‘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.

The two chapters in Part I ‘Secrets of New Nations’ contain two juxtaposed stories: the first set in New England, Connecticut in 1825 and the second in the Yarrabah Mission in North Queensland during the 1930s.  In both cases, a long-term sexual relationship opens up, that to varying degrees lays open fissures in both communities.  In the first chapter, young Harriet Gold marries Elias Boudinot IV, a young  student of the Congregational Church’s Foreign Mission School, (even though the Cherokees were anything but ‘foreign’) who adopted the name of his mentor, white philanthropist Elias Boudinot IV. Her parents reluctantly agreed, but her brother-in-law remained vehemently opposed to the wedding.  In the second chapter, we examine Ernest Gribble, the son of the white missionary co-founder of the Yarrabah Mission  who saw marriage between indigenous couples as a way of saving “the Aboriginal race” from total obliteration.   In spite of Gribble’s vigorous promotion of church marriage, wedding dresses, cake and photographs, these weddings were often ‘wrong way’ because they violated complex Indigenous kinship relationships.  From Gribble’s point of view, however, the ‘wrong’ weddings were those where the bride was already pregnant. These couples would be given a rapid and private ‘ragtime wedding’ with their heads shaved and dressed in hessian sacking, before the young girl would be shipped off to another mission to give birth. And even more ‘wrong’ were the relationships that the Gribble family and his assistants contracted. In the midst of this concentration on weddings, Gribble’s own “fall” comes to seem almost inevitable.

Part II ‘Marriage and Modernity among the Cherokees’ focuses on the Cherokee Nation. Chapter 3 ‘Socrates, Cherokee Sovereignty and the Regulation of White Men’ starts with a newspaper article in the Cherokee Phoenix of 1828, penned by an anonymous ‘Socrates’ warning that the interests of individuals sometimes had to be surrendered to the interests and existence of the nation. This did not, however, stop Cherokee men from marrying into colonizer families as seen in Chapter 4 ‘John Ross and Mary Bryan Stapler’.  Here we return to the wedding bouquet preserved in the archives and described in the opening pages.Cherokee Chief John Ross  married Mary Bryan Stapler, the daughter of committed European Quakers, twenty years his junior. Mary in effect became First Lady- hence the significance of the bouquet of flowers from Dolley Madison, widow First Lady to another First Lady.   This chapter is based on a careful and nuanced reading of the courting correspondence of Chief John Ross and Mary Bryan Stapler, an archive that he particularly asked Mary to keep for posterity.

Part III examines ‘Queensland’s Marital Middle Ground’.  Chapter 5 ‘Husbands Under Surveillance’ traces through the legislative attempts to curb intermarriage between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people in Queensland. Chapter 6 ‘Consent and Aboriginal Wives’ explores the question of consent. Settler discourse often depicted Indigenous women as being the pawns of either their husbands or degraded white man, but McGrath suggests that an Aboriginal woman’s understanding of what she was consenting to different dramatically from that of the colonizer.  A European male newcomer in a relationship with an Aboriginal woman fell under an Indigenous system of authority, law and obligation (as we saw in Maynard and Haskin’s Living with the Locals [review here].) Aboriginal women often had two husbands- one Indigenous and the other colonizer, Pacific Islander or Asian- with the colonizer husband offering some protection from being despatched to a mission under the Aboriginals Protection Act. The maintenance of a colonizer husband allowed an Aboriginal woman to bring food and goods to her indigenous family nearby.

Part IV ‘Embodying New Worlds’ brings the Cherokee and North Queensland tribal nations into the same analytic frame. Chapter 7 ‘Polygamy’s New Worlds’ notes that “If monogamy was the building block of modern nations, polygamy was the crack in its walls.” (p 325)  The practice of polygamy was a controversial and hidden aspect of the colonization frontier. Missionaries decried it as ‘primitive’, and Mormonism on the American frontier posed a particular challenge to this view.  The Cherokee, wanting to prove themselves as a modern nation and wanting to stop white colonizers from taking multiple wives (and their inheritances) were keen to prevent polygamy, but were mindful that their old chiefs had multiple wives under the old customs.  As a result, they did not outlaw it as such, but spoke out against it and charged white men who married multiple wives.  On the other hand,  Australian families, as Patricia Grimshaw has noted, were ‘born modern’ under convict settlement, with many leaving wives back in England and the disruption of extended family and village ties. On arrival, however, they met Indigenous societies premised on webs of kinship, where ‘wrong way’ marriage was one of the most serious offences.  White men often failed to understand or comply with strict Indigenous betrothal or temporary-wife arrangements through either ignorance or a sense of entitlement. However, few pastoralists saw themselves as having two ‘marriages’, even though they were happy to brag about their conquests among other men.

