REVIEW of The Friendly Mission: the Tasmanian Journals and Papers of George Augustus Robinson, 1829-1834
This is a massive work. Reading about Plomley’s process of editing GAR’s notes and papers, it is clear it was a complex, lengthy and sometimes frustrating task. The result is what appears to be a definitive work. GAR’s legacy is worthy of the highest scholarly endeavour.
Robinson was tasked by the governor of Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania) with employing conciliation to resolve the white-black conflict. It was an unpopular approach among the settlers who saw only two solutions: extermination or removal. With tragic irony, the outcome of Robinson’s friendly mission very nearly achieved both.
I read, taking notes like a uni student prepping an exam, searching for the scraps of information that, together, might illuminate indigenous life even as it had to be lived after years of guerrilla warfare. Robinson’s filters were strong and fine. There was his Euro-Christianity, his belief in the superiority of his civilisation, and his desire to rescue the unfortunate. I found it difficult to comprehend much of the indigenous culture and way of life as it appeared through these filters. To be fair, it was not his intent to create a ethnographic record. But there is so little else from the times, so little written, so little understood.
His firm belief that violence was the antithesis of an answer to the situation rendered him a focus of ridicule among his own people and perhaps the most trusted white man in the colony among the indigenous people. I admired his strength in persisting with this course of unarmed parties when so many others were wantonly shooting anything dark that moved. His approach to the conflict and his task is reminiscent of the non-violent movements of the twentieth century and Christian groups in the first and second centuries. Despite his sense of superiority, there seemed to be occasions of genuine respect for the indigenous people with whom he was working. Indeed, he had more time for them than most of the white men in his parties or in the settlements.
Plomley’s assessment that GAR gradually was overcome by a growing sense of his own importance and the rewards that were his due seems to be fairly accurate from the increasing space given over to these subjects in his journals. However, balancing this is the fact of the years GAR spent in physical hardship, tramping through incredibly tough terrain with uncertain companions, and confronting the violent prejudices of so many settlers and government officials. That he wrote so much in such conditions boggles my mind.
I suppose it was when I read articles about contemporary assessments by Parks and wildlife people of the sites of significance to indigenous people in the north that I began to glimpse how much GAR had missed or not been privy to. It impressed upon me even more deeply how little remains of the rich cultures that were lived here. It makes me want to weep for who and what has been lost. And it frustrates me to the core that the violence remains latent in my polarised community.