Uncovering Histories of Humanitarianism: the Aborigines’ Protection Society 1837-1866

By Zoë Laidlaw, University of Melbourne.

This is the fifth in a series of posts by researchers drawing on the archive of the Anti-Slavery Society, part of the Bodleian’s We Are Our History project.

The Aborigines’ Protection Society (APS) and the Anti-Slavery Society merged in 1909, formalising a history of engagement and occasional rivalry stretching back to the 1830s. The APS had long argued that concern for the welfare of Indigenous peoples in Britain’s empire was a logical extension of anti-slavery activism. But, while key personnel moved between the two societies, public support for the APS remained much more muted. Not least, this was because the APS struggled to explain its remit. In 1847, a decade after starting work, the APS acknowledged that many still asked ‘Who are the Aborigines, and who is their Friend?’ but struggled to address these basic questions:

“Government documents and other publications have given a currency and acceptation to the word Aborigines, which, however, is not so general as to render explanation unnecessary … When the overflowing or restless population of a civilized country quit their homes, and seek a country where a wider space is open before them, they often find the land imperfectly occupied by a race of men greatly differing from themselves. These are the so-called Aborigines of the country; and the interests of both races are involved in the character of the intercourse which ensues between them.”

As this comparative and pejorative definition of ‘Aborigines’ suggests, the APS was both Eurocentric and paternalistic. Its leaders recognised that British colonialism led to Indigenous peoples’ dispossession and exploitation, but they argued for the radical reform of colonialism rather than its eradication. In the utopian future they envisaged, colonisers and colonised alike would be more civilised, Indigenous rights recognised and protected and Britain’s empire more economically productive.

Front cover of 'The Colonial Intelligencer or Aborigines Friend', July 1850, showing figures representing the continents of the world.

Figure 1: Cover, The Colonial Intelligencer or Aborigines Friend, vol.3, no. 27, 1850. [Out of copyright. Image by author.]

From 1848, the cover of the APS periodical encapsulated the society’s assumptions about this transformation. While the APS motto, ‘Ab Uno Sanguine’, insisted all peoples shared a common humanity, the five male figures in W. J. Linton’s artwork invoked a racial (and implicitly gendered) hierarchy. Britain (or perhaps ‘Europe’), clad in the garb of ‘civilisation’, frock coat, stockings and wig, offered his hand in friendship to Asia, having just bestowed a book on Africa. In these continents, the image implies, Britain’s work of civilisation had already begun. Meanwhile, a supplicant North America offered Britain a peace pipe, while the Pacific, replete with feathered cloak, paddle and spear, stood peacefully, if warily, by. Work here was far from complete.


In this essay, I focus on the APS’s early decades, when the society drew attention to the harm caused to Indigenous peoples by colonialism and proposed schemes for its reform. This was the era – between the 1830s and the 1870s – when British settler colonisers seized great swathes of Indigenous land in North America, southern Africa, Australia and New Zealand, while asserting greater political independence from imperial rule. The APS was co-founded in 1837 by the politician (and first APS President), Sir Thomas Fowell Buxton (1786-1845) and the Quaker physician, scientist and campaigner Dr Thomas Hodgkin (1798-1866). In parliament, Buxton had championed the 1833 Slavery Abolition Act, before chairing an 1835-37 select committee inquiry into ‘Aborigines’ in Britain’s colonies.

Handwritten list of the campaigns in which Thomas Fowell Buxton has been engaged in Parliament, 1837.

Figure 2: Thomas Fowell Buxton, ‘The objects in which I have been engaged in parliament’, December 1837. Bodleian Library. MSS. Brit. Emp. s. 444, vol. 16, fos. 91e-h. Enlarge image.

Losing his parliamentary seat late in 1837, Buxton reviewed his parliamentary career, giving the issue of ‘Aborigines’ an optimistic tick. By contrast, and despite emancipation, Buxton regarded his campaigns against both ‘Slavery’ and the ‘Slave Trade’ as unfinished business.







