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Relational Space and Life Geographies in Imperial History: George Arthur and Humanitarian Governance

  • Alan Lester

Corps de l’article


Imperial historians are becoming increasingly aware that the history of any one locality within an empire can be understood only through its connections with other sites, both within and even beyond that empire. [1] In this paper I am particularly interested in the ways that these broader historical geographies of connection can be accessed through the life geographies of specific individuals. [2] The first half of the paper teases out some of the theoretical justifications for this linkage between the individual and the global (or at least the trans-imperial) and considers the revisions to our ideas of agency that might be associated with that link. The second half introduces a case study of the intersections between Governor George Arthur’s career in Jamaica, Honduras, and Van Diemen’s Land, and the global historical geography of British humanitarianism. [3]

The choice of Arthur as a subject associated with humanitarianism is apparently paradoxical, since, as Lieutenant Governor of Van Diemen’s Land, he oversaw what has been widely seen as the clearest case of genocide in British imperial history. [4] However, I will argue that Arthur’s individual trajectory through empire, when considered as one among other such trajectories, constituted a key locus of agency in the politically significant shift from anti-slavery to colonial humanitarianism. This shift is often considered from a metropolitan, British-centred perspective, but Arthur’s story suggests that it needs to be considered through a more relative, and a more embodied spatiality — one constituted through the assemblage and juxtaposition of entities with varying degrees of motility across contingently interacting sites.

Relational Space and Imperial History

Tracking the life geography of any individual means appreciating the relationships between that individual’s continually reconstituted subjectivity, the places in which s/he dwelt, and the spaces through which s/he moved. What is required in order to construct such an intimate geography is a relational approach to space. This approach challenges a long tradition of modern scientific thought premised on the notion of space as absolute, existing independently of the objects and relations that fill it, and providing a grid across which those objects and relations can be mapped.

It is because of a continuing adherence to this absolute view of space that ambivalence remains in imperial and trans-national history writing that situates itself between the global and the local. Many of us resort to an uneasy oscillation between phenomena such as imperialism, capitalism, and humanitarianism, which we describe as global, and specific episodes of political or military conflict, or changes in human-environment relations, which we describe as local. What we really want to do is show how they are imbricated in one another. [5]

Doreen Massey is the most eloquent critic of this language of distinction between global and local scales and communities. She notes how, in most humanities and social science literature, such differentiations limit our ability to analyse historical and contemporary interconnectedness. Its implication is that:

[f]irst the differences between places exist, and then those different places come into contact. The differences are the consequence of internal characteristics. It is an essentialist, billiard-ball view of place. It is also a tabular conceptualisation of space. [6]

Within branches of philosophy, the social sciences, and human geography in recent years, there has been a shift away from absolute notions of space. [7] Both space and time have come to be seen as relationally constituted by the interactions between objects, while those objects themselves are given meaning and capacity in turn only through their relationships with other objects. [8] The traditional staple of human geography — the recognition of regional differentiation — remains central within relative approaches to space and place, but localities and regions are re-envisioned as “nodes that gather flow and juxtapose diversity … places of overlapping … relational networks … with connections that stretch far back in time and space, … spatial formations of continuously changing composition, character, and reach.” [9]

A re-evaluation of agency and historical change is required if we are to re-conceptualize regions and localities in this way. [10] This re-evaluation is one that individualizes agency at the same time that it considers the effect of aggregation. It is one that sees relationships in and through place, rather than impersonal driving forces sweeping across abstract global space, as the agent effecting change. It is within such a broad field of relations that I want to situate Arthur’s life geography and its relation to humanitarianism.

