One of the remarkable things about 19th century British colonialism is how many officials forcefully stated their opposition to human rights abuses and made it the official position of the British government to promote humanitarianism. This ranged from officials in the Colonial office, like Lord Glenelg and James Stephen, to governors in colonies like New Zealand and Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania). They were very sensitive to criticisms made by active humanitarians, especially after the formation of the Aborigines Protection Society in 1836 but even before that. Some Christian missionaries made it their business to inform the government of what was going on and demand reform.
Less remarkable is that much of the government’s efforts were fruitless. They accomplished very little. The pressure from settlers to keep up the pace of colonialism and to protect them at all costs, even to the detriment of the natives, was relentless. It was ultimately the white people that the British government cared most about. And very few white people supported the noble intentions of government policies. In his 1852 history of Tasmania, John West wrote, “… the success of humane suggestions depended on the doubtful concurrence of ignorant cotters and wandering shepherds.” There was precious little success in bringing over the average white settler to respect the rights of aborigines.
But some of the failure was due to a failure of nerve on the part of officials and even some duplicity. A lot of lip service was given to the principle that whites and blacks would be punished equally when injustices were committed, but it was on the dark-skinned natives that the brunt of punishment fell. The government had a habit of winning over natives by telling them what they wanted to hear, with no real intention, it seems, to carry it out.
In the 1840 Treaty of Waitangi with the Maori in New Zealand, in the first Article, the chiefs ceded to the Queen of England absolute sovereignty. To the Maori, it was explained that this meant there would be one law, one justice for all, so that both natives and settlers would be living under one consistent system of law, but they would maintain possession of their own lands (which was stated in Article Two) and in Article Three, the Maori were even guaranteed the rights of British subjects. It turned out that the British government had something else in mind. Sovereignty to the British meant that the Queen would control all the land.
And when push came to shove, the Maori did not have all the rights they thought they had; they especially had an idea that their chiefs were somehow equal to the Queen in governance, but that wasn’t so. The goal for the British was to get all the land or as much of it as possible, and that is more or less what happened.
In Van Diemen’s Land, a board with four painted panels was authorized by Lieutenant-Governor George Arthur to be shown to the Tasmanian Aborigines. The first two panels depicted racial harmony and conciliation between the natives and the British military. The last two showed a black man killing a white man and being hung by the authorities, and a white man killing a black man and getting the same punishment.
One could see that it was just the thing that black natives would have liked to hear and that might help to convince them to peacefully surrender and accept European civilization. It did not work out that way. Some blacks were executed for murder, but no white man was ever executed or even put on trial for all the murders and massacres that occurred over the years. Even at the time, it was obvious that this is the way things were working out, as one colonial newspaper noted in 1836 that “the Government, to its shame be it recorded, in no one instance, on no single occasion, ever punished, or threatened to punish, the acknowledged murderers of the aboriginal inhabitants.”
Yes, there were good intentions galore and lots of correctly stated principles of justice to be observed. Somehow, it never got done. Maybe this was in part due to insincerity to begin with and maybe in part to pressure from the majority who wanted to take everything from natives and give nothing in return. The point is that there were never enough voices demanding that things be done differently. Voices were lacking. In the case of slavery, a popular movement built up. In 1788, there were 103 petitions with thousands of signatures demanding the end of the slave trade. By 1833, there were 5,000 petitions with 1.5 million signatures demanding the abolition of slavery.
Demands for the rights of aborigines never reached that level or anything like it. Notably lacking were also the voices of prominent people. The anti-slavery campaign was joined by so many celebrities of the time. It was a cause that everyone wanted to be associated with. Practically Charles Darwin’s whole family was anti-slavery. But his voice as well as that of many other scientists and literary figures were absent from the aborigines protection campaign. Their absence gave greater encouragement to the plenitude of voices that said Europeans had the right to dispossess natives because Europeans were more productive.
In his Beagle Diary, Darwin wrote, “It is impossible for an Englishman to behold these distant colonies, without a high pride and satisfaction. To hoist the British flag seems to draw as a certain consequence wealth, prosperity and civilization.” These words remained about the same in all published versions of the Diary. So many prominent figures would have agreed. Their lack of support for aborigines’ rights and their withdrawal from any consideration of justice for the natives is an important reason why injustice and a drifting towards genocide became the future legacy of Europe.
© 2013 Leon Zitzer