Knowledge Formation and the Australian Settler Colonies (1788-1900)
Australian Research Council and University of Queensland
Start / End Date: 2013
A Future Fellowship project awarded to Associate Professor Anna Johnston and funded by the Australian Research Council and University of Queensland. The four-year project involves research conducted by Associate Prof. Johnston and 2 PhD students, in collaboration with local, national and international colleagues. Interested researchers and students are encouraged to contact the project leader to explore opportunities for study and collaboration.
Australian settler modernity was shaped by distinct and specific orders of knowledge. “No greater calamity has been inflicted on the Aborigines of Australia and the South Seas than the transportation of our convicts,” Thomas Fowell Buxton declared at Exeter Hall. He called for correspondence from “well-informed gentlemen” to convey “the most specific and authentic intelligence” on colonial matters, information that would influence imperial policy and provide the basis for “cheap publications” to “excite the interest of all classes … and correct their opinions.” Mostly importantly, colonial knowledge could ameliorate the “deep stain” that colonialism had made on the “national escutcheon of Great Britain” (1838). Convicts, Aborigines, and natural history: each topic generated streams of correspondence from colonists keen to participate in a global knowledge economy which united colonies and imperial centres.
Focussing on the early period when colonists produced knowledge about distinctive local experiments with self and society, this research will illuminate and test Australia’s distinctive modernity in new ways. Tracing the role of individual colonial officials, missionaries, travellers, enthusiasts, and natural history collectors, the project maps the ways in which information was collected locally, written up in various forms, and circulated to England and to other colonial locations. Moral conundrums raised by settler colonialism, criminality and penal reform, and scientific insights were key aspects of Australia’s contribution to the imperial knowledge economy. Tracing the impact of this information both within the Australian colonies and globally provides evidence for the colonial contribution to major metropolitan social and intellectual movements.
Literary history, cultural and intellectual history, and postcolonial cultural studies approaches are brought together here to analyse important Australian archives: central questions are posed about representation, book history, and the ways in which modern print culture both benefited from and indeed engendered the circulation of colonial knowledge. The project’s key aim is to provide fresh and challenging readings of Australia’s settler colonial literary and cultural history.
The research uses archives of major significance such as early missionary records, natural history and Royal Society records, and convict records. These are held in premier national collections—such as the Mitchell Library (Sydney) and the Fryer Library (University of Queensland)--and international repositories, including the Hocken Collection (University of Otago), The Royal Society of London (Kew), and the British Library (London).
The Laboratory of Modernity highlights three illuminating case studies of social / cultural formation that were vital in producing knowledge. These case studies are mutually constitutive:
Humanitarian narratives: what influence did religious concerns about individual and social morality have on early Australian society and outside perceptions of its identity?
Social regulation and penal reform: what kinds of colonial experiments with managing convict and other populations were conducted, and what was their effect?
Scientific knowledge and social institutions: how did data, material culture, and print networks transport and transform scientific knowledge from Australian colonies?
Each study provides complex and contested examples of knowledge formation—contested both at the time and in retrospect by modern scholars—through which to explore religious and scientific modes of explaining and organising individuals and society.
Early settler Australia worked through these global explanatory regimes in innovative ways. Established amid the Age of Revolutions and at the emergence of “the moral empire,” the settlement’s unique timing and volatile mix of penal, free settler, and indigenous cultures placed experiments in “civilising missions” designed to manage both immigrant British—whether forced or free— and indigenous populations at the centre of knowledge production.
Outcomes and Communication of Results
Through individual and collaborative research outputs, The Laboratory of Modernity will explore Australia’s distinctive contribution to important intellectual developments of the nineteenth century—developments that established asymmetrical relationships between people and cultures and that remain central to modern society.
The research will be presented through regular conference and workshop presentations, alongside traditional and innovative scholarly publishing forums. Innovative research events will be hosted throughout the project that will generate special journal issues and edited books.
Media and public interest in this research is welcome: please contact the project leader.
Associate Professor Anna Johnston
Institute for the Advanced Studies in the Humanities, University of Queensland
Centre for Colonialism and Its Aftermath, University of Tasmania
Centre for Research on Colonial Culture, University of Otago
Centre for Colonial and Postcolonial Studies, University of Sussex