Emotional Masculinity: Fear, Disgust and Sympathy in Colonial Australia

By Michelle Hilbrands (The University of Western Australia)

In colonial Western Australia, the emotions of fear, disgust and sympathy contributed to the creation of two distinct Australian colonial masculinities: the Australian bushman and the evangelical missionary. Focussing on two case studies, that of Revered John Gribble and of Gordon Broughton, I will look at the emotional construction of these two Australian archetypes and show how emotional theory can be used to understand masculine settler interactions with Indigenous Australians. The Evangelical missionary Rev. John Gribble publicly clashed with the pastoralist settler community over the treatment of Indigenous peoples in northern Western Australia in 1885–1886, particularly through his published pamphlet Dark Deeds in a Sunny Land. Within six months of his arrival, Gribble’s humanitarian sympathies had antagonised conservative pastoralist, church, and government segments of Western Australian society by alleging widespread Indigenous slavery and exploitation in the north. In contrast, in Gordon Broughton’s memoir Turn Again Home, Broughton focuses on his life as a white pastoral worker on the wild East Kimberly frontier in 1908, and depicts himself as a young man seeking adventure on wild frontiers. He finds work in the pastoral industry on Lissadell cattle station, 130 miles inland from Wyndham and witnesses the rawness and violence of colonial frontier expansion. These sources show the different emotional foundations of Broughton and Gribble’s performed masculinities, illustrating Broughton’s alignment with the dominant pastoral settler masculinity of the bushman stereotype compared to Gribble’s rejection of it. As Broughton realised on his first day in the Kimberley in 1908, “It came clear to me then the extent of this ‘bush masonry’ which in this wide and wild land of few white men bound all of them, rough and smooth together.”[1]

Men on horseback fording a river, possibly the Gascoyne, Carnarvon region, ca. 1906. Reproduced with the permission of the Library Board of Western Australia. State Library of Western Australia, image 5021B/1/10

Sara Ahmed’s theory of affective economies is particularly suited to colonial analysis, for she argues that objects do not create emotions, but it is the contact between subjects and objects that shape emotions, and this concept of ‘contact’ is fundamental to the study of colonialism.[2] Ahmed argues that ‘sticky’ historical narratives attach to objects (for example Indigenous bodies in a colonial context) so that a subject will make a conditioned affective judgment upon encountering an object, known as ‘affective learning.’[3] These emotionally conditioned responses influenced the ways in which settlers interacted with Indigenous people. In particular, the emotions of fear and disgust formed the basis of the affective judgments that created social norms for the bushman masculinity, contributing to their attitudes of superiority over and violence towards Indigenous peoples. Whereas the emotion of sympathy was predominant in humanitarian evangelical masculinity leading to behaviours focused on protection and assistance.

Fear was widespread on colonial Australian frontiers, arising from the threat of aggression from Indigenous populations. The consequence of this fear was the justification of repeated violence against the Indigenous ‘other’ to protect the colonial project.[4] This feared threat to white settlers’ lives framed colonisers as victims and justified the masculine role of settler violence towards Indigenous inhabitants. The ‘sticky’ narratives of fear that circulated in settler society created conditioned affective judgments. The creation and repetition of behaviours based on these affective judgments led to the establishment of social norms that defined the emotionally driven performances of masculinity: in this case, the justified violence against Indigenous people as a colonial tool of control. Broughton records an example of this affective learning in the case of a young Indigenous boy called Charcoal who was sent on an errand to take stock horses to another property. This, however, involved crossing his tribal boundaries which he was too afraid to do, and in fear, he abandoned his errand and returned to Lissadell station, hiding near a creek. Found later that day, Charcoal was savagely flogged in front of all the camp natives by Atkinson, the station manager. Atkinson spoke to Broughton over dinner after he had flogged Charcoal, saying,

You feel that you have witnessed a barbarism, but believe me, much as I hate this kind of thing, we white men have to be boss in this country or get out. That boy came home because he was too young not to be afraid once he crossed out of his tribal area. Jim should not have sent him, but he had to be punished, otherwise the whole black outfit here would have held me in contempt.[5]

Here, Atkinson is teaching Indigenous people that they should be more afraid of him than of the consequences of their tribal laws and customs.[6] This fear then sticks to other white settlers within the affective economy.

