James Heartfield, The Aborigines’ Protection Society: Humanitarian Imperialism in Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, Canada, South Africa, and the Congo, 1836-1909, London: Hurst, 2011.

‘One fact in all this is widely known and beyond dispute’, wrote Bartolomé de las Casas, a contemporary of Columbus, ‘for even the tyrannical murderers themselves acknowledge the truth of it: the indigenous peoples never did the Europeans any harm whatever… they or their fellow citizens had tasted, at the hands of these oppressors, a diet of robbery, murder, violence, and all other manner of trials and tribulations’. What las Casas said about the Spanish conquests is equally applicable to other victims of European imperialism. The task of ruling indigenous peoples was certainly not unique to the ‘long 19th century’, and the reign of Queen Victoria witnessed the engagement and annexation of ever-greater territory, and along with it, native populations. How Britain chose to deal with the indigenous peoples of its colonies is a tale bound inextricably with the work of one particular organisation, The Aborigines’ Protection Society.

James Heartfield’s history tells the story of a dynamic organisation campaigning between 1836 and 1909 through the midst of highly fluctuating colonial enterprise. As notions of Empire evolved and became engrossed in competing socio-political ideologies, the Aborigines’ Protection Society attempted to place humanitarian concern for indigenous populations at the forefront of colonial policy. However, as the book demonstrates, deliberations on the welfare of indigenous populations by this philanthropic society did not necessarily facilitate the ‘protection’ of native societies located at the fringes of Empire.

The activities of the Society were firmly rooted in the wider contextual history of imperialism. As a product of a particular cultural and social milieu, James Heartfield presents an account of a society intimately connected with the pressing concerns of Empire. The first part of the book examines the Society’s ideological genesis in British society, highlighting its links with individuals across the colonial polity; the second part focuses on specific outposts of Empire, assessing the changing and often contradictory advocacy of the Aborigines’ Protection Society in these cultures.

In 1837, a Select Committee on Aborigines began hearing evidence on the maltreatment of indigenous populations; and as Heartfield shows, concerns over the welfare of native societies was more than a disinterested anxiety for far-off individuals. It represented both the grander, civilising notion of Empire, as well as emerging disquiet about a white settler population removed from the central authority of British government. The Society formed against a backdrop of class prejudice and romantic notions of the ‘noble savage’, determined to protect and isolate their adopted charges from the ‘dregs’ of the settler population. The patrician nature of the society, Heartfield argues, coloured its attitudes towards both natives and settlers; calls for native protection in the form of reservations and protectorates remained an inescapable feature of the society’s outlook, and said much about their attitudes to both indigenous populations, as well as their fellow countrymen.

In the rush for Empire, the Committee received evidence documenting the abuse of indigenous populations across the globe. Particularly poignant testimony from Tasmania concerning the Australian Aborigines formed a cornerstone of the report: ‘within a very limited period, a few years, those who are most in contact with Europeans will be utterly extinct … an intercourse of nearly half a century with a Christian people has even deteriorated a condition of existence than before our interference, nothing more miserable could easily be conceived’.

The Aboriginal cause became integrated into discussions concerning race and resources that permeated public discourse. The notion of ‘Fatal Impact’, meaning that indigenous, or in the scientific racialist tradition of the period, ‘lesser’ races, were destined to die out when confronted by more civilised races, informed the advocacy of the Aborigines’ Protection Society. In this sense, as Heartfield convincingly suggests, campaigns for the formation of protectorates and reservations reflected the preoccupations of an expanding colonial establishment: the noble savage, in his pure and original state, required protection from the surplus settler class.

The unease concerning a white settler class proved a powerful political tool. As more and more settlers left British shores to seek their fortunes in distant climes, such movements impelled the hands of a burgeoning colonial apparatus in the form of governors, magistrates, and security forces. The sense of dissonance between a centralised colonial venture on the one hand, and a white settler empire on the other, whether real or imagined, created the kind of spatial fluidity that unsettled upper class sentiment. Locating itself within this spatial discontinuity, the Aborigines’ Protection Society fulfilled a useful role for London. The Colonial Office could utilise the perceived concerns of native populations, through the Aborigines’ Protection Society, as a counter and check on settler demands. As such, the Society served both an ideological and a practical role in the mission of Empire.

The effects of this tripartite relationship between empire, settler and native, placed the Aborigines’ Protection Society at the heart of colonial affairs, and exposed the often fleeting and paradoxical nature of its designs. It could simultaneously critique the annexation of indigenous territory, whilst remaining firmly behind the mission of Empire. Nowhere is this sense of mutability more apparent than in the evolving implications for colonial rule. What began as lobbying to regulate settler activity gradually morphed into applications for extending colonial rule. This shift in momentum from protection per se, to protection through extension, is perhaps not all that surprising. After all, as the book amply highlights, the protection of Aborigines proved a useful policy for justifying the ostensible ‘moral’ purpose of Empire – it was not imperialism in a pejorative kleptocratic sense, as practised by other European nations, but rather a far nobler mission to regulate and improve lawless territories. The Aborigines’ Protection Society helped to extend British rule, but failed to see that almost every location where annexation was advocated, the lives of natives deteriorated.

