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The Aftermath of Slavery - Aborigines' Protection

The Aborigines Committee - A Great Charter - Buxton's 'Three Great Objects' - The Kaffir War of 1835 - Land-Nine Principles of Government.
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In his own day Buxton's work for the protection of native races attracted less attention than the outstanding achievement of Emancipation, but to us to-day it is in some respects, perhaps, of even greater value, for whilst opportunities for the legal enslavement of native races by Europeans are now, thank God, rare, temptations to exploitation are as great as in Buxton's day, and it is to his vision, insight and practical understanding that we owe principles upon which we are still working in our advance towards the ideal of Trusteeship. Exhausted though he was in health, he did not rest upon his laurels after carrying the Emancipation Bill through Parliament in 1833, for in the following year we find him writing to his friend, Dr. Philip, of the London Missionary Society in Cape Town: 'I stay in Parliament very much against my inclination, for no other purpose except to watch the West Indies and to protect the aborigines, chiefly the latter.'

In 1835 he determined to devote the remainder of his life to 'three great objects now on my hands. 1st, the completion of emancipation, for much requires to be done. 2nd, the abolition of the Spanish and Portuguese Slave Trade. 3rd, the just treatment of the aborigines.'

The Kaffir War of 1835, in which 4,000 Kaffirs were killed, 60,000 herd of their cattle captured, and their territory of Adelaide taken from them, increased his ardour, and he succeeded in obtaining the appointment of a Parliamentary Committee to enquire into the war, as well as into the general treatment of the aboriginal nations bordering on our settlements.

As a result of the Committee's enquiry, Lord Glenelg, then Colonial Secretary, decided that the Adelaide territory had been unjustly taken from the Kaffirs. 'Lord Glenelg,' wrote Buxton to Zachary Macaulay, has sent a most noble despatch to the Cape of Good Hope, restoring the territory we lately stole to the Kaffirs, and laying down the soundest principles with respect to future intercourse with them.

Amongst other practical reforms, the Government agreed to appoint Protectors of the Aborigines in every colony where the English came in contact with them. Buxton had long realised the fundamental importance of the land question, and he had already written to Dr. Philip: It appears to me that we ought to fix and enforce certain regulations and laws with regard to the natives of all countries where we make settlements. These laws must be based on the principles of justice. In order to do justice, we must admit, first, that the natives have a right to their own lands.

The Parliamentary Committee entrusted Buxton who was its Chairman, with the writing of its Report, and, regarding the Aborigines question as of the very greatest importance in the future, he endeavoured to make the Report a manual for their future treatment. He has thus left us a practical heritage in principles and suggestions of permanent value, and it is right and fitting that his last Parliamentary action should have been the presentation of the Aborigines Report.

Writing to his brother-in-law, J. J. Gurney, he describes the Report as a fair compendium of the evidence given before the Committee during three years... and I have little doubt it will go far to check that desperate and wide spreading villainy which has rendered the intercourse of the civilised and Christian man with the savage little else than one, uniform system of cruelty, rapacity and murder.

The Committee, which included Gladstone, Lushington and Sir George Grey, was 'appointed to consider what measures ought to be adopted with regard to the native inhabitants of countries where British settlements are made, and to the neighbouring tribes, in order to secure to them due observance of justice, and the protection of their rights, to promote the spread of civilization among them, and to lead them to the peaceful and voluntary reception of the Christian religion.'

The Committee's Report is well worth careful study to-day. It begins by describing in some detail what was often disgraceful treatment of natives by Europeans in Newfoundland, North and South America, New Holland (Australia), Van Diemen's Land, the Pacific Islands and South Africa. It is a melancholy story (to quote its own words) of 'the desolating effects of the association of unprincipled Europeans with natives in a ruder state.'

The Report continues: It is not too much to say, that the intercourse of Europeans in general, without any exceptions in favour of the subjects of Great Britain, has been, unless when attended by missionary exertions, a source of many calamities to uncivilised nations. As a nation we have not hesitate to invade many of the rights which they hold most dear.

The Report emphasises, on the other hand, the effect of fair dealing and of Christian instruction upon heathens. These instances are unhappily less numerous than those of an opposite character, but they are not less conclusive.

