‘Ignorant and idle’: Indigenous education in Natal and Western Australia, 1833-1875

Rebecca Swartz

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis

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Schools, and education more broadly, were pivotal in constructing and maintaining racial difference in the settler colonies of Western Australia and Natal, South Africa. Education must be taken seriously as a way into understanding the intersections between the conflicting, but ultimately reconciled, discourses of humanitarianism and settler colonialism. By considering the education provided for Indigenous children between 1833 and 1875, this thesis shows that schools were essential points of contact between the local government, missionaries and Indigenous people. In examining both colonial policy on education and missionary practice, it highlights conceptions of race, educability and childhood that underpinned education provision in each place. The thesis draws on a variety of sources, including missionary correspondence and imperial and colonial government records. This project seeks to enhance our understanding of education at different scales, making a case for integrating local cases with broader imperial histories.

First, the thesis considers the connections between education policy and practice in different sites of Empire. Using case studies of educational change from Britain and the West Indies between 1833 and 1847, New Zealand and the Cape between 1850 and 1865, the thesis highlights continuities in thinking about race and education across diverse parts of the British Empire. In the 1830s, education came to be seen as the role of a humanitarian government in both metropole and colony. This idea proved foundational to the development of Indigenous education in Natal and Western Australia.

Second, the thesis builds on this context, and examines approaches to Indigenous education in Natal and Western Australia in comparative perspective. By comparing the colonies, it shows that while Indigenous education policy might have appeared quite different in these colonies, there were connections in thinking about race and the purpose of education that underpinned practice in both places. Education was central to projects of racial amalgamation in Natal and Western Australia in the 1840s and 1850s. However as the century progressed, and ideas about race changed, so too did the nature of education interventions. By the 1870s, government involvement in education was increasingly accepted, in both metropolitan and colonial cases, and its practice was more closely aligned with settler colonialism.
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Royal Holloway, University of London
  • Laidlaw, Zoe, Supervisor
Award date1 Oct 2015
Publication statusUnpublished - 2015


  • British empire
  • settler colonialism
  • humanitarianism
  • Western Australia
  • Natal
  • History of education
  • colonialism
  • schools
  • race

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