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The Aborigines’ Protection Society: Humanitarian Imperialism in Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, Canada, South Africa, and the Congo, 1836–1909 by James Heartfield (review)
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The Aborigines’ Protection Society: Humanitarian Imperialism in Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, Canada, South Africa, and the Congo, 1836–1909, by James Heartfield; pp. xii + 379. New York: Columbia University Press, 2011, $58.00.

Western interventions in the non-Western world in our own day are often accompanied by claims of humanitarian motives, progressive development, and advances in human rights. In his new study of the Aborigines’ Protection Society (APS), James Heartfield explores the connection between humanitarian agency and empire. From the society’s [End Page 522] founding in 1836 until it merged with the British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society in 1909, the APS was the principal lobby for what was called the native interest. For Heart-field, the history of the APS is a warning of the unintended consequences and destructive outcomes of such interventions.

The first part of the book looks at the origins of the APS in the anti-slavery movement and the Parliamentary Select Committee on Aborigines. It explores the society’s membership and public and its views on the Empire, the colonists, and the so-called natives. More attention could have been paid in this section to the language of the APS, including the ways in which it defined natives, their rights, and its secular role in the Empire’s civilizing mission. More care also could have been taken in the use of quotations, which are sometimes misleading. Charles Darwin, for instance, was not a social Darwinist. As a committed abolitionist, he was unusual among scientists for his support of APS lobbying. Nor was Henry Fox Bourne, the last APS secretary, a social Darwinist. Contrary to what is suggested by quotations in the text, he warned against the simplified application of natural selection and argued that the inevitable transformation of Africans would accompany their coerced entrance into the modern world economy. Stalwarts of the APS such as Fox Bourne and Charles Dilke, its leading voice in Parliament, would not be surprised by Heartfield’s conclusion that their humanitarian advocacy had failed. They frequently decried their failure to civilize the process of colonialism and to engage the sympathies of the public. They would be taken aback by Heartfield’s claim that the goal of the protection of aborigines was flawed from the outset, that their attempt to give the project of empire a moral purpose was delusionary, and that the outcome of their advocacy enhanced the destructive impact of imperial power.

In its second part, the book explores the impact of the APS in the colonies. Heartfield’s previous work addresses colonialism in Australasia, especially Fiji, and his detailed narratives here deal with the failure to protect aboriginal peoples. Within two decades, the Parliamentary Select Committee’s warning that unregulated colonial settlement could lead to the death and decline of indigenes had become a reality. Throughout its history, the APS put its faith in the justice of British rule, and consequently its members were not anti-imperialists but colonial reformers. Thomas Hodgkin, the founding APS secretary, supported Edward Gibbon Wakefield’s proposals for systematic colonization, with its emphasis on imperial control of land to avoid the chaos anticipated by land parceled out in small holdings to independent farmers and squatters. As Heartfield demonstrates, the APS also wanted control of land, but its advocacy ultimately reduced native lands available to protectorates, reservations, and mission stations. These lands were inadequate for their populations, under-funded, corruptly managed, subject to settler encroachment, and marginalized from the modernizing sectors of the economy.

In the detailed narratives in part 2, the APS tends to get lost in the complexity of the story. Occasionally, the argument also relies on guilt by association. When colonial governors were associated with the APS, or colonial interlopers had similar links and acted in ways harmful to indigenous peoples, the APS was not necessarily responsible. For peoples facing alien settlers, dispossession of their lands, and loss of sovereignty, the question was how to resist. The capacity to resist by armed force varied considerably, but even after initial or protracted struggle, some kind of negotiated settlement between parties of unequal military strength and political power invariably [End Page 523] occurred. In this...