Category Archives: Colonial biography

‘Looking for Rose Paterson: How Family Bush Life Nurtured Banjo the Poet’ by Jennifer Gall

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2017, 192 P & notes

I can remember how disappointed I felt when I first read Graeme Davison’s article ‘Sydney and the Bush:an urban context for the Australian Legend’, published in Historical Studies in October 1978 [1]. It was written some 20 years after Russel Ward’s The Australian Legend and it argued that the bush legend sprang not from the trenches of the goldfields or Gallipoli, but from the streets of central Sydney. How un-bush-like!  I couldn’t remember the details, but I did remember a map of Sydney, with dots depicting all the places where the ‘bush’ writers (Lawson, Price Wurung) lived, often in boarding houses and close to the radical centres of urban Sydney life.  Where were the ‘lowing cattle’ and  stringy eucalypts there?, I wondered.

I’ve only just gone back to look at the article to refresh my memory, and my eye snagged on Davison’s qualification that “’Banjo’ Paterson was the one important figure with even fair ‘bush’ credentials” (p. 192)  That’s good, then, because I’ve just finished reading Jennifer Galls’ book Looking for Rose Paterson: How Family Bush Life Nurtured Banjo the Poet. The crux of her argument is that Banjo (Andrew Barton) Paterson’s  short stories and poems like Clancy of the Overflow  and The Man from Snowy River drew on his childhood upbringing in small country towns in New South Wales (close to Orange and then Yass) and the influence of strong women of the bush- women much like his mother, Rose.

The author, Jennifer Gall is a curator at the National Film and Sound Archive in Canberra, and this is at least the second book of hers that has been published by the National Library of Australia.  I’ve been thinking about why a library, in particular, might publish a book about an individual.  In some cases, the subject has achieved fame, and the documentation held by the library or museum might be published to add an extra dimension to their already-public character (I’m thinking, most pertinently, of Germaine Greer’s archive which is about to become available from the University of Melbourne archives).  Alternatively, the library or museum may hold a collection that is notable for its completeness, or the illumination it throws on otherwise-undocumented, lived experience, but the creator him/herself is unknown (and I’m thinking here of the Goldfields Diary held by the State Library of Victoria). In such cases, the publication of a hard-copy, illustrated book would be a way of bringing the wealth of that particular archive to public attention.

Looking for Rose Paterson is a combination of both these spurs to publication.  As the title and cover design lettering suggests, this book is indirectly a commentary on the famous Australian writer Banjo Paterson, but the larger emphasis is on his mother Rose Paterson, rather than her son.  The book is based on the collection of thirty nine of Rose Paterson’s letters written to her younger sister Nora Murray-Prior between 1873 and 1888 and available online at  http://catalogue.nla.gov.au/Record/650061  The letters had once been part of the Murray-Prior estate and were crammed into an old sea-chest that had been cleared out of a family home.  In this regard they are like the family letters of any family that has had the education to generate and value the letters in the first place, and the wealth and stability to keep family documents through a limited number of shifts of location and strong family ties. The letters were purchased by academic Colin Roderick,  author of several books on Henry Lawson and Banjo Paterson, who recognized the significance of the placenames and personalities (Banjo himself and  Nora’s step-daughter the author Rosa Praed) and hence the letters also have value because of their links with famous people. Roderick  published the letters in 2000 and offered the letters to the National Library.

So who was Rose Paterson, other than Banjo Paterson’s mother?  In her own right, she lived and died without recognition beyond her family. She was born in 1844 in Australia, four years after her parents had arrived separately in the colony on the same ship. She was part of the lineage of a pioneering pastoral family. Her mother had educated her at home, along with her siblings in a standard classical education- English and French, and an introduction to the rudiments of Latin, Greek, German and Italian.  She married at the age of 18 in one of those sisters-marrying-brothers constellations found in many family trees. Her husband, Andrew Bogle Paterson  was often absent on pastoral work on the three stations co-owned by the brothers in NSW and Queensland.  When the elder brother John died suddenly at the age of 40, his remaining brother Andrew lost the stations but was kept on at their Illalong station as an overseer.  It was in this environment that Banjo Paterson grew up, with his three siblings and cousin, and it was here  at Illalong that Rose wrote to her younger sister Nora, who lived with her much-older husband Thomas Lodge Murray-Prior along with her twelve step-children and eight own children. One marvels that Nora had time to correspond, but judging from Rose’s side of the correspondence (Nora’s is lost), she clearly did, facilitated most probably by money and material comforts that her sister Rose lacked.  After the death of Rose’s husband in 1889, the connection with Illalong was severed and Rose shifted to her mother’s house at Rockend, in Gladesville, Sydney where she died in 1893 at the age of 49.

