Category Archives: Settler colonialism

‘British Colonial Policy in the Age of Peel and Russell’ by W.P. Morrell

First edition 1930; reprinted 1966, 554 p.

When you change the government, you change the country” Paul Keating once said.  You mightn’t detect it from the title, but this book is not only about colonial policy but also about the ramifications of a change of government on an issue of such importance to 19th British politics and imperial identity.

You’ve got to hand it to the historians of the 1930s when they chose their titles- there’s no tricksy double-barrelled postmodern titles with colons and parentheses here.  What you’re promised is what you get- British colonial policy under the conservative Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel (1841-1846) , and then under the Whig Prime Minister Lord John Russell (1846-1852).  There is some slight blurring of the lines though because the cabinet responsibility for the colonies rested with the Secretary of State for War and the Colonies, rather than the Prime Minister .  Although the Secretary of State  position was a bit of a revolving door during the 1830s with Secretaries coming and going in quick succession,it was more stable under the Peel and Russell administrations.  Lord Stanley acted as Secretary of State for nearly all of Peel’s time as Prime Minister, and Earl Grey was Russell’s Secretary of State for nearly the whole Russell government as well.  So the title could just as easily have been ‘British Colonial Policy in the Age of Stanley and Grey’, although of course the Prime Ministers held the ultimate authority.  Then of course, there was the Under-Secretary of State in the Colonial Office, Sir James Stephen, the civil servant who worked behind the scenes during both administrations.  Perhaps the title could expand to encompass Peel, Russell, Stanley, Grey and Stephen- but try fitting that onto the spine of the book!

Morrell identifies two main lobby groups who also exerted pressure on colonial policy. The humanitarians are well known because of  their influence on indigenous policy, and their anti-slavery and later anti-transportation activities. But the second lobby group, the Wakefieldians or the ‘Colonial Reformers’,  is less visible, and probably less appealing to 21st century activists.  Their systematic colonization cause is tied up with land policy, immigration and labour supply, and their intermixing of commercial and altruistic motivations is problematic for us today.  Their figurehead, Edward Gibbon Wakefield, was controversial and enigmatic then and now.  He had particular influence over a string of British politicians, including Earl Grey, Goderich, Molesworth, Gladstone and Lord Stanley, and because of their positions at the heart of the colonial debate in both conservative and Whig governments, his ideas were promulgated throughout the empire and especially in South Australia and New Zealand.

Structurally, the book is divided into two parts: Peel and Russell.  Within each part  there are chapters  devoted to a single colony- New Zealand, Australia, North America, South Africa, the Sugar Colonies, interspersed with more general chapters dealing with economic policy and transportation. Reflecting the author’s admiration for Earl Grey, the book closes with one chapter on his relationship with the Colonial Reformers and another on Grey’s place in imperial history.

Both Peel’s and Russell’s  administrations were united by a bipartisan acceptance of free trade economic policy, and this thread runs throughout the book.  It was a striking feature of the Peel administration, and it continued during Russell’s time as well.  So was Paul Keating right about a change of government changing the country? Yes, in that Peel’s administration strongly resisted self-government for the colonies and generally took the side of the plantation owners in the sugar colonies, and the Loyalists in Upper Canada.  Russell’s administration, on the other hand, was receptive to Wakefieldian ideas and amenable to discussions of representative and then responsible government,  even though Wakefield and the Colonial Reformers later turned against Earl Grey who had been their great hope as a fellow Colonial Reformer.  The analysis of colonial policy under the two administrations is a nuanced one that recognizes continuity but also detects difference, even if it is a matter of degree rather than stark contrast.

William Parker Morrell was a New Zealand historian, and he died in 1986. I sometimes wish that it was possible to take a book written many decades earlier- (and remember that this book was written in the 1930s) – and using the same structure and question, revisit it again in the light of more recent scholarship and interests.  Not rewrite the original, mind you, but just to look again from a different perspective, to see what has changed and what parts have taken on even more significance.

‘The Paper War’ by Anna Johnston

Anna Johnston The Paper War: Morality, Print Culture, and Power in Colonial New South Wales,  Crawley Western Australia,  The University of Western Australia Press, 2011.226 p. Plus notes

Now that my thoughts are actually turning to writing my big baggy monster of a thesis (stifle those snorts of laughter, please) I’m finding myself conscious of the way other writers are treading the tenuous line between ‘straight’ biography and something that’s not quite biography.  The Paper War by Anna Johnston is one such book.  Her focus is on Lancelot Threlkeld, the NSW missionary, and the texts he generated  by and about  his colonial experience. But it’s not a biography of Threlkeld as such, and the author is at pains to reinforce this distinction.  Her work is not history, or biography, but a literary/cultural study which

examines the archive as a set of writing and reading practices, seeking to make different meanings than a historian might.  The Paper War retells stories found in archives as well as revealing modes of construction, in order to create new narratives. It foregrounds the complexity (perhaps the impossibility) of efforts to establish coherent, credible narratives from partial sources  (p.4).

This means that, as well as looking at the content of a particular source, she also asks about the source itself : how did this document/series of documents come to be created?  What are the institutional structures, and individuals within those structures, that created them? Can we rely on these texts as stable and authoritative guides to the past? (p.4)   She is insistent on maintaining this emphasis on text as a mediated material when her reader’s attention might drift into the biographical corridors of  chronology and lifestory instead.

Her book focuses on the writings by and about Lancelot Threlkeld, the missionary in charge of the Lake Macquarie Aboriginal Mission in New South Wales in the 1820s, a man rather unkindly described as one of the “perpetual blisters” that the London Missionary Society (LMS)  seemed “destined to carry”.  He certainly seemed a rather pugnacious and belligerent character as a missionary and his writings to attack his adversaries and defend his own position generated what could well be described as a “paper war’.  As is often the case, his own irascibility was  in response to, and elicited, similar traits in his main clerical adversaries: the equally combative  Rev. Samuel Marsden and the protestant cleric John Dunmore Lang.  What a combination!  I’m particularly interested in this combustible 19th century character type, because our own Judge Willis himself exhibited many of the same traits.

