Price on Darian-Smith and Edmonds, 'Conciliation on Colonial Frontiers: Conflict, Performance, and Commemoration in Australia and the Pacific Rim'

Kate Darian-Smith, Penelope Edmonds, eds.
Richard N. Price

Kate Darian-Smith, Penelope Edmonds, eds. Conciliation on Colonial Frontiers: Conflict, Performance, and Commemoration in Australia and the Pacific Rim. New York: Routledge, 2015. 270 pp. $145.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-415-74430-0.

Reviewed by Richard N. Price (University of Maryland)
Published on H-Empire (November, 2015)
Commissioned by Charles V. Reed

Colonial encounters were always complicated affairs. This was particularly true of encounters that occurred in the early stages of the imperial presence when the imperial gaze was less cluttered with knowledge systems that dictated what should be seen in indigenous cultures. Both sides of the encounter, therefore, faced and acted upon motives and intentions that were unknown and unknowable. The result was a volatile, unpredictable mix of actions and reactions that frequently resulted in disastrous and deadly exchanges, but which equally contained more optimistic and hopeful aspirations for conciliation and understanding.

This excellent collection of essays edited by Australian historians Kate Darian-Smith and Penelope Edmonds addresses this latter aspect of colonial encounters, with a particular emphasis on the Pacific Rim--although the main focus is Australasia. The essays range widely in geographical and conceptual reach (with interesting essays on music, artifacts, and photography) and in scope, extending from the first encounters in the eighteenth century to their political resonances in the present day. Each one of the thirteen chapters presents material that enriches and expands our understanding of how colonial confrontations actually worked, and of their long legacies.   

In the eighteenth century Europeans set out to encounter different cultures with the anticipation that mutual understanding was desirable and possible. Our historiography of the imperial encounter has been so focused on the (very real) asymmetrical power relations that evolved that we have not properly appreciated the expectation of more benign outcomes. Yet the variety and persistence of strategies that sought to create bases for mutual understanding suggest the depth of this hope. These efforts included gifts, music, artifacts, and adornments of imperial status, and insistent efforts at meetings and conferences. This book explores all of these and more, without romanticizing them. But it does suggest (at least to this reader) that focusing on conciliation moves us closer to a better understanding of the fact that the nature of early colonial encounters did not only prefigure the oppression of their later histories. The chaos of these relationships contained other historical possibilities that were never entirely annihilated by subsequent violence and racism. What does the book tell us about the components of “conciliation” and its implications and legacies?

The first point to recognize is the complexity of conciliation itself. It was not merely a policy or a frame of mind; it was also a practice that was deeply embedded in the reflexes of the initial generations of colonialists. This volume focuses on the Pacific Rim, yet there is no reason to think that its findings are peculiar to that area of the world--very similar stories could also be told for parts of Africa and, surely, for North America. At the core of conciliation’s multifariousness was its entanglement with coercion. This was apparent at the very beginning of colonial encounter in the Pacific. As Darian-Smith and Edmonds remind us in their introduction, Captain Cook’s first encounters involved acts of both violence and conciliation. And so it was to be going forward. In one of the most truly comparative pieces in the collection, Amanda Nettelbeck’s finely researched essay compares conciliation diplomacy in Australia and Canada and demonstrates how easily efforts to establish a discourse of cooperation and peace slipped into violence, most frequently initiated by the colonial side. This was not necessarily because of a dark dynamic of deceit or duplicity. It was often more complicated and tragic than that, coming out of chaos rather than deliberation. 

But, and this is the second theme to be drawn out of the book, conciliation was never separate from colonial power and the effort to secure colonial sovereignty. The logic of the imperial presence was to secure sovereignty. It is not enough, however, to see conciliation as simply an artifice to lever sovereignty away from the indigenes. Colonial sovereignty was not unloaded from the holds of the first ships; it took time to establish its hegemony, as the relatively slow progress of English law in places like New Zealand or Natal demonstrates. And it frequently had to make certain comprises with indigenous systems. As a strategy of colonial power, conciliation provided a venue for negotiation with native peoples and therefore opened opportunities for them to shape and modify the imperial project. Glimpses of this can be seen even in the most uneven colonial relationships--as in the conferences with Aborigines that Governor Macquarie established in New South Wales in a failed effort to establish a discourse of cooperation. And the intricacies of such moments, even when they end badly, may be important in understanding the long-term instabilities that underlay imperial power. 

The relationship between conciliation and colonial power in this book is fruitfully illuminated by the attention devoted to the performative side of conciliation. It is curious that the handing out of plaques, tokens, medals, and the like has not been much noticed in imperial historiography, for it was a persistent feature of conciliation strategies. When I first encountered this on the Eastern Cape frontier in the 1830s, I mistakenly thought it reflected the eccentricities of the officers involved. But in a wonderfully researched essay Kate Darian-Smith shows the practices of distributing symbols of authority and status were first rehearsed in North America and carried from there over to the period of the second British Empire. What is more, they were often adopted by the indigenes who could see their uses for operating their own systems of power and authority. Such practices, then, were not simply attempts to transpose structures of imperial authority upon indigenous peoples. They were also efforts to establish channels of intercultural communication. 