After 1837, Buxton focused on substituting ‘legitimate commerce’ for the trade in enslaved humans in West Africa and his early commitment to the APS waned. He fell out with Hodgkin, who was left as the nascent society’s driving force. Hodgkin managed APS business and served as its Honorary Secretary from 1839 until his death in 1866, drawing on paid administrative support when finances permitted. Notably, Louis Alexis Chamerovzow (1816-1875) worked as assistant secretary from 1847 to 1852 (before moving to the Anti-Slavery Society), while Frederick Chesson (1833-1888) became assistant secretary in 1855 and then succeeded Hodgkin after the latter died unexpectedly in Palestine in 1866.

During the Hodgkin years, the APS had some success publicising settler colonisers’ depredations against Indigenous peoples and it also provided a platform from which a few Indigenous leaders – like the Ojibwa woman, Nahnebahwequa – addressed the British public. But despite advancing many plans for reform it failed to change colonial policy or practice. Although the society’s critics credited it with (undue) influence at the Colonial Office, internal government documents reveal that civil servants regarded APS interventions with a mixture of exasperation and derision. Moreover, as settler colonies achieved greater political autonomy, the British government disavowed responsibility for the welfare of their Indigenous populations, making the task of the small, British-based, APS even harder. While the early APS was not influential, it does reveal British attitudes, policies and practices in an era of rapacious settler colonialism, throwing into relief the British mindset that allowed imperial expansion to be framed – by most – as a triumph rather than a crime.

The 1909 merger between the Anti-Slavery Society and the APS also entailed the fusion of their archives. As Darren Reid has shown, the records include a wide array of rich and compelling correspondence from the APS’s Indigenous petitioners and informants. Letters to the society from government ministers and civil servants and numerous communications with other societies campaigning on imperial issues also remain. Most, however, date from the 1870s and later, while almost no APS minute books, accounts or other organisational records survive for any period. The early APS is revealed to only a very limited and partial degree in the Bodleian’s collections. This absence remind us that archives – their accidental omissions, conscious inclusions, structure and location – shape the history it is possible to write. To understand more fully the APS of the mid-nineteenth century we must look further afield.

Fortunately, other archival collections do provide insights into the early APS. Most importantly, the Wellcome Collection in London holds the papers of the Hodgkin family. Thomas Hodgkin’s archive within this collection is both voluminous and beguiling.

Oil painting of Thomas Hodgkin by John Burton.

Figure 3: ‘Thomas Hodgkin’, portrait by John Burton. Wellcome Collection. https://wellcomecollection.org/works/fgr2re5y [Licence CC by 4.0]

Most consists of inward and outward correspondence, much of the latter faintly recorded in Hodgkin’s hand in a series of early facsimile books. His letters span nearly fifty years and include correspondence to and from many hundreds of individuals and organisations, situated all over the world. Many, ostensibly, are unrelated to the APS: we read of Hodgkin’s medical research; fractious relationships with family and co-religionists; friendship with the prominent banker and philanthropist, Sir Moses Montefiore; investments in Paris; and work for numerous scientific, medical and educational concerns. Hundreds of other letters do directly concern the affairs of the APS, providing a vibrant picture absent from the Bodleian’s combined Anti-Slavery/APS collection. Hodgkin, it is clear, actively and deliberately cultivated his colonial informants. Alongside British missionaries, government officials and migrants, his correspondents included important Indigenous leaders, like the Ojibwa chief and missionary Peter Jones/Kahkewahquonaby and the BaSotho chief Moshoeshoe. Their letters provide glimpses of the devastation wreaked on Indigenous peoples as British emigrants flooded across the plains and forests of Australia, New Zealand, British North America and southern Africa.

