State Library Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 71 Autumn 2003


Dianne Reilly
The Creation of a Civil Servant
La Trobe in the West Indies

From The time of his return to Europe in 1834 after his long tour of North America and Mexico, La Trobe had been ostensibly seeking some form of paid employment. This was the age of political patronage and, as early as 1829, he had been hoping to find favour at the highest governmental level. In a letter dated 8 August 1834, from Fairfield where his father was then living in retirement, he confided to the Comtesse de Pourtalès, then in Berlin:
in 1829, when disgusted with having lost a year in awaiting the tardy fulfilment of a promise of patronage by Lord Godrich1 [sic], then prime minister, I returned to my unobtrusive perch among your mountains like a bird escaped from its cage.2
Now, after a long period in the ‘new world’, he lamented in his letter to the Comtesse the fact that ‘I have it is true no profession — for what Washington Irving calls ‘poor devil author’ can hardly be accounted one'.3
Seeking preferment, or appointment to a position of employment using personal contacts, was an accepted means in the nineteenth century for young men of La Trobe's class to earn a salary with which to support themselves. However, until 1837, when he was 36, La Trobe's life had been spent in a private capacity, while he waited for a position to be offered to him.
On 16 September 1835, after a period of indecision and nervousness, La Trobe had married Sophie de Montmollin. As a married man with all the responsibilities which accompany that state, he needed to provide for himself and his wife with more than just the proceeds of his books. Writing once again to the Comtesse de Pourtalès of his proposed permanent residence in Switzerland, he indicated a rather reluctant return to his former role as a teacher: ‘I see at present no alternative to my securing if possible two or three pupils (if suitable can be found)'.4
Then, in February 1837, seemingly without effort on his part, he was offered a British government posting to carry out an assignment in the West Indies. No doubt he had come to the attention of the Colonial Office principally due to his family connections at the highest levels of government, and their strong anti-slavery views and efforts to bring the slave trade to a halt. The fact that he was by now an established author with four books5 to his credit would also have drawn attention to him, and it is possible that he promoted his own interests by sending copies of his works to appropriate officials in the government.
The Secretary of State for the Colonies, at that time under Lord Melbourne as Prime Minister, was Charles Grant, Baron Glenelg.6 Glenelg was a humanitarian and a member of the Church of England Missionary Society. His particular interest was the

Charles Joseph La Trobe. West Indian notebook 1837-1838. La Trobe Australian Manuscripts Collection, MS 13003, Box 76/3(b).