These are just the sort of letters that a historian craves. There is continuity and detail, and they provide an entrée to the world of women who have intermarried into a small subset of pastoralist families and who are known to each other.  Although Rose’s life at Illalong was hard, she maintained her connections with her much more genteel and refined pre-marriage life. The line between a wealthy squatter and an impoverished one was a permeable one because of clan connections, particularly in the Scots pastoral fraternity.  If you’re looking for details of interactions with the indigenous people who had either been ‘turned away’ or still lived and worked on the stations, you’re not going to find them here. Instead, through the intimacy of sisters who see each other on occasion at their mother’s house in Sydney and who take an interest in their nieces and nephews, we gain a family-based, woman’s-eyed view of childbearing, motherhood, parenting and social life. In this, I was reminded of the repository of letters by Anna Murray Powell in Upper Canada, and Katherine McKenna’s wonderful use of them in writing A Life of Propriety.    However, in Gall’s book the narrative is driven by themes rather than chronology, and what rich themes they are!

In Chapter 1 ‘This poor old prison of a habitation’, the circumstances by which Rose ended up at Illalong are detailed, but the chapter then moves to a discussion of sewing, mending, trousseaus and marriage.  Chapter 2 ‘All utilities and no luxuries’ highlights the drudgery of farming, the isolation and cheerlessness of living on a remote station, and the financial strain of drought and the poor remuneration for overseers.  Ch. 3 ‘Smuggle a bottle of chloroform’ was absolutely fascinating in exploring the experience of pregnancy – a topic that is delicately avoided in most colonial correspondence, particularly when the correspondence itself is infrequent, addressed to and read by the men of the family, and covering months of news, rather than the day-to-day.  The two sisters write about the pregnancies, births and losses of mutual acquaintances, and Rose’s letter to Nora after her nine-month-old baby died gives the lie to the assumption that parents were inured to the loss of children at a time of high infant mortality.  They write of the search for doctors, or failing that,  ‘gamps’ – midwives- and plans for confinement where there will be assistance. Gall points out that Australian women were more likely to call on a doctor during their confinement than women in Britain and Europe, who turned to midwives instead, suggesting that this might reflect the disproportionate rate of men to women in early decades of Australian settlement.

There is an abrupt change of pace and direction in Chapter 4, where Gall returns to the ‘Banjo’ thread of her narrative.  I found this rather jarring, as the spotlight is turned to the son, rather than the mother.  Having noted the dearth of commentary about Aboriginal people in Rose and Nora’s letters, it was startling to turn the page to see a full-length portrait photograph of Banjo, known to the family as ‘Barty’, aged possibly 2 or 3,  sitting on a chair with his Aboriginal nurse Fanny, who was barely more than a child herself.  Rose accuses ‘that horrid Black Fanny’ of allowing him to climb trees and injure his arm, but there is no other comment in the text (and presumably in the letters) of the presence of Aboriginal people on the station or in the domestic setting of the home.  This chapter is more chronological, briefly tracing through Banjo Paterson’s career,  the writing of Waltzing Matilda and his work as war correspondent.  Was this chapter necessary? I think maybe not, or perhaps it could have been better incorporated into the introduction, because it broke the narrative thread of the other chapters.

Chapter 5 ‘Judicious neglect and occasional scrubbing’ returns to the domestic world of childcare, child rearing and education. As an educated woman herself,  Rose placed high importance on education for both her sons and her daughters, and she sought to secure the best tuition she could with the limited money available to her.  For her sons, this involved boarding in Sydney to attend Sydney Grammar School, but for her daughters this involved tuition through a governess, and later through boarding with school teachers in nearby Yass, and the passing on of skills from one sister to another.   Chapter 6 ‘No better dower than a good education’ continues this theme, describing the career paths and life choices available to Rose’s and Nora’s daughters.  Rose’s awareness of the literary success of Nora’s stepdaughter Rosa Praed, and her responses to the books that she is reading hint that Rose could, perhaps, have been a writer herself – like Louisa Lawson perhaps? Chapter 7 ‘We shall have a fine houseful’ describes Roses’s social life and larger cultural world, which encompassed what could be termed ‘bourgeois’ families in the local area, wider contacts within the intermarried squattocracy families, and at her mother’s house in Sydney.  The chapter discusses etiquette, the importance of the piano, visiting protocols, weddings and country balls- and here again I was reminded of the Powell family in Upper Canada and the transference and ubiquity of middle-class domestic practices  across the colonies of the Empire.

