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  • The Sin of the Settler: The 1835–36 Select Committee on Aborigines and Debates Over Virtue and Conquest in the Early Nineteenth-Century British White Settler Empire1
  • Elizabeth Elbourne

In 1836 and in 1837, a British parliamentary committee, usually known by its abbreviated title of the Select Committee on Aborigines (British Settlements), issued the twin volumes of an unusual report. Spearheaded by MP Sir Thomas Fowell Buxton (who had led the parliamentary abolitionist forces to victory in 1833), and co-authored and managed by members of Buxton’s evangelical abolitionist circle, including family members, the Select Committee applied to British settlers and traders the same language that had so recently been brought to bear against slave owners. The reports castigated settlers and traders for their immoral treatment of indigenous peoples and argued that such treatment contributed to the physical destruction and moral degradation of the “Native Inhabitants of the Countries where British Settlements are made”, in the words of the Committee’s full title.2Solutions proposed by the committee included the metropolitan oversight of settler relationships with indigenous peoples, envisioning, ultimately, the moral recreation of sinful settlers and non-Christian indigenes alike, and their eventual joint assimilation into an imagined Christian community of the virtuous.

This vision was naturally controversial among many settlers, as indeed among many British administrators – leaving aside for the moment the enormously complicated issue of the meanings of the reports in a variety of indigenous communities. As I shall show, it is wrong to read the Report as representative of “metropolitan” policy, and it is misleading to see too tight an opposition between “metropolitan” and “colonial” interests. Differences in reception were very complex. Nonetheless, it was settlers who provided the most immediate and vocal opposition, and tended to present a view of indigenous “rights” contrasting to that held by the Committee. The very justification for British land ownership rested, in the opinion of many, on the supposedly morally superior use the British made of the land, as well as the superior virtue of settlers associated with a higher level of “civilization”, a notion confirmed by a long tradition of European political theory and international law.3 In bitter conflicts with indigenous groups over land and resources, settlers had consistently appealed to their own superior virtue. Such appeals were, as I suggest below, not without anxiety: in Australia, even the British sometimes found it hard to justify their position.4Yet, anxiety in an increasingly liberal age could be resolved by appeals to the supposedly superior virtue of British laws, and by extension that of British society. This “superiority” was particularly evident when compared to the purported lack of virtue that characterized indigenous societies.

This essay will examine a small sample of debate in the 1820s and 30s over the virtue of the settler, focusing on the Select Committee and the reaction it evoked, with particular attention to New South Wales and the Cape Colony. I will also examine several key court cases in New South Wales in the same time period that raise related issues. This essay is informed by the conviction that the focus of Colonial Office administrators, of many British critics of imperial policy and of many settlers themselves on sin and virtue, centred on the moral character of the individual and of the nation alike, as well as on the morality of the colonized, tended to neglect the structural issues that drove frontier conflict in the first place, despite moments of real recognition of the importance of structure. At the same time, questions of indigenous sovereignty and of the extent to which (if at all) indigenous people were to be brought under the ambit of British law were not far from the surface in the minds of contemporaries in debates about virtue and sin.

I want to suggest that debates about virtue were influenced by cross-cutting transnational discourses in the British world about religion, economics and gender, despite enormous variations in particular local contexts and in the local political implications of such discourses. Many of these debates among British-origin people were cast in Christian terms, for example, and heavily influenced by evangelical Christian ideas about sin, repentance and redemption...