sympathetic and even-handed treatment of the West Indian population leading to and following the abolition of slavery. He was supported in his attitudes by James Stephen,7 Under-Secretary of State for the Colonies, who exerted enormous influence in and beyond the civil service. At that time, the Colonial Office was very close to the seat of power, being situated at No.14 Downing Street until 1876.8 Both Glenelg and Stephen were members of the Clapham Sect,9 that group of evangelical Christian philanthropists, mostly Anglicans, who were inspired by the principles of their leader William Wilberforce.10 Wilberforce, a member of Parliament, was a politically conservative, independently wealthy philanthropist and abolitionist who believed ‘that God had set before him two great objects — the suppression of the slave trade and the reformation of manners'.11 His renowned success with the first of these objectives makes the second pale into insignificance, although he did write several tracts and books on the subject of personal and moral conduct. It was largely due to the efforts of Wilberforce that Parliament abolished the slave trade in British colonies, following the passing of his bill in the House of Commons in 1807. Wilberforce actively supported the establishment of the Anti-Slavery Society in 1825 and channeled much of his wealth into the cause. This group fought for the liberation of slaves who had been bought before 1807. Regrettably, Wilberforce died as the result of a horse-riding accident, one month before the final passage through Parliament of the Emancipation Act, effective from 1 August 1834,12 which abolished slavery throughout the British Empire. Wilberforce had generously contributed during this period to the increasing expense of the missionary work of the Moravian Brethren, who were the only missionaries active among the slaves both before and after emancipation.13 The principles of the La Trobe family were thus totally aligned with his.
As Moravians, they were missionaries wherever they were, at home or abroad, and they were also highly cultured in line with the Moravian principle that education was pre-eminent from childhood in the development of the adult.
The intellectual and practical sympathies of the La Trobes converged with those of the Clapham Sect. The total abolition of the slave trade and the colonization of Africa in a humane way were mutual ideals towards which they worked actively. Such ideals were undisputed for Charles Joseph, too. He was convinced of the natural dominance of those with education and social position over those without. He believed in the common benefit engendered by good government and by the impact of Christianity, and he was to contribute to bringing these opportunities into play in the West Indies.
It was therefore unsurprising that, with such impeccable credentials, Charles Joseph should have been offered a mission to the West Indies. This was to be the great turning-point of La Trobe's adult life. At last, he was to become a trusted Government servant with meaningful paid employment in which he would demonstrate his aptitude for responsibility in an accountable way. His commission was to inspect the schools in the British West Indies for which missionary bodies had received parliamentary financial grants in 1835-36, and to report back to the Colonial Office on progress made in educating the newly-liberated slaves.14
Although La Trobe made no reference to any hopes he might have held that this posting would lead to further appointments in the future, the commission was entirely in line with his requirement to be able to support his family, and his expressed desire to clarify his purpose in life.
La Trobe entrusted Sophie, pregnant with their first child, to her parents in Neuchâtel, and sailed for Jamaica in March 1837. Only five letters from him in this period are known to survive and, of these, the two longest are to his wife. La Trobe was again in the role of sharp observer and recorder of all that was new to him. He began the tradition which was to last throughout their life together of referring to Sophie as ‘dear S'. He obviously missed her terribly, writing to her as ‘you who are ever at my side in fancy',15 and dreaming of being in contact with her: ‘What pleasure I should have to fling you a nosegay over the broad sea — but — Il ne faut pas penser'.16 Their daughter Agnes was born on 2 April, and La Trobe was no doubt referring to this event when he wrote: ‘I never had such good cause to exercise prudence, or to wish, if such be God's will, to live a little longer'.17 Obviously, he had developed in the 18 months since their marriage into the caring husband he was always to be. He was to spend 17 months away from her, studying the effect of Britain's early attempts to provide educational facilities for the emancipated slaves in the West Indies.
Apart from his notebooks and the three reports to the Colonial Office on his mission, there is very little record in existence of his long period away from home. La Trobe wrote two letters to Albert de Pourtalés from Kingston shortly after his arrival there, the first describing his voyage from Falmouth on the Lyra, and the company he met with on board.18 The second, longer letter gave Albert the benefit of his first impressions of Jamaica and its people, and showed La Trobe's comfortable familiarity with his former pupil.
When La Trobe arrived there, the West Indies were in turmoil. On 31 July 1834, the 776,000 slaves on plantations in the British West Indies had been emancipated. In spite of the £16,500,00019 paid in compensation to slave owners, the planters were in financial difficulties. This came about because British settlement in the West Indies was only ever intended as transitory by the plantation owners. Those who went there were hoping to develop the islands and to make their fortunes quickly. More often than not, they were absentee landlords, leaving unsatisfactory and sometimes cruel managers to administer their estates. Most of the compensation money went to their creditors, generally London bankers. There was a shortage of labour from July 1834, once slaves were free, and poor prices for crops, and overworked, exhausted estates. The price of sugar fell dramatically. Many estates, mortgaged to the hilt, were abandoned by absentee owners and by their local overseers. The widespread malaise of the islands was not conducive to much improvement, if any, in the living conditions of the former slaves, although a definite effort was made.
La Trobe's official brief was twofold: he was
to inspect the schools on account of which any share of the Parliamentary grants for Negro education of 1835-1836 had been applied, and to furnish a report upon the state of
education in those colonies at the present time, especially with reference to the Negro population.20
La Trobe would certainly have been well briefed at the Colonial Office on his forthcoming mission to review ‘the state of education'. The geographic and historical features of the archipelago would have fascinated this energetic man who had thrilled to the varied terrain of parts of Europe, North America and Mexico. However, despite a cultural background which had equipped him intellectually for the task ahead, La Trobe was, in effect, in his first official position. Apart from three years intermittently occupied as a tutor in Switzerland, La Trobe had spent his life in a desultory fashion. It is true that he had published four books but, until now, he had been entirely his own master. He had had no administrative training, and yet he was now expected to document fully and make a complex analysis of how the allocation of funds for West Indian education from the British government had been spent. In short, it would appear that, given his incomplete practical knowledge of the colony and lack of comparable past experience, the undertaking ahead must have been daunting.
In his first official report, he noted that his skill as an alpinist was certainly one useful attribute in preparing him physically for the difficult landscape he was to encounter:
My tour of inspection in Jamaica was undertaken and effected at a season of the year when the weather interposes no small difficulty in the way of the traveller, in a country much of whose rugged and unreclaimed surface is, at all times, difficult to traverse.21
