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Reading Robinson: Companion Essays to George Robinson’s Friendly Mission


15

Against Heritage: An Afterword

NICHOLAS THOMAS

Surely this is the African slave trade in miniature1

ROBINSON, 11 OCTOBER 1829

OVER THE TWENTY-FIVE YEARS SINCE Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities was published, the category of the nation has been subjected to interrogation from every possible angle. Yet while it has become a truism, indeed a banality, to note that nations are constructed or invented, the businesses of scholarship, publication and teaching seem more than ever framed by the nation and by the categories of national culture and national history. The increasing investment of publishers in reference books of all kinds has resulted in a proliferation of encyclopaedias and anthologies of Australian, American, British and New Zealand literature, history and art, and, needless to say, history is still taught primarily in national terms in schools and universities.

If what might be called the axiom of nationality – the notion that nations constitute the natural frames for experience, history and culture – is questionable in general, it must surely count as the wrong place to start, for any understanding of colonial events and their legacies. Obviously, colonialism invariably entailed relationships of political power, migration and economic transfer that linked metropolitan European societies with parts of the non-European world. More interestingly, it entailed connections in people’s experiences and biographies, between forms of life in the metropolitan nation and those in settler societies. Frequently, it involved multiple links across colonies. Those who came to Australia might have spent time in southern Africa or New Zealand. Similarly, considerable numbers of indigenous people travelled as refugees, workers, missionary associates, and occasionally as political representatives of their people. They, like the missionaries and colonial officials who had worked in a number of colonised areas, possessed what might be called comparative knowledge and experience, yet that comparative perspective was typically lacking in twentieth-century history, which instead excerpted the relevant sections of these actors’ lives in a national, indeed often a nationalist narrative.

One of the many strengths of this groundbreaking book is that, while the singular resonance of Robinson’s story in the Tasmanian and Australian contexts is fully acknowledged, the bigger picture, in metropolitan and colonial politics, marked by the reverberations of events in the Caribbean and the Cape, is addressed in an insightful and revelatory way. Most obviously, the debates concerning slavery and the wider issues of human rights and colonial policy that they raised were inescapable. A single day’s entry in a journal, such as the above entry for 11 October 1829, composed half a world away from either London or Jamaica, was in a way an expression of the whole history of abolitionist campaigning. There are many important issues that this collection tackles, such as the relations between archive and community-derived or oral historical knowledge, that I cannot touch upon here. But I am struck by analogies between the project of coming to terms with these journals, and efforts that I, and a number of other scholars, have made to come to terms with one of Robinson’s predecessors in antipodean colonisation.

WHEN THE EDITORS ASKED ME to contribute to this book, they could not have been aware that I happen to be of what some people might consider Tasmanian descent, that is white Tasmanian descent. My paternal great-grandfather and grandfather, though born in English port towns, as well as my paternal grandmother, and a number of other relatives, lived for many years in the Launceston area. If I ought therefore to understand the family’s history, or Tasmanian history, as my heritage, I am embarrassed to admit that I have lacked appropriate curiosity, though I read Robinson, Ryan and Reynolds, among others, in the mid-1990s, in the course of an effort to produce a comparative account of art and settler-indigenous relations in New Zealand and Australia.

No doubt because I grew up in Sydney, and became historically aware as a child, around the time of the 1970 Cook bicentenary, my sense of heritage, of the formative history of the nation that I knew, privileged Captain James Cook more than it did anyone else. I wonder if there are certain affinities between the projects of reading Robinson and reading Cook. There are two small points of comparison that I suggest are of interest, and one major one.

