1844-1887 | Queensland | Campaigning journalist
Feilberg was colonial Queensland’s most outstanding advocate for indigenous Australians when most of his peers were indifferent or hostile. His opening paragraph in a campaign in The Queenslander in 1880 stated: “This, in plain language, is how we deal with aborigines; …(they) are treated exactly in the same way as the wild beasts or birds the settlers may find there…their goods are taken, their children forcibly stolen, their women carried away…”. Historian Henry Reynolds describes Feilberg’s pamphlet “The Way We Civilise” as “one of the most influential political tracts in Australian history.” It was a significant factor behind the British Prime Minister William Gladstone’s move to annul Queensland’s unilateral annexation of New Guinea in July 1883.
Indigenous human rights definitely played strongly on Carl Feilberg’s mind and heart, yet he was never a single-issue campaigner. Obituaries depicted him as a controversial yet highly respected and multifaceted Australian journalist, but none dared say that he had been one of the nation’s most powerful human rights campaigners.
The Australasian reported that there was “hardly a newspaper of note in the Southern hemisphere for which he has not written”. The Sydney Daily Telegraph described him as “a writer of singular versatility”. There “was scarcely any department of newspaper literature in which he had not made a brilliant mark.” He was a “red-blooded man…animated by strong feelings” and “characterised by the most plain-spoken directness…the outward expression of the … manly independence of his nature.”
The Bulletin in Sydney said he was a secular-minded, “undogmatic”, “agnostic” individual who rejected miracles, religion and clergy. He was certainly, the Brisbane Evening Observer noted, “one of the most voluminous and valued of Australian writers, having The Australasian and Vanity Fair always open to him”.
The Brisbane Evening Observer said there “were few men in” Queensland, “more bitterly hated by political and social opponents, yet… no man more beloved by those whose privilege it was to know him intimately.” Several obituaries described him as compassionate towards his fellow man. He “never saw distress without wishing to relieve it” one stated, another, that “human sympathy was never wanting.”
Certainly, no other 19th century Queensland journalist ever received this level of strongly worded continent-wide attention. Carl Feilberg was highly controversial and “well known outside of Queensland”, as The Argus in Melbourne noted.
Generally, all memorials and obituaries reflected an attitude of “don’t mention the war” when it came to his campaigning for indigenous people. Carl Feilberg epitomised the steadily growing national amnesia on the issue of the wars on the colonial frontier, which eventually came to engulf Australia. His name was obliterated from public and historical memory within a decade to gradually re-emerge more than a century later.
Feilberg was born in Denmark. His father was from a well-known middleclass family in Copenhagen and his mother from a slave-owning Danish West Indian planter family. Orphaned at an early age, Feilberg lived in foster care with a Danish aunt and uncle in Scotland. He entered a British boarding school and finished his education at a college in France.
He was working for London based Lloyds shipping insurance agency when he was struck down by an aggressive form of tuberculosis. He arrived “down under” in 1867, aged 23 and in a dying state. Serving as jack-of-all trades on newly- formed stations on the frontier, he gradually recovered the use of one lung. This was in the outer Barcoo, later proudly depicted in poems such as “A Bush Christening” and “Waltzing Matilda” by the national bard ‘Banjo’ Patterson.
Carl Feilberg adopted Australia with the love and gratitude of a man who had regained, in his own words, his “right to live”. He began his rapid rise to fame as a political commentator from 1871 and was an early environmentalist, a man of moderate liberal observation advocating republican federalism and national security and always on the side of the underdog.
He appealed for an inclusive attitude towards Aboriginal people. Few colleagues shared his views, but they admired his powerful use of language, his fearlessness and the personal integrity he put on display during two prolonged newspaper campaigns for indigenous rights. The first he conducted as editor of the Queensland Patriot in 1878, in defiance of the wishes of an angry Queensland premier and other co-proprietors. Two years later he was allowed to run the The Way We Civilise campaign in the weekly Queenslander.
All efforts came to grief and the personal cost was considerable. He was forced from his editorship of The Queenslander in late December 1880 and ultimately accepted, as a form of political exile, the offer of a job as a sub-editor on The Argus in Melbourne.
The change in climate, however, had a devastating effect on his health. Within a year he caught pneumonia and his life expectancy was considerably shortened by the irreversible relapse of his tuberculosis.
Yet he kept fighting. In a letter in reply to Sir Arthur Gordon, a close confidant to British Prime Minister Gladstone, dated Melbourne “23rd September 1882”, Feilberg offered that Gordon could make use of his name “as you think proper”, if only the British Government would try to pressure Queensland to bring an end to its frontier policy. Yet this last move too was in vain.
In April 1883 Queensland panicked in light of the unexpected visit of a small fleet of German naval vessels and began to unilaterally annex New Guinea for the British Empire. Gladstone’s response appeared in May in a letter to Lord Derby, his secretary for the colonies. He was determined, he wrote, referring to The Way We Civilise, “utterly to quash the annexation” as Queensland was both “untrustworthy as well as unauthorized”. He would reconsider this matter only if “the Australian colonies would combine into some kind of political union”.
The annexation was annulled in early July. This caused the outraged Australian colonies to call an “Intercolonial Convention” in Sydney in November where the first step towards federation was taken in the form of a “Federal Council.”
Feilberg wrote a series of editorials for the Melbourne Argus and later for the Brisbane Courier, London Times and others, arguing that New Guinea should be made a British protectorate. Allowing it to be colonised by some possible future enemy power would pose an unnecessary future security risk to Australia, he said.
In late 1880 and in light of his health problems, influential Queensland friends stepped in ensuring his return to Queensland as editor-in-chief of the Brisbane Courier. His days remained numbered, however, and he died four years later at the early age of 43.
There has hardly been a TV-documentary or book on colonial Australian race relations over the last 70 years that does not cite either Feilberg’s until now anonymous articles or the revealing response of his opponents.
The eulogy authored and read at his funeral by the poet Francis Adams thus comes across as rather prophetic: “Not with sorrow only do we think of this man, but with the love for what he was, and with the pride for what he did, that rob death of its victory and make him that was brought low as one that is raised up.
Robert Ørsted-Jensen is a political historian. He received his M.Soc.Sc. in history and political science at University of Roskilde in Denmark and is a PhD from University of Queensland’s School of Political Science & International Studies.
Portrait of Carl Feilberg, 1872.
Click on the image to view 'The way we civilise', a pamphlet collating his articles from the Queenslander. Digitised by National Library of Australia.
The Courier/Queenslander editorial office in George Street Brisbane, 1879-80. The figure with the umbrella is likely Carl Feilberg, the editor of the Queenslander. Courtesy of State Library of Queensland.
This Whispering in Our Hearts, Henry Reynolds, Allan &Unwin, 1998, Chapter VI.
Frontier History Revisited – Colonial Queensland and the ‘History War’, Robert Ørsted-Jensen, Lux Mundi, 2011.
The Way We Civilise, Carl Feilberg, National Library of Australia item Np 301.291749915 W357, 1880.