La Trobe had left Falmouth on 3 March 1837, and arrived at Kingston on 15 April.22 He was required to visit, as soon as practicable, the islands which then made up the British West Indies: Jamaica, the Windward and Leeward Islands, British Guiana and Trinidad. Funds for the erection and support of schools had been sent to the various missionary societies on those islands. He was to spend, firstly, five and a half months on Jamaica, accumulating data for the first of three reports — Negro Education in Jamaica — which he sent from the West Indies to the Colonial Secretary. This and his two subsequent reports23 appeared as part of a suite of Parliamentary papers relating to the measures then in the process of being adopted for the abolition of the system of ‘apprenticeship'. This so-called ‘apprenticeship’ was that period following the abolition of slavery in 1833, leading to the granting of full freedom to former slaves. A specific provision of the Emancipation Act was that field-slaves had to continue working for their masters as apprenticed labourers for a further six years, and house-slaves for another four years. Despite the different titles, in reality there was little difference in the two states of bondage of slavery and apprenticeship.24 This was the social and political climate in which La Trobe began his work.
The Jamaica report is the only one of the three for which there is a coinciding body of private correspondence in existence. These letters, to Albert de Pourtalés and to Sophie, shed light on La Trobe's personal reactions to what he saw in a way that the official reports do not. The letters describe the landscape, commenting on the
topography and the scenery, the people and their customs, but they supply no critical commentary on the educational practices he was there to report on. These were strictly personal letters, lengthy letters in which he could freely indulge himself. He wrote to his wife and his friend in a conversational style, describing all that interested him in his new environment. In this correspondence, he could be himself. He was articulate, amusing, irreverent about local authorities, appreciative of the kindness he met. It was in these letters that La Trobe's personality began to show. On the other hand, his reports, based on his private journal,25 were just that: reports on what he had been sent to observe, formal, informative and with the recommendations the Colonial Office masters would expect from this discerning, trusted, and intelligent servant. In fact, the two distinct sides of La Trobe's character — the personal and the official — were revealed in these writings, his correspondence and his reports.
Each of the three official reports consisted of a lengthy narrative introduction in the form of a letter to Glenelg. Then followed two schedules, or tables, listing (A) a summary ‘Showing the Number and present Condition of the School-houses, for the Erection of which Aid was obtained from the Parliamentary Grants for Negro Education’ in 1835, 1836 and 1837, and indicating locations where such funding had been or would be used to erect school buildings; and (B) a summary ‘Showing the Number of Schools, of whatever Description existing’ in 1837 when La Trobe inspected them. The information given in the tables was very detailed, comprising: the locality, name of the school, controlling body, date of commencement, number and type (boys, girls, infants) of students, their denomination insofar as status (free children of townspeople, free children of apprentices, orphans, ‘superior’ class), average attendance, number of teachers, hours of operation, subjects taught, education system in operation, character of school room (permanent or temporary), and status of inspection (by clergy or lay inspectors). Following each schedule, he then compiled a brief narrative on every school visited, and he aimed, and did, in fact, visit almost all in existence at the time he was in Jamaica, the Windward and Leeward Islands, British Guiana and Trinidad: ‘I flatter myself that there is no omission of any consequence'.26 These narratives were designed to convey La Trobe's perception as to the progress each denomination was making in conforming to the requirements of the Colonial Office in accepting the grants-in-aid.
The emancipation of the slaves was nearly fully achieved when La Trobe arrived in the West Indies. Up until that time, the half-hearted efforts to educate the Negro population by local religious and humanitarian groups and individuals had failed, largely because the local government authorities and the white planters had been hostile to the idea, and because substantial funding was needed. The resistance to the idea of instruction for the slaves was due to the fact that an educated underclass would have been difficult to keep subjugated. Perhaps more importantly, the land-holders were dependent on the labour of the slaves for their wealth, and any time devoted to learning was time away from their work. At this point in history, the moral philosophy and practical objectives of the Colonial Office
were to ensure that the black population had access to education which would equip them to take part in society as free individuals. The grants-in-aid for Negro education were made initially in 1835 for five years, but they were subsequently continued to respond to local needs.27 La Trobe, very much in accord with Government policies, saw it as his responsibility to provide the most accurate information to satisfy the needs of the Colonial Office. He had been used to collecting facts and figures, as evidenced by the detailed note-books he kept on his earlier journeys as background for his four books. Now, he had time on his hands between excursions to the various districts to inspect school facilities, to create a sound method of reporting what he had observed and to tabulate the evidence. In his private diary,28 kept while in the field visiting the innumerable school-houses and chapels in the course of his investigation, he made rough notes for himself to ensure that he was reporting comparable facts about each place visited. He stated his purpose:
To ascertain the state of the Negro Education generally in the Colonies, the number of Negro children in attendance upon schools of any description and the existing means of instruction with reference to the Negro population,29
This was followed by a set of 11 questions he was to ask of each parish, ranging from the source of financial support to the number of teachers and coloured inhabitants.30 La Trobe was keen to see a way forward to a better future for each of the coloured children. Almost as a soliloquy, he noted that
It will be well to ascertain how many if any, of the existing institutions have for their object, the union of necessary and religious instruction, with the instruction in trade or husbandry. To what do the majority of coloured children in the schools look forward?31
La Trobe was convinced that the former slaves and the apprentices were equal to all men in God's eyes, that religious education was the most important benefit any government could bestow upon them, and that such a gift must be bestowed in whatever way possible:
I have never forgotten that the special object aimed at by the measure adopted by Her Majesty's Government was the Moral and religious improvement of the Negro population, and that provided that was attained, the precise manner was of secondary importance.32
La Trobe was a man of his social milieu, insofar as his attitudes to the black population were concerned. Like Wilberforce and other campaigners for abolition, he attached crucial importance to ending slavery, one last step being the establishment of educational facilities in the West Indies for everyone. Added to this was his Moravian missionary imperative that only through the benefits of education could the former slave achieve the necessary discipline which would open him to Christian redemption. He expressed this thought frequently in each one of his three reports, in similar terms: ‘in Jamaica, every class of schools must be considered a blessing as
long as they tend to impress moral and religious principles upon the minds of the coloured population'.33 In the Windward and Leeward Islands, he spoke
of the necessity that exists for providing increased opportunities of religious instruction for the population of these islands by every practicable means, and for bringing the ordinances of the Church within the reach of all, there can be no doubt in your Lordship's mind; and it is to this conviction … that the … chapel school mainly owes its rise;34
and in Jamaica, he espoused his theory that
it would be equally kind and wise … to never fail to inculcate the necessity of honest labour upon all classes under tuition, and that, wherever lessons of active industry can

