‘This Whispering in our Hearts’ by Henry Reynolds

1998, 251 p.& notes

The title of this book is taken from a speech delivered by Richard Windeyer as part of a 5-night debate carried out  in September 1842.  Henry Reynolds describes the speech, called ‘On the Rights of the Aborigines of Australia’, as “perhaps the most sustained and intellectually powerful attack on Aboriginal rights ever mounted in early colonial Australia.” (p.20).  Certainly it was felt at the time that Windeyer’s speech for the negative side had carried the day:

…we believe it to be the unanimous opinion of the members, that the speech of Mr Windeyer, for the negative, was the most argumentative and logical… He distinctly proved not only that the Blacks have no right to the soil of Australia for want of settled occupancy and cultivation; but that they have no right even to the kangaroos more than we have, the game laws of England agreeing precisely with the great law of nature, that wild animals not confined by enclosure are not, and cannot be the property of any man. (Sydney Morning Herald 12 Sept 1842)

And yet, after denouncing traditional Aboriginal society, and insisting that they had no claim on the land, Windeyer admitted at the end of his speech

How is it that our minds are not satisfied? …What means this whispering in the bottom of our hearts? (cited in Reynolds p. 21)

It’s an evocative term- the whispering at the bottom of our heart- and yet the fact that it was Richard Windeyer who voiced it is but one of the many complexities and contradictions that arise when trying to tease out of nuances of public utterances about Aborigines in the early decades of settlement in Australia.  Reynolds, perhaps, does not highlight the context of the speech sufficiently – i.e. it was argued as part of a debate where one often argues against one’s own beliefs.  Still, it’s hard to pin down Windeyer’s politics,  as it is with many of these 1830s and 40s public men.   Richard Windeyer was a parliamentarian and barrister: he had been at the meeting that established the Aborigines Protection Society in 1838 and yet he had defended the white stockmen in the Myall Creek trials (although there is a limit to what one can deduce from courtroom advocacy).  What are we to make of his position if  his head was telling him one thing and his heart another? In the final analysis, which one matters more?

In this book Henry Reynolds looks at three periods of white humanitarianism: the 1830s and 40s; the 1880s and the period 1926-34.  He deals with a small number of individuals in each period: George Augustus Robinson and Lancelot Threlkeld, Louis Giustiniani and Robert Lyon in the first period; John Gribble and David Carley in the second; and son Ernest Gribble and Mary Bennett in the third.

My interest in reading this book was mainly on his first period, and in many ways the people he considers in this section are the most difficult to reconcile with our own ideas of humanitarianism today.   Like the settlers whose actions they deplored, these humanitarians were likewise steeped in  ethos of colonisation, albeit for different purposes:

It was not that they were against the establishment of British colonies.  They spoke themselves of spiritual empires.  They were zealous to evangelize the pagan, to save the souls of Aborigines and other indigenous people.  They firmly believed they should both civilize and Christianise or at least radically change local cultures. The missionary could be more overbearing, more interfering, more insensitive than frontier settlers and stockmen.  And they were characteristically profoundly self-righteous, often with the fixed stare and intense focus of the convert. (p. 33)

Some writers- for example Lindsey Arkley– would be surprised to find George Augustus Robinson featured here, and Robinson’s role and motivation continues to be contested territory among historians.  Importantly, Reynolds charts the differences between 1830-40 humanitarianism and the humanitarianism of the 1880s.  A much changed intellectual climate and two generations of colonization meant that by the 1880s there was no longer any assertion of racial equality based on the biblical notion of shared descent and common blood.  It was taken for granted that Aborigines were members of an inferior race, and many assumed that they would eventually die out.  The horror of shedding blood, so prominent during the 1830s, had moderated and it was now seen as a regrettable, but unavoidable accompaniment to colonization.  Colonization and development were now a justification in themselves.  (p. 112, 113)

Reynolds reminds us that there have always been humanitarians- people who were willing to raise their voices and inured themselves to the abuse and obloquy  that they attracted.  But he also reminds us that these humanitarians of the past were for the most part unsuccessful:

… Australians of today who find comfort in the history of the humanitarian crusade should reflect that the protesters had little influence on events. Their assertions, however cogent, their moral appeal however persuasive, were largely ignored. Arguments forcefully put in the 1830s required restating in the 1930s. Many are still relevant today.  What the humanitarian story shows is that an alternative agenda was aired, a more humane course projected, was listened to, understood and then comprehensively rejected, often with derision  (p. 249)

The little moral force that they could exert often depended on overseas support- the Anti-Slavery society, the Aborigines Protections Society and various Colonial Office pressure groups in the 19th century and the League of Nations in the twentieth.   Access to the press  was crucial and skillfully used by many of these humanitarians: a sobering thought in our Wikileaks days.

And finally, and most importantly when looking at the 1830-40 period, our idea of what humanitarianism looks like is different.  We tend to shuffle away and distance ourselves from the “fixed stare and the intense focus” of such men (used intentionally), and there are statements in their rhetoric that send alarm bells ringing in our heads.  We would do well to remember:

The humanitarians were often paternalistic/maternalistic and shared many of the ideas that were current in their generation.  Some of them undoubtedly were racists in the way we understand that term now.  They were people of their period.  But if inquiry and understanding stops there we miss the passion for justice, the anger about cruelty and indifference which drove humanitarians along lonely, thankless and unpopular paths (p.251)

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One response to “‘This Whispering in our Hearts’ by Henry Reynolds

  1. ‘… Australians of today who find comfort in the history of the humanitarian crusade should reflect that the protesters had little influence on events.’

    Well, there’s me left with no comfort. But it does make their efforts all the more impressive. It is very easy to protest when you have possibly half the population on your side.

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