The book finishes with a short summary of Rose Paterson’s legacy and returns to the theme announced in the title of ‘How family bush life nurtured Banjo the poet’ – something that I wondered if Gall was going to return to at any stage.  The book closes with an expression of regret that no photo had been found of Rose, but as we read in the obviously-later-written introduction, there is a photograph of her- and what a beautiful photograph it is.

The book is interspersed with reproductions of Rose’s letters on yellowed paper, with the ink faded to brown, and occasionally cross-written (the historian’s curse!). There are lengthy quotes from the letters in the text, marked with the icon of a pen-nib to denote when the original has been reproduced on the adjoining page, and as a reader you never felt that the author was holding the sources back from you.  The book is lavishly illustrated with images, only few of which relate directly to the Paterson family.  At times I wondered if the images were being used  too tangentially.  Barely two pages of text passed without an illustration, and the ‘coffee-table’ presentation tended to  detract from the scholarship of the work, in the quest for atmosphere and context.

I very much enjoyed this book.  As a historian of a ‘famous’ man myself, this archive of correspondence is just the sort that I craved and sought in vain,  in trying to flesh out the domestic world that lies behind us all- famous and unknown alike.   Gall has served us well, in presenting the archive, contextualising it within the milieu of nineteenth century Australian pastoralism,  and drawing out the themes of women’s lives in that class and environment.  I felt sorry to leave Rose- or rather, sorry that she left us- a sure sign that a  letter can reach  across time and generations.

[1] Graeme Davison ‘Sydney and the Bush: an urban context for the Australian Legend’ Historical Studies, vol 18, no 71, October 1978.

Source: Review copy NLA, courtesy Scott Eathorne, Quikmark Media

My rating: 8.5/10

aww2017-badgeI am posting this review to the Australian Women Writers Challenge.

‘Sir William a’Beckett’ by J. M. Bennett

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Sir William a’Beckett J.M. Bennett, Federation Press, 2001.

This blog is called ‘The Resident Judge of Port Phillip’ as a tribute to the first resident judge, John Walpole Willis, but there were in fact four Resident Judges of Port Phillip. William a’Beckett, the fourth and final one, is an interesting man. His main claim to fame is that he was the first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Victoria, after having served as Resident Judge in Melbourne since 1846.

As proud Victorians, it suits us to forget that until July 1851 the area that we now know as Victoria was instead just the “Port Phillip District” of New South Wales.  La Trobe was a mere ‘Superintendent’; the Legislative Council sat in Sydney where Port Phillip affairs were an afterthought, and all administrative functions were directed from Sydney.  The court was part of the Supreme Court of New South Wales and while the Resident Judge in Melbourne had some degree of autonomy, appeals went automatically to the full Bench in Sydney.  The Resident Judge was still a member of the full court, but distance ensured that in a practical sense he was sidelined from the activities of his brother judges in Sydney.

William a’Beckett was Resident Judge when the Supreme Court of Victoria was finally established under the Supreme Court (Administration) Act 1852. This act brought to an end a rather ambiguous seven-month hiatus where it was assumed, but not definitely stated, that  a’Beckett would continue in his position until Letters Patent were issued by the Queen or colonial legislation would be passed to make him Chief Justice of the new court.  The Colonial Office made it clear that it wasn’t going to issue the Letters Patent or any new Charter, so it was up to the new Victorian legislature to pass the necessary legislation. It eventually did so, and a’Beckett was sworn in as Chief Justice on 24th January 1852, with Redmond Barry (the former Solicitor-General) as first puisne (or assistant) judge, joined by Edward Eyre Williams in July 1852. Continue reading

‘The Colthurst Journal’ by John Bowen Colthurst

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John Bowen Colthurst (1779-1848) was appointed to  Barbados as a Special Magistrate in 1835, and this is his diary, annotated by W.K. Marshall, Professor of History at the University of the West Indies.

After the abolition of slavery in the British Empire on 1 August 1834, the British government instituted a period of ‘apprenticeship’ when ex-slaves continued to work on their former masters’ plantations for 45 hours a week, in exchange for food, clothing and housing.  They were no longer owned by their master, and he no longer had the power to punish them.  Instead, Special Magistrates were appointed to hear complaints about the apprentices from their masters and vice versa. Much of the time he mediated between them, but he alone had the power to order punishment.  It was intended originally that field (or praedial) slaves would be bound to work for six years as apprentices, while domestic (or non-praedial) slaves would be bound for four, on account of the longer working hours they undertook in the house.   However, the Apprenticeship system was abandoned in 1838, largely because of the unworkability of having some Apprentices freed and others not, and because public agitation in England was ramping up again against continued involvement in slavery or its other manifestations.

