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  • Humanitarianism and Reparation in Colonial Australia
  • Anne O'Brien

In recent years reparation has become one of the most important ethical issues facing settler societies. Despite this, there has been little research on nineteenth-century conceptions of reparation, though various historiographies inform the subject without addressing it directly. The "new imperial history" that emerged in the 1990s generated important work on humanitarianism but it has produced no sustained analysis of the role of reparation within humanitarian thought. 2 Further, the historiography of treaties, both national and transnational, has given little attention to ideas that favoured reparation without leading to legal agreements. 3

The absence is reflected in Australian historiography, despite extensive research on the "colonial frontier" of the last forty years. This research has analysed colonising policies and ideologies; the contours of dispossession and levels of violence; the resistance and accommodation of Indigenous peoples; their work within the settler economy; their uses of the legal system to reclaim land; missions; representations and racial thought. 4 Some of this has dealt with humanitarianism. The earliest studies by C.D. Rowley and R.H.W. Reece, for example, outlined the contours of nineteenth-century British humanitarian thought and practice. In the late 1980s and 1990s, Henry Reynolds focussed on reserves and leases to argue the case for Aboriginal land rights. More recently Bain Attwood has synthesised various campaigns where Indigenous and non-Indigenous people worked for Indigenous rights but, taking responses to the Kulin people's demands for land from the late 1850s as his starting point, his study omitted the 1830s when humanitarianism was at its height. More recently, however, his analysis of the opportunistic John Batman's 1835 treaties (the only treaties ever made with Indigenous peoples in Australia and repudiated by the government which claimed sole right of pre-emption) conceptualised the treaties as in part attempts at reparation. 5 None of this research, however, has dealt in a sustained way with the idea of compensation—to use the nineteenth-century term—in humanitarian thought. 6

This essay seeks to fill this gap. It builds on the earlier work but complicates its findings. The first part asks what the idea of compensation meant to its non-Indigenous supporters at its highpoint in the late 1830s. It argues that while much writing on Indigenous humanitarianism is underpinned by an assumed dichotomy between metropolitan humanitarians and colonial settlers, focussing on compensation reveals their common ground. For those of humanitarian persuasion—whether Londoners or Australian settlers—compensation was the crux of imperial and personal responsibility. This discussion also deepens understandings of the ethical thrust of the humanitarian movement in Australia. Much of the historiography depicted the humanitarian leadership as remote and impractical at best, hypocritical at worst. 7 Reynolds on the other hand has been criticised for over-emphasising the idealism and consistency of the colonial office and for painting the main protagonists in extremes, as villains or heroes. 8

This essay argues that the case made for compensation was ambivalent and conflicted. It sought to make redress to Indigenous people for the loss of their livelihood, for the violence they suffered at the hands of settlers and for their "degradation" by convicts, who comprised the bulk of the first settlers. It contained at once an impulse to redress wrongs done to the innocent, and a paternalist desire to "civilise the savage." While humanitarianism is usually defined by its paramount concern with people's material well being, it drew strength from evangelical conviction. 9 Much of the ambivalence at the heart of compensation, then, was derived from religious ideas, but while historians have cited the words of evangelicals and missionaries they have rarely subjected them to sustained analysis. Close examination of the sermons, meetings and newspapers of those seeking to protect the rights of Indigenous peoples reveals the mixture of religious impulses that informed humanitarian thought: exhortations to justice, charity, restitution, atonement and edification were entwined with biblical narratives of banishment, judgement and the doctrine of the elect.

The second part of the essay traces how the idea of compensation was transformed between the 1840s and the 1880s thus providing an important sense of perspective on the 1830s. This later history suggests...

Additional Information

ISSN
1532-5768
Launched on MUSE
2011-09-01
Open Access
No
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