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Governor and Settlers: Images of Authority in the British Colonies, 1820-1860.

Governor and Settlers: Images of Authority in the British Colonies, 1820-60, by Mark Francis. London, England, Macmillan, 1992. ix, 331 pp. $45.00.

After a generation of detailed studies of individual British colonies emphasizing local factors in their development and with little or no reference to the structure of empire or direction and influence from the metropolitan power, Mark Francis's book is a welcome contribution to the rethinking of shared issues and the reintegration of imperial history. His object is to see common patterns in the various parts of the empire in the early nineteenth century, thereby creating a new and better framework for the examination of particular issues. This book is as important to any study of the second British empire as Christopher Bayly's Imperial Meridian: The British Experience and the World 1780-1830 (1989). But while Bayly focuses on the consistency between domestic and colonial policy, with particular attention to India, Francis concentrates entirely on the settlement colonies, with the curious and unexplained omission of South Africa, and the issue of sovereignty between selected governors and settlers from about 1830 to 1850.

Despite the optimistic and almost conventional hope that it will be of interest to the general reader, Governors and Settlers is a work of detail and analysis that assumes considerable familarity with political and even anthropological theory as well as the histories of Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. It is nevertheless worth the effort to follow Francis's argument, even though it is frequently not as clear as it might be.

In each colony he demonstrates that within about a generation the governor was elevated from an executive officer of the British government to s symbol of constitutional monarchy as the colonies became internally self-governing states. By carefully studying the journals and personal letters (an important criterion for his selection) of particular governors, Francis makes many illuminating observations about the attitudes and motivations of governors caught between the insistence of the ministry in London on ultimate sovereignty and the demands of the settlers, and does much to put them into the context of their times. The settlers, too, he sees in a fresh light as both anachronistically resenting the governors as instruments of a remote and hostile authority and, equally anachronistically, expecting them to be Platonic guardians, ruling in a powerful but benevolently paternalistic manner. Caught in these conflicting ideals and responsibilities, it is not surprising that governors were welcomed with rapture and departed in hails of criticism and abuse. These hostile polemics have all too readily been accepted by historians; but by revealing the assumptions on which they were based, Francis not only demonstrates that they have been misunderstood but also that they are poor guides to what the governors were actually doing.

The transformation in the role of governor was obviously closely related to what was going on in British politics and administration from the eve of the first reform bill to the aftermath of the repeal of the corn laws, but on this Francis's book is particularly weak. There is little indication of why particular governors were chosen for their colonies, what the Colonial Secretaries (who followed each other in rapid succession after Lord Bathurst's unmatched fifteen-year tenure ended in 1827) expected of them, or how success was judged by those who appointed them. The references to Whigs and Tories (or Conservatives after about 1830) are also more confused than might be expected of a political theorist, though for understandable reasons. Since the principal divisions between and within the parties at this time were reform, the Church of England, Ireland and the corn laws, there was much movement of individuals in response to policy. Thus of the Colonial Secretaries mentioned in this book, Lord Stanley, who is described as a Tory, was a Whig until 1834, while Lord Goderich (as he was from 1827 to 1833) changed his party as often as his name, being first a Tory, then a Whig, and finally a Conservative.

To use these terms in their many shades of meaning requires more precise definition and makes it suspiciously easy for Francis to dismiss as misleading the charges of colonial pamphleteers that governors were Tories. Sir John Colborne in Upper Canada from 1828 to 1836, for example, may have seen himself as standing above politics, but so did his former commander, mentor, and the person who practically appointed him, the Duke of Wellington, who could not be described as anything but a Tory. Just before Colborne left for Canada, the Duke, then Prime Minister, pronounced that he could not understand what was meant by Whig principles, Tory principles, Liberal principles, or Canningite principles. All he wanted was to maintain "the prerogatives of the Crown, the rights and privileges of the Church and its union with the State; and these principles are not inconsistent with a determination to do everything in my power to secure the liberty and promote the prosperity and happiness of the people" (Supplementary Despatches, IV, 460-62) No doubt Colborne, who resembled Wellington in more than just the face, would have accepted this as an obvious and non-ideological statement, while Whig appointees had different assumptions.

The links between political controversy in Britain and the policies of the governors could usefully be explored by the methods Francis has used to clarify the conflict between the governors and the settlers within the colonies. He may not have finally have resolved that issue, but he has certainly given it a new and more sophisticated dimension which deserves to be widely considered by historians.
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Author:Thompson, Neville
Publication:Canadian Journal of History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 1, 1992
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