John Bowen Colthurst was of a good Anglo-Irish family, with strong network connections. He had had a military career during the Napoleonic Wars (although he didn’t see active service) and had withdrawn on half-pay after the war to his farm in Ireland.  The farm, however, had accrued many debts and so, like many others, he began petitioning the Colonial Office for a position, drawing on the strings of patronage at his disposal.  He had been a JP in Ireland for many years and it was this combination of legal administrative experience and his military training that led to his appointment as a Special Magistrate in Barbados, and later St Vincent.  In this regard he was unusual: many Special Magistrates had the military background but very few had acted as magistrates before.  His family did not accompany him, and his wife and daughter stayed with her cousin. Despite his attempts to retrieve the financial situation for his family, they lost the farm soon after his return to Ireland.

Colthurst proclaimed himself to be an abolitionist, but he was able to reconcile this philosophy with his role as one of the functionaries of the Apprenticeship system. He seems to have seen the Apprenticeship as a temporary measure that needed to work as a preparation for freedom on both sides- both planter and apprentice-  and believed that it would stand as a good example for other nations contemplating the abolition of slavery.  He was certainly critical of many of the plantation managers and their treatment of Apprentices, although this seemed to stem largely from his dislike of ‘low-bred’ creoles (ie. Europeans born in the West Indies). Nonetheless,  he continued to argue that a period of adjustment was beneficial and indeed necessary to induce plantation-owners to relinquish their slave property.

In 1837, agitation against the Apprenticeship system was ramping up in England, and the radical abolitionist Joseph Sturge released a critique of the Apprenticeship system, which received a great deal of publicity amongst abolitionsts in London. Over in the West Indies,  Colthurst found himself springing to the defence of Special Magistrates and their role, and decrying Sturge’s information-gathering techniques and one-sided report.

Colthurst was probably one of the better Special Magistrates.  He was  well-informed about agriculture and police administration, and took an interest in the religious and educational provision of the apprentices.  He was careful not to become too embroiled socially with the planters, preferring to maintain his contacts with the governors instead.  Of course, this shapes his narrative as well.

On his return to Britain, he realized that there was a market for literature about the West Indies – for example, Mrs Carmichael’s work that I reviewed here and the eyewitness reports submitted home by abolitionists and planters as part of the public discourse about abolition.   Through (and despite?) his involvement in the Apprenticeship system at the time, he became increasingly involved in abolition movements on his return, most particularly those agitating against the continuation of American slavery.  He rewrote his memoirs into the form they are found in this book, in five separate volumes and forwarded them to leading abolitionists in the hope that they might be published.  They were, but not as a stand-alone publication, being extracted for newspaper publication instead.  Only four of these volumes exist today in the Boston Public Library, and the fifth volume has been reconstructed by the editor from columns that were republished in abolition newspapers.

Marshall’s introductory chapters to the journal are informative, and his annotations throughout the book are useful and insightful, providing information that Colthurst could not have known at the time, and challenging some of Colthurst’s observations.  Colthurst’s writing is of its time, but he certainly provides a wealth of information about the role of the special magistrate in a short-lived experiment of policy.

‘Connecting’ at the masterclass

Well, now I can tell you what happens at a masterclass!  There were about eighteen or so participants, drawn from universities across Australia, but the majority were from the University of Tasmania. The masterclass was hosted by Penny Edmonds from the University of Tasmania,  and several Uni of Tasmania academics attended including Anna Johnston (who wrote The Paper Wars which I reviewed here), Hamish Maxwell-Stewart and Kristyn Harman, whose book Aboriginal Convicts: Australian, Khoisan and Maori Exiles recently won the Kay Daniels award.