Another incident recorded by Broughton further exposes the role of fear in colonial encounters. Accompanied only by one Aboriginal stockman named Willy on a long overland trip, the uncertainty of Willy’s position in the company of a white man is illustrated when the pair ride past a settler camp where two white men and two ‘black boys’ were shoeing horses. One of the white settlers is embarrassed in front of Broughton after the horse he was shoeing kicked him. As a consequence, the settler lashed out violently at the Indigenous boy holding the horse’s head to regain his position of power:

Livid with rage [at being kicked by the horse] he rushed at the black boy, heavy shoeing hammer in hand. As the boy fled the man flung the hammer at him, striking him at the base of the skull. He fell like a stone, and lay still. Rushing over, the man gave the prostrate boy several violent kicks in the ribs. His mate, as rough a type as I had ever seen said, ‘Serve the thick-headed bastard right.’ Both men were armed and quite plainly drunk, and although feeling sick and horrified at what I had witnessed, I rode steadily on. Looking sideways at Willy, I saw his black face was a study in suppressed emotion, but all he said to me was, ‘Him bad bugger longa black fella – that one “Dago” Peter. One day, black fella he kill ‘im. He belonga Broome: one time pleeceman chase ‘im out. He killum boy longa pearl boat.’[7]

This extract shows how settler law overlooked violence against Indigenous people and also the emotional work that Indigenous people had to undertake in learning how to behave in relation to that continued threat of violence, demonstrating how emotions are integral in creating and maintaining social norms. This reflects Ahmed’s stance that there is “nothing more dangerous to a body than the social agreement that that body is dangerous.[8] Those who are seen as dangerous must change their bodies in order to not appear dangerous. Willy can only assume that Broughton sees his body as a dangerous object because if he does not, and he behaves unacceptably towards a white settler, he is in mortal danger, as the above example shows.

Disgust is an emotion of superiority, directed at objects deemed to be inferior, as well as fear of contamination linked to the concept of proximity.[9] In the emotional work of disgust, the mobility of objects deemed to be disgusting are restricted and there are efforts to expel them from ‘respectable’ social spaces to prevent ‘contamination’.[10] An example of an emotional narrative of disgust that was ‘stuck’ to the Indigenous body was documented by Rev. Gribble upon his arrival in the north-west. He related a story he heard at Port Gascoyne that ‘half-caste’ children were killed and eaten by the natives, a story that was later confirmed to him by the Constable at Junction Police Station.[11] Such narratives attributed the emotion of disgust toward Indigenous people before an encounter occurred, conditioning the affective judgments of settlers. Ahmed’s ‘loop of performativity’ illustrates the performance of emotions, and in the case of disgust, when a subject reads an ‘other’ as disgusting, the subject is filled with disgust confirming the truth of the subject’s own reading. This demonstrates the self-determining role played by disgust in contributing to the dehumanisation of black bodies by settlers (particularly when accompanied by sticky narratives of racial inferiority) that contributed to the conscionable violence perpetrated repeatedly against them. Disgust compels subjects to ‘pull away’ from objects.[12] Therefore, where fear and disgust combine, they operate to define and defend the borders of colonial bushman masculinity and in the performance of these emotions we see the dehumanisation of and violence towards Indigenous people.

Image of title page of John Gribble’s Dark Deeds in a Sunny Land (Perth: Daily News, 1905).

Turning to humanitarian sympathy, the emotion of sympathy moves subjects towards objects, often through practices of ‘civilising’, protecting, and assisting. The affective judgments of missionaries upon contact with Indigenous bodies were shaped by ‘sticky’ narratives of humanitarianism based on Christian values of human equality, the conversion and salvation of heathens and the success of the abolition movement. In Australia’s north-west, social tensions were evident in the opposing settler constructions of the object of the black body. During his first expedition into the north-west interior, Rev. Gribble records an instance where this tension is visible. At the Junction Police station he found,

several unfortunate natives chained like so many dogs to each other round the neck, and then the main chain connecting with a tree…They were quite nude, yet…when driven into the cell at night there was nothing in the shape of a blanket and they were chained and fettered just in the same way as in the open air. If I ever pitied poor creatures in my life I did these unfortunates.[13]

The chained Indigenous men had not been found guilty of a crime, and the performance of the emotional responses of the two settler subjects demonstrates how alternative white masculinities can make different affective judgments about the condition of the Indigenous prisoners. The dominant pastoralist settler judgment of the constable reflected the belief in the justice and necessity of the treatment, while the humanitarian judgment of Gribble felt pity at their treatment. Pastoralists often portrayed humanitarian sympathy as misguided, naïve and a dangerous interference, as with Gribble being portrayed as interfering with ‘their natives’.[14] We can see in the interactions between missionaries and bushmen the social tensions that arose from the different narratives that had been ‘stuck’ to the Indigenous body in colonial Australia, manifesting in tensions between the opposing needs to protect and save or to exploit and destroy Indigenous bodies. By the late nineteenth century, racialized evolutionary theory dominated this discourse resulting in settler ideologies of racial hierarchy overshadowing humanitarian concepts of equality and protection.[15]

Barbara Rosenwein’s emotional communities can be interwoven with Ahmed’s affective economies as both theories are defined in relation to contact with others. Our emotional relationship with others determines which emotional communities we engage with, so emotional communities are shaped by the affective judgments made within affective economies. The historical emotional narratives that ‘stick’ affects to objects are often taught as established values of particular emotional communities, and where these communities are dominant, they become social norms. Both masculinities discussed here are defined by the colonial social norm of the implicit superiority of the white man. The bushman is superior in his reason and civilisation and the missionary is superior in his moral and ethical position in the quest for salvation.