Much evidence is produced showing the value of the educative, civilising and peacemaking labours of the missionaries.

The principal recommendations made by the Committee were a veritable Charter of Native Rights:

  1. Protection of natives to devolve upon the Executive.... This is not a trust which could conveniently be confided to the local legislatures.... The settlers in almost every colony, having either disputes to adjust with the native tribes, or claims to urge against them, the representative body is virtually a party, and therefore ought not to be the judge in such controversies.... The Governor of each colony should be invested by Her Majesty... with authority for the decision of all questions affecting the interests of the native tribes.
  2. Contracts for Service to be limited. No vagrancy laws or other regulations should be allowed, the effect of which might be to cripple the energies of the natives by preventing them selling their labour at the best price, and at the market most convenient to themselves. All contracts... should be expressly limited in their duration to a period which should, in no case, exceed 12 months.... Every contract for service should be made in the presence of an officer specially appointed for that purpose, in whom should be vested a summary jurisdiction to enforce the payment of the stipulated wages. To the neglect of regulations of this kind is to be ascribed the growth of a servile relation, differing little from slavery.
  3. Sale of ardent spirits to be prevented.
  4. dealt with the vital question of native lands: So far as the lands of the Aborigines are within any territories over which the dominion of the Crown extends, the acquisition of them by Her Majesty's subjects, upon any title of purchase, grant, or otherwise, from their present proprietors, should be declared illegal and void.

    Alas, how many injustices would have been prevented and how different would have been the development of huge areas of the world if our legislators of the last hundred years had adhered to these sound principles!

  5. recommended that new territories are not to be acquired without the sanction of the Home Government.
  6. recommended that 'Religious instructions and education be provided' to be charged to the revenue of each colony, and points out that 'the ancient lords of the wilderness have been dispossessed,' that the land has since been sold by Europeans for high prices, and concludes by saying that it requires no argument to show that we thus owe to the natives a debt, which will be but imperfectly paid by charging the land revenue of each of those provinces with whatever expenditure is necessary for the instruction of the adults, the education of their youth, and the protection of them all.
  7. is also in line with the best modern methods of colonial administration. It deals with the punishment of crimes and the hardship of making ignorant savages... amenable to a code of which they are absolutely ignorant, and the whole spirit and principles of which are foreign to their modes of thought and action.... It would, therefore, on every account, be desirable to induce the tribes in our vicinity to concur in devising some simple and efiectual method of bringing to justice such of their own people as might be guilty of offences against the Queen's subjects. For that purpose, treaties might be made with the chiefs of the independent tribes, denning, with all practicable simplicity, what acts should be considered as penal, by what penalties they should be visited, and in what form of procedure those penalties should be enforced.
  8. recommends that as a general rule... it is inexpedient that treaties should be frequently entered into between the local Governments and the tribes in their vicinity. Compacts between parties negotiating on terms of such entire disparity are rather the preparatives and the apology for disputes than securities for peace: as often as the resentment or the cupidity of the more powerful body may be excited, a ready pretext for complaint will be found in the ambiguity of the language in which their agreements must be drawn up, and in the superior sagacity which the European will exercise in framing, in interpreting and in evading them.
  9. urges that missionaries, 'those gratuitous and invaluable agents,' should be protected and assisted, but concludes with a judicious word of advice to the missionary: It is necessary that, with plans of moral and religious improvement, should be combined well-matured schemes for advancing the social and political improvement of the tribes, and for the prevention of any sudden changes which might be injurious to the health and physical constitution of the new converts.

The Report as a whole shows a far-sighted and practical grasp of the principles and, to a great extent, the practice by which the most enlightened colonial administrators of the present day are guided. These principles have from the start inspired the Aborigines Protection Society, which was founded in 1837, with Buxton as its President, 'to assist in protecting the defenceless and promoting the advancement of uncivilised tribes,' and which, from that day to this, has worked for these ends. The Aborigines Protection Society and the British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society, though to some extent composed of the same persons, existed as separate bodies until the year 1909. They frequently co-operated, but sometimes adopted different lines of policy. It was to prevent overlapping and to make for more efficient working that both Societies joined forces in 1909.

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