Charles La Trobe (1801 – 1875) superintendent and lieutenant-governor
Charles La Trobe was the first governor of Victoria. He was a man of deep Christian convictions. Both his father and grandfather were personal friends of John Newton and William Wilberforce and both were clergymen in the Moravian church, then the most missionary-minded of all the Protestant churches.
Charles Joseph La Trobe was the first governor of Victoria. He was a man of deep Christian convictions. Both his father and grandfather were personal friends of John Newton and William Wilberforce and both were clergymen in the Moravian church, then the most missionary-minded of all the Protestant churches.
La Trobe himself had trained for the Moravian ministry, was himself personally involved in the abolition of slavery, and was fully aware of the havoc which colonisation was wreaking on indigenous peoples all over the world.
In the same year as La Trobe was appointed superintendent of the new settlement at Port Phillip, 1839, Charles Darwin published his journal of his voyage on HMS Beagle. In it Darwin observed that, looking to ‘the wide extent of the Americas, Polynesia, the Cape of Good Hope, and Australia’, ‘some mysterious agency’ was causing the rapid suppression of the native populations. ‘The varieties of man’, he observed famously, ‘seem to act on each other in the same way as different species of animals – the stronger always extirpating the weaker.’ This theory of the survival of the fittest became for many colonists justification for ridding the land of indigenous peoples as quickly as possible.
So La Trobe had a very tough assignment. The pioneer settlers of Victoria were on the make. They did not want to live in their humble shacks for long. They wanted to get rich quick. They wanted the colonial government to build the infrastructure of roads, bridges and wharves quickly so that they could get their produce to market. They also wanted to be granted lots of land so that they could make lots of money. That meant dispossessing the aboriginal people.
Imagine their horror when La Trobe arrived as superintendent of the infant colony of Port Phillip and declared that he had different priorities: ‘It is not by individual aggrandisement, by the possession of numerous flocks or herds, or by costly acres, that the people shall secure for the country enduring prosperity and happiness, but by the acquisition and maintenance of sound religious and moral institutions without which no country can become truly great.’
They grumbled about his ineptitude, but their grumblings were chronically self-serving. It was he who had to come to their aid when their greed for land had caused the speculative boom to burst as early as 1841.
La Trobe did have some powerful backers in high places. He was appointed at the high noon of evangelical Christian influence on colonial affairs. The slave trade had just been abolished and the Aboriginal protectorates were established in 1838 to protect native peoples all over the Empire. Lord Glenelg, Secretary of State for the Colonies, insisted that Governor Gipps in NSW and Superintendent La Trobe in Victoria, protect the aboriginal people even if that did antagonise the squatters.
So when he arrived at Port Phillip in 1839, one of La Trobe’s first priorities was the aboriginal people. He was besieged by settlers to be allowed access to the lands which had been set aside by Aboriginal missions. Encouraged by Alexander Thomson, a devout Presbyterian pastoralist who had settled in Geelong, La Trobe invited the Moravians to send missionaries to work among the aborigines. The Moravians, he believed, were different, with a reputation for persevering in the most difficult of mission fields. He granted them 25,000 acres of land remote from Melbourne and from settlers at Lake Boga near Swan Hill in north-west Victoria. The Moravian missionaries started well, and eventually achieved the only success which any missions to Aboriginal people achieved in the nineteenth century.
We are of course entering into a very contested subject in Australian history. It was a contested area in La Trobe’s day. The anti-missionary lobby was vocal and strong. Interestingly, Darwin sided with the missionaries. On the basis of his visits to Tahiti and New Zealand, before landing in Australia, Darwin had concluded that the gospel was the only power which could elevate the native peoples above the degradation which now confronted them, and that even though they had to put up with appalling Purtianism as Sabbatarianism and prohibition, they seemed to be happy, even merry, in their new way of life.
Humanly speaking, in Victoria La Trobe and the Moravian missionaries faced an impossible challenge, and with the gold rushes, things only got worse for indigenous people. The miners proved as greedy as the settlers for their lands and their women, and terrified the blacks with stories about the cannibalistic intentions of the missionaries which the blacks had little reason not to credit.
Today the contest continues. In the history wars, the black arm band group of historians have been accused of exaggerating the sufferings of Australia’s aboriginal people. But, as Christians, we are not at liberty to follow popular ideologies such as social Darwinism and the survival of the fittest or the winning side in political power plays.
Truth will be essential to the Christian historian, but so too, if we want to be at one with Jesus, will compassion for the needy, the marginalised and the dispossessed (Matthew 25). Our aboriginal brethren may not have been as needy as the most committed of the black arm brigade have argued, but they were far more needy than any of us would ever want to be.
La Trobe was not only a champion of the indigenous people. He was also a pain to the colonists in that he was a champion of culture, and he was something of a poet, artist and musician. He insisted on the provision of parkland in the plan of Melbourne.
At considerable personal expense, this ‘cultural virtuoso’ gave every encouragement to the development of churches, and charitable, cultural and educational institutions. And on Christmas Eve 1853 he had the satisfaction of hearing the Melbourne Philharmonic choral society give its first performance, a rendition of Handel’s ‘Messiah’.
Among its choir members, and this is why I am telling you this story, was David Mitchell, and he was the father of Australia’s and perhaps the world’s most celebrated soprano, Dame Nellie Melba. It is an indication of the surprising impact of Christianity that we would probably never have heard of her apart from the impact of Christianity. Because La Trobe allowed his administration to be fashioned on Christian values, Nellie Melba’s father was able to express that talent which was to rise to such a great height in his daughter. Australia’s Christian heritage moves in mysterious ways, as the hymn nearly says.
It was an extraordinarily difficult task to keep order in an infant society without infrastructure suddenly invaded by an exploding, extremely heterogeneous population, many of whom were quite prepared to employ criminal means to obtain what they could not easily acquire through toil. In such a context, it is perhaps the lot of statesmen of Christian character to be the one whom people need rather than want. La Trobe’s Christian values not only gave this timid man courage, but they also gave him direction.
Part of the story of Australia’s Christian heritage is that we have had governors and politicians who have provided a third way between the aspirations of settlers and the desires of the colonial office, between the prejudices of squatters and miners and the terror of their aboriginal victims. The political task of reaching compromise between competing interests has been the ideal theatre in which the Christian drama of bridge building and reconciliation has been played out.
William Wilberforce, the Clapham Cabinet, and ‘Liberating the Captives’ in Australia
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