Surrounding the Threlkeld/Marsden/Lang sparring ring were representatives of the broader 19th century  humanitarian network.  Daniel Tyerman and George Bennet were missionary agents charged with overseeing Threlkeld’s establishment of the mission at Lake Macquarie under the auspices of the London Missionary Society and thus his immediate supervisors.  James Backhouse and George Washington Walker were peripatetic Quaker investigators whose opinions were valued by metropolitan humanitarian networks for their independence and clarity.  The Paper War is very much embedded in the historiography of the ‘networked’ image of the British Empire (Zoe Laidlaw, Alan Lester, Kirsten McKenzie etc) and these agents and investigators exemplify the way that ideas were circulated throughout the empire by missionaries, intellectuals and London-based groups like the Ethnological Society of London.

The book itself has five main chapters, an introduction and a conclusion.  The first chapter, ‘Colonial  Morality’ gives a brief biographical account of Threlkeld’s career along with the careers of his major protagonists and the circumstances that led to the intersection of their careers with his.  The second chapter ‘Colonial Linguistics’, looks at Threlkeld’s pioneering work in researching the language of the tribes surrounding Lake Macquarie, and she traces the evolution in his thinking about how language can be studied and depicted.  His earliest work in 1825 was an attempt to develop an orthography (spelling) for an Aboriginal language, mainly in the form of question and answer phrases, strongly based on Europeans assumptions about categories and sentence structure by imposing  an artificial  one-to-one match between English and Aboriginal words.  In 1834 he changed his methodology to investigate the grammar of the language, followed by another work in 1851 written for the Great Exhibition in London called A Key to the Structure of the Aboriginal Language.   As was common at the time, colonial collectors were expected to scoop up the raw materials of plants, animals, languages and ethnography, which were channelled to the ‘experts’ in London for ‘proper’ classification and analysis.  She traces the use of his work by such ‘experts’, especially the way that it was posthumously re-published and co-opted as part of late 19th century racial theories.

Chapter 3, ‘Colonial Press’ shifts its focus to the newspaper record generated by and about Threlkeld, especially in relation to the execution of Tommy, an aboriginal prisoner for whom Threlkeld acted as interpreter.  This execution itself became subsumed within a broader sectarian argument, and in February 1828 Threlkeld wrote a series of letters to the editor- a common feature of colonial newspapers- against the Catholic Church.

Chapter 4 ‘Colonial Respectability’ takes up Threlkeld’s Statement Chiefly Relating to the Formation and Abandonment of a Mission to the Aborigines of NSW; Addressed to the Serious Consideration of the Directors of the London Missionary Society, written to justify his actions as missionary at Lake Macquarie.  Despite its title, it was not aimed at the directors of the LMS alone: he had at least 270 copies printed and distributed it to every director and missionary in the LMS network.  It is a 72 page document, largely composed of letters written and received in relation to the Lake Macquarie mission. Threlkeld’s adversary J. D.  Lang waded into this documentary swamp with his own series of newspaper articles criticizing the mission and Threlkeld’s character as a missionary, culminating in a civil court case Threlkeld v Lang in 1836.

Chapter 5 ‘Colonial Legality’ remains in the courts, but here investigates Threlkeld’s work as an interpreter in the courts, and his position and increasingly critical stance over questions of the amenability of Aboriginal people to British law, the use of Aboriginal evidence and questions of sovereignty.

The  conclusion of the book picks up themes from the introduction by returning to the question of historians’ uncritical use of the colonial archive.  Both Henry Reynolds and Keith Windschuttle as combatants in the ‘History Wars’ share, she claims, a “remarkably simple” view of the archive as unmediated primary source material that can be drawn out to construct a narrative. She picks up on Kevin Rudd’s championing of Thomas Keneally for the background in literary fiction that he brings to his retelling of Australian history (an issue also pertinent with Kate Grenville’s recent works). And here we are returned to the question of the heart and the affective world so prominent in the humanitarian world view, including that of Lancelot Threlkeld.

As I mentioned earlier, I was particularly interested in the structure of this book for my own work, given that it takes an documentary archive deeply imbued with questions of personality and temperament.  I ‘m interested by the decision to place Chapter 2 where it is- perhaps because Threlkeld’s linguistic work has been somewhat overlooked?- because it seems more related to Chapter 5.  I’m impressed by the way that her strong, minimalist chapter structure forces the reader’s attention on the form rather than the content of the archive. The book is on one level about Threlkeld , without being a biography as such, but on another level it works on a much larger canvas.

You can download a generous extract of the book here.

‘Settler Sovereignty’ by Lisa Ford

Lisa Ford ‘Settler Sovereignty: Jurisdiction and Indigenous People in America and Australia 1788-1836’

2010 , 210 p & notes (86p)

I’m starting to think that a good gauge for my response to a book is the resounding slap of the book as I close it, and the whispered “Well done!” or “You beauty!”  that accompanies it.  That’s how I finished Tom Griffiths’ Hunters and Collectors, and it was my response as I finished Lisa Ford’s Settler Sovereignty as well.  I’m not alone: obviously the judges of the 2010 NSW Premier’s History Award felt the same way.

I was lent this book an embarrassingly long time ago, and I have been eyeballing it rather guiltily for some time.  Any of you who follow this blog chronologically may have noticed a  preponderance of reviews of books related to Aborigines in Port Phillip over recent months.  I have been writing a paper that looks at Judge Willis and the Aboriginal cases that came before his court, and I kept deferring reading Ford’s book until I’d finished because the 1836 cut-off in the book’s title was too early for the case I was examining.  How wrong I was: I would have gained so much from this book had I read it earlier.  Ah well.

In this book Ford takes Georgia (in America) and New South Wales as two exemplars of the development of what she calls “perfect settler sovereignty”. By this she means that,  in claiming the territory of the indigenous people who were there before them, white settler governments claimed sovereignty and legal jurisdiction over them as well.  There’s shades here of  Fran in the ABC series The Librarians voicing the same assertion-  “Our Country: Our Rules.”  This had not always been the case.  Both colonies, up until the 1830s, had tolerated plurality through a combination of dependence on native expertise,  uncertainty, impotence, silence  and ‘leaving them to their own business’. But in both colonies this was to change, at much the same time and based on much the same rationales.

