Conference Reports

‘Peculiar Modernities’: Settler Colonial Identity and Its Entanglements

by Nicolas Haisell

Meeting on July 24-25 2017 at the UCD Humanities Institute, the inaugural Settler Social Identities Conference brought together a diverse cast of literary scholars, historians, and art historians (among others). Participants discussed various formations and articulations of nineteenth-century settler colonial identity through the lens of ‘rational recreation.’ As conference organizers noted, public education forums including voluntary associations, clubs, and libraries ‘reinforced notions of “respectability” and “improvement” that both projected an image of coherent community in nascent settler colonies, and defined who was included and excluded from these new colonial formations.’

In addition to complicating the metropolitan/colonial binary and recognizing the influence of intra-colonial relationships and networks, a key point that emerged from the conference is that is important for scholars of British settler colonialism to note the importance of the colonized ‘other’ to the processes of defining settler identity. The presence of the colonized did not simply compel settlers to define and police a recognizable identity; rather they quite often served as a useful foil that facilitated such articulations.

Perhaps the clearest example of this is the study, classification, and discussion of indigenous peoples that took place in intellectual societies throughout the colonial Victorian world. Established in numerous colonial centers (including Halifax and Ottawa, as noted at the conference) such institutions served as a public demonstration of the scientific modernity of the educated colonial elite (who by this point were firmly entrenched in local positions of leadership and power). In addition, indigenous customs, cosmology, and material culture were presented as ahistoric curiosities that sharply contrasted with the ceaseless onward trajectory of settler identity.

And while the conference focused specially on settler identity, the importance of the colonizer/colonized relationship to group identity has also been noted by numerous postcolonial scholars over the years. In The Nation and its Fragments (1993), Partha Chaterjee argues that Anticolonial nationalist movements were contingent upon the establishment of a unique and freestanding domain of sovereignty within colonial society, which was achieved by dividing social institutions and practice into distinct spiritual and material domains.  The material domain, which included science, statecraft, economics, and technology, (those very same markers of modernity crucial to articulations of settler identity) is where ‘the west’ was understood to be superior and thus should be emulated. What is contextual, unique, and original was the spiritual domain: the distinctiveness of which needed to be preserved in order to facilitate the sovereignty essential to a nationalist project within this nonsettler society. Recognizably unique markers of colonized difference needed not to be overcome or developed but highlighted and made recognizable.

Similarly, in the highly influential work Provincializing Europe (2000), Dipesh Chakrabarty notes the inescapable, lasting influence of the west in the formation and subsequent study of capitalist modernity in the third world. Chakrabarty, a founding member of the subaltern studies group, critiques the now-assumed primacy of western modernity (which also pervades academia). Instead the author argues for a recognition of multiple modernities (hence the call to ‘provincialize Europe’). All transitions to capitalist modernity are translations. In other words, the transition from colony to nationhood (‘modernity’) is unique in each situation: it is the result of various interactions between local realities and broader forces of global capitalism. Chaterjee has referred to this historical reality as ‘our modernity.,’ that is the modernities produced in post-colonial nation states via the interaction of local ‘particularities’ and European colonial governmentality. Therefore capitalist modernity is not a pre-constructed western ‘product’ and equally importantly, the west could not have produced its modernity without colonialism.

Obviously, by presenting these broad, distinct cases I am not suggesting that they are mirror processes- one must always account for the unequal power structure inherent in any discussion of colonizer/colonised relationship. For the colonized, the other is inescapable. For the colonizers, the other in this context is simply a useful tool/hegemonic device.

Taken together, these brief examples illustrate how group identity in a colonial context is often formed in relation to the other- colonizer or colonized. It is clear that an important pillar of settler identity is a pretension to modernity, and the scientific marshaling of the colonized was a useful illustration of this that played out across the long nineteenth century. Likewise, postcolonial scholarship illustrates how colonized subjects grappled with the same modernity in their various attempts to discern freestanding and unique subaltern identity (quite often national in scope).

A key theme that emerged from the two-day workshop was the ‘relational’ nature of settler identity construction. Similarly, as several influential postcolonial scholars have demonstrated, subaltern and postcolonial nationalist identities are products of colonizer/colonized interaction. If we centre power dynamics in our analysis, expanding the scope of ‘relational’ influence to include the colonized in settler identity formation is an exciting, potentially fruitful site of inquiry for members of the settler social identity group.

