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Response to Review of Settler Society in the Australian Colonies: Self-Government and Imperial Culture

As all authors of monographs know, it is gratifying when any reader grasps one’s objectives, and all the more so when that reader is a reviewer. It was a pleasure to read Dr. Bernard Attard’s thorough, thoughtful and insightful review of Settler Society in the Australian Colonies; a pleasure that was amplified by the generous length of the review. I am flattered by his suggestion that my book complements Alan Lester’s Imperial Networks and could be on the same reading lists. And I completely agree that my book does not in any way supersede Alan Atkinson’s magisterial work. I have learnt a great deal, not only from Atkinson’s awe-inspiring magnum opus The Europeans in Australia, but also his decades-long excavation and interpretation of the social and cultural history of 19th-century Australia. I agree as well that my comparison of the Australian colonies to the white creole culture in Barbados studied by David Lambert is suggestive rather than fleshed out. I would be delighted to see others pursue that topic.

In regard to the question that Attard raises about the significance of Wakefield’s postscript on non-white labourers, I agree that the Wakefieldians themselves did see systematic colonies as categorically different in key ways; indeed, they boasted all kinds of positive outcomes for their idealised communities. Of course, much of their rosy visions did not materialise, and there were many mishaps. Others too saw them as different for a while, but the differences soon faded, as I tried to show in the case of South Australia. But I sought to show that Wakefield himself along with some of his promoters and supporters DID include non-white indentured labourers in their planning, a factor that has been overlooked in the extensive historiography on Wakefield and systematic colonization. It is true that Wakefield’s prescriptions predated their application. But not only did they include the idea of non-white indentured labourers as Chapman shows, their enactment immediately confronted issues of land ownership, Indigenous dispossession and race relations. Systematic colonies’ actualities varied from the plans from the first, even as racial hierarchies developed.

Regarding the acceptability of indentured workers to the majority of settlers, the pervasive presence around Australia of small to medium-sized groups of Indian and Chinese indentured labourers, alongside small groups of Indian and Chinese servants, and under-compensated Aboriginal workers—apart from the large numbers of convicts, a minority of whom were of African, African-American and Indian Ocean origins – adds up to a substantial cohort of non-white workers. And in this period there were European indentured labourers too, including from Germany and Britain. While the battle between some pastoralists and plantation owners, on the one hand, and colonial and imperial governments, on the other, over the larger-scale importation of Chinese and Indian labourers was won in the second half of the 19th century by the immigration restricters, indentured labourers were integral to colonial economies before 1850. And racial hierarchies were, in Attard’s words, part of the DNA of Australian settler society throughout the century. Such hierarchies were powerfully reinforced during and after the large-scale arrival of Chinese prospectors in the gold rush.

In response to Attard’s reservation that my ‘case studies’ are limited in not referring to urban experience and assisted migration, I would make a couple of points. What I hoped to show was the mobility of settlers between urban areas, rural settlements, pastoral properties and even frontier zones. In seeking to expand the focus on the movement for responsible government beyond a few urban areas, I hoped to demonstrate that men and women’s lives often encompassed several locales, even the bush, and that for these decades a hard distinction between urban and rural does not hold up as much as would be true later. Numerous life stories of the settlers which I included show such mobility. Assisted migration (other than convicts!) was not as large before 1860 as it would be later. And some of those assisted, such as young women intended to provide domestic labour, went to the rural areas and the bush; Caroline Chisholm made a point of ensuring many young women she assisted did so. Successful pastoralists commonly had town houses as well as their rural and remote properties, going back and forth. The towns that sprang up during the gold rush of the 1850s and 1860s were full of transients. For these decades, I am not sure that there is an extensive, definable or separable ‘urban experience’.

Regardless of his reservations about whether I have ‘securely established’ my case for the impact of the pastoral frontier on gendered conceptions linked to self-government, I appreciate Attard’s many positive comments on the book and its significance. In identifying the book’s objectives, and thoroughly summarizing the chapters and my arguments about the connections between the Australian colonies and the rest of the Empire and the world, Attard’s intelligent review does Settler Society a great service.