We might raise a quizzical eyebrow at this combination of Georgia and New South Wales.  Traditionally Canada, Australia and New Zealand have been linked together as imperial triplets on the basis of their shared relationship with the Colonial Office, especially after the American Revolution sent America off onto a different trajectory.   Certainly during Willis’ time,  Australian judges were viewed as rather suspect if they referred to American law, and they took every occasion to declare their fidelity to British justice.  However, recent work has begun considering American legal conditions alongside those of Canada/Australia/New Zealand e.g. John Weaver’s The Great Land Rush, Peter Karsten’s Between Law and Custom: ‘High’ and ‘Low’ Legal Cultures in the Lands of the British Diaspora and James Belich’s Replenishing the Earth.

In both Georgia and New South Wales, settlers did not seek to govern through indigenous hierarchies (as they did in India), and in both places indigenous people occupied arable or pasture land.  Farming did not proceed through the forcible co-option of indigenous labour, although it did run on imported free, indentured or slave labour.  But there were differences too: Georgia was surrounded by other powers (Spain, France, the Creek and Cherokee Indians), and Georgia used slavery.  There was a multiplicity of treaties in Georgia, and none in New South Wales beyond Batman’s quickly disowned ‘treaty’.  And yet, both Georgia and NSW passed similar declarations in 1830 and 1836 that abandoned the legal pluralism that both had exhibited previously, ruling that indigenous violence fell within the jurisdiction of settler courts.  They used the same legal arguments at the same time, and it is this historical congruence that Lisa Ford sets out to explore.  Her approach is strongly based in legal history and court cases, and this is the lens through which she views the world.

By linking two apparently dissimilar colonies like this, she runs the risk of leaving scholars of one or the other societies bemused.  It’s a testament to her writing that, even though the New South Wales cases were far more familiar to me, I feel that I understood the Georgian cases as well and the parallels she was drawing.  But was there something particularly special about Georgia and New South Wales, or could she have chosen any other American state  and drawn the same connections? I’m not in a position to say. Or, indeed was New South Wales the best Australian example? Henry Reynolds in his review of this book in the Australian Book Review in April 2010 thought that Georgia and Tasmania would have been a better pair for comparison because both societies took up expulsion as a way of solving the ‘problem’ of their indigenous populations.  But I think that Ford is looking not so much at the outcomes of legal actions, as the philosophy behind the legal interventions.

For the most part, her chapters are organised thematically- e.g. pluralism as policy (Ch.2); indigenous jurisdiction and spatial order (Ch. 3); legality and lawlessness (Ch. 4) etc.  She starts each with a general introduction,  examines Georgia, then New South Wales, then draws parallels and distinctions between the two.  This pattern is broken at Chapter 6 where the narrative splits into two separate streams, with what she has identified as a seminal case in each colony.  Chapter 6 focuses on a case in Georgia  while  Chapter 7 looks at the case of Lego’me in New South Wales, tried and found guilty for a particularly petty robbery (of a pipe, no less!)  as part of a more general clampdown on Aboriginal ‘lawbreaking’.  In chapter 8 she then returns to the pattern of  intertwined chapters to discuss the way that 1830 in Georgia and 1835 in New South Wales marked a turning point in settler sovereignty. In both colonies, the claim of settler ‘ownership’ of territory was now offered without question as the rationale for the extension of settler law over indigenous people .   In relation to New South Wales, she goes on to explore the way that this rationale fed into R v Murrell, which has long been viewed as the touchstone case on which all subsequent legal policy in Australia has been based.

She points out that this shift was not restricted to Georgia and New South Wales alone.  Instead it was part of the post-Napoleonic era trend of formalizing or eroding legal pluralism world-wide, including in Europe itself.   She recognizes that by ending with the great cases of the 1830s, she is creating “historical closure where there was none historically” (p.204)- and this is exactly the point at which my own work with Judge Willis fits in.

This is a beautifully written book.  It has a very disciplined chapter structure- an introduction, an argument (clearly bifurcated into the parallel Georgian and New South Wales scenarios) and succinct and thought provoking conclusions.  Fairly conventionally academic, perhaps, but certainly clear. She obviously enjoys language, images and words- she rolls words around, rejoicing in alliteration, repetition and nuance.  We see it where  she describes the imperial network of bureaucrats as they “moved about the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans with Vattel and Blackstone under their arms” (p.4), and the settlers as “savvy masters of the discourses and politics of settler jurisdiction…eager for its bounties and wary of its gaze” (p. 84).

I’ll leave the last part to her.  She is describing how the flexible pre-1820s plurality that had governed settler/indigenous relations began to chafe against hardening notions of sovereignty:

Again and again, troubled executives and their law officers tried to perfect settler sovereignty by bringing indigenous-settler conflict within the bounds of settler law.  Again and again, they tried at the very least to preserve order in their towns and on the roads that connected them.  Again and again, they were thwarted by indigenous people, by frontier settlers or by local magistrates…The period described here, then, is one of plurality in transition, when a new vision of perfect sovereignty emerged from long-practiced and institutionally entrenched pluralism. (p. 120)

‘This Whispering in our Hearts’ by Henry Reynolds

1998, 251 p.& notes

The title of this book is taken from a speech delivered by Richard Windeyer as part of a 5-night debate carried out  in September 1842.  Henry Reynolds describes the speech, called ‘On the Rights of the Aborigines of Australia’, as “perhaps the most sustained and intellectually powerful attack on Aboriginal rights ever mounted in early colonial Australia.” (p.20).  Certainly it was felt at the time that Windeyer’s speech for the negative side had carried the day:

…we believe it to be the unanimous opinion of the members, that the speech of Mr Windeyer, for the negative, was the most argumentative and logical… He distinctly proved not only that the Blacks have no right to the soil of Australia for want of settled occupancy and cultivation; but that they have no right even to the kangaroos more than we have, the game laws of England agreeing precisely with the great law of nature, that wild animals not confined by enclosure are not, and cannot be the property of any man. (Sydney Morning Herald 12 Sept 1842)

And yet, after denouncing traditional Aboriginal society, and insisting that they had no claim on the land, Windeyer admitted at the end of his speech

How is it that our minds are not satisfied? …What means this whispering in the bottom of our hearts? (cited in Reynolds p. 21)

It’s an evocative term- the whispering at the bottom of our heart- and yet the fact that it was Richard Windeyer who voiced it is but one of the many complexities and contradictions that arise when trying to tease out of nuances of public utterances about Aborigines in the early decades of settlement in Australia.  Reynolds, perhaps, does not highlight the context of the speech sufficiently – i.e. it was argued as part of a debate where one often argues against one’s own beliefs.  Still, it’s hard to pin down Windeyer’s politics,  as it is with many of these 1830s and 40s public men.   Richard Windeyer was a parliamentarian and barrister: he had been at the meeting that established the Aborigines Protection Society in 1838 and yet he had defended the white stockmen in the Myall Creek trials (although there is a limit to what one can deduce from courtroom advocacy).  What are we to make of his position if  his head was telling him one thing and his heart another? In the final analysis, which one matters more?

