Rethinking the Aborigines Protection Society through its Informants

Rethinking the Aborigines Protection Society through its Informants

Rethinking the Aborigines Protection Society through its Informants

This blog post was originally published on the Bodleian Libraries Blog at


Within the archives of the Anti-Slavery Society are the correspondence records of its cousin, the Aborigines’ Protection Society (1837-1909), which merged with the Anti-Slavery Society in 1909. The Aborigines’ Protection Society (APS) was administered from its headquarters in London by a range of middle-class White philanthropists who felt dissatisfied with the state of relations between Britain and the range of Indigenous peoples who found themselves within the professed territories of the British Empire.

Image from the cover of the publication 'The Aborigines Friend' in January 1850 depicting the meeting of five individuals from differnt parts of the world in their traditional clothing.

Figure 1: Cover of The Aborigines’ Friend, 2 no. 21 (January 1850).

Problematically, the APS was not opposed to colonization, but only believed that colonization could be done in a nicer and more “humane” fashion by ensuring that Indigenous land was taken in a consensual and equitable manner, and that Indigenous peoples were educated to enjoy the best that European superiority could offer. At first glance, such a blatantly imperialist raison d’être may seem to limit the value of the APS as a subject of historical inquiry. For, in an academic and social environment which values diversity and seeks to shatter ethnocentric and racist discourses, do we really want to hear from a group of nineteenth-century do-gooders trumpeting the “White Man’s Burden” to assuage their imperial guilt?

However, while the APS was run by a small group of middle-class telescopic philanthropists in Britain, it was dependent upon a network of informants who wrote letters about colonial events from across the British Empire, and these letters are extremely valuable for assessing diverse lived experiences of empire. The APS correspondent archive contains over 9,000 letters from men and women, settlers and Indigenous peoples, convicts and lawyers, missionaries and soldiers, and everything in-between. Each of these informants interpreted the purpose of the APS in ways reflecting the diversity of their interests and attitudes towards empire.

Here, I examine one particularly complex case study to demonstrate the diverse perspectives on empire that can be found in the APS collections: the Thaba Nchu succession dispute of the 1880s. Thaba Nchu was a small kingdom in southern Africa which, in the mid nineteenth century, found itself within the borders of the newly established Orange Free State. The Orange Free State technically fell under the suzerainty of the British Empire, but due to a complicated series of rebellions and treaties, it was effectively an independent Afrikaner state. The sovereignty of Thaba Nchu was therefore a hot-button issue: as an independent kingdom within an independent state within a suzerain empire, there was no clear consensus on who was actually in control.

Map of southern Africa showing Thaba Nchu in relation to Cape Town, Bloemfontein and Johannesburg.

Figure 2: Map showing Thaba Nchu in relation to Cape Town, Bloemfontein, and Johannesburg. © Darren Reid

The indeterminacy of Thaba Nchu’s status led to crisis in 1880, when the death of the paramount chief led to a succession dispute between two contenders: Samuel Moroka and Tshipinare. Moroka favored strengthening ties with Britain, whereas Tshipinare wanted to strengthen ties with the Orange Free State. Tshipinare made an under-the-table deal with the president of the Orange Free State, Johannes Brand, who arrested Moroka and banished him in return for a generous cession of land. In response, Moroka travelled to London to petition the British government to intervene and back him as the true chief of Thaba Nchu.

Throughout Thaba Nchu’s succession dispute, the APS received letters from at least ten different informants hoping to establish their own narrative of events, five of whom I will discuss in this blog post. There was Samuel Moroka himself, who tried to convince Britain of its obligation to intervene. There were also two settlers, David Smith of the Cape Colony and Edmund Bourdillon of the Orange Free State, who capitalized on Samuel Moroka’s petition to bring their own Anglo-Dutch rivalry before the British public. Finally, there were Richard and Elizabeth Whitfield, a brother and sister living in London who used the succession dispute to argue for the illegitimacy of British intervention within independent states. Attending to the differences in how these informants wrote about Thaba Nchu is suggestive of the multiplicity of perspectives on empire that can be found within the APS correspondent records.


