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The paper war: morality, print culture and power in colonial New South Wales.

The paper war: morality, print culture and power in colonial New South Wales

Anna Johnston 2011

UWA Publishing, Crawley, WA, 299pp, ISBN 9781921401541 (pbk)

The missionary occupies a rather curious place in Australian colonial history. At once proselytiser, intermediary, ethnographer, linguist and cultural go-between, the missionary is an ambiguous figure. This is certainly the case with London Missionary Society missionary Lancelot Edward Threlkeld.

Anna Johnston's new book The paper war tells the story of Threlkeld and the Lake Macquarie mission in New South Wales, north-east of Sydney, which he ran from 1824 to 1841. But this is not a missionary biography or history. Instead, Johnston weaves together textual analysis with postcolonial critique and colonial politics. Her dense study shows Threlkeld as an agent of change, as an ambivalent character whose prodigious writings illustrate her themes of colonial and imperial textual strategies, knowledge production and circulation, and the poetics and politics of the imperial archive. Threlkeld's large volume of textual productions is here read closely as a humanitarian narrative, cutting across imperial, colonial and missionary agendas, while also disrupting those.

Johnston's book is in good company, with such excellent works in postcolonial discourse and textual studies for the Australia Pacific region as Rod Edmond's (1997) Representing the South Pacific: colonial discourse from Cook to Gauguin, Vanessa Smith's (1998) Literary culture and the Pacific: nineteenth-century textual encounters, Brenda Johnson Clay's (2005) Unstable images: colonial discourse on New Ireland, Papua New Guinea, 1875-1935 and Noel Elizabeth Currie's (2005) Constructing colonial discourse: Captain Cook at Nootka Sound. The paper war also follows a fine tradition of scholarship in colonial and postcolonial critique, such as that of Nicholas Thomas and Tony Ballantyne, to name just two.

Johnston's study of missionaries as interstitial characters between religion and empire was well articulated in her earlier work Missionary writing and empire, 1800-1860 (Johnston 2003). A chapter in that book is on Threlkeld, and The paper war develops this argument further, focusing much more specifically on Threlkeld during a critical period in the colonial history of New South Wales as it was becoming transformed from a penal regime to a more civil form of society.

The paper war comprises an introduction and six chapters, each centred on a particular theme. The introduction sets out the book's project to analyse the imperial archive of which the work and texts of Threlkeld and his associates and contemporaries form a critical component. She does this adroitly, drawing on a wide range of texts and theoretical insights.

Chapter One, 'Colonial morality', details the setting of the Lake Macquarie mission from its establishment in 1825, placing this in the wider context of the London Missionary Society and its work in the Australia and Pacific region. Here Johnston identifies what she refers to as an 'influential network of colonial and international commentators surrounding the formation and the dissolution of the Lake Macquarie mission' (p.16). These men, including Threlkeld, she asserts, were 'crucial to the production and circulation of humanitarian debates' (p.16). Brief biographies are presented of key figures in this network, in addition to Threlkeld. Daniel Tyerman and George Bennet established the Lake Macquarie mission and were dispatched by the London Missionary Society to review Pacific missions during 1824-25. Samuel Marsden had a central role in the Lake Macquarie network and in the history of the colony. John Dunmore Lang was also a prominent figure in early New South Wales history, and he had a particularly difficult relationship with Threlkeld over the management of the Lake Macquarie mission. Visiting Quaker emissaries James Backhouse and George Washington Walker visited Threlkeld and Marsden, and they complete the group of individuals in the Lake Macquarie network. From this chapter emerges a sense of the discord and interpersonal politics that complicated the moral order of the missions and the humanitarian colonial society in which they operated.