Life Geographies

A biographical approach of course places the individual human at the very centre of the analysis. However, in the light of the critique posed by relative conceptions of space, place, and agency, the nature of that individual human subjectivity has to be rethought. Subjectivity becomes a product not only of internal psychological processes and reactions, but also of the human body’s continually changing relationship with other people and with the objects, both organic and inorganic, surrounding it, being manipulated, employed, and ingested by it, and circumscribing or channelling its thoughts and activities. [11] This means above all spatializing our biographical accounts — writing life geographies as well as life histories. We must develop a sense of the spatial not simply as the location of, or backdrop to, a life, but as co-constitutive with selfhood and identity. [12] As Massey notes, place “change[s] us,” but “not through some visceral belonging (some barely changing rootedness, as so many would have it) but through the practising of place, the negotiation of intersecting trajectories; place as an arena where negotiation is forced upon us.” [13] David Livingstone points out that:

all of us occupy an immense range of different sites. In these we act differently, adopt different personae, call on different linguistic repertoires, project different “selves”. Hence we can plausibly say that someone is a “different person” at home, in the office, on the playing field, and so on. This is because we define ourselves by reference to the positions — the moral and social spaces — from which we speak. The “geography of social statuses and functions” … provides the defining relations within which we construe ourselves. Morally and materially, where we are matters a good deal in trying to figure out who we are. [14]

The recognition of this spatiality of personhood entails a different kind of biography: “Instead of the remorselessly sequential narrative that typically characterises biographical accounts, greater sensitivity to the spaces of a life could open up new and revealing ways of taking the measure of a life.” [15] Such a decentred approach to the individual is clearly needed for previously untold subaltern stories. [16] But it also allows for a return to biographical subjects that have apparently already been “done to death.” [17] Situating well known figures, alongside lesser known people within their contingent networks of association casts new light on them.

George Arthur and Humanitarianism

The sets of relationships that I highlight and examine in this brief study of George Arthur’s life geography are those within which he was situated during the first half of his career in the Caribbean and Van Diemen’s Land. I try to separate out for analysis four particular sets of overlapping and intertwining relationships, which helped constitute Arthur’s personality and which Arthur actively mobilized in the construction of a new British humanitarianism: first, his involvement in military networks; second, his relations with immediate family members framed by prevailing hegemonic discourses of family life; third, his political engagements with British settlers and indigenous peoples through which the ideas and practice of governance were learned and revised; and, finally, the intersection between his own career trajectory and those of significant other individuals, including George Augustus Robinson and Thomas Fowell Buxton. In particular I want to argue that these sets of relationships, within which Arthur was one component with particular capacities among others, were integral to the shift in the British humanitarian imagination from trans-Atlantic anti-slavery to trans-imperial colonial philanthropy.

Military Networks

Arthur’s father was a Plymouth brewer who made good, and a mayor of that town. Although there are indications that George Arthur’s deeply religious youth leaned him towards a career in the clergy, he veered away from that course, following his brother into the army in 1804. Having entered the service later in life than most of his peers, he was anxious for rapid promotion and his timing could not have been better as the army expanded to cope with the Napoleonic threat. Like so many of his generation of colonial officials, he first came to the attention of the British governing élite as a result of his distinguished conduct in warfare, fighting bravely in the skirmishes leading up to the Battle of Maida in southern Italy, the attempted occupation of Alexandria, and the disastrous Walcheren campaign. [18]

Lieutenant-General Don, who assumed command of the survivors from Walcheren, offered Arthur a post as aide-de-camp in the military governance of Jersey in 1810. Here Arthur encountered the difficulties of governing conservatively while facing radical critics. In 1779, popular agitation had forced the autocratic government to allow the election of magistrates on a relatively broad franchise. Don complained about the “very great difficulty in carrying out the Executive business” in the face of opposition from some of these magistrates, and Arthur seems to have been struck by the necessity for those who govern to be unimpeded by dangerous democratic notions. [19] Such notions were after all, associated with the kind of Jacobinism against which the army had been fighting in the Revolutionary war, and with “a growing sense of insubordination.” [20]