An African perspective: challenging settler duplicity

Samuel Moroka stayed in England between 24 December 1883 and 7 March 1884 to petition the British government, and during that time he wrote four letters to the APS. The first three letters are short and relatively insignificant, consisting largely of meeting times and brief updates in-between meetings. The fourth letter is very different, containing a lengthy account of the Thaba Nchu succession dispute from Moroka’s perspective. Moroka detailed how, despite the majority of the Thaba Nchu population whole-heartedly supporting his claim to the throne, President Brand forced him to submit to Free State sovereignty at gun point, terrorized and slaughtered his followers, and banished him from his homeland.

Studio portrait of Samuel Moroka seated next to a small table on which there is a top hat and holding a cane.

Figure 3: Samuel Moroka, 1865–1870, C. Millington Drayson (British, active 1870s), Albumen silver print 84.XD.1157.830, The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles. Image in the public domain.

This narrative is contested to this day, with many historians concluding that it is largely impossible to identify exactly what happened, who was at fault, and who had the strongest claim to the throne. But it was strategically necessary for Moroka to convince the APS of his victimhood at the hands of the Orange Free State since Moroka had no treaties or official relationships with Britain. As such, Britain had no tangible responsibility to intervene on Moroka’s behalf, and his best chance of receiving aid was on humanitarian rather than political grounds. The APS had the Colonial Office’s ear as well as friends in the House of Commons, so their support could be the leverage Moroka needed if they could be convinced of the need for humanitarian intervention in Thaba Nchu.

The end of a handwritten letter from Samuel Moroka showing his signature.

Figure 4: Samuel Moroka to Frederick Chesson, 7 February 1884, MSS. Brit. Emp. s. 18 / C143 – 67.

For Moroka, British imperial power seemed to be his best chance at securing control of his kingdom, and the APS in turn seemed to be his best avenue for obtaining British imperial backing. Already, we can see that the perspective of the APS as a group of White, middle-class moral imperialists is more complicated than it seems at first glance. For, while its members were certainly card-carrying adherents of the “White Man’s Burden” to civilize the “backwards” peoples of the world, from Samuel Moroka’s perspective as well as those of its many other Indigenous informants, the APS was also a powerful resource that could be used strategically to resist local colonial regimes.


Settler perspectives: framing Anglo-Dutch tensions

 At the same time that Samuel Moroka was currying the APS’s support for imperial intervention, two southern African settlers were trying to use the Thaba Nchu crisis to rope the APS into local Anglo-Dutch rivalries. Anglo-Dutch relations were tense in the 1880s due to the rise of the Afrikaner Bond, a political party in the Cape Colony formed to unite Afrikaners across the South African colonies and secure “Afrika voor de Afrikaners.” The Afrikaner Bond came to dominate the Cape government in the 1880s, leading to animosity amongst Anglo settlers and defensiveness amongst the Dutch population. Perceiving that the Thaba Nchu succession crisis between the pro-Anglo Moroka and the pro-Dutch Tshipinare was a prime opportunity for advancing ethno-partisan agendas, Anglo and Dutch settlers wrote to the APS to control the narrative of the crisis.

The beginning of a handwritten letter from David Smith dated 4th December 1883.

Figure 5: David Smith to Frederick Chesson, 4 December 1883, MSS. Brit. Emp. s. 18 / C147 – 115.

David Smith, an Anglo-settler living in the Cape Colony, aimed to represent the Orange Free State’s involvement in Thaba Nchu as evidence of Afrikaner villainy and inhumanity. Unlike Moroka, he did not do this in the hope of stimulating imperial intervention. Instead, Smith hoped that British abhorrence at Afrikaner inhumanity would damage the popularity and influence of the Afrikaner Bond in the Cape parliament.