In this book Henry Reynolds looks at three periods of white humanitarianism: the 1830s and 40s; the 1880s and the period 1926-34.  He deals with a small number of individuals in each period: George Augustus Robinson and Lancelot Threlkeld, Louis Giustiniani and Robert Lyon in the first period; John Gribble and David Carley in the second; and son Ernest Gribble and Mary Bennett in the third.

My interest in reading this book was mainly on his first period, and in many ways the people he considers in this section are the most difficult to reconcile with our own ideas of humanitarianism today.   Like the settlers whose actions they deplored, these humanitarians were likewise steeped in  ethos of colonisation, albeit for different purposes:

It was not that they were against the establishment of British colonies.  They spoke themselves of spiritual empires.  They were zealous to evangelize the pagan, to save the souls of Aborigines and other indigenous people.  They firmly believed they should both civilize and Christianise or at least radically change local cultures. The missionary could be more overbearing, more interfering, more insensitive than frontier settlers and stockmen.  And they were characteristically profoundly self-righteous, often with the fixed stare and intense focus of the convert. (p. 33)

Some writers- for example Lindsey Arkley– would be surprised to find George Augustus Robinson featured here, and Robinson’s role and motivation continues to be contested territory among historians.  Importantly, Reynolds charts the differences between 1830-40 humanitarianism and the humanitarianism of the 1880s.  A much changed intellectual climate and two generations of colonization meant that by the 1880s there was no longer any assertion of racial equality based on the biblical notion of shared descent and common blood.  It was taken for granted that Aborigines were members of an inferior race, and many assumed that they would eventually die out.  The horror of shedding blood, so prominent during the 1830s, had moderated and it was now seen as a regrettable, but unavoidable accompaniment to colonization.  Colonization and development were now a justification in themselves.  (p. 112, 113)

Reynolds reminds us that there have always been humanitarians- people who were willing to raise their voices and inured themselves to the abuse and obloquy  that they attracted.  But he also reminds us that these humanitarians of the past were for the most part unsuccessful:

… Australians of today who find comfort in the history of the humanitarian crusade should reflect that the protesters had little influence on events. Their assertions, however cogent, their moral appeal however persuasive, were largely ignored. Arguments forcefully put in the 1830s required restating in the 1930s. Many are still relevant today.  What the humanitarian story shows is that an alternative agenda was aired, a more humane course projected, was listened to, understood and then comprehensively rejected, often with derision  (p. 249)

The little moral force that they could exert often depended on overseas support- the Anti-Slavery society, the Aborigines Protections Society and various Colonial Office pressure groups in the 19th century and the League of Nations in the twentieth.   Access to the press  was crucial and skillfully used by many of these humanitarians: a sobering thought in our Wikileaks days.

And finally, and most importantly when looking at the 1830-40 period, our idea of what humanitarianism looks like is different.  We tend to shuffle away and distance ourselves from the “fixed stare and the intense focus” of such men (used intentionally), and there are statements in their rhetoric that send alarm bells ringing in our heads.  We would do well to remember:

The humanitarians were often paternalistic/maternalistic and shared many of the ideas that were current in their generation.  Some of them undoubtedly were racists in the way we understand that term now.  They were people of their period.  But if inquiry and understanding stops there we miss the passion for justice, the anger about cruelty and indifference which drove humanitarians along lonely, thankless and unpopular paths (p.251)

‘The hated Protector’ by Lindsey Arkley

2000, 469 p. & notes

Lindsey Arkley The hated Protector: The story of Charles Wightman Sievwright Protector of Aborigines 1839-42. Mentone Vic, Orbit Press, 2000.

Charles Sievwright is an ‘interesting’ man from 170 years distance, and was certainly controversial and combative at the time.  This biography of Sievwright examines his time in the Port Phillip District as Assistant Protector for Aborigines in the western district of Victoria between 1839-1842.  Lindsey Arkley, the author, also wrote Sievwright’s entry in the Australian Dictionary of Biography.

The Aboriginal Protectorates were an experimental measure, urged on the Colonial Office  in London by the evangelical pressure groups concerned about the treatment of indigenous subjects throughout the empire.   They were established as a secular adjunct to the church missionary system and comprised a Chief Protector and several Assistant Protectors. They were given the remit to firstly, protect indigenous people from settler cruelty and secondly, assist the church-based missionaries in converting Aborigines from a wandering and barbaric state into sedentary,  ‘civilized’ Christians.   The inland areas of the  Port Phillip District had only been recently exposed to widespread settler incursion, and it was rather optimistically hoped in London that this could herald a new and better approach.  It was an experiment imposed on Governor Gipps in Sydney and his local superintendent in Melbourne, Charles LaTrobe, and in the absence of any clear vision of how it would work in practice, George Augustus Robinson was appointed Chief Protector on the basis of his work in Van Diemen’s Land.  Unlike the other Assistant Protectors who were school teachers, Charles Sievwright had a military background and used his admittedly rather impressive patronage ties to get the position after some rather dubious gambling problems back in Europe.

It was a position fraught with tension, ambiguities and contradictions, even without the added complication of the deeply flawed individuals who were chosen to fill the roles.  Chief Protector Robinson was variously jealous, ambitious, inefficient, blustering, out of his depth and conflicted, and the Assistant Protectors soon began fighting both with Robinson and among themselves over lack of supplies, perceived lack of support, ambiguous instructions and – importantly for Sievwright- rumours of sexual impropriety.   In Sievwright’s Port Phillip career, and in his subsequent dismissal, these rumours of sexual misconduct including domestic violence, attempted seduction of other Protectors’ wives and most damaging of all, incest with his own daughter bubbled underneath all his interactions with his superiors, other bureaucrats, and the white settlers who resented his presence in prime grazing territory.

