Tying a kangaroo down

British Imperialism and Australian Nationalism
April 7, 1995

From a vantage point in New Zealand today, Luke Trainor casts a cool and shrewd eye on the intricacies of relations between Britain and Australia a century or so ago. Like everything else in the book, title and sub-title are composed with care. "Manipulation" is principally the work of British imperialists, collaborating with colonial sub-imperialists to keep Australian nationalism within bounds. "Conflict" embraces class, race and gender. (Can a governor exercise the prerogative of mercy towards Sydney rapists? Can colonial divorce laws be more lenient than those of the metropolis?) "Compromise" is what yielded the Australian constitution, designed to accommodate and nurture the type, central to Trainor's vision, of the "independent Australian Briton".

Though he sustains a modest tone by frequent application of perhaps, probably, may, might and of course, Trainor is enterprising in his choice of topics and purposeful in argument. He has sharp essays on the jubilee and centennial ceremonies of l887 and l888, on strikes at both ends of empire in l889 and l890, and on imperial and colonial historiography. He argues that the Australian share in the process of imperialism was larger than we have allowed, that we ought to observe how imperialism offered different experiences to Queenslanders and Victorians, women and men, working class and middle class, and that its various facets need to be connected in our minds, so that we understand, for example, the links between defence and investment. This agenda requires, and gets, skillful integration of economic matters with general analysis.

The book is short, not because the author has little to say, but because he distills formidable learning into clear schematic chapters. He has neat turns of phrase, as when he observes that although Aborigines were excluded from the making of an Australian nation "they made their presence felt by their absence". Deep quarrying in archives unearths gems. Robert Herbert at the Colonial Office judges it important that a Victorian politician "should imagine that the colonies are spontaneously organising united action rather than that the mother country is imposing a system upon them". The same manipulator remarks that the Queensland government's use of troops to break up shearers' strike camps in l891 "will have a good effect here as well as in the colonies". The diaries of Major-General Sir Peter Scratchley, valued adviser to colonial governments, "reveal his deep scorn for Australians". The manipulators, we read, were not always personally disinterested parties. Lord Derby, colonial secretary, invested in Australian stock, Lord Rosebery paid rates in Sydney.

Comparisons with recent times are sparing. Rosebery "was arguably the most imperialist prime minister before Mrs Thatcher". Though the author does not presume to advise Australians what to do with their constitution as its centenary approaches, he shows that many of its provisions were devised to preserve a now meaningless imperial connection.

Scholars will dispute some points of interpretation; the despatch of soldiers from New South Wales to the Sudan in l885 is made to seem a smarter enterprise than it was, and the comparison of industrial upheaval in metropolis and periphery does not quite come off because the account of Australia's maritime strike is fuzzy. Experts will pick a few nits: Ben Tillett did not spend a long period in Australia, and Sir Charles Dilke made no visit at the end of the l880s. However, readers will enjoy this publication.

K S Inglis is professor of history, Australian National University.

British Imperialism and Australian Nationalism: Manipulation, Conflict and Compromise in the late 19th Century

Author - Luke Trainor
ISBN - 0 521 43476 9 and 43604 4
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £40.00 and £14.95
Pages - 213

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