George Augustus Robinson


B Duterrau, 'G.A. Robinson with a group of Van Diemen's Land natives', 1835 an idealised version of Robinson's activities (ALMFA, SLT)

George Augustus Robinson (17881866), conciliator of Aborigines, was born in London. A builder by trade, he emigrated to Hobart in 1824 and became actively involved in religious and philanthropic work. Relations between Aborigines and white settlers had deteriorated into open hostility, leading to the proclamation of martial law in 1828. Lt-Governor Arthur believed, however, that 'a steady man of good character' could conciliate the Aborigines, and appointed Robinson to the position. In 1829, Robinson went to Bruny Island to establish a settlement where he could 'civilise' the Aborigines, teaching them Christian principles and European habits.

Quickly realising he needed to understand their customs and language, Robinson travelled around the island visiting all the existing tribes to inform them of Arthur's humane intentions, in a series of six expeditions until 1834. Although tribal life had been utterly disrupted in the decades since European invasion, his missions reveal valuable evidence of Aboriginal languages, customs, life and sanguinary encounters with the settlers. Robinson travelled with his two sons, convict porters, and a following of friendly Aborigines who would approach a tribe while the Europeans initially stayed in the background. Those he persuaded into captivity were sent to live unmolested at a permanent settlement at Wybalenna on Flinders Island, over which Robinson took personal control in 1835. However, his attempt to replace Aboriginal culture with a nineteenth-century peasant lifestyle was a dismal failure, and mortality was severe.

In 1839 Robinson became Chief Protector of Aborigines at Port Phillip, returning to Europe after the abolition of the protectorate in 1849. Friendly mission (1966) and Weep in silence (1987) included his Tasmanian papers and journals.

Further reading: ADB 2; N Plomley (ed), Friendly mission, Hobart, 1966; and Weep in silence, Hobart, 1987.

Wendy Rimon