was appointed for Australia.

The men and women that put the aborigines’ cause at the top of parliament’s agenda were remarkable people, like Dr Thomas Hodgkin (first secretary of the APS), the MP Thomas Fowell Buxton, and Anna Gurney. They were flushed with the excitement of having won the campaign against slavery (finally outlawed on a motion put by Buxton in 1833), and looking for a new cause for their extensive campaign network, much of it based on Quaker, Methodist and other church groups.

While later Victorian society would embrace the racial hierarchy that put whites on top, the Aborigines Protection Society pushed against the trend. It published a journal, the Aborigines’ Friend, from 1847 to 1909 that carried the Latin legend Ab Uno Sanguine – ‘of one blood’. The Society lobbied to have the Zulu chief Cetshwayo brought to England to meet Victoria, just six years after the Zulu victory over the British Army at Rorke’s Drift in 1879. Later, the Society’s treasurer, Robert Fowler, who was also lord mayor of London, made the rebellious Maori King Tawhiao guest of honour at the Mansion House.

George Robinson’s friendly mission, painted by Benjamin Duterrau

The British Empire was changing in the mid-century with the declining importance of the West India trade, and the growing weight of the ‘white colonies’. Australia, Canada, South Africa and New Zealand began to grow by the influx of migrants from among those forced out of Britain as surplus to requirements: those uprooted from the countryside, or thrown out of factory work in the trade cycles, as well the criminalised transportees, bankrupts and non-inheriting second sons. The settlers’ new farms overseas encroached on native territory, which they seized where they could, putting off natives, often with great violence.

You might think that the rights of aborigines would be of no account in all that, but they were. As well as a broad wish to put a good face on the Empire, the Colonial Office, like much of polite society in England, nursed a poisonous contempt for the emigrants. They were called ‘the dregs’, the scum that had overflowed the rim of Britain (and this in an age before sewers, when the septic tank gave a pungent meaning to ‘dregs’ and ‘scum’). Settlers not only escaped Britain, but they had the cheek to make their fortunes abroad (like the character of Magwitch in Great Expectations) and, even worse, to challenge the Crown through movements to self-government across the Empire. The example of the rebellious American colonists was always in mind.

The Aborigines’ Protection Society struck a chord when they warned of ‘the contaminating influence and example of these unhappy outcasts’ on natives. To rein in the settlers’ ambitious expansion, the Crown and its governors enshrined the rights of natives to land, to be held in reserve by the Crown and so withheld from the settlers.

Governors like George Grey (New Zealand) and Arthur Gordon (Fiji), who garnered honours from their native chiefs and snubbed the settlers, were heroes to the Society, and the Society in turn lobbied parliament to stymie moves to self-government in those colonies when they came to parliament. But the policy of ‘protection’ was not as good for native peoples as it promised. In Australia, Protector Robinson’s Flinders’ Island settlement for the remaining Tasmanians registered many deaths, but no births. In Zululand, ‘native administration’ turned out to be more of a trap than protection.

The Aborigines’ Protection Society believed that the best guarantee of native protection was the incorporation of contested territories into the Empire. Stable government, they hoped, would lead to the punishment of settlers who attacked natives. In Bechuanaland and Basutoland, Fiji and New Guinea, the Society made the case for new colonies – to protect the natives. Over and again, the end result would be the same. Natives brought into the Empire would find that the settlers they fought before were now their masters, as the preferred recruits for the colonial service.

In the years the Society worked, from 1836 to 1909, the British Empire grew from 2.8million square miles to 12.7million. Though today we look back and see the conquest of wealth as the cause, at the time almost every square mile was taken in the name of protecting native peoples. In Egypt and the Sudan, British troops came to save Africans from Arab slavery. In New Zealand, much of Australia, Fiji, New Guinea, Southern Africa (beyond the Cape), the case for colonisation was made by the Aborigines’ Protection Society.

In Canada, too, the Aborigines’ Protection Society took up the cause of the Ojibway and the Micmac Indians, persecuted by Governor Bond Head. But they found it hard to relate to those who fought back. On the Red River, the Métis – mixed race descendants of the Hudson’s Bay traders and Indians – grabbed power in the vacuum left while the Hudson’s Bay Company was handing over the territory to the Crown. The rebels, led by Louis Riel, set up a provisional council, a legislative assembly and a newspaper, and held on until they were routed by the British cavalry.

Louis Riel’s provisional council

Instead of rallying to Riel’s cause, the Aborigines’ Protection Society rubbished him. The Society gave a platform, instead, to Sir Charles Tupper, the high commissioner of the new Dominion of Canada, where he boasted: ‘The Indians have always been singularly loyal down to the recent unhappy rising in the north-west, when a few of them were led away by the half-breed rebel Riel.’ In the end, Riel was hung, while the Society wrung its hands.

The history of the Aborigines’ Protection Society belongs to a different age, but it has some disturbing echoes for our own. The awful truth was that the case for colonisation of the natives was made by those who claimed, and even felt, the greatest regard for them. Their generosity, though, fell short of respect, seeing native peoples as something like children, in need of protection rather than rights. As much as modern campaigners for humanitarian intervention and indigenous rights imagine that they have come up with something new, it sounds all too much like the arguments that led native peoples into colonial subjugation in the first place.

Once the Micmac Indians lived across the whole of Prince Edward Island and beyond. The Aborigines’ Protection Society bought them that small reservation on Lennox Island. In 1884, the deputy superintendent of Indian affairs, Lawrence Vankoughnet, argued that ‘the reserve on Lennox Island is sufficient to accommodate all the Indians of the province’. He thought it ‘highly desirable that they should all reside there instead of meandering about from one town to another which results in their demoralisation and is attended with great inconvenience for the department’. Some years later, the Aborigines’ Protection Society signed over the deeds for Lennox Island to the Department of Indian Affairs.

James Heartfield is the author of The Aborigines’ Protection Society: Humanitarian Imperialism in Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, Canada, South Africa, and the Congo, 1836-1909, published this month by Hurst. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

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