First, in the case of Cook, there is likewise a struggle with an editor, JC Beaglehole, who like Plomley produced the definitive, indeed a magisterial, edition of the key sources, the journals. Unlike Plomley, Beaglehole did not subscribe to a discredited physical anthropology, though he did consider Cook’s idealisation of the Gugu Yimidhirr, the inhabitants of the locality of modern Cooktown, to be ludicrous. If Beaglehole’s residual engagement with ethnological and racial hierarchies is less offensive an aspect of his annotation, his particular and subtle but certainly opinionated understanding of Cook is more problematic. Though Beaglehole was not unaware of what might be called the anthropological significance of Cook’s voyages, he was so focused on reinforcing the conventional and long-standing sense of Cook as a great navigator, no-nonsense cartographer and maritime hero, that he neglected, and indeed positively obfuscated, the sense in which Cook was deeply concerned by questions of manners and customs, human variety, or what we would now understand as cross-cultural description and interpretation. Like Robinson, he was also concerned, and indeed at times deeply troubled, by the morality of contact, by what it meant if violence occurred, in the course of his effort to land on a beach and inspect the surrounding environment. Beaglehole gives us no sense of this as a thread in Cook’s accumulating understanding of the Pacific, and of what voyaging involved. His edit of Cook – published in the 1950s and 60s – does not render Cook accessible to the debates that gathered momentum in the 1970s and subsequently.

Second, the reckoning with Cook has suffered from a nationalisation of history. Australian historians work from Cook’s Australian passage, New Zealand historians from the encounters with Maori, and Canadians with the northwest coast visit, and so forth. What was so remarkable about the voyages – the succession of varied encounters with a range of Pacific and Pacific-rim peoples – has only recently been understood as having cumulative importance and effect.

But the larger issue that I want to bring out is that both figures have been subjected to absolutely contradictory moral assessments. These cross-cut the respects in which Cook has enjoyed what one might call tremendous posthumous success, while Robinson suffered something of a slide into obscurity. Indeed it is interesting that Benjamin Duterrau’s well-known and extended effort to produce a definitive ‘national painting’ around Robinson’s conciliation failed – apparently in the artist’s own understanding, in the sense that he never completed the major work he projected, but also, and more tellingly, among a wider public, who never rallied to the sponsorship of the endeavour. Cook, on the other hand, has been endlessly cited, commemorated and celebrated. His fame has also, of course, generated a backlash, an antipathy. While it is probably widely assumed that this is a relatively recent revisionist or postcolonial reaction, or one associated with the late twentieth-century revival of indigenous politics, an antagonism towards Cook has a much longer history, especially in Hawai’i.

The point that is relevant, however, is that both Cook and Robinson have been judged to be benevolent, but at other times or by other people considered as among the worst agents of colonial dispossession, exploitation or cruelty. In their introduction to this book, the editors quote Lowenthal’s juxtaposition of history and heritage; this formulation is one that I accept, as conceptually valid, but it strikes me that history and heritage are often blurred, especially often in colonial settler societies like Australia. The account of ‘what has happened and how things came to be as they are’ becomes conflated with a myth ‘of origin and continuance’. Indeed, some movement from the register of the former to that of the latter seems almost inherent in the professional commitment to render history as a narrative, to provide a story rather than a mere account.

Both Cook and Robinson appear poorly served by either idealisation or demonisation. My cursory reading of Robinson took me back to my close reading of Cook – again and again, one sensed that this colonial actor’s understanding and experience embraced both genuine curiosity and efforts to communicate, true empathy and an interest in justice, yet also moments of disturbing indifference, violence, dishonesty and self-aggrandisement. The historic moment was contradictory, so were these two characters, and so no doubt were many others.

This inconsistency, complexity and ambivalence may place them, in a sense usefully, beyond the purposes of heritage as Lowenthal presents it. Though both have often been appropriated for heritage’s purposes – for the nationalism of settlers or the counternationalism of indigenous activists – both these are essentially mythic renderings, which deny the messiness of what is in these journals, in the archives of colonial and indigenous history in general. Even in the context of the federal Howard government’s rejection of the history of colonial dispossession, when it is plainly again necessary to contest a dominant, celebratory narrative, history has most to offer if it is presented, not simply as the ‘other side’, or as a chronicle of alternative heroes, but as a set of transactions and relations that may be inaccessible to a national narrative, and morally incoherent or intractable today. This book, together with the new edition of Plomley’s Friendly Mission, helps us do what we need, to make the past less predictable.

Reading Robinson: Companion Essays to George Robinson’s Friendly Mission

   by Anna Johnston and Mitchell Rolls