Heartfield provides a panoramic overview of some of the scientific ‘shocks’ that formed an indispensible part of the complex theorisations involving race, society, and history throughout the period. Malthusian political economy concerning resources and the struggle for existence resonated throughout the epoch; conceptions of superior races alongside the oft-quoted ‘fatal impact’ had deep implications for colonial policy. More meaningfully, these debates were to receive an impetus grounded in scientific enquiry when Darwin published his The Origin Of Species, followed later by The Descent Of Man. The inference behind the subtitle, ‘the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life’, would not have been lost on a mid-nineteenth century Victorian audience, with the treatment of indigenous populations riding high on the colonial agenda. The political connotations of Social Darwinism were transformed into the immediacy of Empire. Even Darwin could not fail to note the almost total disappearance of Australian Aborigines from Tasmania: ‘I do not know of a more striking instance of the comparative rate of increase of a civilised over a savage people’.

Utilising several case studies in the second section of the book, Heartfield documents the activities and policies of the Aborigines’ Protection Society. In an unsettling example of the forms of ‘protection’ the society advocated, it lauded the removal of native children from their parents in Australia, so that they may be ‘early removed from the pernicious influence of their countrymen’. The tendentious undertones of such ideals will not be lost on the modern reader. It was however entirely consistent with the ‘philanthropy as discourse’, in the Foucauldian sense, that the society internalised; only through the creation of an aboriginal myth of a vulnerable people disenfranchised and extrapolated, could the society exercise its moral mission.

In perhaps the most insightful section of the book, Heartfield shows how the Society did not extend the licence of protection to native peoples when they began to assert their own agency. In Canada, an uprising of the mixed-race Métis community was dismissed by the Society with the incredulous remark that such ‘half-breeds’, seemingly not really indigenous people, ‘claimed the right to elect their own legislature, magistrates and school commissioners’. An emerging dimension of native self-advocacy did not fit neatly with the directives of a society entrenched in the industry of colonialism.

Similarly, in Southern Africa, as more and more native labourers were integrated into the metropolitan centres, the emerging transition from protection to rights created a paradigm that did not complement the Society’s work. It remarked that it did not wish to see, ‘masses of uncivilized men invested with political rights which they would be unable either to appreciate or understand’. Instead, and somewhat predictably, the Society called for the establishment of a protectorate in the form of a Union of South Africa, overseen by ‘responsible imperialism’. Such policies culminated in the Native Lands Act, the infamous precursor to apartheid, and placed the society on a fatal and decisive break with native opinion.

Sol Plaatje, who championed native self-representation and whose opposition tracts went on to form the founding principles of the African National Congress, was openly attacked by members of the Aborigines’ Protection Society. Plaatje wrote scathingly of the proposed establishment of ‘Basutolands’, later known as ‘bantustans’: ‘a carefully prepared, deliberate and premeditated scheme to encompass the partial enslavement of the Natives’. The Aborigines’ Protection Society unravelled with the emergence of new nationalist movements that declared that the natives were no longer voiceless, if they ever were, and certainly in no need of ‘separation’ or ‘protection’.

As a ‘history’ of the Aborigines’ Protection Society, there are weaknesses in this book. Heartfield ends his history in 1909. It would have been useful to see how the Society’s policies led to more specific forms of domination and discrimination – apartheid in South Africa, or the ‘stolen generations’ of Australia. The narrative of the book does not always flow in a streamlined fashion. Whilst the case studies of particular locations do enable a thorough picture of events in the colonies to be constructed, it occludes some of the earlier narrative exploring the changing faces of this complex Society. At times the sheer detail of names and events can leave even the most attentive reader overwhelmed. The book’s final and weakest chapter on the Congo is somewhat hastily written, and one is given the impression that its content is more ceremonial than insightful.

However, Heartfield succeeds in presenting a deeply personal portrayal of the Aborigines’ Protection Society, one which defies any straightforward reading and categorisation. Extensive research, much of it based on the archives of the Society itself as well as other colonial sources, permeates the arguments in the book. The result is an intimate portrait of the Aborigines’ Protection Society, the debate and discussions at its meetings, and the often fraught internal proceedings that accompanied such a palpably ambiguous mandate. Furthermore, one is given a definite sense of the context in which the Aborigines’ Protection Society operated, including the changing political contexts of British society, the evolving notions of Empire, as well as the challenging relationship between the Crown and its settler communities.

This is a pertinent book for our time. As indigenous and tribal groups across the world suffer marginalisation and disenfranchisement, this history reminds us that we must be weary of casting them as helpless beings devoid of agency. Notions of humanitarian intervention blend seamlessly with a history of humanitarian imperialism. The cultural and social hegemony of the privileged is often translated as intervention, and ‘helping’ those in distant locations across the world. The society’s slogan, ab uno sanguine (‘of one blood’) is a noble idea but as debates concerning race and power continue today, the book is a cautious reminder that ‘the road to Empire was paved with good intentions’.

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