Charles Joseph La Trobe. West Indian notebook 1837-1838. La Trobe Australian Manuscripts Collection, MS 13003, Box 76/3(b).

be united with other branches of instruction, they should be encouraged by every means in the power of those concerned in the success and real utility of the schools.35
La Trobe was convinced that slavery was a wicked system, designed only to promote the greed of the planters, and that of the British at home who had developed a taste for the tropical luxury goods which the West Indies could produce. His writing makes it clear that La Trobe possessed the attitude prevalent among educated men of sensibility in the nineteenth century and even later, that there was a pressing need among ‘the labouring classes'36 to appreciate the value of work. It would only be through discipline and application that they would improve their station in life as free individuals. He described this as ‘the necessity of submitting to labour, not only as it yields the means of satisfying brute nature, but as it is conducive to social order, morality and happiness'.37 In other words, La Trobe meant that by working and contributing to the community in this particular way, the former slave would overcome or disarm what were considered his instinctive characteristic of indolence, and find contentment in an ordered society. La Trobe communicated in his reports his innate belief that, despite current social theory that the black races were inferior through slower evolution, discipline and education would have the power to elevate them: ‘The gift of education is what the Negro must claim, now that this of complete political freedom has been bestowed'.38
La Trobe here countered the prevailing attitude to the former slaves as exemplified by his contemporary, Joseph Barham II, a slaveholder in Jamaica, who asserted that his slaves were ‘dreadful idlers’, and that ‘the Negro race is so averse to labour, that without force we have hardly anywhere been able to obtain it, even from those who had been trained to work'.39 La Trobe was, however, convinced of the need, if not to coerce them, to strongly encourage the former slaves in their own best interests through compulsory education, so that they would come to see the benefits of discipline. In this,
the advantage of living a regular life … and of learning to submit to gentle discipline, to know and feel the value of time, and of a union between physical and mental labour would be of the greatest importance.40
La Trobe believed that adoption of these four precepts would elevate the former slaves to true personal freedom.
La Trobe's three reports, tabled in the House of Commons between February 1838 and February 1839,41 were model examples of what the Colonial Office expected from its officers. His Jamaica report was published in the Times verbatim on 20 October 1838.42 La Trobe voiced criticism of the way the grants had been handled, and he made constructive suggestions for the practical resolution of what he saw as a lack of even-handedness. In immense detail, he recounted his contact with religious groups of all denominations. The breadth of his knowledge and understanding, while still from the perspective of a nineteenth-century conservative who believed strongly in natural order and ranks in society, is soon illustrated by even a cursory
glance at the reports of his assignment in the West Indies. The detail he provided for Colonial Office consumption was evidence of the probing nature of the questions he asked of officials and missionary society personnel in order to achieve a close understanding of the state of education in these colonial outposts. His thoroughness and persistence in pursuit of information or incompetence reveal the acuteness of his own mind and that attention to detail for which he was later renowned. La Trobe had no secretary to whom he could delegate the tedium of statistical returns, having to compile and analyse the evidence, write the narrative, and draw the conclusions with assistance from no-one. In short, he was able to analyse and synthesize the data he collected into cohesive reports which gave the Colonial Office the information required for future action in education in the West Indies.
La Trobe reported in an unbiased manner on the educational activities of each of the diverse missionary societies he visited. He simply stated the fact that few, if any, had met the conditions to which they had agreed when accepting grants from the Colonial Office. His observations of each allowed him to summarize his findings as to the reasons for non-compliance. He had ascertained that the delay in erecting school-houses was largely due to the fact that applications for financial aid had been made in undue haste once the missionary societies knew that Parliamentary grants were likely to become available. Lack of preparation had resulted in rushed and ill-considered submissions for impracticable buildings. The principal reason that building could not commence, once funds were provided, was the inability of most of the societies to comply with the Government stipulation that school-houses had to be erected on land owned by the missionary bodies. Given the shortage of freehold land, this was clearly an obstacle most would not be able to overcome. This point was taken by Glenelg, and the strict requirement of freehold ownership before any school building could commence was lifted by the time that La Trobe submitted his third and final report from British Guiana and Trinidad. La Trobe's was sound, practical advice, obtained at first-hand, and he was no doubt gratified that the points he made were accepted: ‘These modifications … are fully calculated to further the end proposed, and to remove difficulties hitherto productive of hesitation and delay'.43
Having himself benefited from an excellent liberal education, La Trobe was able to apply what he had experienced in the Moravian schools at Fulneck and Fairfield to arrive at a suitable benchmark for establishing a basic education for the West Indians. He had been asked by Glenelg to ‘furnish Her Majesty's Government such remarks or suggestions on the subject of education in the colonies as my personal observation or experience may afford me the opportunity of making'.44 He proferred a number of points of constructive criticism which, without doubt, provided the informed advice the Colonial Office needed for future policy decisions. La Trobe found that the schools already existing in 1837 were unevenly distributed, often clustered together, leaving many centres of population without schools at all. His practical suggestion was that smaller schools should be established close to settlements where they would be easily accessible to local children. He alerted Glenelg to that proportion of the population not able to access schooling at all, these comprising poor white people,
free ‘coloured’ people and the Maroons.45 La Trobe observed what only an inspector actually there on the islands could observe, and that was that the really needy group on the plantations, the young apprentices, was ‘the one that enjoys the scantiest proportion of instruction, when the necessity for it in their case is taken into account'.46 In other words, the Government had a particular responsibility for this large group, soon to be granted their absolute freedom, who would not have the benefit of schooling and training for their long future of freedom and self-reliance.
