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Eighteenth-Century Life 26.3 (2002) 202-224

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Losing America and Finding Australia:
Continental Shift in an Enlightenment Paradigm

Glynis Ridley
Queen's University, Belfast


To the naturalist who proudly sent the first stuffed duckbilled platypus from Australia to Europe, Australia was wondrously exotic: to George Shaw of the British Museum, the creature seemed at first too strange to be possible and he initially suspected a hoax. 1 Where Joseph Banks saw a wealth of botanic knowledge in a bay that would be named after that fact, and Captain Cook's Endeavour.log represented the area favorably, Arthur Phillip, commander of the First Fleet, saw only the impossibility of settlement. 2 And where the first transported convicts saw a living incarceration, their jailers saw opportunities for preferment of various degrees. Clearly, what the naturalist, fleet commander, and penitential officer saw was shaped by very different agendas. One man's exotic flora and fauna translates into another man's incomprehension as to what he should eat. Between eighteenth-century naturalists' fascination at Australia's exoticism and convicts' resentment of it there was at least agreement that this land was unlike any other; yet for every written account and artistic representation predicated on difference it is possible to find another that seeks to deny that Australia is in any way different to anything else then known. This was because there was much vested interest in remaking Australia as the recently lost colony of America.

The relationship between Britain and Australia was of a different [End Page 202] nature than that between Britain and America. Whereas even sixteenth-century maps hinted at the size of the North American continent, the extent of the Australian landmass would not be confirmed until Flinders completed a circumnavigation in 1802-3. 3 If the British government did not, until that point, understand the vastness of the land it claimed, it was at least confident that the settling of the Australian continent, unlike its American counterpart, was not a colonial ambition of either the Spanish or the French. Even the terms of transportation to the two continents would reflect a different legislative view of America compared to Australia: whereas transportees to the American colonies generally served a fixed term of indentured service for individual landowners, after which they might become free, transportees to Australia were not sure of having a term fixed for their labors and so worked for the government with no guarantee of eventual freedom. Even though these differences between America and Australia informed Westminster's views of the two continents, and despite the great differences perceived by naturalists and explorers between Australia and any other continent, Britain's experience in North America could not but influence—in fact, it shaped—certain British perceptions of Australia. Never an exotic tabula rasa, Australia was, to many of those still reeling from the loss of Britain's American colonies, a continent seen through paradigms already established by Britain's transatlantic experience. Beginning with a reconsideration of two well-known British celebrations of the Australian exotic immediately prior to Britain's loss of her American colonies, I shall show the pitfalls in assuming that what was unfamiliar was celebrated for its own sake or was necessarily associated with the exotic. I shall examine a variety of media and texts produced after the loss of America that viewed Australia as a second America, and in doing so made Australia seem familiar. From government correspondence to poetry, from British writers and those proud to identify themselves as Australian, the continent was, by the end of the eighteenth century, seen as "too American"—often with the connotations of rebelliousness and need for control that this implied to the British establishment. 4

In the astonished response to the platypus we perhaps appreciate one implicit understanding of the meaning of the exotic—a breach in the understood order of nature, whether topographical, animal, or vegetative. Australia was exotic in all these ways. It had no significant navigable inland waterway; it was home to peoples with no religious, political, or economic system...


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