Arthur’s later humanitarianism would always be framed within this anti-democratic politics. Later in Arthur’s career, as lieutenant-governor of Upper Canada, his anti-democratic disposition would be brought very much to the forefront of his performance of, and rationale for, colonial governance. Deciding to proceed with the executions of the rebels Samuel Lount and Peter Matthews, and having 17 of their American patriot allies, who had raided across the border, hanged after the 1838 revolt, he wrote that the British “Canadas must always be hateful to the view of persons so enthusiastically attached to democratic institutions as are the Americans.” [21] He was convinced that it behoved the British government to raise in Canada “a race of Englishmen with the same Government, the same feelings, and the same love of freedom that fills our bosoms; and here we may by their assistance oppose the most effectual barrier to the demon of democracy, which is threatening all civilized Governments.” [22] In contrasting English freedom with the uncivilized chaos induced by first French and then American democracy, Arthur articulated an understanding of humane governance that was quite specific to the generation of military officials who governed most of the British Empire in the aftermath of the wars against France: those who were best positioned to govern should be able to do so without interference from subjects who could not possibly comprehend the range of factors influencing any reasoned and well-informed decision. [23]

Arthur’s support for Don allowed him to take up a vacant majority in the 7th West India Regiment in 1812. This regiment had been founded as a predominantly black corps in 1795 in response to the high mortality among British officers in the Antilles. Initially, it recruited “free blacks” and purchased slaves, but all of its soldiers were freed in 1807. In the year that Arthur joined, the regiment became a part of what we might call the incipient “free Black Atlantic,” establishing a recruiting depot on Blance Island in Sierra Leone to train West African volunteers. [24] By the time Arthur arrived in Jamaica the regiment had served with distinction against French units similarly recruited among enslaved populations in the Caribbean. During his 18 months as assistant quartermaster-general and acting paymaster-general in Jamaica, he expressed himself “a perfect Wilberforce as to slavery,” and objected to planters’ restrictions on preaching to slaves. He also resented planters’ attacks on his soldiers’ freedom to operate outside the plantation economy. [25]

There is a vague reference in later correspondence that it was during this period on the island that Arthur became a more devout and convinced evangelical, understanding, as he put it, “what Gospel really was in truth and power.” [26] Rather than his evangelicalism predisposing him to oppose slavery, then, in Arthur’s case it was the witnessing of slavery that made him more evangelical. While it may seem paradoxical, it was also perfectly consistent for Arthur to become more autocratic at the same time. His biographer, A.G.L. Shaw is convinced that his exposure to planters made Arthur just as wary of respectable and powerful settlers who opposed humane interference in their affairs, as he was of radical agitators and advocates of democracy. [27] Arthur’s early grounding in a military model of autocratic governance, which combined with and was indeed essential to the fulfilment of an evangelical desire to see the benefits of civilization and Christianity available to all British subjects, did not, of course, set an unchanging template for his character. But it did enable the formation of key features of an authoritarian, yet humane personality, translated into a style of governance that was identified consistently by his contemporaries thereafter. [28]

Family Life

If Arthur’s militarily experience among free blacks in the Caribbean situated him at the nexus of evangelical humanism, political conservatism, and the art of governmentality, it was also the milieu in which he embarked on the role of family man. In both his military and family dispositions, the still relatively young Arthur was more acted upon by prevailing discourses than he acted to effect change in those discourses. He had not yet accrued a great deal of capacity to alter the nature of those broader social assemblages in which his character was emergent.

In 1814, Arthur married Elizabeth Sigismund Smith, the daughter of the officer commanding the artillery in the colony, and the sister of an acquaintance with whom he had served in the Mediterranean. Immediately, Arthur became more explicitly engaged in evolving discourses of gendered familial roles, in which he would be expected to provide for children, as well as a domesticated wife. As Leonore Davidoff and Catherine Hall have emphasized, the family unit was being configured more systematically as the foundation of a civilized society among the emerging commercial and professional middle classes in England at this time. [29] Within a range of literatures, including domestic and legal advice manuals and evangelical writings, “separate spheres” for husbands and wives were advocated as an ideal societal norm. [30] Nonetheless, a man’s role in the public world of work did not negate his domestic responsibilities. [31] Civilized masculinity was constituted by a father and husband who acted, as John Angell James put it, as “the prophet, priest and king of the family, to instruct their minds, to lead their devotions, and to govern their tempers.” [32]

