Colonial Queensland : perspectives on a frontier society

Thorpe, Bill Colonial Queensland : perspectives on a frontier society. St. Lucia, Qld.: University of Queensland Press, 1996.

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Author Thorpe, Bill
Title Colonial Queensland : perspectives on a frontier society
Place of Publication St. Lucia, Qld.
Publisher University of Queensland Press
Publication year 1996
Sub-type Other
Open Access Status File (Publisher version)
Series UQP paperbacks ; UQP studies in Australian history
ISBN 0702224561
Language eng
Total number of pages 287
Subjects 140203 Economic History
160803 Race and Ethnic Relations
Formatted Abstract/Summary



This is an account of Queensland history which covers issues of colonialism and "postcolonialism", Australian S/studies, contact history, environmental history, political economy, social structure and social relations. It is written from what I, and Bob Connell,' have described as a "semi-colonial" perspective - a position I expand upon in the first chapter. The connections between all these elements can be subsumed within the field of "historical sociology" but a more accurate designation is that it is a type of social history linked to environmental materialism. Again 1 discuss this aspect — what I call the "social material"-- in chapter one. 


A significant part of this book is based on my Ph.D. thesis which was completed in the mid-1980s but has been rewritten a number of times in acknowledgement of more recent intellectual developments here and overseas - notably contact history, Aboriginal history, Australian Studies (as defined by Stephen Alomes), "postcolonial" writings, and the "postmodern tum" in various cultural constructions, including history. The opening chapter, for example, is entirely new. But, notwithstanding the significance of "postcolonial" writings, and the "postmodernist" atmosphere which pervades much cultural production in the West and elsewhere today, I remain unconvinced that such approaches offer superior alternatives in understanding colonialism (in Queensland or elsewhere) than those derived from certain Marxist and neo-Marxist theorists of colonialism, dependency and underdevelopment. At the same time, from a "semicolonial" perspective, one must make attempts to generate concepts and theories drawn from specific, historical, and local situations. I discuss some of these themes in both the first and final chapters but further hints will be found elsewhere in the book. 


The period covered here is mainly that from the beginnings of pastoral capitalism in 1840, to around 1900, although I glance at the convict era prior to this, and continue discussion of certain matters beyond 1900. The time frame adopted is largely a matter of convenience and manageability, than any firm commitment to principles of chronology and narratively. For one thing, it is difficult, and probably arbitrary, to draw a firm, temporal boundary around something like a "colonial" phase of history -- notoriously so in an ambiguous political and economic social formation like the place under investigation. Secondly, it is highly doubtful whether Queensland's Aboriginal people have yet emerged from colonialism. What seems clear enough, and is reflected in the present study, is that the appearance of large-scale private pastoral enterprise, based on the world market, signalled a sharp accentuation of the colonisation process begum by the state in the formal convict era 1824-1842, setting in train a series of colonising imperatives on a more thoroughgoing scale than before. Later, when Queensland joined the federal Commonwealth in 1901 and formally ceased to be a political colony, it did not cease being "colonial". 


While conceived as a study in its own right, this account should also be viewed as a complementary study to another, more wide-ranging project in preparation on the social history of Queensland called Relations of Power: Class, Race and Gender in Queensland History, co-authored by Raymond Evans and myself. While Colonial Queensland concentrates mainly on contact history, political economy, environmental history and social structure. Relations of Power will deal more comprehensively with gender relations, masculinity, social and ideological conflict, ethnicity, race and class relations. Relations of Power  will also include the first major reinterpretation of the convict era, drawing on hitherto neglected archival sources. This is not to say such questions are absent from this book but they will receive more comprehensive treatment in future studies. 


In chapter two, I set out some events and processes which chart the dispossession of Aboriginal people from their "country" and their subsequent colonisation, especially in terms of the kind of labour they did for their new, colonial rulers. The story of dispossession, not only for Queensland, but for other parts of Australia, has been told plenty of rimes, and Aboriginal people themselves are increasingly adding their voices to the retelling. But rather less has been published about the nature and significance of their employment. And even fewer have analysed "Aboriginal labour" conceptually. My contribution the nature and significance of their employment. And even fewer have analysed "Aboriginal labour" conceptually. My contribution suggests that colonised labour, as 1 define it, accords with empirical reality rather better than other typifications. I also review certain non- Aboriginal accounts of contact history.


