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A G L Shaw Lecture. Anti-Slavery and Protection in Port Phillip and NSW: the Curious Colonial Afterlife of the 1837 Select Committee Report on Aborigines

April 16 @ 5:30 pm - 7:30 pm


The AGL Shaw lecture has been presented in partnership with the C J La Trobe Society for many years. It is one of the RHSV’s Distinguished Lectures and we are thrilled that, in 2024, Professor Penny Edmonds from the Flinders University will be delivering the lecture.

In 1838 Quaker James Backhouse posted the 1837 Report of the Parliamentary Select Committee on Aboriginal Tribes (British Settlements) ‘hot off the press’ from Cape Town to key figures he had met in the Australian colonies, including missionary George Langhorne, with instructions for it to be sent to Police Magistrate Foster Fyans and Captain William Lonsdale in Port Phillip. The much-studied 1837 report is often described as the ‘blueprint’ for imperial reform and the protection of Aboriginal peoples in the colonies. Backhouse sent the report to New South Wales including to three men of influence whom he had met in Sydney – the Colonial Secretary Alexander McLeay, police magistrate Archibald Innes and Reverend John Saunders. These three men would be central to the formation of the Sydney branch of the Aborigines’ Protection Society or the ‘Australian APS’, suggesting that the report’s distribution was part of a transimperial moment of humanitarian activism.

In this lecture, Penny shines new light on these important networks – stretching from Britain to the Cape Colony and Melbourne – and Backhouse’s precious packages containing the report to show the entanglements of antislavery and protection, and to offer a nuanced account of the activities and flow of policy during the creation of the Port Phillip protectorate. She will illuminate these networks with new forms of data visualisation. As she argues, the careers of Governors La Trobe and Arthur of Van Diemen’s Land were embodiments of this shift from antislavery to protection during a complex moment when the establishment of Port Phillip and the invasion of Kulin lands occurred at the same time as the rise in humanitarian sentiment and policy regarding Aboriginal peoples in the British colonies.

Quaker James Backhouse attached the highest importance to the 1837 report as a means of bringing a moral ‘awakening’ to settlers who had invaded Aboriginal lands and protection to Aboriginal people on violent frontiers. Yet the violent frontier wars across the southeastern colonies at this time continued to frustrate the humanitarian aspirations of La Trobe and others. Despite their efforts, the notion of a ‘humane colonisation’ was always to be an impossible project.


Professor Penelope Edmonds is Matthew Flinders Professor, History, in the College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences at Flinders University, South Australia. Penny’s research is distinguished by over two decades of creative and interdisciplinary work in the areas of Australian history, nineteenth-century British Empire and settler colonialism in the Australian and Pacific region, postcolonial histories, heritage and museums. She seeks to bring a critical-theory perspective to questions of colonialism, race, gender, reconciliation and redress, humanitarianism, slavery and unfreedom in the Australian and Western Pacific region. Penny’s book Settler Colonialism and (Re)Conciliation: Frontier Violence, Affective Performances, and Imaginative Refoundings (Palgrave UK, 2016) was shortlisted for the 2017 Ernest Scott Prize, University of Melbourne/Australian Historical Association for best book in colonial history.

Alan George Lewers Shaw AO, FAHA, FASSA, FRAHS, FRHSV (1916 – 2012) was an RHSV Councillor from 1965 to 1971 and President from 1987 to 1991. He is also a Benefactor of the Royal Historical Society of Victoria. He was President of the C J La Trobe Society as well and the two organisations, the C J La Trobe Society and the RHSV, have jointly presented the annual A G L Shaw lecture since 2002 as a tribute to a great historian. A list of previous lecturers can be viewed here.



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As at most RHSV events, we will be serving refreshments from 5:30pm to 6pm when the lecture starts however, for the AGL Shaw lecture, we also serve refreshments after the event and we encourage our members and the members of the C J La Trobe Society to stay a little longer and share our hospitality.


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April 16
5:30 pm - 7:30 pm
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RHSV Gallery Downstairs
239 A'Beckett St
Melbourne, Victoria 3000 Australia
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03 9326 9288