Thus, a fine essay by Jean Fornasiero and John West-Sooby details how the Baudin expedition to Australia in 1802 used music as a means of intercultural communication. The assumption was that music was a universal language that would speak to the common sensibilities of Europeans and Aborigines. Music was, perhaps, often used in this way. There are reports of settlers and Aborigines engaging in spontaneous music jamborees in the early settlement of Melbourne. This particular essay is interesting, however, because it also illustrates the instabilities within the discourse and mentality of conciliation. Baudin was sent out with instructions to treat natives with humanitarian sensibility. Even more than Cook, the French were told to judge indigenous cultures with relativistic humanity: they were different from us, but not inferior. In the event, this approach was displaced by the alternative discourse associated with Georges Cuvier: that the savage was a variety of animal and a human being in another form. Both mentalities existed within this one expedition and illustrated how cultural exchange at this moment was profoundly unstable; which face it presented to the encounter could depend on particular and immediate circumstances (in this case the lead scientist on the trip who was a student of Cuvier) and less on any transcending ideology. 

And this points to a third lesson of the book: the contingency that governed intercultural communications. At many points during the early phase of the imperial encounter, it is possible to see the lurking shadow of different dynamics. The initiatives of early Australian governors that Amanda Nettelbeck writes about illustrate this. Naturally, the conferences and meetings that Macquarie and others set up were instrumental responses to the limits on their power in the early Australian bush. But they were also driven by an equally instrumental reflection that peaceful communication was better than the violent conflict that they knew churned just below the surface of imperial relations. And had such efforts been successful a different dynamic would have entered into the story of settler colonies. Indeed, such aspiration never went away, as is detailed in this book in essays by Lindy Allen and Anne Maxwell on the use of conciliation as a way of resolving conflict and establishing conversations across cultures in the early twentieth century. 

Allen’s essay is a wonderful story of the unusual deliberate use of a conciliatory approach by the Australian government to an outbreak of violence by Aboriginal peoples against some Japanese fishermen. Instead of dispatching the usual punitive expedition as had been done a few years earlier, in 1935 the Federal government sent anthropologist Donald Thomson to negotiate a “treaty” with the Yolungu of Arnhem Land, an act that marked the first step towards official recognition and repudiation of violence as a colonial policy. And Maxwell’s essay is a fascinating study of how photography was used in the years before the First World War by two European women to establish collaborative and cooperative relationships that sought to authentically portray indigenous cultures. 

This latter essay is a welcome reprieve from the pervasive scholarly notion of the imperial lens gazing at indigenous peoples as objects to be constructed. But of course, that perspective was part of the story too, and in this book it is reflected by very useful essays by Jane Lydon  and (in a different form) by Sue Kneebone. Both show how photography reimagined the past in such a way as to reconstruct a particular kind of history. Kneebone makes the important point of the large place that the frontier occupied in the imagination of its Australian History. And Lydon shows how that history has been constructed through photographs of the period to dissociate our contemporary selves from the consequences of dispossession and violence. 

This theme of how the past history of conciliation is carried into the present is the final general topic that the book addresses. Conciliation might not have figured in the work of imperial historians, but the same has not been true of the popular historical narratives of Australia and New Zealand. The idea of the conciliatory and benevolent intentions of settler culture was written into national narratives of their historical origin in the late nineteenth century. And much of the recent politics of those places has been focused around clarifying that comforting picture. This book both reinforces and elaborates the political importance of the historical legacies of “conciliation on colonial frontiers.” There are essays on the repatriation of remains collected by a Smithsonian expedition to northern Australia in 1948, on the way key events like the Treaty of the Waitangi and Captain Cook’s first landing are remembered through historical reenactments (in essays by Marina Ugent and Katrina Schlunke), and an essay by Penelope Edmonds on the militant challenge to such reenacments is a pertinent reminder of how contentious the idea of reconciliation is in indigenous politics in contemporary New Zealand.  

This final group of essays forms a neat bookend. It shows the living importance of conciliation and reconciliation in current indigenous and settler politics. This is a current particularly evident in contemporary Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa, where, for a variety of reasons, the long-term political possibilities for conciliatory race relations remained a viable prospect. This book is noteworthy because its essays draw to our attention “conciliation” as an historical theme and component of the imperial encounter. It is to be hoped that imperial historians--and not just those interested in the Pacific Rim--will both read the book and absorb its lessons.

Printable Version:

Citation: Richard N. Price. Review of Darian-Smith, Kate; Edmonds, Penelope, eds., Conciliation on Colonial Frontiers: Conflict, Performance, and Commemoration in Australia and the Pacific Rim. H-Empire, H-Net Reviews. November, 2015.

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