‘The hated Protector’ by Lindsey Arkley

2000, 469 p. & notes

Lindsey Arkley The hated Protector: The story of Charles Wightman Sievwright Protector of Aborigines 1839-42. Mentone Vic, Orbit Press, 2000.

Charles Sievwright is an ‘interesting’ man from 170 years distance, and was certainly controversial and combative at the time.  This biography of Sievwright examines his time in the Port Phillip District as Assistant Protector for Aborigines in the western district of Victoria between 1839-1842.  Lindsey Arkley, the author, also wrote Sievwright’s entry in the Australian Dictionary of Biography.

The Aboriginal Protectorates were an experimental measure, urged on the Colonial Office  in London by the evangelical pressure groups concerned about the treatment of indigenous subjects throughout the empire.   They were established as a secular adjunct to the church missionary system and comprised a Chief Protector and several Assistant Protectors. They were given the remit to firstly, protect indigenous people from settler cruelty and secondly, assist the church-based missionaries in converting Aborigines from a wandering and barbaric state into sedentary,  ‘civilized’ Christians.   The inland areas of the  Port Phillip District had only been recently exposed to widespread settler incursion, and it was rather optimistically hoped in London that this could herald a new and better approach.  It was an experiment imposed on Governor Gipps in Sydney and his local superintendent in Melbourne, Charles LaTrobe, and in the absence of any clear vision of how it would work in practice, George Augustus Robinson was appointed Chief Protector on the basis of his work in Van Diemen’s Land.  Unlike the other Assistant Protectors who were school teachers, Charles Sievwright had a military background and used his admittedly rather impressive patronage ties to get the position after some rather dubious gambling problems back in Europe.

It was a position fraught with tension, ambiguities and contradictions, even without the added complication of the deeply flawed individuals who were chosen to fill the roles.  Chief Protector Robinson was variously jealous, ambitious, inefficient, blustering, out of his depth and conflicted, and the Assistant Protectors soon began fighting both with Robinson and among themselves over lack of supplies, perceived lack of support, ambiguous instructions and – importantly for Sievwright- rumours of sexual impropriety.   In Sievwright’s Port Phillip career, and in his subsequent dismissal, these rumours of sexual misconduct including domestic violence, attempted seduction of other Protectors’ wives and most damaging of all, incest with his own daughter bubbled underneath all his interactions with his superiors, other bureaucrats, and the white settlers who resented his presence in prime grazing territory.

This is a very long biography at over 400 pages dealing mainly with three years of Sievwright’s career in Port Phillip, although the ‘before’ and ‘after’ are dealt with in the opening and closing chapters.  Arkley has drawn heavily on official correspondence, particularly the letters written to, from and by La Trobe and the local bureaucracy and the resultant reports between and by Gipps and the Colonial Office.    This is territory that I have been likewise wading through with my own research, and seeing how Arkley has dealt with it has made me more reflective about its value and limitations as a genre and source.  He has published much of this information in a much more accessible form than the originals, and been punctilious in his footnoting, but there is so much of it and often over so little.   This is something that I have likewise struggled with, in both a narrative and methodological sense.   Arkley reproduces the texts and has placed  the ‘controversy of the moment’ (and there were many!) within its context, but much of this is ‘he said/he said’ reportage.

Arkley started each chapter- and there are (too) many at 35 of them- with a few brief, interest-arousing observations but these are fairly general, often rejoicing in coincidence and juxtaposition and not always particularly relevant to the chapter.   In Arkley’s telling there are clearcut baddies- “Flogger” Fyans, Robinson, and the duplicitous La Trobe and Gipps- and one senses that Arkley’s purpose is largely to rescue Sievwright’s reputation from their clutches.

