State Library Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 43 Autumn 1989


Making Provision for the Native Peoples of the Empire: Joseph Orton, Missionary In Jamaica and Australasia

It certainly must become a great national question. To regulate our extending colonization and to make provision for the aboriginal tribes and natives who are thereby encroached upon. As much so as was the notable slave question, and nothing but the hue and cry of persevering philanthropists will (I am apprehensive) move the imperial Government to the consideration and adoption of measures on a comprehensive scale likely to be efficient in the operation.1
Joseph Orion's attitude to the Port Phillip Aborigines was clear cut: ‘degraded’ though they might be, they were ‘a most interesting people having minds quite capable of comprehending and hearts capable of feeling’. To allow such a race to become extinct by denying them the use of ‘sufficient parts of their native soil’ would be an ‘eternal blot’ on the British name.2 These sentiments give him a place in Australian history amongst those described by Henry Reynolds as ‘philanthropic individuals’ whose ‘opposition to the destruction of Aboriginal society has yet to receive the attention it deserves’.3
The Orton Papers provide a rich source for any historian who undertakes the task foreshadowed by Reynolds. Housed (as originals with one exception) in the Mitchell Library, Sydney and (as microfilms) in the La Trobe Library, Melbourne, the collection falls into two parts. Firstly, there is a journal covering the years between 1826 when Orton was ordained as a Methodist missionary and 1842 when he died at sea on his way from Melbourne to Britain. Secondly, there is a generous supply of Letter Books spanning the same years.4 They set forth the experiences and reflections of a sensitive observer of race relations, not only in Australia at a time when Port Phillip was a newly opened frontier and Melbourne (in Orion's own words) was a town which had suddenly sprung into existence ‘as by enchantment’,5 but also in Jamaica and New Zealand, the two other mission fields where he was sent.
As is the case with any historical source, these manuscripts bring a caveat with them; their Methodist missionary provenance must always be borne in mind. The journal and letters often reveal Orton's innermost thoughts, but for the most part he was mindful that he did not write as a private individual. Most of his letters were sent to other missionaries or to his superiors in the Wesleyan Methodist Missionary Committee in London, and even his journal had some of the characteristics of an official document. Significantly he began writing it only when he was ordained as a missionary, and he temporarily abandoned it in 1830 when there was a break in his service. Echoing the instructions issued to all Methodist missionaries, he referred to ‘keeping a sort of diary’ as an ‘imperative duty’ which would enable him to record ‘occurrences as well as personal experience’.6 Whole sections were transcribed into or used as the basis for his official reports, and, as he well knew, his words were very likely to be published and quoted for the edification of the Christian public in Britain. For example, much of the pamphlet entitled The Aborigines of Australia came from a report he had sent to his superiors in London.7
Orton was esteemed by his superiors as an administrator; his principal task in Australia, they told him, was to reorganise this, ‘the only one of our Missions that had been a disgrace to us’. Sent out to cater for the needs of the white settlers in New South Wales and Van Diemen's Land, Orton's predecessors had been inefficient, disputatious and, as Orton saw them, too independent of the London Committee.8 Inevitably much of his writing reflected this concern for order, but it could never be said of Orton, as it has been said of Jabez Bunting, the best known of his British Methodist contemporaries, that he ignored social problems and preferred to concentrate on ‘petty Connexional disputes’ and ‘moralistic humbug’.9 He would have preferred ‘a Station more missionary in its character’, and his Papers show him seizing the available opportunities to travel amongst the Aborigines and Maoris. Towards the end of his life his zeal for the interests of the Aborigines was nothing short of obsessive.10 Frequently his tone was one of shocked indignation provoked by settler brutality and official indifference or worse — the sight of tribal Aborigines standing in the dock to enjoy the privileges of British justice never failed to incense him11 — but what emerged in his writings was a consistent attitude rather than an occasional emotional outburst. As his coupling of the Aboriginal and West Indian problems suggests, Orton reasoned within an overarching theology of brotherhood that doubtless could be traced back to John Wesley's denunciation of the slave trade but more recently had been set forth in the sermons and writings of Richard Watson, one of Orton's mentors. Dismissing contemporary theories of racial inequality based on the study of skull configurations, Watson had indignantly repudiated the notion that there was ‘an intermediate link’ between man and the brute creation. Only one test of humanity mattered — a capacity for loving God possessed by all the races including ‘the natives of New Holland’.12 There was very little difference between the Aborigines and the ancient Britons, Orton similarly argued after he had travelled in Australia: Britain had subsequently experienced several centuries of ‘civilization and the march of intellect’, and all that the Aborigines needed was some help to catch up.13.
Orton's journals and letters show how these opinions involved him in opposition to settler regimes first in Jamaica where he experienced the squalor of the St. Ann's Bay gaol for violating the restrictions imposed on missionary work among the slaves, and later in Australia and New Zealand where he reached the belief that the iniquities of European settlement were such that native peoples could survive only with the assistance of the British Government and the missionaries. His experiences in the West Indies made Orton a participant in one of the great episodes of nineteenth-century imperial history, the British abolition of slavery. The persecution he endured together with the better known cases of Missionary Smith in Demerara and the Baptist missionaries in Jamaica helped to discredit the planter regime and to rouse the Christian public in Britain to participate in the great agitations which exercised so powerful an influence on the timing and content of the Whig Government's Emancipation Act (1833). Significantly, one of Orton's first actions on reaching Australia in 1831 was to press for the sending of a petition calling on the British Government to forbid slavery.14 References in his Papers show that his Jamaican experience played a significant part in his reflections on the plight of the Aborigines, and it is likely that if he had survived the journey back to Britain in 1842 he would have attempted to do for them what he and other missionaries had done for the slaves — to stir up ‘the hue and cry of persevering philanthropists’ in Britain.15 It was careers and ideas such as Orton's that Thomas Carlyle had in mind when he sneeringly dismissed the ‘rosepink Sentimentalism’ of the ‘Universal Abolition-Of-Pain Association’.16