Meanwhile, an Afrikaner settler – Edmund Bourdillon from the Orange Free State – wrote to the APS to defend the honour of President Brand and the Afrikaner community. He challenged the representation of the Orange Free State’s involvement in Thaba Nchu as inhumane, and instead argued that Moroka was a drunk and illegitimate terrorist who had to be deposed for the safety of Africans and settlers alike. By sending these claims to the APS, Bourdillon hoped to protect the independence of the Orange Free State and the reputation of the Dutch community in general.

The beginning of a handwritten letter from Edmund Bourdillon in Bloemfontein dated 8th October 1884.

Figure 6: Edmund Bourdillon to Frederick Chesson, 8 October 1884, MSS. Brit. Emp. s. 18 / C126 – 64

Smith’s and Bourdillon ‘s letters present an entirely opposite perspective on the APS than Moroka’s. For, while Moroka hoped the APS could prompt imperial intervention and thus undermine settler power, Smith and Bourdillon hoped the APS could promote their own ethno-partisan interests and thereby strengthen settler power. This is all the more surprising given that the APS is well-known as having an anti-settler bias, in which they perceived greater imperial oversight as the solution to settler-driven colonial violence. Attending to settler voices in the APS archives therefore suggests that imperial humanitarianism was not only utilized to assuage White guilt in Britain and support Indigenous resistance to colonial violence, but also to entrench and police ethno-partisan rivalries within settler societies themselves.


Metropolitan perspectives: limiting Britain’s responsibility

Letters from Indigenous peoples and settlers such as these are incredibly valuable for the insights they afford into colonial perspectives on empire, yet colonial subjects were not the only people with a stake in the Thaba Nchu succession crisis. Metropolitan Britons watched events in South Africa unfold with trepidation after decades of expending taxes and soldiers in countless wars with the Orange Free State, the Transvaal, the Xhosa, the Zulu, the BaSotho, and more. Two such observers wrote to the APS to argue for a response that minimized British financial and military responsibility: the siblings Richard and Elizabeth Whitfield. Richard Whitfield was an architect whose father had provided lodgings for Samuel Moroka when the latter had studied in England in the 1860s, during which time Moroka befriended the Whitfield siblings.

The beginning of a handwritten letter from Richard Whitfield dated 16th February 1884.

Figure 7: Richard Whitfield to Frederick Chesson, 16 February 1884, MSS. Brit. Emp. s. 18 / C149 – 213.

However, despite their friendship, the Whitfields did not support Moroka’s petition for British assistance. On the contrary, they repudiated any suggestion that the relations between Thaba Nchu and the Orange Free State were a British concern, and instead tried to convince Moroka that he should stop petitioning the Colonial Office and dedicate himself to gaining President Brand’s goodwill. Richard went so far as to propose edits to Moroka’s petition that “cut out almost everything that would offend” President Brand, and in the process entirely censored Moroka’s sharp critique of Brand’s duplicity. Meanwhile, Elizabeth Whitfield emphasized to the APS “the necessity of our doing nothing to irritate Brand,” whom she described as a just leader who would do the right thing if Moroka would only cease antagonizing him by petitioning Britain. To be sure, the Whitfields did want the best for Moroka, but only if that did not entail dragging Britain into another South African conflict.

Interestingly, while the Whitfields were telescopic philanthropists very similar to those who ran the APS, their letters do not support representations of the APS as muscular civilizers out to assimilate the world. Instead, their letters to the APS reveal how humanitarian sensibilities could be articulated by those adverse to the notion of the “White Man’s Burden.” By placing the APS’s more zealous supporters within the context of fellow metropolitan humanitarians who disagreed with its vision of imperial responsibility, we can develop more robust understandings of popular imperial humanitarianism.


