- The Colonisation of Time: Ritual, routine and resistance in the British Empire by Giordano Nanni
New in Manchester University Press’ venerable series “Studies in Imperialism,” this monograph argues that establishing temporal control was as fundamental to British colonialism as territorial control, if not more so, and that the two projects were intimately linked. Rather than narrate how the rise of a colonial time regime obliterated indigenous knowledge and practice, author Giordano Nanni instead reveals how the imposition of “whitefella time” (227) was always an unfinished business—constantly resisted, strategically appropriated and negotiated with by “the colonized.” Nanni further argues that this complex picture of temporal domination without hegemony in colonial spaces was an essential part of the development of Western time and what we have come to understand as Western time discipline.
At the center of Nanni’s analysis are two case studies, both situated in nineteenth-century settler colonies. The first is the Australian context and the missions in Victoria, in particular. While others have shown how imperial-colonial discourse perpetuated the myth of terra nullius (literally “land belonging to no one”), thereby nullifying Aboriginal territorial claims, Nanni follows scholars such as Bain Attwood and Maureen Perkins in insisting that this discourse simultaneously created colonial space as a terra sine tempore—land without time—thereby denying Aboriginal time regimes. When “Aboriginal time” was acknowledged at all, it tended to be denigrated as dependent upon seemingly irregular environmental rhythms and incapable of transcending nature, the measure of civilization in European thought. Into this imagined vacuum of time, settlers, missionaries and bureaucrats brought the trappings of “civilized” European temporal identity: the railway station, the mission bell, the Gregorian calendar and perhaps most prominently of all, the Christian Sabbath. Provocatively, Nanni argues that regularity and predictability were the prime objectives of temporal civilizing missions, not sheer productivity, and limitations that colonists sought to place on Aboriginal mobility were as much about establishing cultural curfews as they were about fixing people to certain spaces.
A similar story unfolds in the second case study on constructions of “African time” and missionary activity in the Cape Colony. Nanni reminds us of the primacy of missionary work in establishing formal British colonialism and convincingly shows how missions sought to civilize through temporal regimentation, first and foremost. All within earshot of the mission bell were expected to adhere to its schedule and instilling the observance of the Sabbath was the highest priority. The performance of the Sabbath served as an indicator, throughout the empire, of whether or not missionaries were successful in their conversions. Moreover, Sabbath observance regimented not only a day of rest but the other six days of work, opening up differences between time for leisure, work and religious observance. The author shows how Protestant evangelical time missions went hand in hand with the priorities of creating a Western time-disciplined workforce: Nanni points out that because African laborers were in such demand in southern Africa, workforce regimentation was much more the stake of Cape colonialism than in the Australian case. In terms of British imperialism and globalization, emphasis on Sabbath observance ushered in what Nanni calls an “empire of the seventh day,” or a cultural system of routine that connected missions, settlements and metropoles, in transcolonial and, indeed, transimperial ways.
Nanni’s analysis is at its best when exploring understandings and misunderstandings that ensued between actors adhering to various versions of “Western,” “Aboriginal,” and, “African” time, the evidence for which he collected through work in Australian and South African archives on memoirs, travelogues, government committee documents, missionary papers and even settler questionnaires. Thus, he discusses moments of physical resistance when, for example, the Butterfield mission bell, “that temporal symbol of Christian influence over the land,” was broken over a stone by Xhosa warriors in southern Africa in 1832 (177). In other instances, indigenous actors put the cultural centrism of supposedly objective “Western” time into stark relief by pointing out its irrationalities: the absurd application of the northern European four-season model to Australia versus Aboriginal knowledges that identify six...