Hodgkin urged his correspondents to provide details of the specific harm colonisation caused. The APS needed compelling and graphic evidence to shock the British public into support for Indigenous rights and to force the imperial government to intervene in colonial affairs. Most Britons accepted the seizure of Indigenous lands as an inevitable corollary of colonisation, and settler colonisers’ violence was ignored or explained away, either as provoked by savage Indigenous people or executed by ‘unusually excessive’ outliers. Hodgkin’s correspondents disrupted this accepted wisdom, revealing contemporary models of colonisation as inherently callous and destructive. The APS also wanted to gather support for its proposals to reform colonisation. The APS model for reform, which it proclaimed as universal, was in fact profoundly Eurocentric: Indigenous cultures, laws and norms would be voluntarily relinquished in favour of an (idealised) British model of ‘civilisation’. Hodgkin gathered evidence demonstrating that Indigenous people had the necessary potential for this transformation. He sought out and celebrated Indigenous people who had converted to Christianity, excelled in western-style education or the professions, and adopted European agricultural practices or political concepts.

The Wellcome archive reveals that Thomas Hodgkin’s desire to document Indigenous potential of this sort led him into some awkward situations. Here, for example, Hodgkin’s long-standing connection to Liberia, only fleetingly documented in the Bodleian, is fully fleshed out. From the early 1820s, some African Americans ‘returned’ to west Africa to establish the colony of Liberia. For thirty years, Hodgkin championed Liberia as offering proof of the potential of African Americans’ – and indeed, of all non-white peoples’ – when freed from the shackles of slavery and white oppression. He pointed to the Liberian state, which proclaimed its independence in 1847, as evidence of African Americans’ capacity for civilisation, and as a model for Britain to emulate.

Manuscript document with red seal appointing Thomas Hodgkin as Liberian Consul in Britain, 1849.

Figure 4: J.J. Roberts, Appointment of Thomas Hodgkin as Liberian Consul in Britain, 18 May 1849. Bodleian Library. MSS. Brit. Emp. s. 18, C122/57. Enlarge image.

Corresponding with Liberians up to and including the President, J. J. Roberts, Hodgkin accepted and propagated a highly romanticised view of Liberia in support of his broader vision. He overlooked evidence that African American settler colonisers’ treatment of Liberia’s Indigenous population depressingly mimicked settler colonialism elsewhere. Hodgkin’s Liberian correspondence also shows how dependent the APS was on those who agreed, or sought, to be its informants. Accurate, let alone comprehensive, information was hard to acquire: what filtered through to the APS was often partial, out-of-date, or obscured by a welter of contextual detail. Letters went astray, reliable informants died, and – as with Liberia – Hodgkin often made poor choices about which voices to trust and which to ignore.

The efforts of the early APS to prove Indigenous capacity can also be tracked through other archival collections. Thomas Hodgkin is remembered today as a medical scientist, and he hoped to provide Britons with scientific proof of human unity to secure Indigenous rights. To this end he was a driving force behind the emerging discipline of ethnology and its organ, the Ethnological Society of London. He also wooed fellows of the Royal Geographical Society, hoping they would provide useful ethnographic evidence from their expeditions. Missionaries, given their close contact with Indigenous peoples, could also be excellent informants and many corresponded with Hodgkin. Britain’s missionary societies drew domestic audiences of thousands; garnering their support for APS activities would have been an enormous boon. Missionary relations with the APS, however, were fractious: Hodgkin unpopularly maintained that ‘civilisation’ should precede conversion to Christianity, and criticised actions he saw as prioritising souls over lives. Despite this, Hodgkin was keenly aware of the strength of mobilised faith. He chaired a committee on Aborigines within the British Society of Friends, but failed to get his Quaker co-religionists, so staunch in their opposition to slavery, to agree to concerted action on behalf of Indigenous peoples. The Anti-Slavery Society, with which the APS eventually merged, was another obvious ally, but also a competitor for public attention and donations. While the APS tried not to duplicate the efforts of the abolitionists, some practices and peoples proved difficult to pigeonhole and Hodgkin’s own views of abolition lay outside mainstream British opinion. In particular, his vocal support for the (voluntary) migration of African Americans to Liberia and other parts of West Africa placed him on the fringes of antislavery. During most of Hodgkin’s tenure, the APS came across as somewhere between ungracious and bitter about abolition: its claim that the ongoing crimes of settler colonialism dwarfed even the horrors of chattel slavery, while arguable, misjudged the public mood. When, in the depths of an 1852 existential and financial crisis, some suggested that the APS seek ‘fusion’ with the Anti-Slavery Society, Hodgkin dismissed this as ‘impracticable’. Archives held by the Royal Anthropological Institute, the Royal Geographical Society, the Religious Society of Friends and a host of other scientific, campaigning and religious organisations, therefore, give insights not only into the early APS, but reveal more general connections between science, religion and colonialism in early Victorian Britain.

