‘Colonial Ambition’ by Peter Cochrane

2006, 511 p & notes.

As you might expect, I am fascinated by the 1830s and 1840s in Australia- that time when the penal colonies were emerging into something different-( but what? ) and new colonies driven by a mixture of philosophy, moral entrepreneurship,  political theory and capitalism were being brought into being- (and would it work? ).  But try as I might, I find it hard to get energized by the crown land acts and constitutional legislation.  Perhaps it’s those years in school going on about squatters, selectors, dummying and peacocking;  and all those men in top-hats and Legislative Councils and Legislative Assemblies.  The lived politics of the time only really came to life for me with Margaret Kiddle‘s Men of Yesterday (of which more anon, I think) which brought people back into the situation- and this is what Peter Cochrane has done in this book too.

In one of the blurbs on the back, John Hirst wrote that

This is not the usual political history; it’s more wide-ranging, more vivid, more alive with people, places and talk.

At first I thought this a rather prosaic endorsement, but having finished the book, Hirst is spot-on.  There are people here- strongly drawn, complex, real people who change over time, whose public life is interwoven with their private concerns and anxieties.  And what a cast:  the strange-looking, brilliant, waspish Robert Lowe; the wealthy, bombastic, driven Wentworth, stung by  social exclusion on the grounds of convict origin ;  the versatile, enthusiastic, financially-straitened toyshop owner Henry Parkes.   And there are places: the action is located onto the Sydney city map  in theatres, parade grounds, street corners and houses.  The sense of place is perhaps not quite as strong as in Grace Karsken’s The Colony, but it’s reminiscent, say, of Jeff and Jill Sparrow’s work on Radical Melbourne.  It’s a politics that spills out of Governors’ offices and Legislative Council chambers onto the streets and newsprint, placards and petitions. And talk- yes, there’s lots of talk as well in the bubbling cauldron of the newspaper editorial and the forceful oratory of the public address.

What comes over strongly in this book is the dilemma of liberal politics at this time.   “Democracy” at this time- and especially during the politically turbulent mid-1840s-  was a concept that dared not speak its name. Both liberals and conservatives drew on the trope of Britishness, and ancient British traditions and loyalties.  For the liberals in particular,  responsible government was a poisoned chalice if it was a means by which the existing elites could cement their political position indefinitely.  For conservatives, long-standing demands like a nominated upper house and lifetime nominations became just as toxic when it was a liberal government in ascendancy, cementing its own position indefinitely.  To draw on cliches: you leave the book aware that, somehow or other, a fork in the road had been negotiated and that there was an alternative road that had not been travelled.

The book weaves local and imperial politics together well.  The regular churning of Secretaries of State at the Colonial Office was matched by the instability of the early ministries in the years immediately following responsible government in Australia.  Cochrane alerts us to the wider political debates and issues that the Colonial Office was dealing with at the same time: the Durham Report in Canada and the gradual implementation of its recommendations; the political trickiness for the British Government of the Crimean War; the empire-wide horror at the Indian Mutiny.  In the speeches quoted from radicals, liberals and conservatives alike, we see orators cherry-picking from historical analogy, particularly drawing on the American War of Independence and Canadian history for examples.

The book captures change well.  An idea that might be greeted with horror in one decade is not so unthinkable in the next.  The empire changes: local politics change: people change.   Cochrane illustrates that all sides of politics needed to learn how to “do” politics: governors needed to learn how to withdraw; liberal politicians like Cowper needed to learn how to make space for negotiation;  conservative politics like Henry Parker needed to learn how to bring his own colleagues along with him.   Liberals, conservatives and governors alike had to learn how to handle the politics occurring “out of doors” in meetings and street protests; how to project decisiveness and yet temper it with a degree of responsiveness.

I learned a great deal from Cochrane’s intermeshing of personality, place and politics- and it’s something that I’d like to emulate in my own work.  The book was written for the Sesquicentenary of Responsible Government in New South Wales (hence the focus on Sydney) and could have suffered from a eye-glazing sense of  “worthiness” and hat-doffing to a small readership.  Instead, it won the inaugural Prime Minister’s Prize for History in 2007, along with Les Carlyon’s The Great War.    At over 500 pages, Colonial Ambition is a long book but it moved quickly.  It is a very human book, and this focus on personality, flaws, ambitions and emotions was well-sustained and only on rare occasions struck me as being perhaps a little too fervent in places.  The ending, while emotionally satisfying and well-crafted in terms of the structure of the book, was rather too  rounded-off for my taste, and is perhaps my main qualm about the book. Nonetheless, as throughout the book,  his final paragraphs returned us to a person, to encapsulate the long constitutional journey we had been on.

But I don’t want to end on such a snarky note.   Cochrane has opened my eyes to a different sort of writing, and he has breathed life into a topic that could be otherwise dry and unappealing.  It’s a damned good read.

8 responses to “‘Colonial Ambition’ by Peter Cochrane

  1. I bought this one for the TBR when it won something, Janine – a Premier’s prize maybe? I’m looking forward to reading it even more now – thanks for a good review:)

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