Tag Archives: Aborigines Protection Society

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.

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Rethinking the Aborigines Protection Society through its Informants

By Darren Reid, University College London

This is the first 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.


Within the archives of the Anti-Slavery Society are the correspondence records of its cousin, the Aborigines’ Protection Society (1837-1909), which merged with the Anti-Slavery Society in 1909. The Aborigines’ Protection Society (APS) was administered from its headquarters in London by a range of middle-class White philanthropists who felt dissatisfied with the state of relations between Britain and the range of Indigenous peoples who found themselves within the professed territories of the British Empire.

Image from the cover of the publication 'The Aborigines Friend' in January 1850 depicting the meeting of five individuals from differnt parts of the world in their traditional clothing.

Figure 1: Cover of The Aborigines’ Friend, 2 no. 21 (January 1850).

Problematically, the APS was not opposed to colonization, but only believed that colonization could be done in a nicer and more “humane” fashion by ensuring that Indigenous land was taken in a consensual and equitable manner, and that Indigenous peoples were educated to enjoy the best that European superiority could offer. At first glance, such a blatantly imperialist raison d’être may seem to limit the value of the APS as a subject of historical inquiry. For, in an academic and social environment which values diversity and seeks to shatter ethnocentric and racist discourses, do we really want to hear from a group of nineteenth-century do-gooders trumpeting the “White Man’s Burden” to assuage their imperial guilt?

However, while the APS was run by a small group of middle-class telescopic philanthropists in Britain, it was dependent upon a network of informants who wrote letters about colonial events from across the British Empire, and these letters are extremely valuable for assessing diverse lived experiences of empire. The APS correspondent archive contains over 9,000 letters from men and women, settlers and Indigenous peoples, convicts and lawyers, missionaries and soldiers, and everything in-between. Each of these informants interpreted the purpose of the APS in ways reflecting the diversity of their interests and attitudes towards empire.

Here, I examine one particularly complex case study to demonstrate the diverse perspectives on empire that can be found in the APS collections: the Thaba Nchu succession dispute of the 1880s. Thaba Nchu was a small kingdom in southern Africa which, in the mid nineteenth century, found itself within the borders of the newly established Orange Free State. The Orange Free State technically fell under the suzerainty of the British Empire, but due to a complicated series of rebellions and treaties, it was effectively an independent Afrikaner state. The sovereignty of Thaba Nchu was therefore a hot-button issue: as an independent kingdom within an independent state within a suzerain empire, there was no clear consensus on who was actually in control.

Map of southern Africa showing Thaba Nchu in relation to Cape Town, Bloemfontein and Johannesburg.

Figure 2: Map showing Thaba Nchu in relation to Cape Town, Bloemfontein, and Johannesburg. © Darren Reid

The indeterminacy of Thaba Nchu’s status led to crisis in 1880, when the death of the paramount chief led to a succession dispute between two contenders: Samuel Moroka and Tshipinare. Moroka favored strengthening ties with Britain, whereas Tshipinare wanted to strengthen ties with the Orange Free State. Tshipinare made an under-the-table deal with the president of the Orange Free State, Johannes Brand, who arrested Moroka and banished him in return for a generous cession of land. In response, Moroka travelled to London to petition the British government to intervene and back him as the true chief of Thaba Nchu.

Throughout Thaba Nchu’s succession dispute, the APS received letters from at least ten different informants hoping to establish their own narrative of events, five of whom I will discuss in this blog post. There was Samuel Moroka himself, who tried to convince Britain of its obligation to intervene. There were also two settlers, David Smith of the Cape Colony and Edmund Bourdillon of the Orange Free State, who capitalized on Samuel Moroka’s petition to bring their own Anglo-Dutch rivalry before the British public. Finally, there were Richard and Elizabeth Whitfield, a brother and sister living in London who used the succession dispute to argue for the illegitimacy of British intervention within independent states. Attending to the differences in how these informants wrote about Thaba Nchu is suggestive of the multiplicity of perspectives on empire that can be found within the APS correspondent records.

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