If he was to fulfil this duty, Arthur’s imperative was, as he put it, to make “Promotion … my idol,” in order to secure greater status in the world of work and a dependable family income. [33] Unfortunately for Arthur, this imperative came just at the time that the end of the French wars was closing down opportunities for advancement in the army. Within a month of his wedding, Arthur accepted the less than glamorous vacant post of superintendent and commandant (as lieutenant colonel) at Belize, the capital town of a small British commercial settlement on the Bay of Honduras. [34] His expectations of fatherhood were soon fulfilled, with the couple having four surviving children within five years. [35]

However, the discrepancies between the ideal of genteel family life set out in manuals by writers such as John Angell James, and their practical realization, were especially acute in remote frontier environments. [36] Concerned that his two boys’ religious upbringing could not be secured in the “remote and ungodly” settlement, Arthur had them sent back to stay with a tutor in Plymouth when they were only four and five years old. As his sons grew up, more often apart from their parents than with them, Arthur’s attempts to “instruct their minds” and “govern their tempers” took epistolary form. Reacting to negative reports from a sequence of tutors and headmasters, he would often express himself disappointed in their lack of piety and discipline, asking why his own absolute dedication to work, which saw him work a 16–18 hour day, had not inspired them to a similar selfless pursuit of the public good. [37] Later, he wrote to his middle son, Charles, “You have inflicted upon your mother and myself the most painful anxiety. What a return for all the love and affection you have experienced from us.” [38]

One can only speculate what the relationship was between Arthur’s distant and admonitory relationship with his sons and his involvement in the webs of governmental humanitarianism, but there are certainly traces of a sense of frustration and grievance (perhaps tempered by guilt) at the appreciable gulf between the lessons he taught and the benefits he offered on the one hand, and the perceived incorrigibility of his sons on the other. If nothing else, Arthur’s failure to realize the goal of an ideal family life, with its parental responsibility for offspring, serves as a metaphor for later British humanitarians’ disillusionment with the capacity of their indigenous charges to become civilized and properly Christian. [39]

Settlers, Slaves and Aborigines

While Arthur’s evangelicalism had become more pronounced in Jamaica, it took a more earnest turn in Honduras. He showed a distinct aversion to the parties and balls with which the small community of settlers attempted to ingratiate themselves, writing to his sister that “Public Dances, Concerts and Cards” could be classed among the “Pomps and vanities of this wicked world which I read of in my Prayer Book.” [40] His application of moral earnestness to the problems of governance, however, was most obviously and antagonistically manifested in his opposition to settlers’ enslavement of Honduras’ indigenous population.

Describing the “aristocratic faction” in the settlement as being “profane, immoral and irreligious,” Arthur sought to instruct their slaves in Christianity and to give some “Blacks and Charabs” the vote in the settlement’s remarkably democratic constitution. Until 1820, Arthur had believed settlers’ representations concerning the relative “mildness” of slaves’ conditions in the interior, beyond Belize. A slave revolt in that year, however, saw him travel inland encountering what he described as “very unnecessary harshness,” for the first time. [41] Having previously reasoned that there was no need for them, Arthur now became determined to apply the ameliorative measures that Colonial Office policy demanded in the rest of the Caribbean.

“Protectors of Slaves” were progressively appointed to all the Caribbean Crown Colonies, beginning in the formerly Spanish Trinidad. Their role was to enforce the ameliorative codes limiting work hours and punishments, and to investigate enslaved people’s complaints against masters who breached them. Significantly, the protectors were also intended to help prepare enslaved people for their freedom by encouraging their Christianization and civilization. [42] This was a project that Arthur pursued vigorously in Honduras. It was located in the conjuncture between his evangelical awakening, his distrust of both privileged and radical settlers “who have ever been unceasingly troublesome and impatient of the most ordinary interference of the Crown,” [43] and his insistence on the primacy of church and state. The most concrete realisation of this project included the application of Jamaican law so that enslaved people had some protection from the arbitrary punishment of masters, and the freeing of descendants of Mosquito Coast Indians who had been enslaved illegally by settler parties.

