Writing the Empire: Scribblings from Below
An international & interdisciplinary conference
Phillipe de Vigors, ‘Convicts letter writing at Cockatoo Island, New South Wales, 1849’
Reproduced by kind permission of the State Library of New South Wales, Sydney
Event Dates: 25 June 2010
Cecilia Morgan (University of Toronto)
What a difference there is between this country and America”: Native Peoples’ Letter-writing Across the British Empire, 1800-1870
Literary and historical scholarship on Native peoples’ movements within, through, and beyond the settler colonies of early to mid-nineteenth century British North America has explored their production of published texts. The publications of the Cherokee-Scots-Mohawk soldier, explorer, and writer John Norton, and the Ojibwa Methodist ministers Kahkewaquonaby (Peter Jones) or Kahgegagabowh (George Copway) have been the subject of various analyses in Canadian and American Native history. However, while noting these authors’ fluency in English, cultivated primarily because of their missionary education, familial relationships with British settlers, and negotiations with the colonial authorities, scholars have paid little sustained attention to another form of communication, the letter. Yet in addition to their published works, highly visible individuals such as Jones and Norton left extensive collections of personal correspondence written to both family and friends on both sides of the Atlantic. As well as those left by these adult men, letters written by mixed-race children of the transatlantic fur trade, sent to England and Scotland for education and training, are powerful – and sometimes very poignant – ‘scribblings from below’ that circulated between Britain, fur trade posts, the Red River colony, and Australia.
While letters exchanged through colonial and imperial networks have often been seen as repositories of information about colonial conditions, scholars such as Charlotte McDonald, Kate Teltscher, and Erika Rappaport have demonstrated the centrality of personal letters for British subjects across the Empire, particularly to the constitution of imperial networks and formations. Focusing on those Native and mixed-race travelers who form the basis of my research, my paper will address a number of related, yet divergent, questions about the practices of letter writing. For one, these collections of correspondence demonstrate the varied ways in which their authors appropriated and used the written word to help create and sustain their own imperial networks, ones in which the worlds of formal and domestic politics intermeshed. As well, these varied bodies of correspondence illustrate the ongoing forging of colonial subjectivities and their relationships to the particular spaces inhabited and, to some extent, created by their authors within colonial and imperial formations. In keeping with the suggested theme of performance, these letters also give us insights into their authors’ performances of ‘Native’ or ‘mixed-race’ subjectivities on multiple stages. Furthermore, these letters were not just reflections of the latter: they also were performances in which their authors struggled to write and create themselves.
Cecilia Morgan, University of Toronto, email
Cecilia Morgan is a Professor in the History of Education Field, Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto, where she teaches gender and colonial/imperial history, Canadian gender history, and the history of commemoration and memory. Her latest major publication is ‘A Happy Holiday’: English Canadians and Transatlantic Tourism, 1870-1930 (University of Toronto Press, 2008). She is currently working on a SSHRC-funded study of Native and mixed-race peoples’ travels from British North America and Canada, 1800-1920. Her other project examines the lives of a number of Canadian-born women who crafted transnational careers in theatre and other forms of performance, 1880-1940. Her article on Irish-Canadian actress Margaret Anglin will appear in the collection, Transnational Lives: Biographies of Global Modernity, 1700-present, Angela Woollacott, Desley Deacon, and Penny Russell, eds. (Palgrave Macmillan, 2010).