This is not to suggest that Orton travelled the world blurring essential distinctions between the societies in which he lived. He was well aware of the differences between a population of transplanted slaves and a society of indigenous peoples living in a frontier relationship with white settlers. Orton's predisposition to find qualities in the Aborigines and Maoris that made them capable of conversion to Christianity encouraged him to study their cultures at first hand. For example, on his first visit to the infant settlement of Melbourne in 1836 he sought out the famous William Buckley, an escaped convict who had lived amongst the Aborigines for 33 years, and, using him as an interpreter, endeavoured ‘to gather all possible information minutely observing their manners etc’.17 Thus the Orton Papers contain many vivid references to Aboriginal and Maori beliefs and practices with respect to gender roles, children, animals, building methods, religious and other beliefs.
As a member of a naval family with a good knowledge of navigation he was delighted to find that the Aborigines were ‘excellent astronomers in their way’ and used the stars to guide them in their travels.18 Greatly concerned by the widely held belief that the Aborigines were wanderers with no real sense of permanency Orton made careful inquiry into their attitude to land occupancy. He concluded that tribes, families and individuals had ‘decidedly a property in the land of their birth’, carefully distinguishing between areas by boundaries consisting of hills, rivers, lakes and trees for all of which they had names. To deny them land rights because these usages did not accord with British legal practices was nothing short of ‘cruel torture’.19 All in all Orton was impressed by the Aborigines:
In point of intellect they possess qualifications far exceeding general conception and in which respects they discover improvable capabilities to a considerable amount — even to qualify them for anything20
But if Orton was hopeful in his view of the future prospects of the native peoples of the British Empire if ‘proper provision’ was made for them, he was no starry-eyed idealist about their present condition. The language that he used to describe his proteges was often harsh. The West Indian Negroes were ‘so deeply involved in the accursed trammels of Fornication … that they know not how to extricate themselves’; the Maoris were ungrateful and avaricious; and the Aborigines were ‘degraded’ savages who practised cannibalism and infanticide. He disagreed with those who would have substituted the English language and place names for local ones, but he was far removed from what nowadays would be called multiculturalism. As his frequent references to ‘instruction’ made plain his was a civilising mission designed ultimately to instil the values of an ideal typical English Protestant community.21
This is scarcely surprising given the ideas which then held sway in Britain as parts of a culture in which Evangelicalism, Utilitarianism and the demands of an incipient industrial capitalism reinforced each other in a relentless ‘March of Mind’ (one of the catch-cries of the 1820s) away from the past. It was a creed that brooked no rivals.22 The Celtic peoples of Scotland, Ireland and Wales felt its force as did English working men who were cajoled, admonished and coerced into abandoning the old irregular work patterns of pre-industrial days. ‘The traditional customs of the people’, writes one historian of English education, ‘were condemned as “the pastimes of village buffoonery and rudeness” and their homely culture was belittled as ignorant and superstitious — quite unfit for an age in which the marvels of technology and science were daily more apparent’.23 Methodists are well known to historians as exponents of the Protestant work ethic which enshrined many of these values, and their missionaries took it with them as cultural baggage wherever they went. Thus Orton had no doubt as to the ultimate destination of the Aborigines. They must be raised from their ‘deep degradation that they may thereby be duly prepared to enjoy the privileges & suffer the penalties of our enlightened and refined civil polity’. But such an outcome, he was careful to emphasise, lay some considerable way ahead.24
All this has to be borne in mind when the Orton Papers are read for information on one of the best known episodes of his career — the founding of Buntingdale, the Mission for Aborigines which he caused to be set up on the Barwon River near Geelong. The journal and letters make it clear that Orton brought the idea of a mission to Aborigines with him from England amongst his instructions from the Missionary Committee. The timing (1839) and the place (Port Phillip) were his choices dictated partly by his transfer to Hobart from Sydney in 1836 which gave him the opportunity to cross the Bass Strait with John Batman and other settlers from Van Diemen's Land. Orton's journals show him formulating policy on his first visit, setting it before his superiors and the New South Wales Governor, and finally in 1839 setting out on a tour of the Geelong area to select a site.25
The scheme that he persuaded his superiors to accept was set forth in a long letter of advice to the Revs Tuckfield and Hurst who were sent out to conduct the Buntingdale Mission. They were to accommodate themselves to the Aboriginal way of life at first by travelling with the tribes of the area, but ultimately they were to induce the Aborigines to settle near the Mission where instruction could be given in ‘habits of industry’ designed to make them cultivators of the land. In due course the Aborigines would be given portions of land as their own property. This would inevitably be a long term strategy, Orton admitted, and he emphasised the importance of schooling the coming generation.26
The Buntingdale Mission was still in its infancy when Orton died, but he lived long enough to see clear signs of its failure. European settlement quickly spread into the area and when Orton paid his last visit in 1842 shortly before embarking for Britain he was dismayed to find the native population in the area rapidly declining. His journal told a sorry tale of the ‘cruelties of the settlers’, of wars between the tribes, and of inefficient management by Tuckfield and Hurst.27 Deeply disillusioned about the prospects of achieving much by action within Australia, he saw his return to Britain as the only real hope for the future if he could obtain the ear of the British Christian public and government. This was less of a forlorn hope than it might seem to modern readers of his journal; the history of the anti-slavery movement had provided several precedents for what could be achieved by similar methods.28 But Orton was denied the opportunity. On 20 April 1842 he died at sea off Cape Horn.
Alex Tyrrell is a Senior Lecturer in History at La Trobe University and is writing the biography of Joseph Orton.


