Pity, love or justice? Seeing 1830s Australian colonial violence

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During the 1830s, humanitarian concern for the plight of the British Empire’s Indigenous peoples reached its height, coinciding with colonists’ rapid encroachment upon Indigenous land in New South Wales. Increasing frontier violence culminated in the shocking Myall Creek Massacre of June 1838, prompting heated debates regarding the treatment of Australian Aboriginal people. Humanitarians and colonists deployed intensely emotive strategies seeking to direct compassion towards their very different objects via newspapers, the pulpit, prose, poetry and imagery. The landmark sermon delivered in late 1838 by Sydney Baptist minister John Saunders argued for Indigenous rights and the recognition of Aboriginal humanity, drawing a distinction between ‘pity’ and ‘justice’ that anticipated more recent debates regarding empathy. Saunders’s argument contrasts with sentimental anti- slavery strategies which rendered black people passive beneficiaries of white benevolence, demonstrating that despite scholarly critique which emphasises the limits of empathy, we must not assume empathy has static or homogeneous meanings and political effects in specific circumstances and times. While empathy may be complicit with injustice, conversely a lack of sympathy for other peoples’ suffering may license racism, misogyny and oppression.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)109-130
Number of pages22
JournalEmotions: History, Culture, Society
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 1 Dec 2017


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