Arthur’s attempted prosecution of the settlers responsible for keeping these Indians in captivity prompted such a struggle that his health was affected, and he returned to England on leave in 1822. [44] While the settlers sent an agent to orchestrate legal proceedings against him in London and bar his return to the settlement, he had to defend his actions in a voluminous correspondence with the Colonial Office. It was in the settler attacks that we find the beginnings of a portrayal of Arthur as a tyrannical despot that historians have perpetuated and applied to his subsequent governorships in Australia and Canada. In particular, Arthur’s enemies responded to the Anti-Slavery Society’s publication of materials that he had collected on the abuses of slaves in the settlement, publishing their own The Groans of Oppression and Defence of the Settlers of Honduras against the Unjust and Unfounded References of Colonel George Arthur, late Superintendent of that Settlement, a treatise that appeared in 1834 in the Monitor in Sydney, as settlers in Australia found common cause with their fellow Britons in Honduras. [45]

With the approval of the Colonial Office, Arthur had burnt his bridges with the settlers of Honduras and so, while still in England in 1823, he was offered the newly vacant post of lieutenant-governor of Van Diemen’s Land. Arthur was most relieved to accept the improved pay and enhanced status that came with the new posting. It was through this next phase of his career that Arthur’s own trajectory entwined with two significant others in particular, to reformulate his anti-democratic and anti-slavery dispositions into a broader programme of humanitarian colonial governance — one in which he would exercise much greater capacity to affect other governors.

Significant Others

Arthur’s posting to Van Diemen’s Land was said at the time to have been the result of a connection with William Wilberforce, itself the result of the reputation that Arthur had earned in Honduras as an anti-slavery governor. [46] But it was his repeated, face-to-face meetings with Wilberforce’s successor as leader of the parliamentary anti-slavery lobby, Thomas Fowell Buxton, in London, and then with George Augustus Robinson in Van Diemen’s Land, which proved most significant for colonial discourse and governance. It was through the relationships that these men forged, and their effects though their various networks of correspondents and interlocutors, that the shift from anti-slavery to humanitarian governance took place in vast terrains of colonization beyond the Caribbean.

Arthur took the notion of “amelioration,” with its policies of individual and collective reformation, with him to Van Diemen’s Land in 1824. There, he applied the project to both convicts and Aboriginal people. He wrote to Buxton that religious instruction would supply the convicts “with an inward regulator,” which was “ten times more effectual in every case … than all the fear and alarm that can be exerted from without,” and produced two pamphlets for circulation in the colony and in Britain elaborating upon proper measures for the rehabilitation of transportees. [47] While he admitted privately that he felt about a quarter of all transportees were “irreclaimable,” [48] he would not allow such of the Aboriginal inhabitants of the island. As Henry Reynolds points out, “Arthur’s response to the Aboriginal insurgency” that he was about to encounter, “was more measured and gradual than his ruthless and decisive crushing of the bushranging gangs that roamed the colony during 1825 and 1826.” [49] Tracking the emergence of his position on questions of colonial Britons’ relationship to governmental authority, as I have attempted to do above, I think, makes this contrast easier to understand.

