There were Victorian Indigenous Rights Activists?
The history of the British Empire in the 1800s has a pretty bad reputation, for good reason. The British were blatantly and unashamedly racist. They became rich by stealing other people’s resources. And they colonized and oppressed Indigenous nations all over the world. As I am writing this, hundreds of unmarked graves are being discovered at the sites of residential schools across Canada, where First Nations children were sexually, physically, and culturally abused. At the same time, there were those in Britain who tried to prevent atrocities like these, and they were led by the Aborigines’ Protection Society.
The Aborigines’ Protection Society was a product of its time and was racist and assimilationist in its own way. But for Indigenous peoples around the empire trying to resist colonization, the Society often appeared to be the only friend they had and were potentially a powerful ally. Indigenous peoples seldom conformed to the Society’s expectations that they would give up their culture and adopt British norms and values. Instead, they tried to take advantage of the Society’s interest in their affairs and hijack the Society for their own purposes. It didn’t always work out exactly how they wanted, but hijacking misguided well-wishers like the Aborigines’ Protection Society was a moderately successful strategy of resistance for some people.
Mqikela (um-key-kay-la) was one such person. He was the leader of an African nation called the mPondo who lived on the southern coast of modern day South Africa. In 1878 the British Cape Colony stole a chunk of mPondo territory and refused to give it back. Mqikela tried to arrange a visit to the British government in London to petition for the return of his territory, but the British government refused to see him. So Mqikela turned to the Aborigines’ Protection Society, who agreed to try and convince the British government to receive Mqikela’s petition. By hijacking the Society for his own purposes, Mqikela managed to get the story of his grievances published in leading London newspapers, and the Society brought his petition into the British parliament on his behalf. Unfortunately Mqikela never managed to travel to London, but by hijacking the Society to his purposes he was able to have his petition considered by the British government and read by the British public.
Another person who tried hijacking the Aborigines’ Protection Society was John Tengo Jabavu. Jabavu was a Black journalist in the Cape Colony who founded the first Black owned and operated newspaper in South Africa in 1884, called the Imvo Zabantsundu (Native Opinion). In 1887 the Cape Colony passed a law to reduce the amount of Black people allowed to vote. Jabavu challenged this by asking the British government in London to veto the law, but the British government refused. Just like Mqikela, Jabavu then tried to hijack the Aborigines’ Protection Society to do his bidding for him. He got the Society to publish his criticisms of the law in London newspapers and to petition the British parliament on his behalf. The British parliament conducted an investigate into the matter but ultimately decided not to interfere in the Cape Colony’s affairs. The law was not overturned, but by highjacking the Society to his purposes Jabavu was able to secure an investigation after the British government had previously refused to listen to him.
Mqikela and Jabavu were just two of many Indigenous peoples who used the Aborigines’ Protection Society’s interest in their affairs to resist British colonization. There were many others from the Canadian, Australian, and New Zealand colonies. Their stories are an important reminder that colonization was never a one-way process that oppressed powerless people. While British colonization presented many horrors, it also came with means of resistance. And while colonizers like the Aborigines’ Protection Society were racist and supported the assimilation of Indigenous people to British culture, Indigenous peoples from around the empire were able to adapt and hijack their interest for their own purposes.
You can read the actual letters written by Indigenous peoples, settlers, and missionaries to the Aborigines’ Protection Society at www.aps.darrenreid.ca, where I have uploaded the photographs and transcriptions used in my research. You can also read more about the Aborigines Protection Society in my new article in the Journal of Colonialism and Colonial History, available open-access at https://bit.ly/3iBrrzK.
Darren Reid is a PhD student at University College London. Darren’s interdisciplinary research spans communication studies, food sovereignty, and digital humanities, while his primary research focuses on histories of nineteenth-century British imperialism in Canada, New Zealand and South Africa. Darren has previously published on colonial legal cultures, transracial identities, digital text analysis, and imperial networks. Learn more about Darren’s research at https://www.darrenreid.ca/.