Final thoughts

Far from representing only the pro-imperialist perspectives of Victorian telescopic philanthropists, the archives of the Aborigines’ Protection Society contain the voices of Indigenous peoples, settlers, and metropolitan Britons alike. Letters such as those discussed here provide an invaluable window into the range of divergent lived experiences of empire and humanitarianism in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. And these brief examples represent only the tip of the iceberg of what is available in the APS archives, which contain thousands of letters divided into series according to who was secretary of the APS at the time the letters were received: there is a Thomas Hodgkin series covering 1831-1855, a Frederick Chesson series covering 1855-1888, a Henry Fox-Bourne series covering 1888-1909, and a miscellaneous series. The majority of these letters are in the Frederick Chesson series making it a particularly useful resource for historians of the mid-late nineteenth century, although there are also plenty more documents mixed in with the Anti-Slavery Society’s collections for the years following the 1909 merger.

For the roughly 70 years since these records were first made available for consultation at the Bodleian Libraries, the APS has been approached through a core-periphery model that privileges the few who operated it and marginalizes the many informants without whom the Society could not have functioned. By reintegrating the APS’s informants into the centre of its narrative, future historians will be able to capture a greater range of diverse perspectives on empire than has hitherto been produced.


Primary sources mentioned

Edmund Bourdillon to Frederick Chesson, 8 October 1884, MSS. Brit. Emp. s. 18 / C126 – 64

Samuel Moroka to Frederick Chesson, 26 December 1883, MSS. Brit. Emp. s. 18 / C143 – 63

———, 1 January 1884, MSS. Brit. Emp. s. 18 / C143 – 64

———, 21 January 1884, MSS. Brit. Emp. s. 18 / C143 – 65

———, 22 January 1884, MSS. Brit. Emp. s. 18 / C143 – 66

———, 7 February 1884, MSS. Brit. Emp. s. 18 / C143 – 67

David Smith to Frederick Chesson, 4 December 1883, MSS. Brit. Emp. s. 18 / C147 – 115

———, 21 October 1884, MSS. Brit. Emp. s. 18 / C147 – 116

Elizabeth Whitfield to Frederick Chesson, 21 February 1884, MSS. Brit. Emp. s. 18 / C149 – 195

———, 13 August 1884, MSS. Brit. Emp. s. 18 / C149 – 196

———, 21 August 1884, MSS. Brit. Emp. s. 18 / C149 – 197

———, 25 August 1884, MSS. Brit. Emp. s. 18 / C149 – 198

———, 25 August 1884, MSS. Brit. Emp. s. 18 / C149 – 199

———, 10 September 1884, MSS. Brit. Emp. s. 18 / C149 – 200

———, 12 September 1884, MSS. Brit. Emp. s. 18 / C149 – 201

———, 31 October 1884, MSS. Brit. Emp. s. 18 / C149 – 202

———, 7 November 1884, MSS. Brit. Emp. s. 18 / C149 – 203

———, 8 November 1884, MSS. Brit. Emp. s. 18 / C149 – 204

———, 14 November 1884, MSS. Brit. Emp. s. 18 / C149 – 205

———, 7 January 1885, MSS. Brit. Emp. s. 18 / C149 – 207

Richard Whitfield to Frederick Chesson, 29 January 1884, MSS. Brit. Emp. s. 18 / C149 – 208

