Life Sentences - Protector of Aborigines

Life Sentences - Protector of Aborigines
Benjamin Duterrau’s The Conciliation is an idealised depiction of the British Protector of the Aborigines, George Augustus Robinson, at the centre of a group of Tasmanian Aboriginal people. Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery. [detail]

Dr Samuel Furphy examines the office of Protector of Aborigines, in the Australian Dictionary of Biography, from ANU Reporter, vol 48, no 4, 2017

An important figure in the history of Australian race relations was George Augustus Robinson, the so-called ‘Conciliator’ of Van Diemen’s Land, who was appointed Chief Protector of Aborigines in the Port Phillip District (Victoria) in 1837.Select Committee on Aborigines in the British Parliament. Four assistant protectors served under Robinson, including the evangelical school teachers William Thomas and Edward Stone Parker.

In South Australia, a surgeon and apothecary, Dr Matthew Moorhouse, occupied a similar role, as did the explorer Edward Eyre. All these men feature in the Australian Dictionary of Biography and are widely acknowledged as important figures in colonial society.

But the protectors appointed in Western Australia are less well known. Among these, Charles Symmons, Protector of Aborigines in Perth from 1840 to 1855, deserves more attention due to the distinctive model of ‘protection’ that he implemented.

In 1848 he summarised his approach: ‘The Protectors are most effectually advancing the best interests of their sable clients, by identifying themselves equally with those of the settlers, by protecting them from the aggressions of the aborigines, and thereby promoting a mutual reciprocity of good feeling.’

It was a policy approach that set him apart from colleagues elsewhere.

While the protectors in Port Phillip did their best to secure (in the words of the Select Committee report) ‘a due observance of justice’ for Aboriginal people, Symmons prioritised policing, and the summary powers of local magistrates.

He aimed to bring Aboriginal people within the reach of British law and thus prevent settlers from adopting ‘violent and improper means of redress’.

Charles Symmons (1804-1887) had a privileged upbringing, but his wealthy father suffered a ‘reversal of fortune’ prior to his death in 1831, leaving Charles in a ‘state of utter destitution’.

The solution to this unfortunate predicament was patronage. In 1839 Symmons secured the support of the Earl of Clarendon, a family friend, who recommended Symmons to Lord Normanby, the new Secretary of
State for Colonies.

Normanby’s predecessor, the philanthropically inclined Lord Glenelg, had commissioned a detailed report on the suitability of 11 candidates for the Port Phillip protectorate positions in 1837. In contrast, Normanby was content to rely on old-fashioned patronage when appointing protectors for Western Australia.

This allowed the appointment of a man who did not have a clear vocation for the work: Symmons was apparently neither evangelical nor strongly exercised by the humanitarian concerns of the 1830s.

In his official reports, Symmons championed a ‘system of native management’ based on ‘certain reward or punishment’. In 1840 he noted the ‘visible reformation’ of Aboriginal people that resulted from police patrols around Perth. Two years later he confidently asserted that ‘a halo of protection now encircles the life of the white man’.

Symmons did not entirely neglect philanthropic programs, but he remarked in 1842 that he was ‘no visionary – no dreamer of native perfectibility’. His approach to Aboriginal administration was reflected in a change to his job title in 1849 when he became ‘Guardian of Aborigines and Protector of Settlers’.

Symmons’ career began just as a humanitarian moment in the British Parliament was passing.

He was an exemplar of a more hard-nosed vision for colonial race relations, which saw the eclipse by settler interests of an earlier humanitarian approach. He ushered in a new model for Aboriginal protection that was to have a long career in Australia.

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