Robinson, George Augustus (1791–1866), conciliator of the Tasmanian Aborigines, was born on 22 March 1791 in Stonecutter Street in the East End of London, the second son of William Robinson, a builder of Boston, Lincolnshire, and his wife, Susannah, née Perry, from Yeovil, Somerset. He probably attended a ‘low-grade school’ and left at the age of eleven to join his brother in the building trade.

On 28 February 1814 at Christ Church Greyfriars, London, Robinson married Maria Amelia Evens, of a working-class family, and by 1823 they had four sons and a daughter. He decided to emigrate to Tasmania (Van Diemen's Land) and arrived in Hobart on the Triton on 20 January 1824. There, he prospered as a builder. Even before his family joined him in April 1826 he had become committed to the social reforming ideas of Wesleyanism, and when Lieutenant-Governor Arthur advertised in March 1829 for a responsible person to take charge of the ration station for Tasmanian Aborigines on Bruny Island, and to teach them how to live in peace with white people, Robinson applied for and was appointed to the position. At that time the Tasmanian Aborigines were engaged in a guerrilla war with white settlers for control of land. Governor Arthur estimated that, from an original indigenous population of 5000 to 6000 when white settlement began in 1803, only a few hundred remained.

In April 1829 Robinson arrived at Bruny Island, 25 miles south-east of Hobart, and met Truganini (Trugernanna) and Worraddy, her admirer, who became the core of the mission Aborigines he would use as conciliators. He began the first of four journeys in search of the other Tasmanian Aborigines in January 1830 and completed his mission four years later with more than 300 conciliated. Robinson's conciliation methods were original for Australia. First he went with the mission Aborigines into the bush, where they initiated contact with a particular group of Tasmanian Aborigines. Then, unarmed, he met the chief, explained the government's policy of conciliation, and negotiated their removal to Flinders Island, the designated sanctuary in Bass Strait. Robinson acknowledged that, without the mission Aborigines, the conciliation process would have failed. Indeed, his decision to live with them led Rae-Ellis to argue that his sexual liaison with Truganini was central to his success. Governor Arthur paid Robinson handsomely for his work, but the latter became increasingly concerned with his own fame and correspondingly less concerned about the fate of the Tasmanian Aborigines. At the Flinders Island Aboriginal establishment, where he was commandant from October 1835 to February 1839, he tried to convert them to Christianity, organize them into nuclear family groups, and engage them in agricultural labour, to become like white people: but the Aborigines resisted his programme and their numbers declined from 123 to 60. Robinson tried to take the survivors with him to Port Phillip (later in Victoria), where he became chief protector of the Aborigines in March 1839. However, the authorities considered they were too dangerous, and he had to leave behind all save fifteen mission Aborigines.

In Victoria, Robinson tried to establish reserves for the Port Phillip Aborigines in four areas each under the control of a sub-protector, but white settlement spread too quickly for the plan to be effective and Robinson lost the support of the government. When the protectorate ceased operation in 1849 Robinson retired on a pension. His wife, Maria, had died in September 1848 after a long illness. She had borne two further daughters in Van Diemen's Land, and the rest of the children had scattered to other parts of Australia. Robinson returned to Britain on the Medway in 1852 with his youngest daughter, Cecilia, and began a new life. He was elected to the Ethnological Society in 1853, and on 4 June the same year he married Rose, aged twenty-four, the daughter of Thomas Pyne, an accountant of Bridport, at St George's Church, Hanover Square. After touring Europe for five years they settled in Bath, where Robinson planned to write a book about the Tasmanian Aborigines. He died on 18 October 1866 at his home, Prahran Cottage, Prospect Road, Bath, and was buried in the abbey cemetery, Lyncomb Vale. He left two daughters and three sons from his second marriage and an estate of more than £5000. His book was not completed, but his Tasmanian journals were edited and published in 1966 and 1987.

Robinson was the first in Australia to conciliate Aborigines without the use of force. Rae-Ellis and Plomley consider that he made his fame from Aboriginal misfortune, but others claim that he was a man before his time in that he recognized the Tasmanian Aborigines as a sovereign people with whom a negotiated settlement could be made. The Tasmanian Aboriginal community hold him in high regard for sympathetically recording their culture when it was most under threat. His journals stand as testimony to his labours and to his desire to save a people from extinction.

Lyndall Ryan

Sources  

V. Rae-Ellis, Black Robinson (1988) · Friendly mission: the Tasmanian journals and papers of George Augustus Robinson, 1829–1834, ed. N. J. B. Plomley (1966) · N. J. B. Plomley, ed., Weep in silence: a history of the Flinders Island Aboriginal settlement, 1835–1839 (1987) · L. Ryan, The Aboriginal Tasmanians (1982) · [N. J. B. Plomley], ‘Robinson, George Augustus’, AusDB, vol. 2 · H. Reynolds, Fate of free people (1995)

Archives  

County Library, Bristol · Mitchell L., NSW |  Archives Office of Tasmania, Tasmania, colonial secretary's official papers · BM, Tasmanian and Australian Aborigines MSS, papers and sketches · Mitchell L., NSW, Flinders Island Aboriginal establishment MSS


Likenesses  

B. Dutterau, oils, c.1840, Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, Hobart; repro. in Rae-Ellis, Black Robinson, frontispiece · B. Dutterau, oils, c.1840 (The conciliation), Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, Hobart; repro. in Rae-Ellis, Black Robinson, dust jacket · M. Gauci, lithograph, c.1845 (after T. Bock?), Allport Library and Museum of Fine Arts, Hobart, Tasmania; repro. in Plomley, ed., Weep in silence, frontispiece · B. Giani, oils, 1853, Mitchell L., NSW; repro. in Rae-Ellis, Black Robinson, p. 112

Wealth at death  

under £9000: probate, 13 Nov 1866, CGPLA Eng. & Wales