Within two years of Arthur’s arrival in Hobart, the few thousand Aboriginal people of the island were exposed to a surge in the number of British settlers joining their convict counterparts and claiming land, which the government was happy to allocate, in the interior. The central tribes responded by initiating a guerilla war. [50] One of Arthur’s first acts in the colony was to issue a proclamation affording Aborigines equal rights to settlers and promising “the same punishment as though committed on the person or property of any settlers” to those who harmed them. However, from the first, this was counterbalanced by his imperative as governor of allowing for settler expansion and meeting Aboriginal resistance to it with force. [51]

Arthur continued to dispose of land to the Van Diemen’s Land Company and settlers regardless of Aboriginal occupation and usage, while encouraging a small settlement of Aboriginal people on Bruny Island near Hobart as a humanitarian experiment to see if they could be redeemed and reclaimed for Christianity within a new colonial environment. When he advertised among the settlers for a superintendent of the settlement, the successful applicant was George Augustus Robinson, a former builder from the East End of London. Astutely using the language of anti-slavery policy, Robinson wrote that he was “fully persuaded that the plan which your Excellency has devised is the only one whereby the aborigines of this territory can be ameliorated.” [52]

By the late 1820s, settlers outnumbered Aborigines on the island by about 20 to one and there is plenty of evidence that significant numbers of them backed a campaign of extermination in the face of continued, well organized resistance. [53] The settler press presented Arthur with an ultimatum: if the Aborigines were not removed quickly, “THEY WILL BE HUNTED DOWN LIKE WILD BEASTS AND DESTROYED.” [54] Arthur was deeply affected, writing to the colonial secretary that the violence “wholly engrosses and fills my mind with painful anxiety.” [55] He declared martial law in 1828 in an attempt to take the conflict out of the hands of settlers and into those of a more conciliatory state. [56] But Arthur’s attempt to use settler militias and the regular army to round up the remaining tribes of the central island so that they could be held in “benevolent captivity” on reserve land, failed to bring the warfare to a conclusion. His somewhat naïve calls for settlers to treat Aboriginal resisters with humanity were denounced by the settler press as arising from “false notions of pity.” [57]

Robinson, in the meantime, had been able to embark on an alternative plan that he called his conciliatory, or friendly mission. He would employ the Aboriginal people that he had first come to know on Bruny Island to travel with him on various expeditions across parts of Van Diemen’s Land where independent tribes were holding out, and embark upon negotiations with them. These negotiations would result in their surrender and removal to a new settlement on Flinders Island. [58] Through Robinson, Arthur found a way to bridge the crucial differences between an established discourse of amelioration, based on the protection and reform of captive, enslaved people, and the conciliation of a defiant indigenous population. This bridge provided salvation for Arthur’s reputation, both as a humanitarian and as a governor. [59] Arthur was sincere when he told his superiors in London that:

it cannot hereafter be said that [the Aboriginal people] were torn from their kindred and friends … No! their removal has been for their benefit, and in almost every instance with their own free will and consent. They have been removed from danger, and placed in safety in a suitable asylum … where they are brought under moral and religious inculcation. [60]

Robinson himself was not shy about promoting the wider value of his work. He wrote, “I trust the time is not far distant when the same humane policy will be adopted towards the aboriginal inhabitants of every colony throughout the British Empire.” [61]

Even while the supposed beneficiaries of Robinson’s plan continued to protest about their removal from customary resources, susceptibility to disease, and restricted mobility on Flinders Island, Arthur was able to realize, in part at least, Robinson’s vision. In London by 1835, Buxton was formulating a plan for a House of Commons Select Committee to investigate the injustices that settler colonization was occasioning throughout the empire. While Arthur and Robinson had made a practical link between anti-slavery and humanitarian governance in Van Diemen’s Land, Buxton now articulated that link as the call to arms for a new programme of humanitarian intervention. He argued:

Great Britain has, in former times, countenanced evils of great magnitude, — slavery and the Slave Trade; but for these she has made some atonement ... An evil remains very similar in character, and not altogether unfit to be compared with them in the amount of misery it produces. The oppression of the natives of barbarous countries is a practice which pleads no claim to indulgence. [62]

