Mission in Australia: James Backhouse and George Washington Walker

James Backhouse (1794 –1869) and George Washington Walker (1800–1859) were Quaker missionaries who travelled extensively throughout Australia, where they reported on conditions in the penal colonies and aboriginal settlements, as well as in Mauritius and South Africa. Their six-year mission helped Quakerism take root in Australia. In Tasmania, they have been called ‘The Conscience of the Colony’.

James Backhouse was born to a Quaker family in Darlington and trained in a plant nursery in Norwich, where he became fascinated by the flora of Australia.

His friend, George Washington Walker, was born in London to a Unitarian family and brought up by his grandmother in Newcastle.  He was apprenticed to a Quaker linen draper in 1814. So impressed was he by the ethics of Friends that he joined the Society in 1827.

Both were interested in Quaker service abroad and in 1831, supported by London Yearly Meeting, the two set sail on the barque ‘Science’, in company with a group of Chelsea Pensioners, en route to Van Diemen’s Land (now Tasmania).

For the next six years, they travelled throughout Van Diemen’s Land, New South Wales and western Australia.  Given free access to penal colonies and aboriginal settlements by the governors of both Van Diemen’s Land and New South Wales, they reported to them – often frankly and critically – on the conditions they found there.  Backhouse also observed and collected samples of native plants, which he sent to Kew Gardens in London.

In their reports, they frequently protested against the use of flogging as a punishment for convicts, something they regarded as both degrading and ineffectual.  Instead they advocated a system of rewards and punishments, including the use of solitary confinement and the extension or reduction of the period of sentence.

They rebuked those who saw transportation as too lenient a punishment.  “It is widely supposed that severity towards a convicted offender has a reformatory tendency,” Backhouse wrote.  “This we conceived to be a sentiment radically erroneous.”

Having interviewed many of the convicts, they noted the main causes for their being drawn into crime – from drunkenness to poverty – and observed that “crime is not prevented through fear of punishment, but through removal of its causes.”

They deplored the way that aboriginal population had been deprived of their lands without compensation.  Backhouse wrote, “we cannot but deprecate the short-sighted policy by which the lands of the aboriginal inhabitants have been wrested from them, with little or no regard for their natural and indefeasible rights.”

They recognised that the aboriginal people were often provoked to violence by the actions of white settlers, who frequently went unpunished for their actions. They saw the aborigines as neither physically nor intellectually the inferiors of the whites, but simply having different skills that were the product of their environment. In a report to the Governor of New South Wales, they clearly showed they were aware that,  as white population took possession of lands, the kangaroos and emus on which aborigines subsisted were destroyed, and the land subsequently ‘depastured’ by grazing animals introduced by the settlers.

“Heavy responsibility lies on the British Nation and colonial government to make restitution,” they wrote.

Nevertheless, they were to some extent, inevitably, the product of their times.  On the whole, they approved of the aboriginal settlement on Flinders Island, set up by George Robinson, where those who had survived the disastrous attempt in 1828 to drive them from the land were resettled and ‘civilised’.

In 1838, the two travelled first to Mauritius and then South Africa, where they reported on conditions for the newly emancipated slaves in the colony. Finding the Boers there were resentful of the policy, Backhouse learnt Dutch in an effort at reconciliation.  He and Walker also established a multi-racial school in Cape Town, which ran for forty years.

Backhouse returned to his nursery in York in 1841, from where he wrote a series of accounts of their travels, based on the journals he and Walker had kept (see below). The Backhouse Lecture, given at annually at Australia Yearly Meeting, is named in his honour.

Walker settled in Hobart, where he married and continued to support causes including  establishing  Friends’ Schools and providing a refuge for destitute women.

Further reading