PUBLIC TALK: Humanitarianism, ‘Aboriginal Protection’ and the Politics of Reform in the Nineteenth-Century British Empire
|Humanitarianism, ‘Aboriginal Protection’ and the Politics of Reform in the Nineteenth-Century British Empire : The 2019 Tom Stannage Memorial Lecture
The 2019 Tom Stannage Memorial Lecture by Amanda Nettelbeck, Professor in History, University of Adelaide.
The desire for humanitarian reform had multiple targets in the post-abolitionist British Empire, and its impacts on imperial policy have been subject to considerable recent interest amongst historians. A major focus of this reformist agenda in the years immediately after the abolition of slavery was an official commitment to deliver Indigenous peoples with rights that could be protected in law. The 1830s policy framework of ‘Aboriginal protection’ that emerged from this moment, designed to build the civil rights of Indigenous people as British subjects, is often considered to be the most important, if flawed and short-lived, expression of imperial humanitarianism. This is particularly so in Australia, where three formal departments of Aboriginal protection operated throughout the 1840s (and into the 1850s), alongside one in New Zealand. Yet the policy of ‘protection’ was not only driven by humanitarian principles, and nor did it uniquely address Indigenous people. Rather, it sat within a larger set of legally-empowered policies designed to regulate the treatment and status of new or newly-mobile colonial subjects.
This lecture explores how the early policy of Aboriginal protection functioned within a wider field of protection policies which worked to manage colonized peoples in an expanding British Empire, where demands for labour and land jostled with the imperatives of humane governance. Over the course of the nineteenth century, protection policies proved remarkably flexible. On the one hand, they served to imprint a vast Empire with the apparent guarantee of even-handed governance. On the other, they served to build new colonial foundations by reinforcing the Crown’s authority over subject peoples. They drew colonized peoples within the embrace of colonial law and labour markets; they managed the Empire’s post-abolition labour needs; they promoted the superiority of British civilisation over competing systems of law and social governance; and they set conditions on people’s lawful conduct and mobility. Yet while they had wide application, protection policies have also carried unique legacies for Indigenous people. Not only did they endure longest in the context of Indigenous policy, but there they also held the most complex role in seeking to create a new kind of legal subjecthood, one which imperial humanitarians hoped would establish Indigenous people as British subjects and workers with reciprocal responsibilities to the settler world.
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