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The White Man under Siege: New Histories of Race in the Nineteenth Century and the Advent of White Australia
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History Workshop Journal 58 (2004) 41-62

New Histories of Race in the Nineteenth Century and the Advent of White Australia

Marilyn Lake

The Census and the New Histories of Race

In the nineteenth century, theories of race were, as Alexander Saxton has remarked, theories of history, but in 1893, the history of the races took a new and alarming turn with the publication, in London and New York, of Charles Pearson's National Life and Character: a Forecast. An Oxford-educated historian and professor of history at King's College, London, Pearson had already published two works of history, A History of England during the Early and Middle Ages (1867) and Historical Maps of England during the first Thirteen Centuries (1870), when he decided to migrate, for health and career reasons, to live in the Australian colonies. This change of domicile shaped a new perspective on world history, which he began to see from the viewpoint of an anxious colonial, living in the southern hemisphere in close proximity to the 'Black and Yellow belt'. As he noted in the introduction to National Life and Character: 'Twenty years' residence under the Southern Cross has forced me to consider a new side of this particular question'.

Pearson's National Life and Character attracted much international attention, as biologist Benjamin Kidd noted somewhat sourly in his own book on world history, Social Evolution, published, also by Macmillan, the following year. Pearson's book had caused a stir among scholars and statesmen. 'The reading world at large was startled', wrote James Bryce - historian, Regius Professor of Law at Oxford University and future Ambassador to the United States - 'as by the apparition of a literary meteor'. Theodore Roosevelt wrote from the United States in 1893 to tell Pearson of the 'great effect' of his work there: 'all our men here in Washington . . . were greatly interested in what you said In fact, I don't suppose that any book recently, unless it is Mahan's 'Influence of Sea Power' has excited anything like as much interest or has caused so many men to feel that they had to revise their mental estimates of facts'. In London, Prime Minister Gladstone was 'full of Pearson's book', telling guests at Downing Street that it should be read by everyone 'concerned or interested in public affairs'.

Benjamin Kidd's criticism focused on the 'mistake' occasioned by Pearson's new focus and perspective: he had 'made the serious mistake of estimating the future by watching the course of events outside the temperate regions' rather than attending to 'the progress amongst the Western peoples'. In other words, Pearson had attributed historical agency to the Black and Yellow races - though not to the native races of Australia and America. These primitive peoples were dying out: 'the natives have died out as we approached'.

Pearson's book caused a shock precisely because it challenged some of Kidd's (and others') basic assumptions about Western expansion, progress and triumph. Pearson argued, to the contrary, that it was the 'Black and Yellow' races which were in the ascendant - powered by population increase and industrial capacity, in the case of the Chinese - while the so-called higher races, under the impact of declining birth rates and State Socialism, had become 'stationary'. As a historian, Pearson was more attuned to people's political aspirations, than their evolutionary inheritance. He had earlier written an essay on Haiti: 'the Black Republic' was paradigmatic and pointed to the advent of a post-colonial world.

Colonized and otherwise subordinated peoples would soon escape relations of 'tutelage' and become self-governing states, active on the world stage. Pearson was a prophet of decolonization, and was taken up as such, but his writing was most influential in constituting a new white political subject whom I shall call 'the white man under siege'. No longer triumphant Teuton marching victoriously across the globe, the British settler was transformed in this new racial history into the beleaguered white man, anxious about the English race's loss of vigour and apprehensive about the expansion and dynamism of the 'Black and Yellow races'.

Charles Pearson had trained as a medievalist, but unlike his rival in the field...

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