This is a very long biography at over 400 pages dealing mainly with three years of Sievwright’s career in Port Phillip, although the ‘before’ and ‘after’ are dealt with in the opening and closing chapters.  Arkley has drawn heavily on official correspondence, particularly the letters written to, from and by La Trobe and the local bureaucracy and the resultant reports between and by Gipps and the Colonial Office.    This is territory that I have been likewise wading through with my own research, and seeing how Arkley has dealt with it has made me more reflective about its value and limitations as a genre and source.  He has published much of this information in a much more accessible form than the originals, and been punctilious in his footnoting, but there is so much of it and often over so little.   This is something that I have likewise struggled with, in both a narrative and methodological sense.   Arkley reproduces the texts and has placed  the ‘controversy of the moment’ (and there were many!) within its context, but much of this is ‘he said/he said’ reportage.

Arkley started each chapter- and there are (too) many at 35 of them- with a few brief, interest-arousing observations but these are fairly general, often rejoicing in coincidence and juxtaposition and not always particularly relevant to the chapter.   In Arkley’s telling there are clearcut baddies- “Flogger” Fyans, Robinson, and the duplicitous La Trobe and Gipps- and one senses that Arkley’s purpose is largely to rescue Sievwright’s reputation from their clutches.

But in doing so, there is no scholarly discussion of the protectorate system and its ambiguities and no exploration of the meaning of the sexual scandal and its relationship with the other grounds given for Sievwright’s dismissal.  Perhaps this was not Arkley’s intention: I see in the blurbs that the book was embraced by local historians and Arkley himself works as a journalist.  Other historians have picked up on Arkley’s work- in particular Alan Lester and Fay Dussart in their article “Masculinity, ‘race’ and families in the colonies: protecting Aborigines in the early 19th century” [1] who thank him directly in their Acknowledgments.  I’m sure that Kirsten McKenzie [2] would do much with  Arkley’s work on Sievwright as well.

Is it valid to critique a book for what it doesn’t do, and perhaps even had no intention of ever doing? I’m not sure.  After all,  we stand on the shoulders of other researchers, and there is certainly value in Arkley’s collection and reproduction of much of the archival material on Sievwright.  His footnoting is excellent, and I’ve been able to find many of the sources he cites.  But at times I found myself wary of his clear attempt to promote and rehabilitate Sievwright’s reputation, and found myself having to read against Arkley’s text for much of the time and wanting to prod him a bit further.  Sometimes a bit of ambiguity and scepticism is not a bad thing.


[1] Alan Lester and Fay Dussart ‘Masculinity, ‘race’ and families in the colonies:  protecting Aborigines in the early 19th century’ Gender Place and Culture, vol 16, no 1, 2009 pp.  65-76

[2] Kirsten McKenzie Scandal in the Colonies: Sydney and Cape Town 1820-1850 Carlton Victoria, Melbourne University Press, 2004


Ian D. Clark The Hated Protector: The Story of Charles Wightman Sievwright Protector of Aborigines 1839-42 [Book Review]  Aboriginal History, Vol. 24, 2000: 305-313.

‘Good Men and True: The Aboriginal Police of the Port Phillip District 1837-1853’ by Marie Hansen Fels

1988, 227 p. plus appendices and notes

In her book, Marie Fels warns of a number of ethnocentric blindnesses and misconceptions, and I’m afraid that I’m guilty of at least three of them.  The first, she says, is to simply not see the presence of the Native Police and I’m certainly guilty of this.  I’ve been aware of them in my reading on Port Phillip, but hadn’t particularly considered what they might be doing there.  Then I noted that Jan Critchett attributed the turning point in aboriginal/settler “collisions” to their skill in pursuit and this notion fed, I suppose into my second misconception- that the Port Phillip Native Police Corps, like the Queensland Native Police Corps which was later modelled on it, was responsible for atrocities against aboriginal people.  And this, in turn, reflects my third ethnocentricity: the assumption that the act of joining the Native Police Corps was a form of treachery, undertaken only by marginal men who would be ostracized by their tribesmen because of their involvement .

Instead, Fels argues, the men who joined the Native Police Corps were leaders of clans or their heirs.  They willingly joined with Europeans in policing work: policing in its pre-Peelite manifestation as ‘keeping the peace’ rather than ‘upholding the law’, and certainly more than just tracking.

Joining the Native Police Corps is best seen as a strategy in the direction of sharing power and authority in the Port Phillip District, in the changed environment of the powerful and permanent European presence.  Besides the material things that police could see they would get, an opportunity was put before them of becoming men of standing within their transformed world.  They took it, and furthermore, they used it.  They bent it back, exploiting their acquired prestige and influence to operate within traditional group politics, to such effect that while the Corps was in existence, these men were the powerbrokers… Being a native policeman was a state of dual consciousness and divided loyalty; it appears not to have been a matter of rejecting Aboriginality, but rather of learning to live in two different worlds (p. 87)

The men of the Native Police Corps were proud of their uniforms and they kept them in immaculate condition; they craved guns but rarely used them “on the side”;  they were able to read the nuances in status between white settlers, and they operated in a number of roles including escorting,  taking messages, guarding, search and rescue and a highly visible ceremonial role within white society.

Although men of  the Warwoorong and Bunerong tribes (her spelling) from around Melbourne initially formed the heart of the unit, they were not just 20 troopers drawn solely from those tribes, as it has been described in the past.  Instead she has identified over 140 individuals drawn from various tribes across Victoria- even, though to a lesser extent, from the Gippsland tribes who were the traditional enemies of the Warwoorong/Bunerong federation.  One of her appendices gives the biographical details of five such men, and she refers to the full 114 page version of the appendix that she attached to her thesis,  available at the University of Melbourne, which covers the other men.

Good men and true?  Dana, their commandant certainly thought so, and was staunch in his defence of his men.  For there were, and are, rumours that the Native Police Corps itself was involved in the slaughter of aboriginal people- indeed the Native Police themselves bragged of it.  Here Fels, likewise, springs to their defence, drawing on statistics about ammunition and weaponry to undercut the claims of multiple shootings; querying the motives of men who made the reports to La Trobe,  issuing cautions about the reliability of any Aboriginal evidence, and challenging the ready acceptance of Aboriginal reports of ‘many’ being killed.  While this may be true, it is an argument that must be balm to Windschuttle et. al who query the statistics over white atrocities as well.  Is there an ethical responsibility in using a line of argument that could be picked up and used to make a contrary, and possibly abhorrent point?  Or is there an intellectual responsibility NOT to resile from an argument out of fear that this might occur?   The line between challenging misconceptions and inaccuracies on the one hand, and defensiveness on the other  is a narrow one, and at times I felt that she over-reached a little.  But even she admitted her uneasiness about reports of the Native Police Corps in Gippsland, the territory of their enemies far from the reach of authority, and her credibility was strengthened by her caution here.