The second chapter, 'Colonial linguistics', is an intense scrutiny of textual productions around Threlkeld's large volume of linguistic work. Threlkeld was one of the first Europeans in New South Wales to document Aboriginal languages, and his work set an important benchmark in colonial linguistics. Missionary linguistic work assumes multiple positions in textual production. It is a channel through which missionaries could proselytise; it is also ethnographic text; and it plays a role in establishing and maintaining power relations vis-a-vis the missions, Aborigines and the wider colonial regime. Language work also allows us to interrogate the producers of these texts on questions of race, hierarchy and colonial knowledge. Threlkeld's linguistic textual output was voluminous and forms, in itself, a significant component of the colonial archive. Johnston presents an analysis of Threlkeld's linguistic texts that positions them as key to the production of knowledge and its circulation, distribution and reception. Equally significant is the role that these linguistic works play in the contested relations between Aboriginal people as knowledge holders and the Europeans who engaged with them. By focusing this chapter on Threlkeld's linguistic texts, Johnston invites us to rethink complicated questions about the entanglements between Aboriginal and European knowledge and its various formations, and associated questions of ethics and ownership during the early years of the collection and documentation of Aboriginal peoples' cultures.

The third chapter, 'Colonial press', is an examination of the textual productions concerning newspaper and periodical publications. Here, Johnston states, 'the management and the content of the early newspapers reflected the debates about morality and identity that consumed Threlkeld and his desire for a role on the colonial stage ensured his involvement' (p.107). The textual production, circulation and reception of reportage around Threlkeld and the Lake Macquarie mission throw into relief questions about moral codes in early colonial New South Wales, especially concerning the vexed relationships between religion, law and the press. An important aspect of this is the role of Aboriginal people at a time in the colony's history when discourses of savagery were still prevalent. Through a detailed case of the trial and subsequent hanging of an Aboriginal man, Tommy, or Jackey Jackey, this chapter raises issues about subject positions and agency of Aboriginal people in European textual production.

Chapter Four, 'Colonial respectability', analyses through key texts the ways that Threlkeld attempted to maintain and manage a sense of respectability in these highly charged times of missionary and colonial politics. The chapter takes a close study of Threlkeld's 1828 pamphlet, 'A statement relating to the formation and abandonment of a mission ...', in which he presented his defence of his management of the Lake Macquarie mission. Also examined is Threlkeld's conflicted relations with Samuel Marsden, and a Supreme Court case between Threlkeld and James Dunmore Lang that revolved around Lang's published articles criticising Threlkeld's management of the mission.

The fifth chapter, 'Colonial legality', examines critically Threlkeld's dealings with the courts and the legal system. He was an interpreter, translator and intermediary in many court cases, and a consistent defender of Aboriginal peoples' rights to speak and to be heard in the courts. Threlkeld's close working relationship with Biraban is crucial to his working with the courts and the law, and provides ample opportunities for further exploring the critical roles of Aboriginal people as intermediaries, interlocutors and go-betweens in colonial Aboriginal/European engagement. In the last chapter, 'Colonial historicity', Johnston situates Threlkeld's textual productions in the context of the 'history wars', offering a brief intervention in the debates between Keith Windschuttle and Henry Reynolds by arguing for a more critical engagement with the colonial archive.

Johnston's The paper war is an excellent study of textual strategies in a critical reading of the imperial archive concerning highly contested missionary and colonial politics and productions during a key moment in New South Wales' evangelical and colonial history. Threlkeld's ambivalent position threatens the colonial order, and The paper war details, through its masterfully close textual readings, the play of power, knowledge and discursive productions during the period of Threlkeld's work. This fine book makes an important contribution to the rethinking of colonial and Indigenous histories and texts.

REFERENCES

Clay, Brenda Johnson 2005, Unstable images: colonial discourse on New Ireland, Papua New Guinea, 1875-1935, University of Hawai'i Press, Honolulu.

Currie, Noel Elizabeth 2005, Constructing colonial discourse: Captain Cook at Nootka Sound, McGill-Queen's University Press, Montreal.

Edmond, Rod 1997, Representing the South Pacific: colonial discourse from Cook to Gauguin, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Johnston, Anna 2003, Missionary writing and empire, 1800-1860, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Smith, Vanessa 1998, Literary culture and the Pacific: nineteenth-century textual encounters, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Reviewed by Michael Davis, The University of Sydney <michael.davis@sydney.edu.au>
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Author:Davis, Michael
Publication:Australian Aboriginal Studies
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2013
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