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A Narrative of a Visit to the Australian Colonies

Date: 1843
Overall: 232 x 150 x 55 mm
Medium: Paper, ink, card
Credit Line: ANMM Collection
Classification:Books and journals
Object Name: Book
Object No: 00051351
Related Place:Australia,

User Terms

    James Backhouse and George Washington Walker were two Quaker missionaries who arrived in Van Diemen's Land in 1832 to minister amongst the convicts, emancipists and free settlers. During their four years in the Colony they wrote a serious of report for
    Lieutenant-Governor George Arthur on the state of the penal establishments at Macquarie Harbour, Port Arthur and the Coal Mines and the Aboriginal station at Wybalenna on Flinders Island

    SignificanceJames Backhouse and George Washington Walker were noted social commentators on the lives of convicts, poor settlers and Aboriginal people in the colonies of Van Diemen's Land and New South Wales during the 1830s. Their reports were frank, open and honest and led to a number of social improvements in the colonies.

    HistoryBetween 1788 and 1868 over 160,000 men, women and children were transported to the Australian colonies of New South Wales (which included Queensland), Van Diemen’s Land and Western Australia by the British and Irish Governments as punishment for criminal acts. Although many of the convicted prisoners were habitual or professional criminals with multiple offences recorded against them, a small number were political prisoners, social reformers, or one-off offenders.

    James Backhouse (1794-1869) was a British naturalist and Quaker missionary from a well-known Quaker business family in Durham, England. Educated at a Society of Friend’s school in Leeds he trained as a chemist but gave up his career after contracting tuberculosis. He survived the disease putting down his healthy recovery to vigorous outdoor work at a Norwich plant nursery. At the nursery he developed a passion for Australian plants, which along with his interest as a Quaker in prison reform and convicts transportation, saw him first express an interest in visiting the Australian colonies.

    Backhouse’s work in local schools for the poor, the temperance movement, Bible Societies and prison work brought him to the attention of the Quaker Ministry who suggested that he carry out similar work abroad. He was given financial support from the Quaker’s London Yearly Meeting and along with fellow Quaker George Washington Walker sailed for Australia in September 1831. Arriving in Hobart in February 1832 Backhouse and Walker found much demand for their missionary and pastoral care services in the colony. For the next three years Backhouse and Walker roamed the colony talking to settlers, convicts, emancipists and the government establishment.

    Lieutenant-Governor George Arthur was especially open granting the missionaries free access to all penal and Aboriginal establishments, encouraging them to investigate, inspect and report back on conditions and possible improvements. In return the missionaries provided eight reports – some of which are included in Backhouse’s book – on the penal settlements of Macquarie Harbour, Port Arthur and the Coal Mines, the Aboriginal station at Wybalenna on Flinders Island where Backhouse noted that the Aboriginal people were rightful possessors of the land and had a prior claim to it, the conditions of road-gangs, chain gangs, assigned servants and masters and the Van Diemen’s Land Company. The reports were frank, open and honest to the extent that the Hobart Town Gazette accused Backhouse and Walker of being government spies.

    Leaving Van Diemen’s Land in 1835 Backhouse and Walker sailed to New South Wales where Governor Sir Richard Burke greatly impressed by the work of the missionaries in Van Diemen’s Land requested that similar assessments and reporting to be carried out in that colony. Between 1835 and 1837 Backhouse and Walker visited the penal settlements at Norfolk Island, Moreton Bay and Port Macquarie and the Aboriginal station in the Wellington Valley reporting back to Governor Burke on the conditions found at those places.

    Besides passing the reports onto the colonial authorities’ copies of the reports were also sent back to the Quakers and the Colonial Office in London where they were used by prison reformers to improve conditions for convicts in England and the colonies. One such reformer was Alexander Maconochie who developed a convict reward system on Norfolk Island based on the work of Backhouse and Walker.

    Throughout these journeys Backhouse pursued his other great passion of plant collecting and he sent a number of samples onto Kew Gardens in London along with his notebooks and journals on Australian plants. In recognition of his work on Australian flora - a genus of the myrtaceous shrub was named Backhousia in his honour.

    Besides their work on prison reform the two Quaker missionaries were also advocates for the formation of Aboriginal protection committees, savings banks, benevolent societies, prison and hospital visitor programs and non-sectarian charities in the Australian colonies including The Temperance Movement, Religious Tract, British and Foreign Bible and The British and Foreign School Societies – which later became the official education curriculum for public education in Van Diemen’s Land and New South Wales.

    After leaving New South Wales, Backhouse and Walker, returned briefly to Van Diemen’s Land in 1837 before visiting Melbourne, Adelaide and the Swan River Colony. Both missionaries visited Mauritious and South Africa before Backhouse returned to England in 1841 and Walker returned to Van Diemen’s Land to carry on their work in the colony.

    Despite his return to England Backhouse remained devoted towards the work that he and Walker had commenced in the colonies, he was a regular correspondent with The Royal Society of Tasmania and published several books on his work including A Narrative of a Visit to the Australian Colonies (London, 1843), A Narrative of a Visit to the Mauritius and South Africa (London, 1844) and with Charles Tylor the The Life and Labours of George Washington Walker (London, 1862). He also produced a number of religious tracts on the work of fellow Quakers such as Deborah Backhouse, Thomas Bulman, Francis Howgill and William and Alice Ellis as well as extracts of his letters from Van Diemen's Land and New South Wales.

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