But in doing so, there is no scholarly discussion of the protectorate system and its ambiguities and no exploration of the meaning of the sexual scandal and its relationship with the other grounds given for Sievwright’s dismissal.  Perhaps this was not Arkley’s intention: I see in the blurbs that the book was embraced by local historians and Arkley himself works as a journalist.  Other historians have picked up on Arkley’s work- in particular Alan Lester and Fay Dussart in their article “Masculinity, ‘race’ and families in the colonies: protecting Aborigines in the early 19th century” [1] who thank him directly in their Acknowledgments.  I’m sure that Kirsten McKenzie [2] would do much with  Arkley’s work on Sievwright as well.

Is it valid to critique a book for what it doesn’t do, and perhaps even had no intention of ever doing? I’m not sure.  After all,  we stand on the shoulders of other researchers, and there is certainly value in Arkley’s collection and reproduction of much of the archival material on Sievwright.  His footnoting is excellent, and I’ve been able to find many of the sources he cites.  But at times I found myself wary of his clear attempt to promote and rehabilitate Sievwright’s reputation, and found myself having to read against Arkley’s text for much of the time and wanting to prod him a bit further.  Sometimes a bit of ambiguity and scepticism is not a bad thing.

Notes:

[1] Alan Lester and Fay Dussart ‘Masculinity, ‘race’ and families in the colonies:  protecting Aborigines in the early 19th century’ Gender Place and Culture, vol 16, no 1, 2009 pp.  65-76

[2] Kirsten McKenzie Scandal in the Colonies: Sydney and Cape Town 1820-1850 Carlton Victoria, Melbourne University Press, 2004

Also:

Ian D. Clark The Hated Protector: The Story of Charles Wightman Sievwright Protector of Aborigines 1839-42 [Book Review]  Aboriginal History, Vol. 24, 2000: 305-313.

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8 responses to “‘The hated Protector’ by Lindsey Arkley

  1. As usual, the church was expanding its empire. The name Lindsey Arkley grabbed me. I thought of a connection to Brett Whiteley, but I was on a road to nowhere with that one.

    • You’re thinking of Arkie Whitely, which is a neat little combination of all the names! Lindsey Arkley has done quite a bit on SBS.

  2. Coincidentally in my daily history post for today (Feb 25) Sievwright is referenced in a letter detailing the ambush/murder of a group of Indigenous People in the Portland area.
    As for the book and ‘rescuing’ Sievwright’s reputation – one must assume everyone is inherently good, with good intentions motivating them, which applies to both Sievwright and Arkley.
    Sievwright was a man like any other; omitting details, denying the reader the ability to take the mans measure with all the facts does more injustice to the man than saving his percieved reputation.

    • Yes, I would have loved to have known what prompted Arkley to write this biography and how he came across him. Certainly once I’d seen the official correspondence about him, my interest was piqued- in my case because there was a dismissal and I was very conscious of scandal/dismissal with my own judge. Although they’re very different types of dismissals, and ‘scandal’ doesn’t fit well with my judge, it’s interesting that the appeals to both dismissals honed in on the matter of due process from the NSW end.

  3. Fascinating stuff, Janine, both for the info about how the Protectors came to be (which I didn’t know) and for your musings about the role of the biographer/historian. It made me wonder straight away about what historians will make of Rudd’s demise and the flurry of books painting him as an irredeemable control-freak with no leadership qualities at all.
    I learn a lot from your blog:)

    • Thanks. That’s an interesting idea- the dividing line between commentary that is actually part of the event, and analysis after the event. That’s one of the things that fascinates me about Wikileaks, and the way that information that would normally be long separated chronologically from an event (e.g. under archive rules or just the way that things eventually come out decades later) have been thrown into the mix now while events are still underway and the main actors are still on the stage.

  4. Pingback: ‘This Whispering in our Hearts’ by Henry Reynolds | The Resident Judge of Port Phillip

  5. Pingback: ‘I Succeeded Once: The Aboriginal Protectorate on the Mornington Peninsula 1839-40′ by Marie Hansen Fels | The Resident Judge of Port Phillip

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