Familial formations underwent a profound workout in the nineteenth-century imperial world. As Adele Perry’s Colonial Relations: The Douglas-Connolly Family and the Nineteenth-Century Imperial World vividly shows us, families flexed, jolted, broke, separated, reverted, crossed lines of race, class, and status, and, through the tumbler of local conditions (geographies, peoples, economies, politics), supposedly congealed into hard-working, stable, nuclear units around which national histories were constructed and personalized. As Perry states in her conclusion, numerous studies have recently traced the lives of families across national boundaries, bringing new understandings to the workings of empire. Yet, Perry’s work stands out from such works in multiple ways. Colonial Relations takes the reader on an unexpected and at times disorienting journey by recalibrating a family central to Canadian settler narratives and positioning it more accurately on the fringes of empire. This book is an exemplar of what can happen when a new lens is applied to a known subject. We don’t need to ignore the powerful in order to find the marginal. In a long quest to “excavate the history of ordinary people,” Perry never imagined that she would write about James Douglas, an iconic figure in Canadian settler history (ix). But she doesn’t write about him; rather, she writes about his relationships and the history of relationships that culminated in his marriage to Amelia Connolly—and how different he and his family look as a result. [End Page 559]
The relationship and the marriage (the distinction is important) between Douglas and Connolly holds firm at the narrative core of this book. The early chapters take us back to the relationships of the previous generation. Time moves surprisingly slowly as weighty moments are magnified, with wide-ranging primary and secondary source material filling out the sparse familial archive in this earlier period. Moving back and forth between the spaces of eastern Caribbean plantations and the fur trade territories of northwest North America, thereby bringing slavery and Indigenous worlds alongside each other, makes for a dense read and one that—at least for this reader—required looking back and re-finding my bearings occasionally. But I think this is Perry’s point, and the major achievement of the book: we do not simply pass through the pre- in order to get to the so-called real (settled, archived, knowable) history. Often relegated to “curious back-stories” because they moved outside of latterly defined national borders, Perry maintains that these early colonial encounters must instead be integrated into a mobile history that ranges widely enough to encompass all of the complicated trajectories that continue to operate and unfold and confound and stimulate (256).
From chapter 4, the archive enables Perry to bring more momentum to the Douglas-Connolly story. Drawing on a rich supply of correspondence between colonial kin (family and friends) and with gender and archives as her primary analytical foci, Perry makes plain the work of intimacy, and especially marriage, in the development of colonial political economies. Most importantly, the legacy of those structural foundations is not lost as the narrative moves to the next generation of the Douglas-Connolly family and their relationships—with their parents, their siblings, and potential (then eventual) spouses. Threading intimate, personal expressions throughout the analysis, Perry creates a portrait of an increasingly dispersed family as its members relate to one other, at times articulating norms of femininity and masculinity, at others breaking with convention, and variously disappointing, making proud, hurting, and caring for each other. The final chapter brings us into the twentieth century by turning to the fortunes of two Douglas-Connolly grandchildren.
In common with any scholar writing at the intersection of race, gender, and intimacy, archival absence is an issue for Perry, and one that is frequently revisited throughout this “critical ethnographic conversation” with colonial archives (3). While the book is frequently revealing in this regard, I felt there was room in the early chapters for further explanation or exploration of the nature of...