Tag Archives: Book reviews

‘Colonization and the Origins of Humanitarian Governance’ by Alan Lester and Fae Dussart


2014, 275 p. & notes

When I read Rowan Strong’s book on Anglicanism and the British Empire recently, I found myself somewhat surprised that historians coming out of  a different academic stream- in this case, the history of Christianity- were  wading in the same waters that I splash around in through studying colonial communities through a transnational lens.  There were similar questions and concerns, but when I checked the bibliography, I found that the author had drawn from a largely unfamiliar body of literature written by strangers (to me!). Why hadn’t I heard of any of these people before?

This was not at all the case with this book, which felt very much like ‘home’ for me.  Alan Lester and Fae Dussart have written a couple of  papers together, and Alan Lester is perhaps best known for his concept of ‘imperial networks’ of people, goods and ideas- a concept that I’ve found really useful.  Lester is a Professor of Historical Geography at the University of Sussex, where Dussart is a Visiting Research Fellow, lecturing in Modern British and Imperial History (originally from the University of North Carolina).   Looking through their bibliography, I found very familiar names- Catherine Hall, Zoe Laidlaw, Antoinette Burton, Julie Evans etc.   These are my people!

Their book explores the paradox that at the very time that the British Empire was embarking on its violent dispossession of indigenous land across multiple sites, it was also professing humanitarianism and a deep desire to ‘do the right thing’.  Is it possible to reconcile two such disparate impulses?

Lester and Dussart choose to use the term ‘humanitarian’, even though other historians  have chosen other terms more commonly used at the time (for example, Jessie Mitchell’s In Good Faith? uses the term ‘philanthropy’) .  But in the opening chapter of this book, it is clear that their observations extend beyond the 19th century settler colonies when they discuss present-day humanitarian campaigns and organizational structures.

As in Strong’s book, they draw a longer timespan for humanitarianism than just the 19th century evangelical movement, while acknowledging its fundamental importance for the settler colonies under discussion  They describe humanitarianism as a chain, with donor/philanthropist/recipient links, noting that it is always an unequal power relationship. Actors at each point perform roles for the benefit of those next along the chain with missionaries, protectors or aid workers on the ground always having to perform dual roles for the benefit of donors above them and recipients below them (p.11).

The book combines biography and geography.  Humanitarian governance during the 19th century was mediated through the men (for it was, in this case always men) who took it upon themselves to govern the empire.

To get to know what feelings and behaviours, what affects and effects, a humanitarian moral code engenders, one has to try to understand these men at various levels of governmental structures as complex individuals with varying capacities in a world of dynamic social relations that they only partially comprehended and controlled, but sought to improve, in the process raising their self-esteem and the esteem in which they were held by others.

The book emphasizes the importance of the sequential locations of its main ‘characters’, and by picking up on Doreen Massey’s idea of ‘place’ as the juxtaposition of intersecting trajectories, highlights the fact that these mobile men of empire encountered differentially contrived sets of relations between Britons and ‘others’ in the colonies they administered.

It traces the genesis of humanitarian governance as it moved from the idea of  ’emancipating’ and  ‘ameliorating’ the conditions of slaves in the West Indies through to ‘conciliating’  ‘protecting’ , and attempting to  ‘develop’ the indigenous peoples in the expanding British empire.  It focusses in particular on the Protectorates established as secular schemes in the Cape, Port Phillip and New Zealand, and the experience of the men working, often for the very noblest of motives, in a program- for Port Phillip at least-  that always had eventual assimilation and dispossession as its ultimate intention.

The book opens with Sir George Arthur, whose career took him from Honduras, to Van Diemens Land, to Canada and then India and then closes with another George- Sir George Grey, who career traversed South Australia, New Zealand and the Cape Colony.  Historians in these erstwhile colonies often have a very different ‘take’ on the slice of career spent in their homeland, and the nuanced approach in this book gives them a coherence not easily detected in colony-bound biographies.

I really enjoyed this book, and not just because it is right in my area.  Many of the chapters have been published in article-form in different journals, and I enjoyed having them integrated into a single text like this.  It was easy to read, and the interweaving of observations about current-day humanitarianism was insightful.  Once again, it’s damned expensive in both hard cover and even in e-book form ($65A), so it’s one for the  academic libraries, I guess.  A shame really, because I think its appeal could well stretch further than that.

