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Wednesday, 2 April 2008

Deirdre Coleman's Romantic Colonization and British Anti-Slavery (2005) appeared when she worked at Sydney Uni but she's now in the Robert Wallace Chair of English Literary Studies (School of Culture and Communication, Faculty of Arts). Melbourne Uni has no English Department now.

Despite having 36 pages of notes, a bibliography spanning 23 pages, and a 12-page index, the book is a gorgeous read. If you are a fan of Romanticism and/or have an interest in 'post-colonial' studies (which is probably de rigeur nowadays), it's a heap of fun. I finished it in just a few days, and often in preference to, say, a novel or the news.

Lots that is new inside, too.

And some not so new, including the standard PC (post-colonial) narrative of identity. Using this set of discourse markers, the Anglo academic attempts to form a bond with the dispossessed. To do this a certain amount of 'othering' is requisite. In Coleman's case, this is done by rubbishing, for example, the British propensity to raise the flag on new discoveries (a "bogus rite").

To contrast this with something, Coleman imaginatively refers to aboriginal burial rites ("a far more profound symbol of possession"). Later, she will write about the way early settlers thought of aboriginal burial sites (shallow, meagre). But how do you dedicate so many years to a project such as this without adopting some sort of stance vis a vis (say) the government (today's as much as an earlier era's)?

In fact, it would be very difficult to make sense of this book without significant prior reading, especially in the literature of the 18th and early 19th centuries. Knowledge of James Thompson and Wordsworth (note the dropped descriptor...!), or Mark Akenside and Coleridge (ditto!) more than helps.

In brief, there's no easy way to sum up Coleman's findings. She covers a lot of ground, initially by discussing a failed colony near Sierra Leone called Bulama. Its instigator was Henry Smeatham, who was a sort of rogue adventurer, book publisher and collector of entomological specimens for rich English patrons. It's hard to be too hard on Smeatham because he didn't belong to the aristocracy.

But Coleman's main field of interest is New South Wales in the late 18th century. Her introduction is launched by a stunning little vignette to do with the early colony's cattle. They wandered off one day (nobody knew if they'd been eaten or killed). Some years later they were found in the interior having multiplied ten-fold.

Because it is this mathematical inevitability about colonies that gnaws at Coleman's heart. And she does well to locate colonial fecundity and wealth-generating properties within the classical Romanitic discourse of self-determination.

From the Nova Scotian blacks (enemies of the Americans since they fought on the British side in the 'war of independence') to the Eora people of Port Jackson might seem a long way, but Coleman is up to the challenge.

In the first case, it was thought best by the best minds of the age to relocate them to an African colony. This colony would, under the tutelage of a small clique of well-connected and -educated Englishmen, expand and multiply. Wealth would accrue to the locals but also to the British economy due to the enormous size of Africa.

It could be said that the existence of better maps, which could accurately show continental scope, was partially responsible for this fear. This need to tame the beast before it took its revenge.

Of course, many of these entrepreneurs were Quakers (the Christian fundamentalist sect responsible for kicking off the anti-slavery movement). Coleman does not investigate this avenue, nor does she once mention Matthew Lewis.

Bulama was eventually ransacked by marauding French sans-culottes. Other Frenchmen were nosing around the coast near Port Jackson, and Coleman astutely notes that these enlightened men could voice approbation of the English because, simply, Arthur Phillip got there first. They would have done exactly (moots Coleman) the same themselves given the chance. But such realpolitik, despite being correct in every way, is generally eschewed by the Anglo academic intent on laying blame where it may not be deserved.

Ultimately, our impression of these young English men is that, despite possessing a deep lore of Romantic ideas, they were unable to control their greed. And this, for me, is where Coleman's book is most valuable: as part of my narrative of identity, which is self-determination in Australia.

Here, you had (on the one hand) squatters who wanted more convicts and (on the other) city tradesmen who wanted to 'better themselves'. No surprise that the oldest educational institution in Australia is the Sydney Mechanics' School of Arts (now in Pitt Street, near Market). Henry Parkes (the 'author' of the Oz constitution) was a toy-shop owner.

The tone of debate in this milieu (which drew heavily on the US experience, and that of Canada) meant that people such as Parkes felt despised, and they vowed to get revenge. But to do this they, too, had to 'other' more than just the squatters, their mortal enemies. To get the support of the monied men of Sydney (an alternative force to be leveraged), they had to look down, in turn, on aborigines, blacks (Polynesians), Chinese propspcetors, Irishmen (and -women), and 9finally) anyone with a funny name at all.

The White Austrlia Policy (a catchphrase, but actually one of the new commonwealth's first legal instruments) was dominant for more than half a century. Unfortunately, many Australian think it should still apply today and this is where Anglo academics such as Coleman feel compelled to side with the underdog.

When she talks about Smeatham and his ilk, she looks for discourse elements (the book is riddled with short quotes strung together with commentary to make points). many of these can be usefully deployed within a later debate about 'racial vigour' and 'racial health'.

Other ideas in existence at the time of colonial establishment endured throughout the 19th century and into the 20th. One of these is that blacks constitute an early 'model' of modern, white Europeans (p 15).

Another idea that endured over the same period is that the 'vigour' of a lifeform should be controlled so that it would not "waste its force" by breeding indiscriminately so that it created "inferior" men and women (p 41).

One more. The idea that "natives" should be subject to "a gentle servitude" and then freed "after a service of apprenticeship" of "a few years" (p 92).

Coleman has laboured hard to put together a large mass of useful information, but her strength is not in making large-scale narrative work. Her virtue is in making a lot of valuable data readable, when it would have been easy to be obscure. There is no postmodern idiom here, and for this (at least) we should be grateful.

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