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  • Settler Society in the Australian Colonies: Self-government and imperial culture by Angela Woollacott
  • Katherine Ellinghaus
Settler Society in the Australian Colonies: Self-government and imperial culture By Angela Woollacott. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015.

Angela Woollacott’s Settler Society in the Australian Colonies brings recent scholarly ideas about space, gender, mobility and colonial networks to a traditional Australian history subject—the period between the 1820s and the 1860s. This foundational period, Woollacott argues, is at least as important as Federation (2). This is a new history of an old topic, and one that offers rich, interwoven arguments that draw from many historiographical areas: gender history, the history of colonialism, Australian political history and global history. Readers coming from all directions will find much of value.

Woollacott shows convincingly how interrelated discourses of race, gender and the imagined relationship between the colony and the metropole shaped the Australian colonies and, just as importantly, how these discourses can be fully understood only if they are seen as inherently transnational. Using intricately researched individual case studies of settler families such as the Chisolms, Chapmans and Wakefields, Woollacott shows that early Australian colonists were linked body and mind to colonies elsewhere. Through family, business and their own complicated travels, the people who shaped early White Australian society were doing so with knowledge of what was occurring in other British colonies. They were kept informed via the press, through letters and circulating journals, all key forms of what Woollacott calls “imperial knowledge” (16). In seven chapters, which range thematically across the continent, Woollacott teases out how elite settler men and women formulated arguments for their own political rights alongside a growing narrative of the colony’s growing separation from the colonial metropole. Woollacott makes the attainment of representative government and the attempts at systematic colonisation in South and Western Australia into transnational, gendered stories. She confronts, as she puts it, “the legend that self-government in the Australian colonies was won by a progressive reform movement that operated in a purely political realm divorced from the messy realities of the frontier” (154) and shows how when crises occurred in other colonies, Australian settlers watched and learned. As Woollacott concludes, “settlers understood themselves and their world in imperial and global terms” (210).

Another important contribution of Settler Society in the Australian Colonies is its disruption of the idea that the Australian colonies were ever “White” (and thus were ever kept “White” by the “White Australia” policies of the following century). Woollacott unearths a society that was so much more than blandly European by employing two strategies. First, she pays attention to many non-European characters who have been waiting patiently in the wings for historians to notice them. Fanny Macleay, for example, the daughter of New South Wales Colonial Secretary Alexander Macleay, married her father’s assistant, Thomas Harington, who was described in a single, surviving letter as a “half-caste Indian.” Woollacott found corroborating evidence that Harington was of mixed English and Indian parentage, but as she notes the “fact that Fanny herself and other family members did not comment on Harington being mixed-race raises an interesting question about how common non-white and mixed-race people were in the Australian colonies in these decades” (30). Woollacott paints a fascinating picture of the multi-racial world in which colonial elites operated—a world with parameters that were both local and global.

Secondly, and as just as importantly, Woollacott demonstrates another phenomenon that Australia has in common with other settler nations but which has not yet found its way into popular understandings of Australian history. Indigenous people and non-White immigrants, she argues, were integral to the formation of Australian settler society through their labour, and through colonists’ need to define themselves against their dispossession and ill treatment. She shows how significant labour forces drawn from Aboriginal communities, South and South East Asia and the Pacific laboured alongside the more historically familiar populations of convict and indentured European workers. The Australian elite between the 1820s and 1860s, she maintains, “had access to an extraordinary range of labourers, in combinations that varied by time and place” (67).

Woollacott joins scholars such as Anne...

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