Nicolas Haisellis a doctoral candidate at Queen’s University Kingston. Focused on the intellectual and legal history of Nova Scotia, his work examines settler liberalism, whiteness, and the framing of ‘modernity’ in the Canadian national context. Specifically, he is interested in processes through which Indigenous, Acadian and other so-called ‘problematic’ groups were reckoned with in local printed material (history, anthropology, etc.) as competing regional and national identities coalesced in the mid to late nineteenth century. He is currently preparing a chapter provisionally titled ‘True Sons of the North: Confederation, Regional Identity, and the Useable Past in Nova Scotia, 1857-1871’ for the forthcoming volume Firsting and Lasting in the Early Modern Transatlantic World.

Settler Social Identities Conference Report

by Sarah Sharp

This summer saw an international cohort of scholars from Ireland, the UK, United States, Canada, New Zealand and Australia gather at University College Dublin’s Humanities Institute on the leafy south side of the city thanks to the generous support of the Humanities Institute and the UCD College of Arts and Humanities.  July’s two day conference brought together key thinkers in the growing field of nineteenth-century settler studies to discuss the role of rational recreation in the creation of colonial identity. Featuring keynote papers from Professor Natasha Eaton (University College London) and Professor Clara Tuite (University of Melbourne), Settler Social Identities aimed to examine the role that popular entertainments, associational life, and literary culture played in defining and disseminating new forms of national and trans-national belonging in the British settler colonies of Africa, Asia, North America, and Australasia.

Opening with a hearty welcome to the Humanities Institute from UCD’s Dr. Emily Mark Fitzgerald, the first half day of papers featured panels on clubs and intellectual societies, and imperial networks of print and publication, and concluded with our first keynote. Peter Hodgins’ (Carleton University) and Nicholas Haisell’s (Queen’s University) respective papers on Victorian Ottawa and the Nova Scotia Historical Society opened up a productive conversation about the role of clubs and associational life in nineteenth century Canada. A panel featuring Honor Rieley (Glasgow University) and conference organisers Sarah Sharp (UCD) and Lara Atkin (UCD) raised questions about the possible meanings of colonial literary reprints. The day ended with a stimulating keynote from Natasha Eaton which examined the role of photographic technologies within systems of indenture in colonial Mauritius. The day was characterized not just by the way in which the research presented interacted across papers and panels, but by the valuable and vibrant dialogue between delegates during breaks and over dinner that evening.

This spirit of discussion and generous participation continued into the second day of the conference. The morning’s first panel featured papers by Karen Dovell (Suffolk County Community College) and Deidre Osbourne (Goldsmith’s, University of London) whose observations on representations of race in nineteenth century Texas and Australia interacted in fascinating and unexpected ways. The conference’s second keynote by Clara Tuite explored the legacy of Regency flash culture in the Australian colonial context and its influence on constructions of the Australian figure of the male convict. The afternoon’s panels on women, exhibitions and social life, and performing settler identities, were again full of parallels, contrasts and connections. Fariha Shaikh (University of Birmingham), Shahmima Akhtar (University of Birmingham) and Renate Dohmen’s (Open University) papers foregrounded the gendered nature of colonial settlement. Our final panel, featuring papers by Erica Mukherjee (Stony Brook University), Nathan Garvey (UCD) and Paola Colleoni (University of Melbourne), in its discussion of tropical engineers, transportation lectures and Catholic cultural patronage was perhaps emblematic of the incredible range of topics which the focused conference topic generated. We concluded with a roundtable where organisers Kathryn Milligan (UCD), Sarah Comyn (UCD) and Sarah Sharp (UCD) shared possible take-aways from the event, and a discussion which allowed participants to engage with the many issues and questions which two days of panels and keynotes had raised. Following on from the conference, Social Settler Identities will continue to have an active web presence and we will be soliciting contributions for our blog in the future.

Sarah Sharp is a current Irish Research Council Postdoctoral Fellow affiliated with the ERC-funded SouthHem Project at University College Dublin. She holds a PhD in English Literature from the University of Edinburgh and has previously held positions in New Zealand and the USA.

Her research project ‘In Foreign Soil: Death Abroad in Scottish Literature and Travel Narratives 1790-1900’ looks at the ways in which death abroad informs ideas of national identity in Scottish writing of the Romantic and Victorian periods. 

Image: From ‘Conversazione at the Royal Society’, print/wood engraving by  Alfred May and Alfred Martin Ebsworth, 1880. Courtesy of State Library of Victoria.

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