In addition, La Trobe knew first-hand the effect the climate had on sustained education, having traversed the difficult terrain of the islands himself in all weathers. He had a clear understanding of ‘the unavoidable influence which these must exercise over the schools, or of the reasonableness of the apologies … principally in the mountain districts'.47 Modifying the system as it was set up would not be an easy task. Another problem to beset educational progress was an obvious one: ‘the uncertain attendance of the scholars'.48 La Trobe was able, by personal enquiry, to discover the prevailing support of parents for education for their children, but he could make no recommendation as to how their apathy in ensuring regular attendance at school should be overcome, unless it was by increasing the number of teachers who would have the time to take a personal interest in their students. His recommendation for overcoming irregular attendance — whether due to the climate, distance, sickness, or scarcity of provisions in the home — ‘It is an idea, of which the advantages are so evident',49 was the establishment of boarding schools, or dormitories attached to the schools. He also postulated the germ of an idea that education might become compulsory, proposing it ‘for the consideration of the Legislature'.50
La Trobe took great trouble to estimate the capabilities of the teaching force on the islands, discovering that ‘hardly one-fourth are fitted to conduct a school of any description beyond the mere rudiments'.51 Teachers were employed by the various impecunious missionary societies which had to pay for their services and their accommodation, and salaries were dependent upon fund-raising and donations to the various missionary societies. They were either imported direct from Britain, or recruited from among the ‘coloured’ class on the islands who had benefited from their mixed parentage by receiving the rudiments of education. La Trobe's pressing solicitation to the Home Government, as an interim solution, was that
if Her Majesty's Government could by any means give some assistance; and I take the liberty of presenting the subject for your Lordship's consideration, and that of Her Majesty's Government, from a conviction that, next to the measure already adopted, none would conduce more to facilitate the purposes of education in the island than one that should relieve the parties of any position of this burthen and cause for future anxiety.52
However, his long-term recommendation, since ‘there are but few of the number whose capacity for the discharge of their duty extends sufficiently far’, was ‘an urgent call … for the institution of proper Normal schools for the education of
teachers'.53 The Home Government took note of La Trobe's plea for the financial maintenance of teachers which was
perhaps the greatest cause of anxiety to the conductors of the majority of the schools maintained by the missionary societies, and especially so with reference to such as have availed themselves of the Government aid.54
Although it took somewhat longer to institute proper teacher training facilities, by the time La Trobe came to submit his second report from the Windward and Leeward Islands, his recommendation had been heeded and it was ‘decided to give some assistance from the Parliamentary grant of 1837 towards the maintenance of teachers'.55
In each report, La Trobe had shown his consciousness of his subservience to his Colonial Office superiors, an attitude he was to hold throughout his career. He was a competent, efficient individual who had met the needs of the assignment. He had done the work well, and yet he was still apologetic. Despite the primitive conditions in which he had to live and work, he constantly apologized for the time taken to fulfil his brief:
It is a subject of regret to me that so much more time has been required for the proper performance of the duty with which I have been charged by your Lordship than I had originally calculated upon.56
This attitude was a little more than just politeness; it is indicative of a certain insecurity or lack of self-esteem which was to dog him all his life. It reflected his inbuilt need to justify his actions through most of the future difficult situations he was to encounter.
La Trobe did not have much time away from his official duties for relaxation. However, despite the engrossing nature of his duties, he made time to document some of his observations in pencil sketches, only a few of which survive. His view of Kingston Harbour from the Port Royal Mountains to the south-east of the settlement was a cursory impression locating the principal elements of the landscape. The sketch of the Spring Garden Plantation,57 a coffee-growing estate where La Trobe inspected the educational facilities provided by the Established Church for the freed slaves, still apprenticed, who worked on that particular property, was another impression of the landscape and the colonial buildings he sketched at this time.
La Trobe came to the West Indies with humanitarian attitudes towards those he met. Evangelism was not an afterthought to the Moravian faith; it was at the heart of the Church's identity and purpose, and this attitude was inbred in La Trobe. He was convinced of the benefits to all who embraced the Christian faith and, in particular, to the former West Indian slaves. For them, La Trobe considered religion and education were two sides of the same question. The missionaries held both sides in their hands — the ability to be able to impart or share Christian principles with those in their congregations, and the trust of the Colonial Office that they would educate the people too. La Trobe stated clearly that, in his view, ‘the education given should
be a sound and a religious one … above all, an education not merely based upon worldly morality, but built upon the Holy Scriptures'.58 This had been his own experience and he was satisfied that such an education would suit these new British subjects well in both a practical and a spiritual sense. He knew the Christian faith to be more than just a material or temporal assistance to those who heard the missionaries speak. He believed it transcended every aspect of politics and economics, pointing to a life after death.
As evidenced in his reports, La Trobe found the various missionary groups similar in their approach to their congregations and in their general inefficiency. La Trobe assessed all their systems of moral and religious instruction to be sound, but he regretted that so few of the principals of the missionary societies had gone the next step and erected the schools for which they had been so ready to accept grants. He found that they had applied for funds ‘with anxious precipitation’ based on ‘ill-digested or sanguine plans which time has proved to be impracticable',59 and had not met their responsibilities either to the former slaves or to the home government.
The reader senses La Trobe's exasperation that he had ‘found it totally impossible to obtain credible information from any source'60 to help him document the activities of the various religious groups. He reported on ‘the utter impossibility that exists of procuring correct information by any means, however plausible, short of personal inspection'.61 He understood when extenuating circumstances, such as weather or economic need, presented obstacles, but his tone when reporting on the various groups and their ‘utter ignorance of each other's proceedings’ causing ‘two and even three societies’ to have ‘an eye on the same locality or neighbourhood',62 showed perhaps an impatience in his nature of which he was aware. In one of his two extant letters to Sophie, he wrote:
I am forced to come to the conclusion that I could not have arrived in Jamaica at a moment more unfavourable for the speedy transaction of the business which brought me here, and had had occasion to learn at the very outset, a lesson of patience which doubtless God would not teach me if He did [not] know how much I stand in need of it.63
In speaking of the missions in Grenada, where ‘some of the children of Roman-Catholic parents attend without scruple upon the schools in connexion with the Established Church',64 the early ecumenism of the Moravian Church is evidenced in his words from the report that ‘there can be no doubt of good being effected in consequence'.65 His straight-forward viewpoint was that religion and education were inextricably entwined, and that ‘every class of schools must be considered a blessing as long as they tend to impress moral and religious principles upon the minds of the coloured population'.66 As has been mentioned, his view of the quality of teaching in the West Indies was not particularly favourable but, to him, attitudes and intentions were more important than pedagogical methods:
Sound moral character and correct religious views are of far greater importance than the possession of any great degree of ability or proficiency, in the instructors of the children of the labouring class.67
La Trobe's attitude to race and social class must be considered in the context of his time. He used terms and expressions when discussing the black population which would be unacceptable today. However, this does not mean that he was racially prejudiced. In fact, just the opposite was the case. He believed in the presence of ranks and orders within society and, as we have seen, his philosophy, based on his Moravian background, embraced the doctrine of philanthropic benevolence to those less privileged than himself. He was distressed by the continued presence of ‘the prejudices of the old time'68 held by influential residents and by the authorities. However, even among these groups, hope was to be found in the lessening of these attitudes with the advent of ‘a far better organized social system … where less of the unhappy internal jarring and bickering of parties is to be observed … in full confidence of its healthy influence on the future'.69
His idea was that better education for all blacks and whites would result in that ‘better organized social system’ and lead naturally to harmony among the population in general. La Trobe reflected sadly on the terrible history of the islands, but his positive philosophy, inspired by his religious faith, allowed him hope for these badly treated people:
There would be but little justice or wisdom in exaggerating the darkness of the past, in order to give the greater éclat to the dawn which appears to be rising over these colonies; or, in forgetting that, whether the chain of servitude galled the body of the slave to the degree which some will believe or not, there can be no dispute as to the abasing moral influence which its presence exercised, more or less, over every class of society in the countries where its existence has endured.70
La Trobe did not believe that the terrible past should hamper the advancement of a newly liberated people. This grim history would be forever a reminder of the gross inhumanity perpetrated on the former slaves:
It must never be forgotten what the Negro has been in these colonies. If he is considered by many to rank, in his natural state, low on the scale of human intellect, he has been certainly placed in circumstances to depress him yet lower.71
However, for La Trobe, education was the key to the future, and it was the right of these newly-liberated people, as British citizens, to grasp ‘the gift of education’, this key to the future.
La Trobe's mission in the British West Indies during his 17 months’ tour of duty on behalf of the Colonial Office was a highly significant one with wide ramifications, and his personal and family attributes contributed to the success of his task. The assiduous and organized way in which he approached the West Indian assignment exemplified his work pattern for the rest of his career. Perhaps these administrative abilities, so ably demonstrated in the West Indian reports, owe much to the observation of a man he greatly admired, Henry Ellsworth, a perceptive and conscientious documenter of Indian life and customs, with whom he had travelled in North America. Besides providing the required reports which set out exactly how
British capital was being spent on educational facilities, La Trobe's views on religion, race, class and education itself, as revealed in the reports, was perfectly in tune with the prevailing attitudes of the administrators to whom he reported. Lord Glenelg wrote of the Jamaica report as being ‘highly valuable’, saying that ‘it does credit to the talents and industry of its author'.72 This indicated his complete satisfaction with the way in which the data was reported, the attitudes expressed, and the reliability of La Trobe to recommend changes where they could be made, while still keeping to Government policies, and providing reports which proved the wisdom of those policies.
La Trobe's life was vastly altered by the events which occurred from 1835 to 1838. Firstly, he made the decision to marry, and then married an appropriate wife. Soon after, he secured paid employment which gave him the necessary foothold in the Colonial Office for notice by the decision-makers when it came to future work. Finally, he carried out his assignment in the West Indies in an exemplary fashion, the Colonial Secretary being so pleased with a job well done that La Trobe moved rapidly into a new position of far greater importance and responsibility.
In the West Indies, La Trobe reported on how funds allocated by the British government for educational facilities were being expended. However, not only did he do this thoroughly, he also provided the social background in his reports which allowed the Colonial Office to become aware of all the ramifications for the former slaves in trying, and being encouraged, to better their status. Most importantly, however, La Trobe, in his recommendations, provided a framework for future action on the part of government sponsorship in Britain, for the future care of the West Indian population.
It was the performance of this mission which brought him more prominently to government attention, and which led directly to his appointment as Superintendent of the Port Phillip District of New South Wales. The senior officers of the Colonial Office had an established pattern of selecting men of whom they had previous experience for postings to important colonies, men who had performed well, and on whom they felt they could rely to provide accurate, well documented and astute reports on the colonies in their care.73 It was therefore not untoward that, having acquitted himself well in the West Indies, and having gained useful practical experience of native peoples and of administration, La Trobe should have been offered the job of Superintendent.
La Trobe could have had little idea of what awaited him in his new assignment in the Port Phillip District of New South Wales. Searching questions of race relations, self-government and the cataclysmic impact of the gold discoveries lay ahead of him there. The momentous events of the next 15 years would change him totally from the youthful dilettante who, apart from one official appointment, had indulged his passion for rambling and suiting himself, to the care-worn Lieutenant-Governor who departed Australia in 1854.


