"Black Gentleman as Good as White": A Comparative Analysis of African American and Australian Aboriginal Political Protests, 1830--1865

Article excerpt

A large body of so-called scientific literature appeared in the 19th century categorizing the world's various "colored races" as inferior to people of European descent. (1) In two of the most unlikely of places, the United States and British colonial Australia, educated "men of color" produced remarkably similar critiques of 19th century racial "science." In the United States, for example, an anonymous black author articulated the views of many African Americans when he declared in 1867: "I am not ashamed of my color, nor of my race. ... I remain among, and one of my people; my hopes are based on their elevation, and I expect to rise as they ascend by the power of their own institutions, and to show what a black man may become as a black man, fully developed on the basis of his own individual and independent life." (2) Similarly, Charles Never, a mission-educated Aboriginal man in British colonial Australia, registered his opposition to 19th century racism. Charles Never stated his case succinctly: "I like to be a gentleman. Black gentleman as good as white." (3)

Implicit in both of these statements was a sense of the dignity and self-respect that Western racism attempted to take from African American and Australian Aboriginal people. While U.S. African Americans endured the hardships of racial slavery in the antebellum South, those in northern states confronted the indignity of disenfranchisement, social marginalization, and economic hardship. (4) In comparison, Australian Aborigines suffered the dispossession of their land, frontier violence at the hands of white settlers, and the heartbreaking dissolution of families through the abduction of children and concubinage of Aboriginal women at the hands of white men. (5) In response to these atrocities, the anonymous African American author and the Australian Aborigine Charles Never asserted their basic human equality with white Americans and colonial Australians. In their minds the qualities associated with Western civilization--the rule of law, upward economic mobility, moral refinement, and cultural accomplishment--were not the sole preserve of white Americans or British Australians, but universal principles attainable to all of humanity. Without losing sight of their particular social identity in the racialized milieus of antebellum United States and British colonial Australia, African American and Australian Aboriginal leaders insisted that the people they represented were as capable as whites of cultivating "civilized" habits and social practices.

Historical comparisons between the United States and British colonial Australia are few and far between. This is a surprising historiographical omission given that both the United States and colonial Australia shared intellectual, economic, and political connections with Britain and each other during the 19th century. (6) For the most part, historians have focused on comparisons of the United States with South American and Caribbean nations, or of the United States and South Africa. (7) But a historical comparison of African American and Australian Aboriginal leaders makes sense for at least two historical reasons. First, early 19th century white Americans and British Australians viewed African Americans and Australian Aborigines as two branches of an inferior "Negroid" race. For example, the American ethnologist Charles Pickering described the Aboriginal phenotype as "fully as dark as that of the Negro," while Josiah Nott, the American phrenologist, labeled the Aborigines "Oceanic Negroes" (8) Both African American and Australian Aboriginal protests thus represented a political attack on this arbitrary racial categorization. Second, the social ideologies behind reform efforts to abolish slavery in the United States and ameliorate the suffering of indigenous peoples in British colonies sprang from the evolutionary ethos of early 19th century British ethnology. One of the most important intellectual figures to trans-Atlantic abolitionists, evangelical missionaries in London and the British colonies, and to African American and Australian Aboriginal leaders, was James Cowles Pritchard. …