Daily Archives: January 24, 2017

‘Illicit Love: Interracial Sex & Marriage in the United States & Australia’ by Ann McGrath


2015, 393 p & notes

Someone talking about this book recently described it as “the book that Ann McGrath has been writing all her life”. They were not being facetious or unkind.  Instead, I think that they were paying recognition to the fact that this book, coming relatively late in her career, completes the circle that she began to draw in her first book Born in the Cattle published from her PhD in 1987.  In that first book she focussed on Indigenous people who lived on the cattle stations outback in the late nineteenth and first half of the 20th century. She argued that  being ‘born in the cattle’ [country] meant that they could exert agency by maintaining their connection with the land and ceremony.  She does not resile from the fact that there was dispossession, financial exploitation and rape, but emphasizes there were loving and joyful relationships too.

It is a similar tightrope argument that she mounts here in Illicit Love too: that love and intermarriage between colonizer and Indigenous individuals are a hidden plot line in settler sovereignty.  Such relationships (and she’s talking about long-term relationships here, not casual or coerced sex) confounded the quick clear-cut sense of completion that colonization aspired to,  characterized by a rapid process of battle, victory and with the   colonizer-led nation finally despatching the eventual ‘last’ of the tribe. Instead

When a man and a woman married across colonizing boundaries, they broke one law or another. Even if their union was not against any official colonizer or Indigenous law, it pitched against family and community wishes. It was inherently transnational.  Illicit lovers began to absorb the worlds in which they lived, and to create, and make worlds anew.  In so doing , they challenged the vision of what the nation would be. (p. 1)

My eye snagged a little on the phrase “inherently transnational” on this first page of the book. ‘Transnational’ in historical methodological terms in recent work generally refers to the  movement of people and ideas across networks and oceans. It usually refers to trans-continental exchange.  In this book, however, the frame of her analysis is colonization as experienced by two different indigenous groups on two different continents:  the Cherokee nation between 1810-1840s and the several nations inhabiting the North Queensland coastline between 1900-1930. Her attention is directed to the “colonizing transnational” i.e. the intersections, relations and links between colonizer nations and First Nations (p.6) in each of these two sites.  These are nations within the same continent, where the colonizing nation struggled to frame the indigenous people as ‘foreigners’ because they were already there.  The stories she draws from these two sites do not necessarily function as comparative case studies but

Instead, in order to apply a strategy of juxtaposition, I put together and tease out a selection of emblematic narratives…The aim is to explore and delve into stories that were worlds apart, with the expectation that each will unsettle the other.  Rather than attempting a comparative or survey approach, I looked for eye-opening exemplars of what happened between peoples and polities in different times and places.  My aim is to engage with the vitality of the micro- the courtship and marital experiences of particular people in discrete times and places.  (p. 5)

She starts, as many historians do, in the archive, waiting with a Native American scholar for the delivery of a file. Inside the file is a flower pressing- a spray of fine twigs and a bud tied with string. The accompanying note read: “Presented to Mrs Mary B. Ross by Mrs Madison the widow of Ex President Madison”.  She returns to this vignette of the pressed flowers, and its meaning, later in the book. Continue reading