Frederick John Robinson, 1st Earl of Ripon, Viscount Goderich of Nocton, (1782-1859) was Prime Minister of Great Britain for only six months from August 1827 to January 1828 when he was dismissed for incompetence. He held other positions of power in the Government, including Secretary for War and the Colonies. See Dictionary of National Biography, ed. Sidney Lee, London, Smith, Elder & Co., 1890.


La Trobe to Comtesse de Pourtalès, Berlin, 8 August 1834.




La Trobe to Comtesse de Pourtalès, 20 December 1835. Fonds Petitpierre, Archives de I'Etat, Neuchâtel.


The Rambler in Mexico had been published by Seeley and Burnside in London in 1836.


Charles Grant, Baron Glenelg (1778-1866), statesman and Colonial Secretary from 1835 to 1839 in Lord Melbourne's second ministry, had made a large fortune in his dealings with the East India Company. A prominent member of the Clapham Sect, it was he who introduced the parliamentary bill in 1833 which led to the abolition of West Indian slavery by the suppression of ‘apprenticeship’, a probationary period before freedom was granted. Reference: Dictionary of National Biography, vol. XXI, p. 381.


James Stephen (1789-1859), Permanent Under-Secretary of State for the Colonies, had a high reputation for his wide knowledge of constitutional law. His father was James Stephen, an ardent member of the Clapham Sect whose second wife was the sister of William Wilberforce and who had in 1826 written the thought-provoking pamphlet England Enslaved by Her Own Slave Colonies. James Stephen, the younger, was a devoted member of the Clapham Sect himself, and a decided administrator. It was said by his colleague in the civil service, Sir Henry Taylor, that for many years ‘he literally ruled the colonial empire'. Reference: Dictionary of National Biography, vol. LVI, pp. 162-63.


Henry L. Hall, The Colonial Office: A History, London, Longmans, Green, 1937, annotation to frontispiece.


Clapham Sect, a group of wealthy lay persons prominent in England, mostly Anglicans, William Wilberforce being their acknowledged leader. The group, which existed from 1790-1839, met at the home of John Venn, Rector of Clapham, other members including such committed opponents to slavery as John Newton, Hannah More, Henry Thornton, Zachary Macaulay, Charles Grant and James Stephen. Reference: Encyclopedia of World Biography, Detroit, Gale, 1998, p. 270. The Clapham Sect had a number of objectives, including prison reform, the prevention of cruel sports, and the suspension of the game laws and the lottery, but their principal aim was the abolition of the slave trade and an end to slavery. The Sect supported several missionary and Bible societies, publishing pamphlets and their own journal, The Christian Observer. Nicknamed ‘The Saints’, they were largely responsible for the end of slavery in the British Empire. Reference: Encyclopaedia Britannica, Chicago, Encyclopaedia Britannica Inc., 1997, vol. III, p. 344.


William Wilberforce (1759-1833), English politician, humanitarian and philanthropist, was first elected to the House of Commons in 1780. The Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade had been established in 1787, mostly by Quakers and had little public profile. In 1787, Wilberforce became the parliamentary spokesman for the Committee. He converted to evangelical Christianity in 1784-85, thereafter devoting himself to philanthropic causes, principally the abolition of the slave trade. Reference: Justin Wintle, Makers of Nineteenth Century Culture, 1804-1914, London, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1982, pp. 674-75.