But the major drawcard, for me at least, was the presence of  Dr. Zoe Laidlaw, Reader in British Imperial and Colonial History at Royal Holloway, University of London. Continue reading

‘The Ordeal of Elizabeth Marsh: A Woman in World History’ by Linda Colley

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303 p. & notes, 2007

Now THIS is the sort of history I want to write!  I’ve had this book on my shelves for years, ever since I began writing my thesis.  It takes just the approach that I want to use:

…this is a book that ranges between biography, family history, British and imperial history, and global histories in the plural.  Because of the tendencies of our own times, historians have become increasingly concerned to attempt seeing the world as a whole.  This has encouraged an understandable curiosity about very large-scale phenomena: the influence of shifting weather systems on world history, ecological change over time, patterns of forced and voluntary migration, the movement of capital, or commodities, or disease over continents, the transmission of ideas and print, the workings of vast overland and oceanic networks of trade, the impact of conflicting imperial systems and so on.  These, and other such grand transcontinental forces, were and are massively important.  Yet they have never just been simply and inhumanly there.  They have impacted on people, who have understood them (or not), and adapted to them (or not), but who have invariably interpreted them in very many different ways.  Writings on world and global history (to which I stand enormously indebted) sometimes seem as aggressively impersonal as globalization can itself.

In this book, by contrast, I am concerned to explore how the lives of a group of individuals, and especially the existence of one particular unsophisticated but not unperceptive woman, were informed and tormented by changes that were viewed at the time as transnational, and transcontinental, and even as pan-global, to an unprecedented degree.  I seek to tack between the individual and world histories ‘in such a way as to bring them into simultaneous view’. (p. xxxi)

Linda Colley is an acclaimed historian of Britain and empire.  Her book Britons is heavily cited in discussions of Britishness ( although may I admit in a very small voice that I have this book on my shelves, too, waiting to be read?)  She writes big histories, but in this book she brings it back to individuals and their families.

So who was Elizabeth Marsh?  As in many cases when writing biography of a person who is not a public figure, the source material is patchy and in several instances, contestable.  From genealogical sources, Elizabeth Marsh can be located as a woman who lived from 1735 to 1785, who had two children, and was a wife, daughter and niece.  From her own writing in published travel narratives, we know that she was kidnapped by the Moroccan Sultan, Sidi Muhammed, and that she travelled extensively along the eastern coast of India.  From her uncle’s scrapbooks and journals, we learn of her extensive family networks and its mobility across the world.  A map on the opening pages of the book shows just how wide-ranging these family travels were: the Caribbean, the Americans, Britain, France, Spain Italy, Brussels, Hamburg, Menorca and Madiera, India, New South Wales, Marrakech, Tunis, Cairo, Sierra Leone and the west coast of Africa.

And yet there is so much that we don’t know about her, right down to the question of her appearance.  Her mother was Jamaican, but there is no way of knowing whether Elizabeth or her mother were coloured.  Elizabeth tells us that she was not sexually compromised during her kidnapping but can we believe her? She is largely silent on the nature of her relationship with George Smith, who accompanied her on her travels in India.  Nor can we know how her marriage to James Crisp, her fellow-abductee in Morocco, worked.  Colley speculates and imagines but she is upfront about the guesswork and supposition that she has utilized in piecing together Elizabeth Marsh’s life.

The book commences with a short introductory summary of Elizabeth Marsh’s life and clear identification of the themes that run through it:  her life; her family; her worlds; herself; history and her story.  There- it can be done in just thirteen pages!!  (says she, whose introduction threatens to engulf the whole thesis].   There are only six chapters and a conclusion, organized chronologically and each taking up a separate continent on her travels.   Without fail, each time I thought “Jeez, I could use a map here”, I turned the page and there it was.

But the book is much more than a biography (i.e. writing about the life of an individual) : it is history in its own right, with much to say about mobility, networks,  sea-consciousness and the British navy, trade and the intersection of the domestic and intimate with the commercial.  Each step of Elizabeth’s own life is embroidered with contextual and supplementary information so that as a reader you’re better able to judge the exceptionality or conventionality of what you have just read.  Is this distracting? Possibly, if you’re after a straight biography, but there was only one occasion where I felt that she was wandering a bit too far offtopic.

At times Colley moves into the present tense when describing Elizabeth’s lived experience, returning to past tense in her analysis,  with occasional shifts back into the present tense when describing her own insights as researcher and investigator.  These changes in tense are handled so adroitly that you’re barely aware of them.  They add to the immediacy of the narrative, and the feeling as if you’re being addressed by a researcher steeped in expertise and well in control of her material and eager to share it with you.

Do I regret leaving it so long to read this book?  Not really. I think that I would have been intimidated by it earlier in my own research, and reading it at the stage I’m at inspires me with an example, right there on the page, of the type of historian I’d like to be.

