Colonialism

On 17 January 1991, Alan Atkinson wrote to fellow historian Manning Clark to express his appreciation after reading The Puzzles of Childhood (1989) and The Quest for Grace (1990), Clark’s two volumes of autobiography. While Clark had only four months to live, Atkinson would soon begin work on The Europeans in Australia, a three-volume history of his country that would occupy him over the next twenty years. ‘I enjoyed both [the autobiographies],’ he told Clark; they ‘had a kind of subjectivity about them. It’s a remarkable style you use, which seemed to relate very much to me, so that they taught me a lot.’ Atkinson later described how he was ‘profoundly influenced’ by Clark’s work. Even more than the vast scale of Clark’s six-volume A History of Australia, it was the ‘infinite variety and open-ended stillness … of the past itself’ that affected him so intensely. Clark had shown Atkinson that the historian must ‘not just reimagine the national story but also do it in ways that ask questions about humanity itself’.

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Kingston, Jamaica was scary in early 1985. Asked what reggae track was playing on his shop stereo, a Rastaman retaliated, ‘What the fuck do you want to know for?’ An elderly, one-legged woman maintained a meagre crafts display in a dockside souvenir shed, though no cruise ship had called there in a year. A ‘cheap’ chicken dinner cost more than a waiter earned in a month. A block from the hotel, young men menaced foreigners ‘taking the sights’. Watching Jamaica play Trinidad at Sabina Park involved a gate check by armed police with dogs. A passing motorist picked us up after the game: ‘too dangerous to walk in Kingston now.’ Elsewhere on the island, a gang gathered while we inspected Marcus Garvey’s statue in St Anne (significantly, the birthplace of reggae stars Burning Spear and Bob Marley). One Montego Bay five-star hotel’s driveway was lined with prostitutes; another halved its original price to attract us as its only guests – the pool terrace overlooked a slum worthy of the Rio favelas. A planet away from the postcard Caribbean, it was just as far from other West Indian sites.

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‘He was the only one. He was the only man to have committed suicide in the town’s seventeenth-century history.’ Thus Donna Merwick invites us into this sad and instructive tale about the colonial Dutch world of North America.

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The British exploration of the Pacific Ocean between 1764, when Byron sailed, and 1780, when Cook’s third circumnavigation concluded, and the colonisation of New South Wales from 1788 onwards, effectively set agendas in discovery and settlement which France and Spain had to emulate if they were to continue as Britain’s imperial rivals.

Spain’s effort to match the British agenda was spectacular, but short-lived. The expedition under the command of Alejandro Malaspina that it sent to explore in the Pacific and to report on the state of the Spanish empire (1789–94) was perhaps the best equipped of all the grand eighteenth-century voyages, but its commander fell victim to political intrigue on his return; and oblivion settled over its results. (Only now are its journals, artwork and collections being fully analysed and published.)

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In a recent history of punishment in Australia, Mark Finnane observes that there is a ‘seemingly inexhaustible vein of convict history’. This has been especially true most recently of the history of convict women and the increasing number of accounts which are now being published in this field is to be welcomed. These studies offer a corrective to histories which have relegated convict women to a footnote, and, perhaps more significantly, some historians have attempted to reconceptualise and recast our understandings of colonialism, gender, power, and sexuality during the nineteenth century.

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