Top of the list of her acknowledgments is Greg Dening, and the book is dedicated to him.  I can see his influence here, in the way that she walks around an episode, reading against the record, stepping away and  reminding us:

Always the first question to be asked when examining the action of the Corps is ‘What was the nature of the traditional relationship?’ (p. 157)

I feel that the typesetting of her book did her a disservice, though.  The book is a densely woven argument and more white space would have given her reader a little more oxygen.  At times she launched into examination of an episode without warning and I’d screech to a halt wondering “Hold on- do I know about this? Has she talked about this earlier?” only to read on for a couple of paragraphs to realize that I’d been dropped into an episode for some close-up scrutiny.

In her introduction she stakes her claim:

Part of the task of the historian is to recognize that the issues which kindle interest and shape enquiry do emerge from the cultural present, but the written end-product succeeds or fails according to how well the historian has understood and explained the past on its own terms. (p. 5)

This book challenges our conceptions of the role of the Native Police Corps and its meaning for its participants and those who encountered it at the time.  I’ll leave the last word with her in her own closing paragraph, because it’s a strong argument:

To recognize that they were the victims of the European takeover of their land is one thing; to write a history of the origins and growth of the contemporary sense of oppression is another; but to impose the attitudes of the present on the evidence of the past is ahistorical, producing the effect of leaving out of our histories the evidence of creative and adaptive Aboriginal strategies such as this one- becoming a native policeman. (p. 227)

‘A distant field of murder’ by Jan Critchett

Critchett, Jan ‘A distant field of murder’: Western District Frontiers 1834-1848, Carlton Vic. Melbourne University Press, 1990, 219 p.

As you can tell from the title, Critchett’s book focuses on a specific district of Victoria over the short period of 14 years between 1834-1848.   For the aboriginal tribes of the Western district, it was  14 years of tumultuous and catastrophic change.  But even this 14 year period was just a small part of the life of Hissing Swan or Kaawirn Kuunawarn, the tribal man with whom this book starts and finishes.  Hissing Swan was born around 1822 and died in 1890 of a broken heart when he was moved from Framlingham mission when it was selected for closure. It was the second dispossession he had faced.  As the mission record shows:

“Old David (Hissing Swan) dead.  Idea of leaving home killed him; buried Thursday.” (p.192)

This book focusses on the Western District of Victoria, which under the Squatting Act was known as Portland Bay.  It was a huge territory that stretched from west of the Werribee River across to the South Australia border, with a line up to the Murray River. Of course, this was a white-man’s division for the purposes of administrative convenience.  The area of Portland Bay took in many clans and tribal groups, and a large part of this book is devoted to her appendices listing the different groups and individuals that Robinson and other missionaries and observers had counted in the district during the early days- a difficult task given the vagaries of pronunciation and orthography.   This might be seen as another attempt at head-counting, but I think that it’s more than this.  In the same way that she starts and finishes her book with an individual, named, person, this enumeration of  small, family groups is a way of giving a human identity and empirical presence to what was more often portrayed by white settlers as a brooding, shifting, often invisible presence. Settlement, as she notes, can take one of three forms-  slow expansion; a leapfrogging rush; then infilling of the vacant spaces between settlements.  In the second phase, white settlers moved into the district, often bringing with them their Aboriginal ‘boys’ from other areas.  The whites were largely oblivious to the clan boundaries they were crossing, but the aborigines who accompanied them were well aware of the boundary infringements they were committing.

By choosing to focus on the period 1834-1848 she takes in the period prior to the quasi-official ‘settlement’ of Victoria.  The aboriginal people of the Portland District had had long contact with white whalers and sealers, and Henty’s settlement in Portland predated the settlement of Melbourne.  She estimates that the chillingly-named Convincing Ground massacre probably took place around 1833 or 1834, but it was the influx of pastoralists after 1835 that heralded the greatest change.

There was a war in the Western District, she claims, but there were no great battles.  Instead, as she points out, the frontier was a personalized space:

The frontier was in fact a very local phenomenon, the disputed area being the very land each settler lived upon.  The enemy was not on the other side of neutral ground.  The frontier was represented by the woman who lived near by and was shared by her Aboriginal partner with a European or Europeans.  It was the group living down beside the creek or river, it was the ‘boy’ used as guide for exploring parties or for doing jobs now and then.  The ‘other side of the frontier’ was just down the yard or as close as the bed shared with an Aboriginal woman. (p. 23)

Although the white settler characterized clashes with Aboriginal people as “aggression”, “depredation” and “outrage”, most of the killings of whites involved prior violence or disputes over women, and often involved Aborigines known to them.  They were most often killed by blows to the head, rather than guns, suggesting that their Aboriginal attackers had been able to get close to them.   The nature of Aboriginal behaviour changed over time- groups combined forces, they used guerilla tactics, they took sheep and drove them long distances. The killings of aborigines most often involved Europeans seeking to recover their property, generally forming a small hunting party themselves, sometimes accompanied by a JP or the native police.

She sees 1842 as the turning point.  It was the worst year for inter-racial conflict and it was the year that white state power was most effectively demonstrated to the aborigines, partially through the hangings that took place then, but even more significantly through the deployment of the Border Police and especially the Native Police during that year.  As she notes:

In the end the Aborigines were dealt with on their own terms.  It was not necessary to have a large military force.  The enemy was really a series of enemies, each being a relatively small group of people.  They could be dealt with one by one or even simultaneously by a small number of individuals, providing they could follow the Aborigines to their camping places, normally inaccessible to Europeans.  Once a Native Police force was established the end of Aboriginal resistance was a possibility. (p 158)

Although 1842 was the turning point, the winter of 1843 was the worst period for ‘collisions’ between the Native Police and local aborigines, and even white authorities were uneasy about the lurid tales that the Native Police themselves told of their exploits.

