‘Connecting’ at the masterclass

Well, now I can tell you what happens at a masterclass!  There were about eighteen or so participants, drawn from universities across Australia, but the majority were from the University of Tasmania. The masterclass was hosted by Penny Edmonds from the University of Tasmania,  and several Uni of Tasmania academics attended including Anna Johnston (who wrote The Paper Wars which I reviewed here), Hamish Maxwell-Stewart and Kristyn Harman, whose book Aboriginal Convicts: Australian, Khoisan and Maori Exiles recently won the Kay Daniels award.

But the major drawcard, for me at least, was the presence of  Dr. Zoe Laidlaw, Reader in British Imperial and Colonial History at Royal Holloway, University of London.


She’s young, she’s Australian (with undergraduate degrees in mathematics and history from the University of Melbourne), she’s generous and approachable and she writes history that I like.   Her book, Colonial Connections, encapsulated and gave shape to things that I was detecting in my own work that I didn’t know how to use. Her book studied networking in the nineteenth century, and the way that military, professional, scientific, evangelical and settler networks were manipulated between and across metropole and periphery, most particularly in the Cape Colony and New South Wales.  It gave a name and a theoretical framework to the assiduous cultivation of patronage links that I had observed with Judge Willis and his judicial brethren, and made sense of those parcels of plants and ‘flying mice’ (surely of the sugar glider kind, rather than Mighty Mouse!) that Willis despatched to tenuously-linked correspondents back ‘home’.   I also heard her give a paper “Slavery, Bondage and Dispossession:Investigating Empire in Britain’s Age of Reform” four years ago at the University of Melbourne and you’ll find my response to that presentation here.  Her current work deals with Quakers, the Aborigines Protections Society and the early history of human rights.

In the opening session, she spoke of her own academic progress and the way that she was drawn to the networks that emerged from the often quotidian, day-to-day correspondence of settlers.  Her subsequent research was increasingly informed theoretically by the ‘spatial turn’ and the contribution of historical geographers, and the recognition of the potential of life stories to disrupt national and spatial boundaries.  She noted the wealth of quantitative administrative data that rests in both convict and slave bureaucratic archives, and the fleeting qualitative snippets left by people of little social capital that can be winnowed out from those same archives and other sources. To create textured accounts, we need to move beyond the archive, but this often requires  careful reading and an upfront but confident acknowledgment that sometimes we don’t know everything.

We then moved to the readings that had been assigned for the day.  We started with Zoe’s own 2012 article “Breaking Britannia’s Bounds? Law, Settlers and Space in Britain’s Imperial Historiography” which was a survey of recent historiographical approaches over the past ten years or so that juxtapose macro/micro, the exceptional and the quotidian, and cause us to rethink the categories of ‘settler’ and ‘colonizer’.   For me, it was a piece of writing very close to home- (good heavens- there’s my literature review!)- but affirming too.  While I was relieved to be able to do a mental tick-the-box that I’d read nearly all the works she discussed,  it did introduce a few new names to me, alerting me that perhaps there are things outside my tightly-defined sphere of analysis that I should at least be aware of.

The other two readings were applications of these methodologies.   Tracey Banivanua Mar’s “Imperial literacy and indigenous rights: Tracing transoceanic circuits of a modern discourse” linked three indigenous chiefs, and their protests against appropriation and colonization between 1838 and 1840.  One was Queen Pomare of Tahiti, who wrote many letters to her sister-queen, Queen Victoria;  another was Billibellary who induced his clanspeople to walk off the Narre Narre Warren station in the Port Phillip District, and the third was the gathering of Maori chiefs who walked out on treaty negotiations at Waitangi.  These acts, which were more than coincidental,  were she argues “the observable tip of a wider process under way within many indigenous communities in the late 1830s and early 1840s”.

Then we turned to a chapter in Clare Anderson’s Subaltern Lives: Biographies of Colonialism in the Indian Ocean World 1790-1920 that examined George Morgan, who had variously been described as ‘African’, ‘a black’ or ‘a Yankee’ when he was arrested in Calcutta.  Her analysis traversed the distinctions that were drawn by British law between Indian versus Eurasian and European convicts when they fell foul of the law and were sentenced to transportation.  I had no idea that there were separate transportation circuits, based on race.  In a wide-ranging chapter, she made a deeply insightful link with the ambiguity of George Morgan’s race and transportation experience with the ‘Jump Jim Crow’ performance that George Morgan performed on the streets of Calcutta.  The chapter was a bravura performance itself in writing imaginatively, confidently yet honestly from mere snippets of evidence.

After lunch, Kris Harman spoke about the writing of her book Aboriginal Convicts, which she developed for a general readership out of her Ph D thesis. I was particularly interested in the way she structured her book, especially as she explored three colonial settings (Australian, Cape Colony, and Aoteroa New Zealand), which she described as a ‘horizontal’ approach, but using ‘vertical themes’ which ran through each chapter (e.g. the impacts of colonization, the criminalization of resistance etc).  For someone still grappling with structure, I found this really useful.

Then finally, a session where we broke into groups to apply these methodological approaches of transnationalism (or transcolonialism in my case) to our own work by considering spatiality, boundaries, connections and lifestories.  This is probably the real strength of a masterclass based on a methodological ‘turn’ of any sort: its application as a frame of analysis by people working across a huge range of questions.  Even though you’re not at all familiar with the actual content of their work, you can see what they’re doing and how they are pulling on the same threads of analysis that you are.

Did I enjoy it? Absolutely.  I had been a bit concerned that perhaps I was attending too late in my own writing for it to be useful, but that’s not the case at all.   At the end of my first draft stage, at a point where I’m looking critically at structure and tightening up the argument, and I can see now where I can be more assertive about my own methodology and approach.  It was the right masterclass, at the right time, with the right people.

4 responses to “‘Connecting’ at the masterclass

  1. Thank you very much for writing about this Janine. I love Zoe Laidlaw’s work (and Alan Lester’s et al) and the spatial turn in history. My other major was in geography and I was able to link the work of the historians you mentioned with the research of geographers such as Jane M Jacobs, Doreen Massey etc.

    What an opportunity to participate in this master class! I really appreciate you writing about this.

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