Transplanted to Savage Shores: Indigenous Australians and British birthright in the mid nineteenth-century Australian colonies
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Transplanted to Savage Shores:
Indigenous Australians and British birthright in the mid nineteenth-century Australian colonies


The English “have always been a practical and pragmatic race,” having displayed “disaffection from, or dissatisfaction with, all abstract speculation.” These are the decisive words of Peter Ackroyd, taken from his conclusion to Albion: The origins of the English imagination, published in 2002. In Albion, Ackroyd displays his customary historical breadth, his narrative laced with stories of finer detail that illuminate his larger themes. He also displays at least one curious oversight; he says nothing at all about politics or political speech.1 Yet as historians such as James Vernon, Paul Pickering and Patrick Joyce have shown over the last decade, England’s “unwritten constitution assumed a mystical, almost transcendental position within English culture,” fusing stories of liberty and history into one, always contested, but still “master narrative” of English politics and identity, particularly in the nineteenth century. They have demonstrated how deeply embedded notions of constitutionalism were in English culture during this period, being central to the way people saw themselves as individuals, framing their sense of belonging to class, political movements and nations. “The English imagination” was, in fact, steeped in the ancient stories of birthright and the “Glorious Constitution.”2

In Canada and Australia, the political language of the mid nineteenth century has received less detailed attention from historians. James Jupp’s impressive historical survey which explains the English inheritance in Australian politics primarily through the evolution of parliamentary institutions and the quite early passage of democratic legislation, places little emphasis on the importance of English constitutional language. To date, a number of Australian historians such as John Manning Ward, Alan Atkinson, John Hirst, Peter Cochrane and Paul Pickering have attempted to address this common oversight. Yet there is little doubt that we have yet to fully understand just how crucial British constitutional language has been in Australia—both as a means of understanding and shaping Britishness in the colonies, and in helping to explain the more general relationships between national identity and politics. Atkinson, for example, has argued strongly for closer examination of the 1840s and 1850s in Australia, a time he refers to as the time of “origins,” one which he claims “deeply coloured our understanding of sovereignty and the moral power of the state.” It was this moral power that bore directly on the lives of Indigenous Australians. The establishment of self-governing colonies laid the conceptual and legislative framework that would determine the lives of Aboriginal people until the Australian Federal government assumed legislative responsibility in 1967.3

This essay undertakes such a closer examination, opening up a number of related questions. How did the nature of colonial British birthright rhetoric vary from its metropolitan origins? What was the extent of its reach in the colonies? Did it, for example, touch the so-called “native born”? Was it exclusively British—or did it also form the basis of the first serious arguments for Australian independence? And most crucially for the purposes of this paper, was British birthright language in the decade preceding colonial self-government defined in racial terms? Not all of these questions can be answered here in detail. The primary focus will be to explore what I consider the most neglected question of all: how were Indigenous Australians understood and positioned in British birthright rhetoric of the mid nineteenth century? Before attempting to answer these questions, it is necessary to outline the precise nature of British constitutional language in the Australian colonies.

In Australia, the language of British constitutionalism emerged most notably in the context of colonial demands for a House of Assembly in the 1830s, the anti-transportation movement of the 1840s and the push for self-government in the eastern colonies in the late 1840s and early 1850s. When tensions rose between the Colonial Office and the colonies, particularly over the threat of renewed transportation, and as the colonists’ demands for greater legislative autonomy increased, they couched their appeals to Downing Street in the language of British “birthright.” This period followed directly on the heels of the mass movement politics in Britain in the 1830s, which as Linda Colley has...