The Affective History of Robert Fairbairn

Robert Fairbaum

In an exciting new partnership with the State Library of Western Australia, Professor Susan Broomhall, Chief Investigator at the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions (Europe 1100-1800) and Research Associate Joanne McEwan are researching the newly acquired Robert Fairbairn archive.

This rare collection containing diaries, letters, and objects and has significant importance to the heritage of Western Australia. CHE's project, "The Affective History of Robert Fairbairn," explores the intertwined personal and professional life of Robert Fairbairn, the son of Scots migrants, whose early life was spent among the local peoples of the Bunbury region. A Resident Magistrate in various locations within the state, Fairbairn's views and personal experiences of indigenous culture were highly influential among settler authorities, leading to his authorship of the Fairbairn Report of 1882 with damaging consequences for indigenous populations.
CI Broomhall is presenting her research at the upcoming September CHE Collaboratory "Blood, Stone, Land: An Affective History of Heritage" in Hobart which analyses the ambiguous heritage of Robert Fairbairn (1841-1922), as a child straddling two worlds, whose views and actions proposed for the protection and of indigenous peoples would
have damaging consequences into the late nineteenth and early twentieth

"Fairbairn," Broomhall explains "was born in 1841 in Bunbury, the child of Scots parents who
emigrated from Berwickshire and Roxburghshire in 1839. In his manuscript Reminiscences (1903) Fairbairn records his memories of indigenous games, fishing, food, language and tribal law learned alongside the local children of the district. Throughout his life, Fairbairn operated between his Scottish heritage, marrying a daughter of migrants from Montrose who arrived as first colonists with Governor Stirling, and acting as President of the Caledonian Society, but also with a perceived kind of 'experiential heritage' of indigenous culture. Apart from his memoirs and legal explorations of indigenous experiences and welfare, Fairbairn also published a poem, written in the voice of a indigenous leader, calling for blankets and care for indigenous women, the elderly and children. So for Fairbairn, I think the dual heritage upon which he called in his life, Scottish and Indigenous, enriched his sense of self and his sense of responsibilities in his working life."

"Fairbairn went on to serve in a series of legal roles across the state, including as Resident Magistrate in Greenough, Toodyay district, Albany, the Vasse district and Fremantle as well as Government Resident in the Kimberley in 1883, just as prospecting and indigenous dispossession of the
area commenced. In the course of these positions, he was called upon to investigate the treatment of Malays in the pearl industry in Shark Bay and his later 1882 Fairbairn Report detailed the abuses of pastoralists using indigenous people as de facto slave labour on stations. This report, which drew public attention to the exploitation of indigenous peoples, led to the 1886 Aboriginal Protection Act 1886 (WA), is generally considered the foundation of increasingly racialised policies of the Western Australian state government, one which would end up in the removal of children from their parents by the 1930s. So, for indigenous peoples, the heritage of Robert Fairbairn's working life was to be a deeply destructive one for their lands and culture."
In her aspect of the project, CHE Research Associate Dr Joanne McEwan is focussing on Fairbairn’s personal and domestic life. Dr McEwan will be presenting her ongoing research in a free public lecture "Body of Evidence: Delving into the Personal and Emotional Life of a Colonial Magistrate” , presented by the State Library of Western Australia Foundation in partnership with the State Library of Western Australia and the Law Society during Law Week in May. This will be the first occasion that the Archive has been publicly discussed since its purchase by the State Library of Western Australia last year.
“In addition to a number of very useful diaries and memoirs, the archive also contains a large collection of correspondence between Robert Fairbairn and people to whom he was personally or politically connected”, McEwan observes. “This correspondence offers a rare and fascinating glimpse into an early settler’s social and emotional life, both through Fairbairn’s descriptions of his day to day activities and by illuminating the nature of his relationships with the recipients."

"Letters to his wives, Frances Jane Fairbairn and Frances Sarah Fairbairn, and to his children Ainslie and Robert are particularly interesting in this regard. They provide us with insight into Fairbairn’s attachment to concepts of family and household, which is a historical and emotional perspective that is often overlooked or difficult to recover. His affective connections with family are detailed here precisely because these practices of sentiment had to be maintained at a distance, not just across oceans but also because Fairbairn travelled the length and breadth of the state in his professional capacities. From mundane details about when the mail coach will next arrive to informing his daughter of her mother’s death, these letters promise to shed light on Robert Fairbairn’s experiences as a husband and father as well as his more well-known roles and responsibilities as a Colonial Magistrate."

McEwan's lecture will be of interest to the general public, law students, people interested in the State’s heritage, and researchers.

Details of the event are:
Body of Evidence Public Lecture

Date: Monday 13 May 2013

Time: 5:30pm to 6:30pm

Venue: State Library of Western Australia Theatre, Ground Floor, State Library

This is a FREE event but bookings are essential

RSVP: Email:
Telephone (08) 9427 3105

Media contact: Susan Broomhall