There is much to be gained from a close-grained analysis of Aboriginal/White interaction based on a particular geographic region-  I know that Jim Belshaw has adopted this approach.  I think that her emphasis on the degree of contact, indeed sometimes intimacy, on the frontier is important.  This is a beautifully written history.  Its rather oblique chapter headings use quotations from the archive, and it is clearly structured without feeling contrived and constrained.  There are people here behind the numbers.

There is the hint in her work of an alternative ‘what-if’ history that shimmers just out of sight- the runs that were abandoned and remained empty because no settlers could withstand the violence; Gipps’ angry but unfulfilled threat to turn the whole district into an Aboriginal reserve and cancel all squatting licences-  but as Critchett points out, change was inevitable.  The murnong grass was no longer available because the sheep had eaten it; Aboriginal groups could no longer fire the grass to encourage its growth;  they were excluded from their waterholes, and had abandoned their permanent winter housing there.  Tribal and clan boundaries were weakened.  The district, as she says, was an extended convincing ground, and by 1848 when she draws her story to a close, the Aborigines had been convinced.

Margaret and Maggie

Some time ago, in reviewing Peter Cochrane’s book Colonial Ambition, I made an offhand reference to Margaret Kiddle’s book Men of Yesterday and had obviously intended writing a more considered post about Kiddle’s book at some later date.  Now that I come to write about it, I find myself flicking through my reading journals that predate this blog (which has largely usurped their function) and I am surprised and regretful that I didn’t write an entry about it.  It was a book that deeply affected me at the time and the only explanation I can think of for its omission is that I must have considered it ‘work’ reading as distinct from ‘leisure’ reading.  I’m increasingly finding that there is no boundary between the two- I don’t know whether that’s a good thing or not!

Men of Yesterday is framed by the poignancy of the circumstances by which it posthumously reached publication.  Its author, Margaret Kiddle was a tutor at the University of Melbourne, but described and downplayed herself as “not an academic”.  She died of renal failure, after years of illness and a decade of dialysis, at the age of 44 with her manuscript finished but unrevised.  She left for her literary executors (including Max Crawford and John Le Nauze)  a list of what she saw as essential revisions and this note:

I guess this is just another ‘Melba farewell’ but if not-

Max, as you will be going to Wisconsin, I suggest that if he will, John takes over the revision.

John- I should be very grateful if you would do it for me.

Acknowledgements: The file correspondence and comments on notes will help you- don’t forget to thank yourselves!…This book has been finished in dramatic circumstances- for publicity purposes cash in on them as much as you like- it may earn some money!  (cited in MacKellar, see below)

But this was no ‘Melba farewell’– it was the real thing, and the book needs no cashing in.   Margaret Kiddle was proud of her pioneer ancestors, and the book is almost an act of love to the experiences of her forebears.  It is a very human book and it has attracted its share of critique. As the pointedly-titled thesis What Kiddle forgot reminds us,  aboriginal dispossession and women’s roles were kept in the  background,  and it has attracted (perhaps unfairly)  a reputation  as  a book of its time and historiography.

I’ve been reunited with Margaret Kiddle through a beautifully written opening chapter in a book by Maggie MacKellar called Strangers in a Foreign Land.  It has been generously- indeed rather TOO generously??- downloaded into Google Books and the opening chapter, at least, is a cracker.  MacKellar describes her  rediscovery of Kiddle’s work as part of her own project on the Niel Black diaries and the book that follows is an edited and interwoven transcription of Niel Black’s diaries.   In her introductory chapter she reprises early Port Phillip and Western District history, interweaving it with Major Mitchell’s acclamation of Australia Felix as the culmination of his journey that started just several kilometres from her own home.  She explains, as all historians experience and many (too many?) describe, the rush of emotions in dealing with primary documents, with her consciousness of what she is reading heightened by the elemental summer smell of bushfire that seeps into the cloistered space of the State Library reading room.  Despite my own as yet unresolved feelings about historians’ use of themselves in the history they are telling,  I have no such qualms about  edited diaries and letters.  It is in the historian’s interaction and shaping of the primary documents that the engagement with larger historical questions emerges:  it is obtuse to pretend that the historian is not there reading, absorbing, making connections and talking back to the material.

Just from the extracts available online, this looks a beautifully presented book.  Time, and an awareness that I am becoming distracted,  prevent me from reading further, but the opening chapter is a delight in itself.


Kiddle, Margaret Men of Yesterday: A social history of the Western District 1834-1890 Melbourne, Melbourne University Press, 1961

MacKellar, Maggie Strangers in a Foreign Land: The Journals of Niel Black and Other Voices from the Western District,  Carlton Vic., Melbourne University Publishing, 2008

‘Savage Lands’ by Clare Clark

2010,  374 p.

Okay- I confess that I was attracted to this book by the cover, and by the blurbs by Amanda Foreman who assured me that “Clare Clark writes with the eyes of a historian and the soul of a novelist” and Hilary Mantel who told me that [Clark] “meets the eighteenth century on its own terms; knocks the wig off, twists its private parts and spits in its eye…”.  Twist and spit on, I say.  I’ve since found that it was longlisted for the 2010 Orange Prize.

In his book  Replenishing the Earth: The Settler Revolution and the Rise of the Angloworld 1783-1939, James Belich emphasizes the importance of not the  ‘founding fathers’ but the ‘birth mothers’ in ensuring the demographic progress of a settler society.  This book has the birth mothers of Louisiana as its focus, and women’s bodies are at the centre of its focus, as sexual partners,  wives, women in labour, women as objects of desire.

Its main character, Elizabeth Savaret is one of the ‘casket girls’ sent out from France to find a husband amongst the French settlers in Louisiana.  She is a sensitive, educated woman as the frequent (and possibly unnecessary) references to Montaigne throughout the book attest.  In this government-sanctioned marital lottery any husband will do, it seems, but in one of the breathtaking jumps in plot that Clark negotiates, Elizabeth falls deeply, passionately in love with her husband Jean-Claue Babelon.  We do not read about their first meeting, their courtship, their marriage- only that she has been awakened to her own sexuality and that she adores every part of the man who is now her husband.