Journal of the Rev. Joseph Orton, 1832–39, ML A1714, 19 April 1839. See also Letter Book, 1836–1842, ML A1719, Joseph Orton to the Secretaries of the Wesleyan Missionary Society, 18 July 1839.




Henry Reynolds, Frontier, (Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1987) p. 83.


The Mitchell Library citations are as follows: Journal of the Rev. Joseph Orton, 1832–1839, ML A1714; The Journal of the Rev. Joseph Orton, 1840–1842, ML A1715; Letter Book, 1826–1836, ML A1716–1; Letter Book, 1826–1841, ML A1716–2; Letter Book, 1825–1829, ML A1717; Letter Books including extracts from the Minutes of the Missionary Committee, London, and the District Accounts of NSW (1829), 1822–1836, ML A1718–1; Letter Book, 1836–1841, ML A1718–2; Letter Book, 1836–1842, ML A1719; Joseph Orton, Answers to several Questions, 1830, ML A1720; Orton Letters, 1826–1841, MSS 942. The exception is Orton's journal, 1795–1832, which is held in the School of Oriental and African Studies, London. It is available commercially as an Inter-Documentation Company microfilm and is held in several Australian libraries. This journal contains a brief resume of Orton's early life. The La Trobe Library's Australian Manuscripts Collection holds microfilm and photoprint copies of Orton's 1832–1839 Journal and will eventually hold microfilm copies of the remaining Mitchell Library material.


Orton, Journal, 1832–39, ML A1714, 19 April 1839.


Orton, Journal, 1795–1832, Introd. p. 2, Inter-Documentation Company microfilm.


Orton, Letter Book, 1836–42, ML A1719, Joseph Orton to the Secretaries of the Wesleyan Missionary Society, August 1836.


Orton, Journal 1832–39, ML A1714, 12 February 1839.


E.P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class, (London: Gollancz, 1963), p. 354.


Orton Journal, 1795–1832. 16 March 1831, Inter-Documentation Company microfilm.


Orton, Journal, 1840–42, ML A1715, 17 May 1841.


Richard Watson, The Religious Instruction of the Slaves in the West India Colonies Advocated And Defended, (London, 1824), pp. 4–7.


Orton Journal, 1840–42, ML A1715, 28 January 1842.


Orton Journal, 1795–1832, 19 December 1831, Inter-Documentation Company Microfilm.


Vide supra, footnote 2.


Thomas Carlyle, ‘The Nigger Question’ in Thomas Carlyle, Selected Essays, (London, 1972), pp. 304, 306.


Orton Journal, 1832–39, ML A1714, 22 April 1836.


Ibid., 21 May 1839.


Orton Journal, 1840–42, ML A1715, 28 January 1842.


Ibid., 20 January 1842.


Orton Journal 1795–1832, 28 November 1826, Inter-Documentation Company microfilm; Orton journal 1840–42, ML A1715, 4 May 1840; Letter Book 1826–36, ML A1716–1, Joseph Orton to the Secretaries of the Wesleyan Missionary Society, 7 June 1836.


See, for example, G. S. R. Kitson Clark, An Expanding Society, Britain 1830–1900, (Melbourne: University Press, [1967]), p. 34.


J. F. C Harrison, Learning and Living 1790–1960, (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1961) pp. 39–40.


Orton Journal 1840–42, ML A1715, 28 January 1842.


Orton Journal 1832–39, ML A1714, 7 April 1836; 1 May 1838; 20 May 1839.


Ibid., 11 June 1839.


Orton Journal 1840–42, ML A1715, 26 February 1842.


For precedents see Alex Tyrrell, Joseph Sturge and the Moral Radical Party in Early Victorian Britain, (London: Helm, 1987), pp. 53, 76–82.