The APS periodical, the Colonial Intelligencer; or Aborigines’ Friend, was published – sometimes intermittently – from 1847 and, alongside published records of APS annual meetings, it shows how the society sought to communicate with the public. Hodgkin wrote much of the Colonial Intelligencer himself, collaborating first with Louis Chamerovzow and later with Frederick Chesson. Articles were long and sometimes hectoring, including reprinted addresses to government, dense ethnographic reports, items from the colonial press, and substantial extracts of Hodgkin’s own correspondence. As early as 1848, Hodgkin promised to run fewer articles of ‘a somniferous quality’ and tried to adopt a more anecdotal tone. Where the APS had access to them, the Colonial Intelligencer foregrounded the views of Indigenous people; in this way it conveys something of how, and with what effect, Indigenous men and women struggled to be heard in mid-century Britain. In general, however, the Colonial Intelligencer failed to capture the immediacy and power of Hodgkin’s private letters; it is not hard to see why few Britons became active APS supporters.

Focussing on Thomas Hodgkin and his personal archive risks over-emphasising his importance to the APS. Here, the Bodleian collection allows Hodgkin’s evolving role to be calibrated. For example, a January 1838 letter to Hodgkin, from his predecessor as Honorary Secretary, J. H. Tredgold (who moved to the Anti-Slavery Society in 1839), indicates Hodgkin’s early centrality to the APS. The APS committee conveyed its thanks to an indisposed Hodgkin, noting not only his ‘zealous and valuable services’ but the continuing and generous provision of Hodgkin’s Finsbury Circus residence for APS meetings.

[Click photographs to enlarge]

Figure 5: J. H. Tredgold to T. Hodgkin, 10 January 1838, Bodleian MSS. Brit. Emp. s. 18, C122/67.

Hodgkin continued to host APS meetings for several decades (after Finsbury Circus he rented in Mayfair’s Lower Brook Street and then at 35 Bedford Square, Bloomsbury) and, indeed, provided considerable financial support to the society. He had inherited money: this wealth, despite his reluctance to press his patients for fees, allowed Hodgkin to devote both time and money to the APS.

Only in the mid-1850s, do signs appear that Hodgkin and the APS were becoming a little less synonymous. After a period when the APS could afford no paid employees at all, Frederick Chesson became assistant secretary in 1855. Although only in his early twenties, Chesson was active and well-connected, not least as he had just married the daughter of the prominent abolitionist and India lobbyist, George Thompson. The Bodleian collections reveal that, while formally Hodgkin’s assistant, Chesson soon began cultivating APS informants independently; he also initiated APS campaigns according to his pre-existing interests and connections. It was Chesson, for example, who helped promote an APS focus on the affairs of India: the APS urged reform there from 1855, well before the infamous rebellion against the East India Company and British rule began in May 1857. When the APS hired Samuel Abington to tour British towns in 1859, Chesson corresponded with him most frequently. Abington lectured provincial Britons on imperial affairs and APS campaigns, soliciting donations and advocating the establishment of local auxiliaries. His 1861 letters to Chesson, when Britain’s war against the Māori in New Zealand was the central issue for the APS, reveal the society’s continuing precarity. Abington struggled to secure venues and attention. Audiences were routinely small, if often ‘attentive’. It was hard to compete for the public’s attention, especially in busy centres like Oxford, while Abington reported Yeovil’s burghers distracted by ‘American Slavery’.