In Chapter 8 ‘Entwined Sovereignties and the Great Unwedding’ is probably the most abstract of the chapters in the book, lifting its gaze from individuals to the state, instead.  It traces the removal of the Cherokee to the Indian Territories, a model which Australian politicians looked to with their post-Federation Aboriginal policy.  Forced emigration and forced removals had a more profound on marital negotiation than restrictive marriage legislation could ever hope to have.  The question then shifted to one of legitimacy: legitimacy as an Indigenous person; legitimacy as a member of a family; legitimacy of identity as a member of a discrete Aboriginal nation under the policy of gathering tribes onto one mission.

The epilogue takes up the stories of the couples that we have met along the way: Ernest Gribble, Harriet Gold and Chief John Ross.  Cherokee history is uncharted water for me, and so I was actually rocked by the ‘what happened afterwards’ with some of these stories, although a spoiler earlier in the book highlighted the difficulty for a historian in keeping a chronological and causal account and the telling of a good story with the narrative arc of climax and denouement.

The telling of this history is important. Ann McGrath, with her co-author Ann Curthoys, wrote a generalist book How to Write History that People Want to Read (see my review here) . At the time I thought that it was a risky title to choose or accede to (knowing that publishers often choose the title) given that both authors are working historians who no doubt hope that readers continue to want to read their books!  But there is no cause for concern here: this is a beautifully written book.  Her chapters generally start with a very human story, hooking in the reader, and the interconnections between the chapters underscore the careful construction of this double-barrelled argument. There is sufficient scaffolding to support the understanding of a North American or Australian reader who, while familiar with one strand of the story, may be largely unfamiliar with the other.  She notes the construction of the archives that she deals with, and ‘reads’ silences as well as words.   Her epilogue sates our human and narrative desire to know ‘what happened next’. One thing that I really liked about the book is the symmetry of her chapter structure, both in its architecture and content.  The four sections had two chapters each, and equal weight was placed on both the North American and Australian components.  I hadn’t realized, until I saw it in this book, how much I like structural symmetry.

I agree this is a book that Ann McGrath has been writing all her life, and it is also a book whose time has come.  It is unashamedly a book of the emotions, published at a time when History of the Emotions is, perhaps, the new ‘turn’. Is its argument too optimistic?  I think that she’s very much aware that this criticism could be mounted of her work, and she is careful to acknowledge that, in multiple places.  Nonetheless, reading this book in tandem with Liz Conor’s Skin Deep (review here) would be a valuable exercise.

This is a historian’s book, with excellent footnotes and references, and a robust engagement with methodological and theoretical arguments.  The historians she references are named by name (instead of the weaselly and disrespectful ‘some historians’).  At the same time the emphasis on individuals, who she presents as full-bodied and real characters, engages a more general reader.  McGrath has, as she probably hoped, written a History That People would Want to Read, and one which unsettles and challenges easy assumptions.

My rating: 9/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

This is my first review for the Australian Women Writer’s Challenge for 2017.


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

  1. A really interesting post. I’m not qualified to comment, but I would like to suggest re the Cherokee husbands you mention here, the great majority of inter racial marriages in Australia surely involved Aboriginal women (though Ernestine Hill does mention meeting one white woman living happily married in a traditional Aboriginal community).

    • Yes, you’re right that the Australian examples involved European men with Indigenous women, and the American examples were the opposite. In Maynard and Haskins book ‘Living With the Locals’ there were mainly European Men/Indigenous Women too, with one exception (I don’t count Eliza Frazer).

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