The boundaries of emotional communities are most vividly defined when they are challenged. When the bushman and the missionary emotional communities made contact, as seen in Gribble’s arrival in Australia’s north-west, the conflicting values of each community were illuminated by the public outcry and outrage over what was considered the appropriate treatment of Indigenous people. Through Gribble’s staunch refusal to align with the dominant pastoral emotional community he created an irreconcilable social tension and in his own words, within his first three months in the Gascoyne he, “got the whole district against (him).”[16] Broughton succinctly sums up the pastoralist emotional community’s values regarding the social place of Indigenous people:

The basic philosophy of men living in the Kimberley was that the cattlemen had battled their way into this empty land with great hardship and high cost in lives and money; that they were there to stay, and if the wild blacks got in the way, or in other words speared men and killed and harassed cattle, they would be relentlessly shot down. It was as simple and brutal as that.[17]

Throughout Broughton’s memoirs we see evidence of the ‘conspiracy of silence’ that was key to the colonial conquest of the Kimberley.[18] The violence perpetrated may have been illegal, but it was condoned by settlers and legal authorities as necessary in settling and exploiting the land. As Broughton notes, “native life was held cheap, and a freemasonry of silence among the white men, including often the bush police, helped keep it that way … up in the North men kept their mouths shut.”[19]

Gribble’s actions, in attempting to protect the Indigenous people of the region (albeit in a Christian colonial context), demonstrated his participation in the secure emotional community of Exeter Hall humanitarianism and the transnational evangelical network. His performed masculinity was framed in terms of muscular Christianity and his efforts to ‘save’ the native population created social tensions that culminated in his expulsion from the colony. It was his strong connection to the humanitarian emotional community that allowed him to publicly hold firm to his sympathetic opinions against the pastoral emotional norm of silence even in the face of persecution. His clashes with the pastoralists show the boundaries of the values held by each community, and the extreme behaviours of settlers towards him show the intensity of these differences. Through the performance of the emotions of fear, disgust and sympathy, we can identify causes of masculine performances of violence, superiority and assistance in colonial Australia and the contribution of these emotions to social norms practiced by specific colonial emotional communities.


[1] Gordon Broughton, Turn Again Home, (Brisbane: Jacaranda Press, 1965), p. 37.

[2] Sara Ahmed, Cultural Politics of Emotion, Second edn. (Edinburgh Oxon: Routledge, 2014), p. 8.

[3] Ahmed, Cultural Politics of Emotion, pp. 54, 92, 215.

[4] Ahmed, Cultural Politics of Emotion, p. 47.

[5] Broughton, Turn Again Home, p. 71.

[6] See Ahmed’s discussion on fear used as a tool of control as the ‘intensification of threats’ towards an object. Fear is used to control the behaviours of those who are ‘under threat’ by those who ‘threaten.’ Culture of Politics, p. 72.

[7] Broughton, Turn Again Home, p. 96.

[8] Ahmed, Cultural Politics of Emotion, pp. 211, 212. Emphasis mine.

[9] Ahmed, Cultural Politics of Emotion, p. 83.

[10] Ali Bilgiç, ‘Migrant encounters with neo-colonial masculinity: producing European sovereignty through emotions’, International Feminist Journal of Politics 20.4 (2018): 545, 554–55. Bilgiç discusses Patrick Wolfe’s concept of racialisation as a response when colonisers are threatened with sharing social space with the bodies of the colonised.

[11] John Gribble, Dark Deeds in a Sunny Land, (Perth: Daily News, 1905), p. 9.

[12] Ahmed, Cultural Politics of Emotion, pp. 83, 85.

[13] Gribble, Dark Deeds, p. 8.

[14] Alan Lester, ‘Colonial Settlers and the Metropole: Racial discourse in the early 19th century Cape Colony, Australia and New Zealand’, Landscape Research 27.1 (2002): 44; Chris Owen, ‘“An Excess of Humanity?” The Kimberley District and Section 70 of the Western Australian Constitution’, Studies in Western Australian History 30 (2016): 77.

[15] Lester,  45.

[16] Gribble, Dark Deeds, p. 11.

[17] Broughton, Turn Again Home, p. 53.

[18] Owen, , 79, 80, 86, 89.

[19] Broughton, Turn Again Home, p. 53.


Michelle Hilbrands completed her Honours in History in 2021 at The University of Western Australia, with a dissertation titled ‘Settler Attitudes Towards Indigenous Incarceration: From the Pilbara to Wadjemup, 1867–1902’.

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