[Click photographs to enlarge]

Figure 6: S. J. Abington to F. W. Chesson, 21 March 1861. Bodleian Library. MSS. Brit. Emp. s. 18, C123/9.

In the absence of minute and account books, quotidian details like this are rare in the APS archive. This routine correspondence reminds us how the society struggled, but also that it had rarely sought to engage directly with provincial Britons before 1859.

If the Bodleian collection reveals Chesson’s growing influence within the APS, the Wellcome Collection suggests why Hodgkin was prepared to step back a little. APS successes had always been intermittent and partial, but from the early 1850s, its capacity to effect change from London was radically diminished. European immigrant populations in Australasia, British North America and South Africa were boosted by mineral booms and the spoils of pastoralism. New colonial constitutions handed more power to settler colonisers; across the empire Indigenous dispossession and exploitation was further enshrined. The imperial government recoiled from the costs of wars these colonisers provoked, disavowing responsibility for Indigenous peoples. Hodgkin continued to campaign, but he was both bitter and profoundly disillusioned by colonialism and more strident expressions of racism, ‘wearied with toil, and discouraged by neglect, misrepresentation, and disappointment’. He lobbied on New Zealand, but turned much of his attention to North Africa and the Middle East, travelling to Morocco, Egypt and Palestine with his friend and patient, Moses Montefiore.

The scattered archives of the early APS provide a window onto British imperial humanitarianism during an era of great change and growing disillusionment. Collectively they reveal the operations of an anxious and largely unsuccessful organisation, which, despite its self-proclaimed global remit and the platform it provided to some Indigenous people, was fettered by its leaders’ Eurocentric understanding of the world. Although the APS sought to inform Britons of the horrors and crimes of British colonisation by asserting that there was only one form of ‘civilisation’, ultimately it undermined Indigenous claims and gave succour to imperial apologists. As we reckon with Britain’s imperial past today, scouring the archives to understand the self-serving assumptions, misconceptions and actions of the 19th-century empire is ever more important.


Printed Primary Sources mentioned

“Prologue”, Colonial Intelligencer; or Aborigines’ Friend, 1 (March 1847).

“Prefatory address”, Colonial Intelligencer; or Aborigines’ Friend, new series, 2: 1&2 (May and June 1848).

“Aborigines’ Protection Society: Auxiliary Meeting, 27 May 1852”, Colonial Intelligencer; or Aborigines’ Friend, 4: 3&4 (June-July 1852).

Thomas Hodgkin, “Address in Support of the Cause from the Secretary of the Society”, Colonial Intelligencer; or Aborigines’ Friend, 4: 10 (January and February 1853).

“Address to Electorate, 21 March 1857”, Colonial Intelligencer; or Aborigines’ Friend, 1:5 (January–March 1857).

Nahnebahwequa/Catherine Sutton, address, The Proceedings of the Twenty-Third Anniversary Meeting of the Aborigines’ Protection Society. London. W. Tweedie. 1860.


Manuscript Primary Sources mentioned

  1. J. Abington to F. W. Chesson, 20 February 1861. Bodleian Library. MSS. Brit. Emp. s. 18, C123/6.

———, 26 February 1861. Bodleian MSS. Brit. Emp. s. 18, C123/7.

———, 1 March 1861. Bodleian MSS. Brit. Emp. s. 18, C123/8

———, 21 March 1861. Bodleian MSS. Brit. Emp. s. 18, C123/9.

———, 29 March 1861. Bodleian MSS. Brit. Emp. s. 18, C123/10.

———, 3 April 1861. Bodleian MSS. Brit. Emp. s. 18, C123/11.

