Violence and Colonial Dialogue: The Australian-Pacific Indentured Labour Trade.
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Subject:||Books (Book reviews)|
|Publication:||Name: Journal of Social History Publisher: Journal of Social History Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: History; Sociology and social work Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2010 Journal of Social History ISSN: 0022-4529|
|Issue:||Date: Summer, 2010 Source Volume: 43 Source Issue: 4|
|Topic:||NamedWork: Violence and Colonial Dialogue: The Australian-Pacific Indentured Labour Trade (Nonfiction work)|
|Persons:||Reviewee: Banivanua-Mar, Tracey|
Violence and Colonial Dialogue: The Australian-Pacific Indentured
Labour Trade. By Tracey Banivanua-Mar (Honolulu: University of Hawaii
Press, 2007. x plus 270 pp. $51.00).
This is the first time that the histories of South Sea Islander indentured labourers have been subjected to analysis using a conceptual framework based on "the linguistic metaphors of the vertical and horizontal social world" (p. 19), a social world the author admits has been already evocatively reproduced by a long line of scholars. She stares with the physical violence of recruiting and in some instances of kidnapping or 'blackbirding' but then leaps into matters of agency, resistance and consciousness and the legal, political, economic and philosophical infrastructure which she calls "administered violence" (p. 180) and which existed despite an "obscuring discourse" of race. This analysis reads very well and is strong on methodology and theory, but in the end the reader is left a little confused by what is a long theoretical essay in search of evidence.
The evidence presented is relevant and eye-catching on some occasions, such as the labourers' demand for sewing machines to take home, the hundred indigenous Australians and white women who were married to labourers in 1906, or the unnamed labourer who wanted repeatedly to leap overboard and who had a case of unsound mind dismissed in the Maryborough court. But there is not enough of the daily life of the labourer in the fields, mills, pastoral properties or at home in their camps or in town on Sundays. The analysis is rich in possibilities, but weak in creating the very vertical and horizontal depth and breadth of lives and communities the author relies upon, and particularly the way the working lives of indentured workers changed dramatically over the four decades of the labour trade. The distinction between vertical and horizontal worlds, histories and analogies is referred to several times but not fully explained. The author does isolate three periods of altered acceptance, rejection and legal definition (p.73); an arrival period, the mid-1880s as a time of rupture and the end of the 19th century when race determined the shape of Australia, but these are not pursued at length and the legalistic and linguistic violence, around which the thesis is structured, is not contextualised by changes over time.
Banivanua-Mar notes she is not denying the conclusions reached by the founding scholars of the labour trade - Scarr, Corris, Moore, Saunders or the regional and personal histories of Gistitin, Mercer, Fatnowna, Bandler and Edmond. (p.45)
But she calls these speculations and seeks to decolonise histories of the labour trade by reading "against the layers of racialized discursive filters" (p.180). This worthy objective becomes bard to follow when the author lapses into sentences like - "Race displaced the violence it authorised onto the discourses that authorised it." (p. 183) The final sentence in Violence and Colonial Dialogue continues with similar obscure phrasing by suggesting that a labourer's silence in court, or distress at being shipped to an unknown port were "subtle but expressive and with an ambiguity that eludes authoritative designation despite the clarity of their physical resignation". (p.185). More worrying is the simple error at the opening (p.19) of denying duality, or rejecting a colonizer versus colonized confrontation and relationship but then positing a similar duality in the final stage--in which slavery, oppression, exploitation and kidnapping on one side are opposed on the other side by survival, resistance, agency and pride, (p.185)
The six chapters start with incidents of violence in the western Pacific, including once again a retelling of the notorious Carl massacre of 1871 (and it is mentioned a further ten times), but the crew's behaviour on board a Fiji recruiting vessel bound for Levuka is not shown to be relevant to language, regulation, demeanour, court decisions, workplace conditions or acts of physical violence in Queensland during the same period or over the next thirty years. Other already well known tales, anecdotes and facts are presented as evidence of linguistic and legal violence, and as the author admits there is not a lot of new material to be uncovered. Despite this there are 72 pages of endnotes and references. Primarily this is a book desperate to spin a now familiar story around a contemporary and trendy platform. However, my copy of the book is marked by numerous ticks and notes of agreement, and I found overall that it is was a pleasure to read (most of the time) and that it offered a fresh approach, and significantly points to the fact that there may still be much to learn about the 19th century indentured labour trade in northern New South Wales and Queensland.
Queensland University of Technology
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