Other reviews (by a veritable Who’s Who of authors):

Claire Tomalin in the Guardian

Megan Marshall in The New York Times

Hilary Mantel in the London Review of Books (a lengthy but excellent review)

Lisa Jardine in the Times Higher Education Supplement

‘A Swindler’s Progress’ by Kirsten McKenzie

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2009, 303 p. & notes

A couple of weeks ago I thought that I had finished the best book that I would be reading during 2013.  I was premature in my declaration.  This is the best book that I have read this year, and in this case, I have no qualms at all about the  behaviour of its author as a professional historian.  Kirsten McKenzie’s earlier book Scandal in the Colonies is one of the books that has shaped my approach to my own research.  Her portrayal of colonial life in the early nineteenth century as a criss-crossing of networks and connections between different colonies across the globe rings true for ‘my’ judge and the other officials that he encountered during his career, as a quick glance through the Australian Dictionary of Biography will attest.  She writes clearly, with humour, and interweaves human stories into a robust and insightful theoretical framework.  She’s the sort of historian I wish I could be.

In fact, as she explains in the epilogue,  it was her concern as a professional historian with the accuracy of her footnotes just as Scandal in the Colonies was about to roll off the press that brought her to writing this book.  As part of the History Wars of the Howard era, Keith Windschuttle challenged the historiography of aboriginal/settler conflict, largely on the basis of the accuracy of footnotes.  Like many historians, I should imagine, McKenzie became increasingly “twitchy” (as she puts it) over her own footnotes, and so, suffering “footnote paranoia”,  she returned to the story with which she opened Scandal in the Colonies and found it even more fascinating than when she encountered it the first time.  It was the case of  the putative Viscount Lascelles – in reality, the implausibly but actually named John Dow- a convict who served out his time in Van Diemen’s land after being transported for swindling using yet another false identity. On the expiry of his sentence, he traversed the NSW interior, claiming that he had been commissioned by the Secretary of State to inquire into the proper treatment of assigned convicts.  He claimed that he was the eldest son of the second Earl of Harewood- a claim haughtily denied by the Earl back in England whose eldest son, in fact had been disinherited after making a series of disastrous liaisons. As part of his ruse as Commissioner of Inquiry, ‘Viscount Lascelles’/John Dow eloped with a young woman and ended up in the Sydney Supreme Court in an unsuccessful attempt to rescue her from her parents who had reclaimed her, only to see her married some time later to the nephew of the future Chief Justice Dowling who heard the case. He was subsequently returned to the Supreme Court after his deception was discovered- where, yes! he encountered ‘my’ Judge Willis!  In Scandal in the Colonies, the anecdote takes less than two pages. In A Swindler’s Progress it effortlessly fills 300 pages.

The distance and dislocation of the colonies gave scope to false identities and reinventions.  There are many famous ones both in literature and in real life: Robyn Annear’s book The Man Who Lost Himself about the Tichborne Claimant springs to mind. But this book is much more than the story of an antipodean imposter. McKenzie shuttles between the real Earl of Harewood and his son, bringing in parliamentary politics in 1807, West Indian plantation ownership, elopements and disinheritances, and the imposter son Viscount Lascelles and his deceptions in England, Scotland and New South Wales.  The real skill of her book is integrating the two stories, on opposite sides of the globe to explore the way in which the British world was convulsed in this period by debates about identity, wealth, demeanour and masculinity.  Note that it is “the British world”- an arena which interweaves both metropole and peripheries as a conceptual transnational whole:

As I began my hunt for Dow and the Lascelles, scholars of empire were calling for histories that recognised that developments in British and colonial societies were part and parcel of the same process.  The problem was: how to write it? How could this miracle of synthesis be achieved in anything like a readable manner?  How could you show it was happening? And how could you show what it was like to be caught up in these interconnected events?  Here I had the story of two men: of one who had come to vanish, and another who had stolen that identity to pursue his own ends.  But their fates were part of far bigger events. (Epilogue, p. 296)

Her earlier book Scandal in the Colonies is a tapestry of such stories, woven between Sydney and Cape Town between 1820 and 1850.  It has many theoretical insights that make you stop, reread, and realize that things are falling into place.  In this second book, she makes this theory come alive as she meanders along a story that crosses years and oceans, looping back on itself, with deceptions and evasions and disappointments and anxieties in multiple settings.  It is not necessarily a straightforward chronology, first in one country, then the other, although the structure of the book does support this rather simplistic approach.  The book is far more discursive than this, stopping to explore phenomena and events only tangentially connected with the main narrative thread. It is far more a ‘life and times’ of a phenomena than a biography of Lascelles in both his authentic and false identities.