———, 20 April 1861. Bodleian MSS. Brit. Emp. s. 18, C123/12.

———, 23 April 1861. Bodleian MSS. Brit. Emp. s. 18, C123/13.

———, 27 April 1861. Bodleian MSS. Brit. Emp. s. 18, C123/14.

———, 1 May 1861. Bodleian MSS. Brit. Emp. s. 18, C123/15.

Sir George Barrow, minute, 22 July 1859, on Aborigines’ Protection Society Memorial to Duke of Newcastle, July 1859, The National Archives, CO 48/399.

Thomas Fowell Buxton, ‘The objects in which I have been engaged in parliament’, December 1837. Bodleian MSS. Brit. Emp. s. 444, vol. 16, fos. 91e-h.

Thomas Hodgkin to President J. J. Roberts, 30 March 1849. Wellcome Collection. Hodgkin Family Papers. PP/HO/D/A2422, fos 29-31.

———, 9 March 1852, Wellcome Collection. PP/HO/D/A2422, fos 42-5.

———, 23 March 1853, Wellcome Collection. PP/HO/D/A2447, f. 29.

President J.J. Roberts, Appointment of Thomas Hodgkin as Liberian Consul in Britain, 8 May 1849. Bodleian MSS. Brit. Emp. s. 18, C122/57.

J.H. Tredgold to T. Hodgkin, 10 January 1838, Bodleian MSS. Brit. Emp. s. 18, C122/67.


Further Reading on the early Aborigines’ Protection Society and Thomas Hodgkin

Bourne, Henry R. Fox, The Aborigines Protection Society: Chapters in its History. London. P. S. King & Son, 1899.

Heartfield, James. The Aborigines’ Protection Society: Humanitarian Imperialism in Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, Canada, South Africa, and the Congo, 1836-1909. New York: Columbia University Press, 2011.

Kass, Amalie M. and Edward H. Kass, Perfecting the World: The Life and Times of Dr Thomas Hodgkin 1798-1866. Orlando, FL. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1988.

Laidlaw, Zoë. Protecting the Empire’s Humanity: Thomas Hodgkin and British Colonial Activism 1830–1870. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2021.

———. “Indigenous Interlocutors: Networks of Imperial Protest and Humanitarianism in Mid-Nineteenth Century.” In Indigenous Networks: Mobility, Connections and Exchange, edited by Jane Carey and Jane Lydon, 114–39. New York: Routledge, 2014.

———. “Imperial Complicity: Indigenous Dispossession in British History and History Writing”, in Catherine Hall, Nicholas Draper and Keith McClelland (eds), Emancipation and the Remaking of the British Imperial World. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2014.

———. “‘Justice to India – Prosperity to England – Freedom to the Slave! Humanitarianism and Moral Reform Campaigns on India, Aborigines and American Slavery”, Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society 22:2 (April 2012): 299-324. https://doi.org/10.1017/S1356186312000247

———. “Slavery, Settlers and Indigenous Dispossession: Britain’s Empire through the Lens of Liberia”, Journal of Colonialism and Colonial History 13:1 (2012) https://doi.org/10.1353/cch.2012.0005

———. “Heathens, Slaves and Aborigines: Thomas Hodgkin’s Critique of Missions and Anti-Slavery.” History Workshop Journal, no. 64 (2007): 133–61. https://doi.org/10.1093/hwj/dbm034.

Lester, Alan, Kate Boehme and Peter Mitchell, Ruling the World: Freedom, Civilization and Liberalism in the Nineteenth-Century British Empire. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020.

Reid, Darren, “Rethinking the Aborigines Protection Society through its Informants”, 24 February 2023. https://blogs.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/archivesandmanuscripts/2023/02/24/rethinking-the-aborigines-protection-society-through-its-informants/

Swaisland, Charles. “The Aborigines Protection Society, 1837–1909.” Slavery & Abolition 21, no. 2 (2000): 265–80. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/01440390008575315.



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