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  • "Dirty Domestics and Worse Cooks":Aboriginal Women's Agency and Domestic Frontiers, Southern Australia, 1800-1850
  • Lynette Russell (bio)

When the Australian historian Jan Critchett implied, somewhat provocatively, that the "frontier" might be understood to run down the bed shared by an Aboriginal woman and a European man, she highlighted the importance of the domestic sphere and the intimate relationships between men and women in colonial Australia.1 In many ways the domestic sphere appears to be the most mundane of settings; there is an assumed immediate appreciation of what domesticity looks like at any given historical period. Within the home people are at their most intimate, possibly most vulnerable, yet the power structures within the home can invert those that are external to it. Women can, do, and did effect change within the home; they exercise power, control, and agency.

This paper considers the domestic relationships of Aboriginal women and newcomer men who worked in the sealing industry of southern Australia after 1800. My concern is whether the home that Aboriginal women shared with the sealers functioned as a site of colonialism or in fact operated as a threat to the colonial project. It is my contention that the role of the home in the process of colonialism and the domestic relationships that emerged out of the sealing industry (c. 1800–c. 1850) is not easily categorized. These relationships were complex, multifaceted, indefinite, culturally porous, and often unstable, and changed over time in unexpected ways. Historical representations of these relationships have tended to focus on the "racial" aspects often at the expense of an exploration of how gender operated. My analysis uses Anne McClintock's framework in which "race, gender and class are not distinct realms of experience, existing in splendid isolation from each other. . . . [R]ather, they come into existence in and through relation to each other—if in contradictory and conflictual ways."2 In exploring the nature of these relationships and their inherent contradictions and conflicts it is essential to engage with notions of hybridity and liminality.3 Generally, Australian historiographers have resisted [End Page 18] using concepts such as cultural hybridity or liminality. I argue, however, that by exploring and speculating about the women's motivations for entering domestic arrangements with newcomer men and by considering the women's subjectivity and agency, it is possible to offer a theory of the role of the home in mid-nineteenth-century Australia.4 This challenges the assumption that native-newcomer engagements simply consolidated the power relations of the "white" men. My analysis reveals that the domestic arrangements that emerged between Aboriginal women and newcomer men working in the sealing industry destabilized the colonial process and enabled the women to maintain their culture.

It is a common understanding that Australia was colonized without the consent of the "natives," contrary to substantial and unequivocal instructions from the British Colonial Office.5 Engaging with historical materials that emerge out of this illegal occupation implicates the researcher in the ongoing processes of colonialism. Such an implication is unavoidable, however, for it connects with and acknowledges the privilege that has enabled "white" academic research to provide a creative "enunciative space" for developing historical models.6 An imperative component of this is the need for researchers consciously to present their subject position and their relationship to the material.7 Elsewhere I have discussed at length how establishing my own Aboriginal heritage created an ambivalent and entirely uncertain subjectivity. As I have noted, I articulate an identity that states emphatically that this having (Aboriginal heritage) is different to being. I draw my heritage from both sides of the frontier, or perhaps as Critchett might observe, from the middle of the bed. For me, the binaries of indigenous/nonindigenous, native/newcomer, even colonizer/colonized are meaningless. At an intellectual and personal level, this issue was further developed a number of years ago when I attended a family funeral and met my father's cousins. Like my father, these men were of Aboriginal and European descent; their maternal great-grandmother was a Pallawah (Aboriginal Tasmanian) woman who lived on the Bass Strait Islands and undertook sealing activities with her European "husband."8 I naively characterized her as...


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