‘Redmond Barry: An Anglo-Irish Australian’ by Ann Galbally


1995, 228 p.

As a Melburnian, it’s difficult to get past the image of Redmond Barry as a strong, imperious philanthropist.  He is still very much a visible presence:  a large statue of him rears up in front of the State Library (one of his projects); his name adorns prominent buildings at the University of Melbourne (another of his projects), and of course his reputation has been forever intertwined with that of Ned Kelly, whom he sentenced to death.  This is the stuff of myth-making: the pompous Supreme Court judge cursed by the fearless bushranger “I will see you there when I go” (or words to that effect), only to die 12 days later of “congestion of the lungs and a carbuncle in the neck”.  [ Can you die of carbuncle? Dear Lord, if I should die, please let it NOT be of a carbuncle!]

Ann Galbally’s biography covers, of course, his whole life but my interest is mainly on his early years in Port Phillip and his relationship with Judge Willis.  Barry was born into the Anglo-Irish ascendancy.  The peace that followed the Napoleonic Wars cruelled his chances for a military career, so he entered the law instead only to find the Bar crowded with other young men who had made the same vocational choice.   When his father died in 1838, he emigrated to Sydney where there was less competition.


On the journey out, he embarked on a relationship with a Mrs Scott- and worse still, continued it when he reached Sydney.  News of the affair reached the ears of Governor Gipps, and he was awarded few government briefs as a result.  He continued to suffer from disapprobation even after leaving Sydney for the small town of Melbourne because, although he socialized and got on well with Superintendent La Trobe, the more prominent legal positions were in the gift of Gipps rather than La Trobe.   His unorthodox relationships with married women seem to be an ongoing theme: in 1846 he took up with a Mrs Louisa Barrow, with whom he had four children, in a  public, lifelong relationship that was never regularized by marriage.

Barry was only 26 when he arrived in Melbourne, and Galbally paints an engaging picture of Barry socializing with the other predominantly-Irish members of the Bar:  his good friends Sewell, Foster and Stawell and fellow Trinity-college and King’s Inn  graduates Brewster and Croke.  Although a member of the Melbourne Club and welcomed to all the vice-regal social occasions, he had little capital behind him and thus was not caught up in the land speculation of the early 1840s and  “perhaps for this reason his managed to maintain civilized relations with Willis for longer than most of the legal fraternity” (Galbally p. 49).

Not that Barry found Willis easy.  His diary records a succession of entries where he “argued with Willis“, “fought with Willis” or had a “blow-up with Willis who threatened to suspend me“.  He greeted the news of Willis’ suspension with relief  “Supreme Court Willis suspended + removed, Te Deum Laudamus” (24 June 1843).

In spite of this, Barry did not seem to have been exposed to the same personal insults or attacks that other barristers and officers of the court suffered.  Willis seemed to greet his appointment as the Commissioner for the Court of Requests in January 1843 with genuine approval, and at times their sparring in court (complete with historical allusions and Latin jests)  seemed to be equally relished by them both.   Although Barry had a reputation as a bit of a dandy who wore an old-fashioned Beau Brummel style suit, obviously Judge Willis did not take exception to this as much as he did the trimmed moustaches of Edward Sewell, Barry’s friend and erstwhile housemate.


Unlike Judge Willis, Barry was noted for his “dignified deportment and invincible politeness” (Garryowen p. 867). Galbally captures this quality well.   Against such a man, Willis’ own failings of temper and demeanour would have been even more marked.


Ann Galbally  Redmond Barry: An Anglo-Irish Australian

Barry, Sir Redmond, Australian Dictionary of Biography (online)

‘Consolation’ by Michael Redhill


2007, 469p

So what does a new historian, weary of combing 19th century newspapers about  little colonial communities read when she heads down to the beach for a few days?  Why, a NOVEL emerging from combing 19th century newspapers about a little colonial community, of course!

