‘In Good Faith? Governing Indigenous Australia Through God, Charity and Empire 1825-1855’ by Jessie Mitchell

mitchell_ingoodfaith

2011, 197 p & notes

Available for download (free) at http://epress.anu.edu.au/good_faith_citation.html

1825 to 1855- just thirty years. Thirty years to start off with a timorous hope that perhaps it might be possible to spread Civilization among the Aborigines and lead them to the Christian Religion, only to end with an acknowledgement that it hadn’t worked, and that the whole situation had to be turned over to God’s mercy and his wondrous ways.  In 1825 L. E. Threlkeld established a mission at Lake Macquarie in NSW; in 1855 John Smithies closed his Methodist mission in Western Australia.  These two events form the bookends for this analysis of Australia’s first missions and protectorate stations.

In this book, based on her PhD. thesis, Jessie Mitchell writes:

My work has been guided by key themes of governance, subjecthood and rights, and the need to understand these ideas as developing through complex exchanges between imperial centres and mission outposts…and to consider how they were shaped by charity, religious beliefs, personal relationships and commitments to empire  (p.5)

Her work concentrates on Protestant missionaries working both on Church-based missions and government-sponsored Protectorate Stations.  Although there was a  high degree of cross-over, the distinction is important (and perhaps could have been emphasized even more strongly). The interconnection between the church-directed missions and government-directed model was there from the start, when the idea of government-funded Protectorates was first recommended by a Select Committee with a strong representation of Evangelical Christians, several of whom had been involved in anti-slavery campaigns in the past.

But the Port Phillip Protectorate was established and funded by government – not the churches. Protectors were expected to attach themselves to the tribes in the district and attend them until they could be induced to assume more settled habits; watch over the rights and interests of the natives and protect them from encroachment on their property and acts of injustice;  instruct them in cultivation should they settle in one place; educate and instruct the children; learn their language; be accountable for provisions and clothing and obtain accurate numerical information about them.  They were also were expected to instruct  in ‘elements’ of the Christian religion, with the expectation that other specialized teachers would take over instruction in the knowledge and practice of Christianity. (Note 1)   It was this emphasis on religion that distinguished church-based and government-based models, because in many other regards they were very similar.   But of the Protector and his four assistants who were appointed, all but one were Evangelical Christians, and their own religious fundamentalist beliefs very much influenced their perception of their task and the Indigenous people under their charge.   When the Protectorate all went pear-shaped, several of these Protectors sheeted home the blame partially to the secular nature of the government scheme.

Mitchell has consciously decided not to use the term ‘humanitarian’, which was not coined until 1844 and has since been overlaid with many latter-day connotations, especially in the last half-century.  Instead, she conceptualizes the impetus as ‘philanthropy’, with all its nineteenth-century connotations of benevolence, gratitude, control and religion.  Nonetheless, I was surprised to note that the Aborigines Protection Society itself in its 1840 Annual Report spoke of ‘rights’:

the rights of a common humanity, the rights of citizens, the right to possess and retain their own, the rights of protection and security to life and property, and the rights of unfettered liberty of mind, of free action and self disposal. (Third Annual Report 23 June 1840 cited on p 41)

The book explores the many tensions that are implicit in this declaration of ‘rights’, so to speak, and the aspirations for a God-centric, settled, institutionalized mission.  Philanthropists were aware of the cruel dispossession of indigenous peoples, but they were not necessarily opposed to colonialization itself.   In their attempts to foster agricultural labour on their own reserves amongst the people in their charge, missionaries themselves encouraged them to move away from traditional land use- something that became of crucial importance in late 20th century court cases (Mabo and Wik).  Those missionaries and protectors who expressed the strongest support for Indigenous land rights were those who were most opposed to an Indigenous presence in the cities.

In her introduction,  Jessie Mitchell mentions that she herself has worked in the community sector where

tensions between rights and charity and questions about the supposed (in)gratitude of vulnerable people towards state and benevolent agencies continue to have a strong relevance. (p.1)

Her analysis of ‘charity’ is insightful. Missionaries and protectors saw the distribution of food, blankets and clothing as a form of recompense for the loss of land and livelihood, but it was conditional on the Aborigines remaining on the mission.  The ‘settling’ of Indigenous peoples on a mission was seen by the government as a sign of success, but if it was done through the distribution of food, then the missionaries and protectors were accused of profligate generosity.  The missionaries’ dilemma goes on today: there were many echoes of the current government’s attempts to break the concept of ‘sit-down’ money and achieve school attendance through punishing the parents.

Perhaps the ultimate tension was in the religious missionary task itself.  We are now more attuned to the deep significance of the afterlife for Indigenous people, and are aware of the sensitivity about the names and images of people who have died.  For the missionaries, however, the afterlife and death was the major ‘hook’ to evangelize to their charges.  Mitchell emphasizes what we would now call the ‘born-again’ aspect of these missionaries’ religion: the whole  penitence, conversion, personal-relationship-with-God thing still being preached in evangelical super-churches today.  They wanted Indigenous people to have the individualistic, personal conversion experience, but they also wanted their church pews to be full with people streaming into church each Sunday, even if they didn’t yet believe.  They wanted individualism, but institutionalization as well.

And so, Mitchell suggests, we need to read the missionaries’ declarations of failure and disappointment carefully.  As born-again Evangelicals themselves, they were much given to self-examination and confession of weakness, and this was a trope that played out well in the metropolitan churches and missionary societies as well.   The Colonial Office, ever keen to reduce expenditure, took up these expressions of failure with alacrity, arguing that the whole project was futile and best ended.

While it is wonderful that this book is available as an e-book, I found myself wishing that it had a few more book-like features.   I read it in hard copy, and I missed an index in particular, and for some reason that I can’t quite fathom, I found the absence of chapter numbers frustrating.  It is not difficult to read, but you’re still aware that the thesis is not far distant.  I liked the way that the chapters started off with an anecdote or episode, and the logic of the argument was clearly laid out in the chapter structure.  Conceptually, it’s a complete, well-managed project. As a narrative, the thirty-year time span gives a coherence and almost elegiac quality to this humanitarian experiment that was tried and found wanting.

Note 1: Glenelg to Gipps 31 January 1838

aww-badge-2015-200x300My first posting to the Australian Women Writers Challenge for 2015

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2 responses to “‘In Good Faith? Governing Indigenous Australia Through God, Charity and Empire 1825-1855’ by Jessie Mitchell

  1. Pingback: ‘Colonization and the Origins of Humanitarian Governance’ by Alan Lester and Fae Dussart | The Resident Judge of Port Phillip

  2. Pingback: Australian Women Writers Challenge 2015 wrap up | The Resident Judge of Port Phillip

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