Her epilogue betrays a slight defensiveness about her use of narrative to explore these all-too-human responses in the face of sweeping social change:

Is narrative simply a way for historians to smooth over the mess that is the past; to re-arrange it into comfortingly familiar patterns that have beginnings, middles and ends?  and yet, for all our scholarly suspicion of the neatening effects of stories, they still possess a powerful explanatory energy.  What was it like to be buffeted by those forces that were transforming so profoundly the British imperial world in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries? Those caught up in them would not live their lives according to the synthesising arguments of scholars.  Rather, they would act according to the dictates of narrative and plot: finding opportunities, being thwarted, experiencing greed, hope despair.  To follow these twists and turns is to highlight the way their world was changing.  It is luck and chance and swindles and lies and unexpected opportunities that direct lives and fates. (p.298)

She need not be defensive.  She is a master storyteller who uses the human to enliven the theoretical, and the insights of the scholarly enrich her narrative of lives lived with contingency, imperfection and incomplete endings.  This is the best book I’ve read all year.

My rating: A big fat, unequivocal 10

Read because: I enjoyed Scandal in the Colonies so much and I can reassure myself that at least I’m reading about the 19th century British empire this time

Sourced from: my shelves- a Christmas present from my husband in 2009.  Hmmm…… it took me a little while to get round to reading it.

awwbadge_2013This will be, I think, one of my last postings to the Australian Women Writers Challenge for 2013.

‘Wellington’s Men in Australia’ by Christine Wright

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Wellington’s Men in Australia: Peninsular War Veterans and the Making of Empire c1820-1840 by Christine Wright

2011,  178 p and appendices

I often found myself closing the book while I was reading it to look closely at the striking image on the front.   It’s a miniature of James Thomas Morisset (1780-1852), painted when he was about eighteen years old.  Those who loved him must have later regarded it with wistful sorrow, because he was shockingly disfigured at the battle of Albuera in 1811 as part of Wellington’s Peninsular campaign at the age of 21.  He is such a beautifully formed boy, and not at all like the description that the second in command, Foster Fyans, gave of his commandant on Norfolk Island some thirty-odd years later:

The Commandant, a gruff old gentleman with a strange face, on one side considerably longer than the other, with a stationary eye as if sealed on his forehead; his mouth was large, running diagonal to his eye, filled with a mass of useless bones; I liked the old gentleman, he was friendly and affable, and thought time might wear off his face affliction, which was most revolting: the one side I could only compare to a large yellow over-ripe melon  ( Fyans, ‘Memoirs Recorded at Geelong’ cited on p. 169)

Morisset is one of the men that Christine Wright deals with in her prosopographical study of men who served during Wellington’s Peninsular campaigns on the Iberian peninsular from 1808 to 1814.  Prosopography  was defined by the historian Lawrence Stone in a foundational article as “the investigation of the common background characteristics of a group of actors in history by means of a collective study of their lives”.  As such, it falls half-way between rather sketchy biography and a more statistical analysis.  I’ve read several legal prosopographies, and one or two about bureaucrats: it seems to be used mainly in the context of writing about careers (although it could just as easily be applied to any group of people).  It is well suited to Christine Wright’s endeavour. When reading local histories sited in the British colonies during the 1820s, 30s and 40’s you come across ex-military figures again and again, and in this book Wright takes this cohort of soldiers, bonded by their experience in the Peninsular campaigns, and traces the rest of their careers throughout the empire.

During the Napoleonic Wars the need for manpower rendered the old system of purchasing of commissions inadequate.  Young soldiers of limited means, who would not normally have had the capital to purchase their  positions not only had a career pathway open up for them during the war, but also were eligible for half-pay and land grants after the war.   As veterans, they were able to draw on the networks of influence to gain positions across an empire which was calling out for their skills in logistics, engineering and surveying.  The half-pay entitlement was insufficient to live on in Britain which drove veterans to look for employment overseas, and from the British Government’s point of view it was a way of cutting the cost of numbers on the half-pay list while filling appointments with skilled men and their families.

In the colonies, veterans in garrison regiments and ex-soldiers who had sold their commissions fitted particularly well into the military structures of early NSW and Van Diemen’s land.  As the colonies evolved away from penal settlements to free colonies, these ex-military men were well placed to take up civil positions of power and authority in the community.  They obtained large grants of land complete with convict labour and accrued the status that accompanied being a landowner- something that they probably never would have been able to achieve in Britain.

