Nettelbeck, Amanda. Indigenous Rights and Colonial Subjecthood: Protection and Reform in the Nineteenth-Century British Empire. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019.
In the minds of some past historians and many past imperialists, it was doctrine to declare that the British Empire was humane and enlightened, while its contemporary European rivals were not. When compared to such regimes as the Belgian Congo or German colonies in Africa, this is not necessarily wrong, yet as subsequent generations of (non-white, non-European) historians have pointed out, most of these humanitarian values were really only relative, if they excited at all. Britain was certainly responsible for its fair share of atrocities, and yet the fact remains that at the time of its empire, the governing class of the British Empire did believe itself to be operating with the best interests of its subjects in mind. Amanda Nettelbeck’s Indigenous Rights and Colonial Subject Hood explores this phenomenon through the particular policy of aboriginal “protection” in nineteenth century Australia, ultimately offering a compelling picture of how the instinct to safeguard subject peoples from white colonization ultimately resulted in their complete subjugation to racial justice and nineteenth-century ideas of labor exploitation.
Indigenous Rights and Colonial Subjecthood details the peculiar, short-lived office of Protector of Aborigines in the Antipodean colonies of the 1840s, namely New South Wales, South Australia, West Australia, the Port Phillip District, and, briefly, New Zealand. Nettelbeck deftly illustrates the history of the office, from initial official policies towards Australian aborigines to the formation and tenure of the office itself, to regional variations and lasting (or not) legacies. It may seem strange for such a rapacious entity as the British Empire in Australia to establish a policy of protecting the indigenous peoples it displaced, but Nettelbeck’s analysis shows that unpacking the intent of the British Imperial colossus has never been as simple as following one official mind; the imperial project was made up of many layers and motivations, most notably in this case those of humanitarian governing officials in London, practical local officials in Australia, and self-interested settling whites on the frontier. It is precisely the efforts of the first group to safeguard aborigines from the third that resulted in this policy of protection, but as with anything regarding empire in the nineteenth century, even the best sounding policies were never so benevolent. Intent on ‘civilizing’ the nomadic peoples of Australia, British officials wanted to safeguard their rights under British law by not only defending them, but prosecuting them under a legal system not their own. It doesn’t take a seasoned scholar to predict that the office responsible for this equal protection would be underfunded and their duties trend more towards prosecution than defense, eventually being subsumed into the settler mechanisms of territorial expansion, labor exploitation, and racial exclusion.
Yet in Nettelbeck’s tragic tale exists a profoundly interesting thesis: that, at the highest levels, those governing the British Empire in the first half of the nineteenth century did in fact care about their much-vaunted ‘civilizing mission’ and evinced a somewhat modern concern for the welfare of their subjects, even if paternalistically misguided in its particulars. Nettelbeck admirably calls attention to parallel offices across the empire in charge of safeguarding the rights and legal liberties of slaves, freed slaves, and indentured laborers. None of these officials truly sided with those they were supposed to protect, yet neither did they uniformly suppress them. My only critique of Nettelbeck’s work is that she did not go further; it seems a shame to make such valid connections across space, but not across time. Writing a book on individuals tasked with mitigating the rapacious tendencies of a white settler class and bringing native peoples into the imperial fold practically begs to include some discussion of the Indian Agents of the eighteenth century, especially in regards to how much those previous policies may have influenced those of the subsequent century, but Nettelbeck unfortunately never leaves her nineteenth-century foxhole.
While in the final accounting it may be slightly too academic for the general reader (just look at that word vomit of a title), if you can get through Nettelbeck’s slightly-convoluted prose, you will find a surprisingly compelling snapshot of the complexities of British imperial rule not just in Australia, but all over the globe. Caught in that strange twilight between the death of the first phase of its empire and the birth of its second, Indigenous Rights and Colonial Subjecthood illustrates both the well-meaning contemporary mindset of some imperialists and the ultimate victory of paternalistic white supremacy over it in ways worth reiterating to modern audiences.