I’d heard Michael Redhill talking about his book ‘Consolation’ on Radio National’s The Book Show last year.  The 1850s setting in Toronto, Canada attracted me particularly because if I am going to trace my Resident Judge John Walpole Willis to his career in Canada and British Guiana by upgrading to a PhD, then these places are going to be as familiar to me as Port Phillip is now.  But is that possible?  One of my fellow students commented that she had heard that, in the end, your thesis is always about you.  I’d resisted that thought for a while, as there seems something so self-indulgent and self-aggrandising about it, but perhaps there’s more than a little truth in it, especially in my case.  After all, my first awareness of Judge Willis came from living in Heidelberg, in what was originally the Port Phillip district.  I do not have a judicial bone in my body, but I am attracted to the idea of community cohesion, and its flipside, community rejection of someone who doesn’t fit role expectations.  I’m fascinated by the intersection of small, face-to-face relationships and politics and the Big Imperial Politics of the nineteenth century Colonial Office.

Is it possible to write about a place and a culture that you have never been to?  In the furore over Kate Grenville’s book The Secret River, particular criticism was directed at her efforts to absorb the atmosphere and emotional responses to a rough sea crossing, or the banks of the Thames by visiting them today and trying to imagine herself into the responses of people of the time.   Approaching the Heads of Port Jackson on a safe twentieth century boat with lifeboats, communications and a nearby coastguard could not possibly parallel the experience of a small boat with men alone facing huge seas, it was argued.

But, on the other hand, can a description of the courtroom atmosphere of the 1840s ignore a February heatwave?  Can the episode of two men serving papers on Judge Willis on his way to inspect the half-built courtroom make sense without an imagination of the straggly streets of early Melbourne?    How necessary is it to be aware of such things?   If I’m drawing on this almost environmental contextual awareness as the well-spring for my treatment of him in the Port Phillip community,  will I be able to do it for Upper Canada- where I have never been, and as  an even greater challenge, in British Guiana?   Port Phillip, Upper Canada, British Guiana- even their names have changed, to say nothing of the colonial nature of their societies.

And so, I thought I might turn to fiction as a taster.  Consolation is written as two interwoven stories.  The ‘modern’ story is set in a Toronto high-rise hotel, where the widow of a recently-deceased historian is looking down on an excavation where, perhaps, artefacts will be discovered to vindicate her husband’s claims over the shoreline and the likely existence of a shipwreck containing a box of photographic plates of 1850s Toronto.  The ‘past’ story concerns the photographers who created the plates and their adjustments to colonial Toronto and separation from family and ‘home’.

There’s always a peril in the ‘two interwoven stories’ structure that one will overshadow the other, and I think this happened here somewhat.  I really enjoyed the 1850s sections, and felt quite impatient when I was dragged back to the drawn out ‘suspense’ of a Time Team program written on paper.  Of course, my motivation for reading the book may differ from that of other readers, but I felt that he made the characters of the photographic partners  J. G. Hallam and Mrs Rowe come to life.  His descriptions of 1850s Toronto had the whiff of the newspaper article about them, but I enjoy that.

Apparently the book received muted praise in Toronto itself.  There is a slightly evangelical authorial tone that comes through in the ‘modern’ section about heritage and community identity, and perhaps I, too, bridled a bit against being lectured about something that, in reality, I do feel strongly about.

Putting my historian hat on, I could see parallels between the 1850s Toronto he describes, and the 1840s Port Phillip where I spend most of my mental time.  Even the concept of the photographic panorama was replicated here in Port Phillip at much the same time, for slightly different reasons.  And as a fiction reader, I was drawn to the characters he evoked and the little community in which they lived.

‘When a Crocodile Eats the Sun: a memoir’ by Peter Godwin


2006, 340 p.

A memoir is not the same as an autobiography.  An autobiography is driven by the ongoing elapse of time, where chronology imposes an order onto the narrative.  A memoir, on the other hand, is a construction placed over events which can be quite independent of time.  It is, in its own way, just as much an argument as a non-fiction book can be.