But the army had given them more than just military skills.  The drawing and surveying skills developed during the war were put to use in colonies that were still exploring their spaces.  Beyond their practical uses, these skills flowed into art as well, where ex-veteran painters, alert to the stark light and harshness of the Spanish terrain, were able to capture the light of  Australian landscape  in a way not seen amongst painters who had spent all their lives in the soft lights of England or wooded European settings.  Accustomed to making written reports, many of the veterans wrote their memoirs of the Peninsular campaign but extended their memoirs into their new settings as well.

Veterans were often deployed on the frontier in various roles: explorers, magistrates, Mounted Police, Border Police and as military commandants of penal stations.  The term ‘frontier’ means different things to different groups: there were different frontiers depending on whether you are talking about ‘big man’ sheep farms, ‘small man’ cattle farms and agricultural mixed farming. Some historians prefer the term ‘contact zone’ rather than ‘frontier’. Missionaries saw it as the advancement of civilization.  In military terms, though, the frontier was

a strategic boundary, a defensive line, and the front  line of colonial order.  The military saw it as the shifting boundary of British civilisation that had to be defended. (p. 152)

On this basis, Wright gives an insightful re-reading of the Waterloo Creek massacre from a strictly military viewpoint. The British Army ceased fighting on the frontier in the latter half of 1838 and it was left to the settlers or to Border or Mounted Police which, although joined by many ex-soldiers, were not counted as part of the British Army regiment numbers.  She suggests that this changed the nature of frontier ‘clashes’ and not necessarily for the better.

The real grunt-work of this book comes in the appendices which lists influential British Army Officers in the Australian colonies who were veterans of the Peninsular War.  They are listed by name, regiment, date and place of arrival, place of death, with a brief summary of the military and civil positions they occupied in Australia.  There’s many familiar names there: several governors (George Gawler in South Australia; Governors Darling, Brisbane, Gipps, Bourke, in NSW), explorers (Sturt, Major Mitchell, Lockyer), commissariats (Logan up in Moreton Bay, G.T.W.B Boyes in NSW and VDL) and commandants (Thomas Bunbury, Joseph Childs, poor damaged James Morissett in Norfolk Island), surveyors (Light in South Australia,  and many magistrates and crown land commissioners (Fyans).

The chapters are arranged thematically, each headed by a quote:

  1. ’emigration is a matter of necessity’: The aftermath of the Peninsular War
  2. ‘they make Ancestry’: Veterans as Officers and Gentlemen
  3. ‘we are in sight of each other’: The Social Networks of Veterans
  4. ‘attached to the Protestant succession’: The Religious Influence of Veterans
  5. ‘an art which owes its perfection to War’: Skills of Veterans
  6. ‘with all the authority of Eastern despots’: Veterans as Men of Authority
  7. ‘in the midst of the Goths’: The Artistic, Literary and Cultural Legacy of Veterans
  8. ‘to pave the way for the free settler’: British Soldiers on the Frontier.

The book emerges out of the author’s PhD and I think that it is still detectable there.  At times the language was a little stilted and the author’s interventions rather forced. I was mystified by the capitalization (or lack thereof) of certain names, especially the Duke/duke of Wellington.

The reader meets many of these veterans in several chapters in different guises.  The backgrounding for individual characters comes in various places.  For example, Archibald Innes’ background story comes at p. 44;  G.T.W. Boyes’ comes at p. 132 even though they have been mentioned briefly in many other places.  While spreading her net wide, there is no one place where she introduces key figures as, for example, Inga Clendinnen did in Dancing with Strangers. I found myself wondering if perhaps this might not have been a better strategy:  I found myself more interested in characters once I’d been formally introduced to them.  Certainly the ‘networked’ aspect comes through clearly as people are appointed to one position after another, often through the sticky web of the Darling/Dumaresque connections in Sydney, or through the good graces of Secretary of State for the Colonies Sir George Murray in London, himself a Peninsular veteran.

It is telling that the book takes such a short timespan  (twenty years) as its period of analysis.  By 1840 the militarized nature of Australian society had been overlaid by move towards civil appointments, bureaucratic rather than martial procedures and even representative government.

As often happens, once you’ve been alerted to a phenomenon, you tend to see it everywhere, and this is the case with this book.  If you flip through the entries for early settlers in the Australian Dictionary of Biography you’ll see the military connections with new eyes and wonder why it wasn’t more apparent before.

awwbadge_2013I am posting this for the Australian Women Writer’s Challenge under the History/Biography/Memoir section.  It is an academic text, and needs to be read that way.