Ibid, p. 674.


George Manington, The West Indies, London, Leonard Parsons, 1925, p. 223.


Jerome S. Handler and Frederick W. Lange, Plantation Slavery in Barbados, Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press, 1978, p. 178.


Great Britain, Colonial Office, Reports on Negro Education, Jamaica, 1837-38, House of Commons, XLVIII, 61ff., no. 113, p. 3.


La Trobe to Sophie La Trobe, 20 April 1837.


Ibid, p. 26. Il ne faut pas penser = It doesn't bear thinking about.


Ibid, p. 29.


La Trobe to Albert de Pourtalès, 26 April 1837.


Cyril Hamshere, The British in the Caribbean, London, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1972, p. 147.


Charles Joseph La Trobe, Reports on Negro Education, Jamaica, p. 3.


Ibid, p. 4.


La Trobe to Albert de Pourtalès, 17 April 1837.


Great Britain, Colonial Office, Reports on Negro Education: Negro Education, Jamaica, 19 October 1837, House of Commons, 1837-38, XLVIII, no. 113. Negro Education, Windward & Leeward Islands, 14 April 1838, House of Commons, 1837-38, XLVIII, no. 520. Negro Education, British Guiana & Trinidad, 14 August 1838, House of Commons, 1839, XXXIV, no. 35.


Manington, The West Indies, pp. 223-24.


MS 13003, Box 76/3 (a) & (b), ‘Private Journal of Matters and Memoranda connected with my Mission to visit the West Indies-1837'.


La Trobe, Reports on Negro Education, Jamaica, p. 4.


Manington, The West Indies, p. 275.


MS 13003, ‘Private Journal'.








La Trobe, Reports on Negro Education, Jamaica, p. 7.


Ibid, p. 14.


La Trobe, Reports on Negro Education, Windward and Leeward Islands, p. 3.


La Trobe, Reports on Negro Education, Jamaica, p. 15.


Ibid, p. 4.


La Trobe, Reports on Negro Education, Windward and Leeward Islands, p. 13.


La Trobe, Reports on Negro Education, British Guiana and Trinidad, p. 11.


Quoted in Richard S. Dunn, ‘The Slave Labor Pattern’, British Capitalism and Caribbean Slavery, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1987, p. 168.


La Trobe, Reports on Negro Education, British Guiana & Trinidad, p. 10.


La Trobe, Reports on Negro Education, Jamaica, dispatched from St. Thomas 19 October 1837, tabled 5 February 1838. Windward and Leeward Islands, dispatched from Bridge Tower, Barbados 14 April 1838, tabled 20 June 1838. British Guiana and Trinidad, completed on 14 August 1838 after La Trobe's return to London, tabled 14 February 1839.


‘C.J. La Trobe on Negro Education’, The Times, London, 20 October 1838, p. 7.


La Trobe, Reports on Negro Education, British Guiana and Trinidad, p. 7.


La Trobe, Reports on Negro Education, Jamaica, p. 10.


The Maroons were a class of Blacks, originally fugitive slaves, living in the mountains and forests of the West Indies.


La Trobe, Reports on Negro Education, Jamaica, p. 11.


Ibid, p. 12.




Ibid, p. 13.




Ibid, p. 14.




La Trobe, Reports on Negro Education, Windward and Leeward Islands, p. 14.


La Trobe, Reports on Negro Education, Jamaica, p. 14.


La Trobe, Reports on Negro Education, Windward & Leeward Islands, p. 14.


Ibid, p. 3.


Spring Garden estate was located about 144km from Kingston.


La Trobe, Reports on Negro Education, British Guiana and Trinidad, pp. 4-11.


La Trobe, Reports on Negro Education, Jamaica, pp. 4-5.


Ibid, p. 15.


Ibid, p. 4.


Ibid, p. 5.


C.J. La Trobe to Sophie La Trobe, 3 May 1837.


La Trobe, Reports on Negro Education, Windward and Leeward Islands, p. 9.




La Trobe, Reports on Negro Education, Jamaica, p. 14.


La Trobe, Reports on Negro Education, British Guiana and Trinidad, p. 9.


La Trobe, Reports on Negro Education, Jamaica, p. 11.


La Trobe, Reports on Negro Education, Windward and Leeward Islands, p. 9.


La Trobe, Reports on Negro Education, British Guiana and Trinidad, p. 6.


Ibid, p. 11.


Glenelg to Lieutenant-General Sir Lionel Smith, KCB, Governor of Jamaica, 15 January, 1838, Reports on Negro Education, Jamaica, p. 94. These reports have long provided a solitary reliable survey of education and of social conditions in the West Indies for the immediate post-slavery period, and are still highly regarded in Caribbean history circles.


It is interesting to note that this tradition continued throughout the nineteenth century, and three former West Indian Governors followed in La Trobe's footsteps in the role of Governor of Victoria, viz Sir Henry Barkly (1856-1863), Sir Charles Darling (1863-1866), and Charles Manners-Sutton, Viscount Canterbury (1866-1873).