Godwin uses the metaphor of the solar eclipse- the crocodile eating the sun- to frame his memoir of Mugabe-era Zimbabwe.  And oh what a descent into darkness it is.  We can read in our newspapers of the inflation, the cholera etc etc and yet be none the wiser about how people continue to live in Zimbabwe (as distinct from merely surviving).  For me, it was the footage of the bashed Morgan Tsvangirai, right in the middle of an election campaign in the glare of the world’s media, that reinforced the ruthlessness, defiance and absolute power of an autocratic regime.  If this could happen to the leader of the opposition, what was happening to people without an international political profile?

But, just as much as a political commentary, this book is about being a son and identity.  Godwin’s parents are becoming increasingly frail.  Peter, the author is seeking citizenship in America where he works as a journalist, angling for African assignments that will enable him to be return to see his parents .  His sister Georgina works as an activist broadcaster and would be endangered by a return to Zimbabwe, while another sister was killed by gangs several years earlier.  At times I just wanted to shake him- why was he allowing his work to dictate when or if he would see his parents- just go there without waiting for an employer to pick up the tab.  Isn’t there some obligation on children?- I’m old enough to think that there is.  But then again, what if parents absolutely refuse to move from a situation that puts their children into danger in meeting these obligations?

The twist in this memoir is the author’s discovery that his father has hidden from his children his  Jewish identity and his lifestory as sole survivor of his family from the holocaust.  As well as shaking the author’s confidence that he ‘knows’ his father, this knowledge leads him to reconsider the role of the outsider, statelessness and exile in  twenty-first century Zimbabwe as well.

Although it would be easy to typecast the author’s family as stubborn white colonialist farmers in a changed political situation, it is not as clearcut as this.  The opposition to Mugabe’s rule seems to be class-based as much as colour-based, and many of the relationships that Godwin’s parents have with neighbours,  fellow professionals and employees cross racial boundaries.

But, as with all  people born into a post-colonial society, there is a mixture of guilt, self-interest, love of country and one’s own national identity.  Godwin’s mother, in trying to explain to her son why she cannot leave, turns to Rudyard Kipling’s poem “The Roman Centurion’s Song: Roman Occupation of Britain, A. D. 300”.  She chooses this prominent poet of the Empire, knowing that he is writing from the ‘invader’s’ perspective:

Legate, I come to you in tears- My cohort ordered home!

I’ve served in Britain forty years.  What should I do in Rome?

Here is my heart, my soul, my mind- the only life I know,

I cannot leave it all behind.  Command me not to go!”

‘When a Crocodile Eats the Sun’  is a beautifully crafted memoir.  The book starts with the cremation of his father, and closes with the same episode, in exactly the same words- evoking for me the circularity and rhythm of the eclipse metaphor he has chosen.  The author’s deliberate and self-consciousness construction of his narrative at times threatens to become a bit forced, but the raw conflict of loyalities on so many levels is the stronger quality of this book.

‘Dancing in the Dark’ by Caryl Phillips


2005, 214 p

W. C. Field described Bert Williams, the real-life subject of this novel, as “the funniest man I ever saw, and the saddest man I ever knew”, and this paradox is just one of many in this book.  Bert Williams was a light-skinned West Indian but adopted as his stage persona a black-faced “coon” character.  He consciously adopted this stage identity as he applied his cork makeup, and scrupulously removed both after the performance: something that his fellow negro performers could not do.  Despite the increasing discomfort of his colleagues with his depiction of a shuffling, feebleminded “coon” , he responded to the acclaim of white audiences by continuing to play the character, eventually as the only “blackface” amongst Ziegfield’s Follies.  And yet, his act raised the profile of Negro performers, heading Booker T. Washington to note that “He has done more for our race than I have.  He has smiled his way into people’s hearts, I have been obliged to fight my way”.  And yet, this “smile” is so ambiguous and shallow: white audiences boycotted his attempts to move beyond the “nigger” stereotype, and he was trapped into continuing to play the character in order to maintain his popularity.

This book is told from multiple points of view, particularly from the middle of the book onwards.  I’m not sure if this narrative style was as prominent at the start, but I certainly noticed it as the book went on, and it seemed to mirror the increasing disintegration of his inner personality, marriage and stage success as it was perceived more and more by others.  The narrative is interspersed with film scripts, newspaper reports etc (that I assume are fictional, but I wouldn’t know) in a sort of papier-mache, constructed effect that emphasizes the emptiness of the man underneath.

