‘Imperial Communication: Australia, Britain and the British Empire c1839-1850’

Simon J. Potter (ed) Imperial Communication: Australian, Britain and the British Empire c1830-1850 ,London, Menzies Centre for Australian Studies, 2005

Growing up in the early 1960s, I am old enough to remember thinking of myself living in an empire, even if by then the proper terminology was ‘commonwealth’.  Although I am a fourth (?) generation Australian, there was still a sense that if you were going to travel anywhere overseas (by ship, naturally), then you’d go to England and ‘the continent’. Cars were made in England; your crockery was made in England; Enid Blyton WAS England; coats came from England; the Beatles and Carnaby Street came from England, and I was inordinately proud of my Mark Shaw three-piece pillar-box red pants suit made in England.  I didn’t realize it at the time, but I very much thought of England as ‘the centre’ and Australia, New Zealand and Canada as ‘the periphery’.  I don’t know that I really thought about the other red bits on the map at all, except to acknowledge them perhaps as a family of cultural political step-siblings who also received visits from our hatted and gloved Queen.

Academically, this centre/periphery model of the British Empire has been challenged by a number of views.  One of these is that, instead of  being pre-eminent at the centre of the empire, Britain was itself changed by the two way flow of wealth, information and political innovation from the colonies.  The second is that the British Empire is best seen as an intersecting, overlapping network or web, of personnel and information that flowed in circuits between and across the metropole and peripheries.  People are an important component of this- the waves of emigrants who circulated between locations, and the corps of officials and bureaucrats whose career took them from one placement to another.  My own work fits very much into this view of empire, and so, too, do the papers in this book.  It’s an approach that appeals to me because it combines the personal and fine-grained element of biography within a broader overarching structural model.

The first paper by Damen Ward from New Zealand is entitled ‘Colonial communication: forums for creating public opinion in Crown Colony South Australia and New Zealand’.  He has chosen these two colonies because they were both associated with Wakefieldianism and prided themselves that they were ‘free’ colonies rather than penal, and that their colonists were fully entitled to their legal and constitutional rights as free-born, active, independent British subjects.  He examines  this language of constitutionalism as it played out through settler-initiated public discourse, most particularly in public meetings, petitions and memorials, the press, and Grand Jury presentments where jurors themselves raised issues of concern to the population at large.

Zoe Laidlaw, in ‘Closing the Gap: colonial governors and unofficial communications in the 1830s’ examines the more personalized communication channels that governors and lobby groups carved out for themselves to ensure that their viewpoints were heard back ‘home’.  Although governors seemed to be in a privileged position in terms of official communication and access to the movers and shakers, they were much more vulnerable than they appeared.  Political parties moved in and out of office, particularly during the 1830s and 1840s, and the career-enhancing coup of naming a city or a river after a particular politician didn’t look quite so wise when that politician was bundled into the opposition.  Governors were under financial pressure and they were reliant on gossip or slow and often outdated information, and so they were reliant on ‘friends’ of like political persuasion who could represent their interests in person to the Colonial Office.  Unfortunately for them, though, their opponents and lobby groups could play this game too, and sometimes, as in the case of Sir John Franklin, the ‘friend’ turned out to be anything but.  Laidlaw illustrates this scenario through the example of Governor Bourke, who enlisted his son Dick as his envoy.

Finally, Alan Lester’s paper furthers the concept of the British Empire as a network by examining the rival humanitarian and settler circuits of communication that operated between and within sites in the Empire. The humanitarian networks reached a peak of influence with the anti-slavery and then aboriginal lobby-groups that held sway over the Colonial Office.  They, and their local branches, were challenged by settler groups, in differing degrees of formal organization, which strongly resented the imposition of a morality from afar.  This transcended national borders. Governors like Bourke were execrated as “liberals” by settler groups in South Africa,who later greeted news of his downfall in NSW  with glee.

These essays work well as a collection.  They spring from a similar historical approach, and their length is sufficient for their authors to develop and support an argument in some detail.  The layout of the pages is generous, leading to an easily-read and rewarding exploration of people operating as best they can and with differing degrees of awareness within the larger structure of empire within a tightly-focussed timeframe..

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