At this point, I may have been a little sceptical about such slavish adoration. But, having just turned from reading the article about Lucy Peel’s journal, I was struck by the similarities with Lucy’s own declaration of her love for her husband (albeit in a letter to her mother):

the separation of husband and wife must be dreadful, for the love between them is, or ought to be, “Strong as Death” and the longer they live together the harder it would be to part, at least I feel it would be so, for much as I loved Edmund when I married him I have treble the affection for him now, I did not know half his good qualities, he has never spoken an angry word to me and manages my hasty temper so well that I almost fancy at times that I have become a most amiable person.  (J.I. Little ‘Gender and Gentility on the Lower Canadian Frontier: Lucy Peel’s Journal, 1833-36, Journal of the Canadian Historical Association, 1999 Vol 10 p. 66)

It is not just Elizabeth who has fallen in love with Jean-Claude, however.  A younger man, Auguste Guichard, encountered the trader Jean-Claude in the tangled wilderness of Louisiana. Auguste had been left by earlier explorers as a hostage to an Indian tribe while they were passing through the territory and he spent years there, growing up learning the language and observing the tribal practices, neither part of the tribe but no longer completely French either.  When Jean-Claude stumbled onto the scene, Auguste too fell in love with him, not necessarily in a home-erotic way but more as a type of hero-worship.  He returned to ‘civilization’ with Jean-Claude where, in the glow of Jean-Claude’s presence, he fell in love with Elizabeth too in an inchoate fashion.

In this love triangle, it is Jean-Claude who is the least fully realized character. He does not deserve the love of either Elizabeth or Auguste as they both come to recognize, and they are both implicated in his betrayal and suffer for it.  This brings the first part of the book to a close, and as I turned over to Part II (portentously titled ‘After’) , I found myself aware that something momentous had happened in their lives, but I wasn’t quite sure what it was.

In another of her breathtaking plot parachutes, Clark then fast-forwards fifteen years and gradually colours in the circumstances and consequences of the act that closed Part I of the book.   Life has continued on for both Elizabeth and Auguste, but they are bound by their mutual guilt.  The changing circumstances of the Louisiana settlement and its relationship with the Parisian metropole bring them again into each other’s constellation.

This is a very female book, with heavy emphasis on childbirth, miscarriage and sexuality.  The women in the book are drawn well, not just in their own individual characters but in the nature of female companionship and rivalry.  Auguste is more inscrutable and shadowy, but that could be a response to his marginal status between French and Native American communities.  But the main character of this book is the Louisiana forest and swampland, and here Clark’s writing is quite beautiful.  Perhaps it is a little overdone and at times repetitious, but for me it acted as a reminder of the contingency of the settlement by dragging me back to the hostility and sheer dominance of the landscape:

In the wilderness savages lurked in the shadows and the prodigious forest nosed and slid and crept and coiled upward without ceasing.  The licentious suck of it rotted the roots of the trees and pushed blindly up through the decaying luxuriance of its half-digested self, an eruption of snaking coils and crude excrescences bursting from the thick black slime.  Its fecundity was as grotesque as it was shameless.  It throbbed in the ceaseless thrum of the cicadas, in the suck and gasp of the reed-choked bayou.  It draped itself from the trees, smearing their trunks with velvet, hanging in gluttonous hanks from their branches and exploding into pale, fleshy mushrooms at their roots.  There was no shape to the forest, no order.  There was only the ungovernable profusion, blotting out the light, gorging on the lush compost of the dead. (p. 299)

Swamp-porn anyone? (Oh dear? Will that attract spammers and dodgy search terms?)

Writing home

Read a good article last night:

David A. Gerber “Acts of Deceiving and Withholding in Immigrant Letters: Personal Identity and Self-Presentation in Personal Correspondence.”  Journal of Social History, Vol 39, No. 2 (2005) pp 315-330. I accessed it through my university library, but I see that it’s available through SLV as well.

With the current trend to write the “I” into history ( something that I am ambivalent about and will no doubt explore one day in another post)  you’ll often read about the emotional rush that researchers feel when holding a letter.  The precariousness and contingency of its journey into your hands, the physicality and smell of the paper and the knowledge that your subject had picked up a pen, smoothed out that very sheet, re-read it on finishing-  it all gives the act of reading the letter an edge of sanctity that is lost when reading it on microfilm, or digitally.

In this article, the author has obviously moved beyond that initial response- as must we all eventually. Instead of attending to the content of the letter, he looks instead at the immigrant letter as a strategy in maintaining interpersonal relationships across distance.  We know for ourselves that what we project and present in letters is not necessarily the case, and he focusses on what is not made explicit, what is hidden and held back.  Perhaps that’s part of the uneasiness about an online communicative presence now- that the interconnectedness of different online genres means that our different personae are no longer quarantined from each other. We may intend to remain silent, but instead earlier conversations are overheard.

Gerber’s research involves immigrant letters written between Canadian and American migrants and their families in Britain.  They were separated by a sea-journey of approximately 7-10 days which could stretch out to as long as 4-6 weeks: whatever the range it was certainly of a different magnitude to the voyage to Australia.  He describes his immigrants as “venturesome conservatives”, pessimistic about Britain’s future after the Napoleonic Wars and hostile to modernity and again I find myself wondering whether this also applied to Australia.

In these letters there is a psychological need to continue the relationship they are seeking to maintain in some way.  It’s often a collaborative exercise, even though in the archives we often only read one side of the communication.  Of course there is the issue of incompleteness and representativeness: letters may not have been collected or saved; they may be in private hands; they may have been culled; and the illiterate or those with completed families may not appear at all.

He explores the reasons – using examples from his letters- of outright lies and misrepresentations, but also untruths and silences.  Letter-writers might not want to cause worry to those at home; perhaps they had been discouraged from emigrating and have the need to save face.  On the other hand, perhaps it suited their purposes to exaggerate their situation.  Either way, there was the danger of being found out.  As Gerber points out “Gossip became transnational” as letters were shared between family and acquaintances in both settings.  Even silence is itself a type of communication.  It was a way of changing the tenor of the relationship.  For example, a child could take her time in replying to a parent and there is nothing at all that the parent could do about it.

Often the reason that we come to a body of correspondence is because we need the content that we hope they contain, or because the writer or recipient is important to our research in some way.  We become swept up in the details they offer, and the relationships that we try to reconstruct from them.  This article reminded me of the relationships that underpin the artefact itself, as a genre, that lie at the bottom of the act of writing and reading at a distance.