The tone of the book is fairly simple and direct.  It raises big issues, though, about race, identity, performance and popular acclaim through the story of one man.

‘The High Price of Heaven’ by David Marr

1999, 287p.

This is a collection of David Marr’s Sydney Morning Herald essays from 1999, extended and revised into a collection that critiques fundamentalist Christianity and its attitudes towards sex, censorship, drugs and pleasure more generally.

It’s vintage Marr- witty, brittle, bitter and bombastic. He certainly doesn’t hold back at all on his dislike for John Howard, George Pell, Peter Jensen and the Sydney religious elite.

Of course, a book of “current” essays from 1999 becomes dated, and yet many things remain the same. Howard may be gone, but the religious influence is still with us- unchanged in the case of Jensen and Pell; dominant still with Rudd but somehow, I sense, taking a slightly different direction.  I haven’t read Marr’s latest book on the Hensen controversy, but I suspect that it takes up where this book left off.

So, I was interested in Juliette Hughes’ review of David Marr’s new book The Henson Case.  She writes, in an observation that is equally applicable to The High Price of Heaven:

Marr is as ever a pleasure to read even when you largely disagree with him about the subject, as I do. But it’s difficult when you disagree with much of the other side, too. The trouble is that most people are well meaning and the subject is incendiary. You’re either a pedophile voyeur or a prudish ignoramus; nothing in between…Marr’s fervid advocacy admits of no equivocation; this discussion begins mezzo-forte, crescendoing rapidly to fortissimo and stays there, attacking predictable targets, the dullard Christian right, the unspeakable Sydney shock jocks

Much of Juliette Hughes’ review resonated with my own uneasiness about the Henson controversy.  I was surprised that so many people so quickly adopted such clear-cut and definitive opinions.  Almost a year on, I’m still undecided- and think that I may remain this way- about the photographs, the dividing line between art and exploitation, and the contract (if any)  between the creator and the beholder.

‘Crossing the River’ by Caryl Phillips

1993, 237 p.

This is a very post-modern novel of the African diaspora, written by a West Indian author, raised in England. There are multiple narratives, bookended by an opening lament of a father forced to sell his children into slavery in Africa, and closed by a lament about diaspora and dispossession which ties together the four stories in between.

The four stories are those of the sold children, but untethered in time and place.  The first voice is that of a slave liberated by his master to move to Liberia, writing letters back to his master. The letters are unanswered, and he is unaware that his master is travelling to Liberia to meet him.  The narrative shifts between an epistolatory form, and the ‘straight’ narrative of the master’s journey from America to Liberia in search of his former slave.

The second voice is that of Martha, the second sold child, an old Negro woman, travelling for the West Coast in the post civil-war era.  She is abandoned because she is too old and slow.

The third voice comes through the journal of the slave trader, moored off the African coast for an inordinate amount of time while he collects more cargo. He reports on the deaths and escapes of his cargo as the boat waits in humid waters until there are sufficient bodies for the trip to be profitable.  The author captures the tone of the journal well, couched in the language of late 18th century piety and commercialism, and it is chilling in its banality at times.

Finally, the fourth story is a long one, taking up about one third of the book.  This voice belongs to Joyce, the white wife of a man arrested for black market activities during WWII who starts up a relationship with a black GI, who represents the third ‘sold’ child.  This section is told in very short (1-2 page) discontinuous entries; weaving back and forth over the war years.

So- the three sold children, but told at different jumps in the unfolding history and in different countries (Liberia, US, UK), and interwoven with the stories of the grief-striken African father, the slave-trader, and an omniscient narrator intoning rather academically on diaspora as a phenomenon.  I really wondered how the author was going to carry this off- how on earth was he going to draw all these disparate bits into a whole? But he did, deftly, cleverly and succinctly in the last few pages.

I have mixed feelings about the book. I feel deep admiration for the sheer virtuoisity and intent of the book, but I found myself rather distanced from the stories: it was almost as if the technical cleverness of the author’s intention and execution overshadowed the human aspects.  And yet, even as I write this, I wonder if this is what the author intended all along.