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  • Domestic Disclosures:Letters and the Representation of Cross-Cultural Relations in Early Colonial New South Wales
  • Anette Bremer (bio)

In December 1804, the Sydney Gazette published an obituary of James Bath, the first "savage inhabitant [of New South Wales] . . . to be introduced to civil society."1 Fifteen years among the colonists markedly affected the boy; James exhibited a "total change of disposition," he regarded his "sooty kindred" with "abhorrence," evincing an "unconquerable aversion to all of his own colour," and was exemplary in cleanliness, docility, and gratefulness.2 James's obituary does more than recount his life; in telling James's story, the newspaper addresses the question of whether or not the Indigenous people of New South Wales can be Europeanized. Answering favorably, the Sydney Gazette suggests that this "hitherto unserviceable race might in the process of time attach themselves to industry, and become useful in society."3 This is clearly why the newspaper then becomes interested in Reverend Samuel Marsden's young Indigenous adoptee, Tristan, whose story and its circulation in nine other colonial documents is the subject of this essay. Citing the similarities in the manner in which James and Tristan have been reared, the Sydney Gazette forecasts a positive result for Marsden's "experiment in civilization." Although Tristan was "somewhat younger than [James]," the newspaper suggests that Tristan "shews symptoms of a tolerable capacity, and [holds] the same dislike to others of his own complexion as did the deceased."4

Before the governor of New South Wales, Lachlan Macquarie, formalized Aboriginal education in 1815 with the establishment of the Native Institution at Parramatta, many small-scale experiments in "civilizing" Indigenous children were conducted at an amateur and private level.5 This essay broadens our understanding of early colonial cross-cultural relations by focusing on what may well be the most thoroughly documented account of educating an Indigenous child. In either late 1795 or early 1796, the Reverend Samuel and Eliza Marsden adopted Tristan, raising him in their home with their children. Little is known of the boy's history before he came into the Marsdens' care, [End Page 77] at four or five years of age.6 Tristan remained with his benefactors until 1807, when he ran away from his adoptive parents while the family was on stopover in Rio de Janeiro en route to England. Through the ministrations of Captain John Piper, a close friend of Eliza Marsden, Tristan returned to New South Wales, dying shortly afterwards.7

What makes Tristan's history of interest over and above those of other Aboriginal children reared within the homes of the white community is that his biography circulates in a number of different kinds of writing, each document pressing his story into service for distinct ends. The Marsdens' relationship with Tristan can be tracked in the previously quoted newspaper obituary, a memoir, a travel book, a British government report on New South Wales, in official and familiar letters, as well as in personal papers. While the Marsdens' adoption of Tristan has engaged contemporary historians, few attend to the manner in which the genre of the source document intersects with both the representation of indigeneity and the depiction of cross-cultural contact. In contrasting official and personal, male- and female-authored representations of Tristan Marsden, this essay triangulates gender, literary medium, and intended readership to consider both the work of gender and the work of genre in the portrayal of cross-cultural relations.

Letters and Coloniality

Hailing from Yorkshire, Samuel and Eliza Marsden arrived in the colony in early March 1794. As assistant chaplain, a post he received through the recommendation of William Wilberforce, Samuel Marsden considered the Christianization of the colony's Indigenous people to be part of his brief. His evangelistic leanings did not preclude other interests, religious and otherwise. Marsden climbed the ecclesiastical ladder; by 1795, he was chaplain of Parramatta and by 1810, the district's senior chaplain. At the same time, Marsden's landholdings grew until they were second only to the colony's largest landowner, John Macarthur. According to A. T. Yarwood, the brand of evangelism endorsed by the reverend linked worldly rewards with heavenly approbation.8 Marsden's nineteenth-century biographer offers...


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