The Aborigines Committee has been much discussed in recent trans- imperial histories, so I will not go into it in any detail here. [63] It was in regard to Australia and New Zealand that Arthur’s involvement was critical. In the light of fierce resistance to Arthur, mounted by some of the more influential settlers in Van Diemen’s Land who resented his autocracy, his lenience towards apparently reformed convicts, and his opposition to a campaign of extermination against Aborigines, Arthur was recalled while the committee was meeting. [64] He returned to Plymouth in March 1837 and, having recuperated from his second bout of severe “mental affliction,” between then and December, he was able to talk directly with both Buxton and Glenelg about the measures needed to translate anti-slavery discourse into policies for the protection of indigenous peoples. [65]

Arthur insisted on the need for a branch of colonial government whose function was specifically to protect indigenous peoples from the kind of near annihilation that Van Diemen’s Land’s Aborigines had experienced. The idea was written into the committee’s recommendations and Colonial Secretary Lord Glenelg was happy to hand over the process of determining principles and personnel for the New South Wales Protectorate to Arthur himself. By July 1837, he was proposing that Robinson be appointed chief protector, and by December he had chosen his four assistants. [66] There is no space here to enter into the histories of the Protectorates that were established not only in the Port Phillip District of New South Wales, but also in New Zealand as a core feature of the Treaty of Waitangi, nor to pursue Arthur’s subsequent trajectory in Upper Canada and India. It will suffice to say that the Protectorates, although they tend either to be derided in the national historiographies of Australasia, or neglected in the more general imperial histories, were significant features of the institutionalization of humanitarianism within the British Empire. [67] Despite their multiple failures, they gave at least some resource through which indigenous peoples in Australia and New Zealand could articulate survival strategies during the immediate onslaught of the “settler revolution,” while their records provide not only some of the most important ethnographic accounts of pre-conquest indigenous societies, but also a resource for contemporary claims for restitution and recompense. [68]

For the purposes of this paper, I want to conclude by highlighting the link between the broader historical geographies of colonial humanitarianism and the career trajectory and individual agency of George Arthur.


The trajectory that took Arthur, during the first half of his gubernatorial career, from the slave-holding Caribbean colonies of Jamaica and Honduras to a site of rapid British settler colonization in Van Diemen’s Land also enabled him to help translate support for the anti-slavery movement into a trans-imperial, humanitarian campaign against British settlers’ dispossession, exploitation, and attempted extermination of indigenous peoples. In this paper, though, rather than portraying Arthur as the self-contained, knowing director of this history of discursive and political change, I have sought to steer a middle path between recognizing and decentring his agency. I have attempted this by seeing Arthur himself as the product of, as well as active participant in, multiple relationships and combinations with other entities defining each place in which he dwelt.

These other entities included other people whose trajectories became juxtaposed with, and mutually affected by, Arthur’s — most notably Robinson in Van Diemen’s Land and Buxton in London. But they also included seemingly more ethereal and pervasive networks and discourses. Of greatest significance here were the networks of military association that guided Arthur’s spatial trajectory and governmental ideas; the gendered discourses and relationships of family life, which made status and income of especial significance in propelling that trajectory; and the discourse of British anti-slavery that shaped Arthur, and which he ultimately reshaped in turn, as he gained capacity within governmental networks.

However, I would argue that these discourses should not be seen as some kind of external context or global framework within which particular people like Arthur lived their lives. Rather, they themselves consisted of networked assemblages fashioned contingently through the mobility of people and texts such as Arthur and his writings. Arthur’s contribution to humanitarian discourse, and particularly to the shift from anti-slavery to a programme of protection for indigenous peoples encountering settler colonization, has to be seen through his active position within such assemblages. By the same token, his own identity, stable at times, destabilized by mental affliction at other times, has to be seen as being continually revised through participation in these assemblages.

If British humanitarian discourse and practice was the product of multiple encounters in different sites, it bears marks of the individual characters that shaped it in those sites. Arthur’s authoritarian, anti-democratic conservatism, expectations of discipline, self-restraint and perseverance, and dedication to the relief of suffering were an apparently paradoxical mix that did more than just periodically plague his growing sons in epistolary form; they also characterized the ambivalent kind of humanist doctrine that indigenous peoples in certain parts of the British Empire encountered under humanitarian governance.

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