The third chapter explores the ways in which colonials handled the natural-material world. It adds to that growing volume of work on "environmental history" sparked by Geoffrey Bolton's Spoils and Spoilers (1981) and William J. Lines' Taming the Great South Land (1991). Colonisation, especially in regions like Queensland, meant the appropriation of the natural-material world in some form, because so many products and commodities derived from flora and fauna, either in their intrinsic form like indigenous forests, minerals, native animals etc., or in human modified form as domesticated plants and animals. This chapter not only explores the processes whereby production for consumption relies on the exploitation of fauna and flora but also the masculinity of over zealous hunters and sportsmen who killed species to extinction, or near-extinction. This chapter also presents perhaps the most comprehensive overview of the colonial political economy, at least empirically, from the convict era to Federation. 


Chapter four explores in detail the shape of the social structure and its major determining features, particularly class, but also race and gender, to develop a social typology which incorporates most groups, including women and Aborigines. I also present the most detailed analysis of social conditions, especially wage rates, yet published in Queensland historiography, and possibly in Australia, for the colonial period. As such, it challenges the "long boom" scenario developed by most economic historians of Australia. An important theme here is what one could call a critical historical anthropology of Queensland's ruling families, as distinct from traditional anthropology whose gaze at the "Other" (i.e. Aborigines in the Australian case) is gradually giving ground. 


But this "critical historical anthropology" is merely another way of examining social relations from a Marxist or "radical sociology" perspective, exemplified in the work of authors like G. William Domhoff. While limited, such a perspective at least provides some purchase on hierarchical power relationships. 


The last chapter draws together the major themes of this book but also takes up certain issues - notably the debate about "Queensland's difference" -- which were implied in previous chapters and which required further elaboration. A good deal of this discussion comprises a debate with certain Australian and Queensland based writers - Donald Denoon, Ehrensaft and Armstrong, Alexander, Nicholas and Walter. In addition, I suggest that Queensland's "difference" or "Queensland Nationalism" (to use Glen Lewis' term) is actually a form of Australian "sectionalism", akin to the phenomenon Bruce Collins described for the Ante-bellum South in the United States. I also put forward some items for future research agendas -- in particular issues of gender, masculinity, embodiment and the state - - as a prolegomenon) to Relations of Power. 


Finally, I am aware that this book owes a great deal to what Yushio Sugimoto called "cerebral commodities”, that is the most recent, and in some cases not so recent, theoretical ideas borrowed from somewhere else. This is the continuing dilemma for the non- Aboriginal intellectual in a semi-colony like Australia. On the one hand, as colonisers, we suppressed, or attempted to profoundly alter, the cultures of the indigenes, who struggled to maintain such cultures as a means of identity and survival. In any case, it has only been in very recent times, and certainly not universally, that non-Aboriginal Australians have begun to appreciate some of the values and ideas Aboriginal people have to offer. On the other hand, in a country still suspicious of its intellectuals, a pragmatic strategy, perhaps, is to live vicariously on the intellectual capital of the major intellectual capitalist powers. At the same time, I have tried to develop some ideas and concepts from the semi-colonial end of things which are both "local" and "global", and which derive from the imported "cerebral commodities", refracted through other writings and evidence about the particular places, people and periods under study. The result is more a critique of some existing theories than any fully worked out models or alternative interpretations. Hopefully it will encourage further theorising and reflection about "Queensland" and "history". One major message, however, is that all world historical theories are ultimately "local" in origin, if finally comparative and sometimes universal when developed. 

Keyword Historical sociology
Queensland -- History -- 1824-1900
Queensland -- Economic conditions, -- 1824-1900
Queensland -- Race relations -- History
Q-Index Code AX
Q-Index Status Provisional Code
Institutional Status Unknown
Additional Notes Permission received from University of Queensland Press to make this item publicly available on 5th June 2013

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Created: Fri, 26 Mar 2010, 14:38:27 EST by Ms Christine Heslehurst on behalf of Social Sciences and Humanities Library Service