———, 30 January 1884, MSS. Brit. Emp. s. 18 / C149 – 209

———, 4 February 1884, MSS. Brit. Emp. s. 18 / C149 – 210

———, 5 February 1884, MSS. Brit. Emp. s. 18 / C149 – 211

———, 10 February 1884, MSS. Brit. Emp. s. 18 / C149 – 212

———, 16 February 1884, MSS. Brit. Emp. s. 18 / C149 – 213

———, 17 February 1884, MSS. Brit. Emp. s. 18 / C149 – 214

———, 20 February 1884, MSS. Brit. Emp. s. 18 / C149 – 215

———, 23 February 1884, MSS. Brit. Emp. s. 18 / C149 – 216

———, 25 February 1884, MSS. Brit. Emp. s. 18 / C149 – 217

———, 6 March 1884, MSS. Brit. Emp. s. 18 / C149 – 218

———, 11 March 1884, MSS. Brit. Emp. s. 18 / C149 – 219

———, 24 April 1884, MSS. Brit. Emp. s. 18 / C149 – 220

———, 11 May 1884, MSS. Brit. Emp. s. 18 / C149 – 221


Further reading on the Aborigines’ Protection Society

Colenso, Gwilym. “Breaking With the Old Pattern of Control: African Deputations to Britain from Southern Africa in the Late Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries,” South African Historical Journal 69, no. 4 (2017): 501–47.

Heartfield, James. The Aborigines’ Protection Society: Humanitarian Imperialism in Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, Canada, South Africa, and the Congo, 1836-1909. New York: Columbia University Press, 2011.

Laidlaw, Zoë. Protecting the Empire’s Humanity: Thomas Hodgkin and British Colonial Activism 1830–1870. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2021.

———. “Indigenous Interlocutors: Networks of Imperial Protest and Humanitarianism in Mid-Nineteenth Century.” In Indigenous Networks: Mobility, Connections and Exchange, edited by Jane Carey and Jane Lydon, 114–39. New York: Routledge, 2014.

———. “Heathens, Slaves and Aborigines: Thomas Hodgkin’s Critique of Missions and Anti-Slavery.” History Workshop Journal, no. 64 (2007): 133–61.

———. Aunt Anna’s Report’: The Buxton Women and the Aborigines Select Committee, 1835-37.” The Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History 32, no. 2 (2004): 1-28.

Mitcham, Roderick. “Geographies of Global Humanitarianism: The Anti-Slavery Society and the Aborigines Protection Society, 1884-1933.” PhD Thesis – University of London, 2001.

Reid, Darren. “Shadrach Boyce Mama and the ‘Kaffir Depot’: Navigating Imperial Networks to Agitate against the Forced Removal of Xhosa Women and Children from Cape Town, May–December 1879.” South African Historical Journal 72, no. 4 (2020): 561–78.

———. “The Aborigines’ Protection Society as an Anti-Colonial Network: Rethinking the APS ‘from the Bottom up’ through Letters Written by Black South Africans, 1883-1887.” Journal of Colonialism and Colonial History 22, no. 2 (2021): 1-38.

———. “The Aborigines’ Protection Society as an Imperial Knowledge Network: The Writing and Representation of Black South African Letters to the APS, 1879-1888. MA thesis, University of Victoria, 2020.

Swaisland, Charles. “The Aborigines Protection Society, 1837–1909.” Slavery & Abolition 21, no. 2 (2000): 265–80.

———. “The Aborigines Protection Society and British Southern and West Africa.” PhD thesis – University of Oxford, 1968.

Whitehead, Rachel. “The Aborigines’ Protection Society and the Safeguarding of African Interests in Rhodesia, 1889-1930.” PhD thesis – University of Oxford, 1975.

Willan, Brian. “The Anti-Slavery and Aborigines’ Protection Society and the South African Natives’ Land Act of 1913.” The Journal of African History 20, no. 1 (1979): 83–102.


Thaba Nchu

Landau, Paul. “The Spirit of God, Pigs and Demons: The ‘Samuelites’ of Southern Africa.” Journal of Religion in Africa 29, no. 3 (1999): 313-340.

Landau, Paul. Popular Politics in the History of South Africa, 1400-1948. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010).

Murray, Colin. Black Mountain: Land, Class and Power in the Eastern Orange Free State, 1880s to 1980s. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1992.

Watson, Richard. “The Subjection of a South African State: Thaba Nchu, 1880-1884.” The Journal of African History 21, no. 3 (1980): 357-373.

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