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"The awful depravity of human nature": violence and humanitarian narratives in New South Wales and Tahiti, 1796-99

journal contribution
posted on 2023-05-19, 04:29 authored by Johnston, A
Shocked by the abject failure of the London Missionary Society’s (LMS) first overseas mission to Polynesia, missionaries retreated to New South Wales in 1799 having had their evangelical certainties about morality, culture, religion, and race thoroughly shaken. White settler communities proved almost as disturbing as the islands for the disgraced missionaries. Samuel Clode was brutally murdered soon after arriving; lay missionaries found that their simple communal religious practices would not be tolerated by the established ministers of religion; and co-habiting with convicts, military men, and Aborigines seriously challenged evangelical social mores. John Youl wrote, “no other spot on the face of the Habitable Globe, contains more witnesses of the awful depravity of human Nature” (1801). Humanitarian narratives were central to British evangelical missionary work. Although humanitarian narratives often struggled to emerge in the early Australian colonies given the predominance of aggressive settler expansionism, the isolated voices of individuals associated with evangelical reform deserve attention because they provide troubling accounts of the problems and failures of settler colonialism. This article uses Clode’s accounts of his experience at Matavai Bay in Tahiti, and accounts of his death at Port Jackson, as nodal points through which to trace the moral contours of emergent settler modernities in Pacific Rim worlds. Colonial resistance to evangelical authority by both Europeans and Indigenous people confounded the expectations of the vigorous humanitarian lobby in Britain, and the information garnered by colonial agents provided considerable challenge to European expectations. Yet it also provided considerable ammunition to argue for religious models of the moral empire. In such ways evangelical experiences garnered from colonial locations became part of a globalising knowledge economy and a thriving print culture, which both supported and challenged the dominance of humanitarian narratives.


Publication title

Journal of Colonialism and Colonial History



Article number









School of Humanities


The Johns Hopkins University Press

Place of publication

United States

Rights statement

© 2016 Anna Johnston and The Johns Hopkins University Press

Repository Status

  • Restricted

Socio-economic Objectives

Expanding knowledge in history, heritage and archaeology

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