Jacqueline Van Gent – Indigenous women’s strategies of writing the colonial self

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
Bristol, UK

Jacqueline Van Gent (Univ of Western Australia)
Indigenous women’s strategies of writing the colonial self

This paper will discuss autobiographies and letters written by indigenous women associated with Moravian missions in the Atlantic World and in Australia in the 18th – 20th centuries.

Women converts’ writings are relatively few, and thus Moravian collections are particularly interesting because they contain a significant number of indigenous women’s letters and spiritual autobiographies since the early eighteenth century. Although this mission society promoted specific textual strategies of self-representations which were shaped by missionaries’ patriarchal perceptions of women’s religious capacities, indigenous converts’ writings show an engagement with religious and secular colonial authorities that defies simple submission.

Western literacy could provide indigenous and slave women with a degree of political agency when used for instance in petitions to secular authorities. Women’s texts also served to remind mission authorities of their own inherent contradictions of advocating the potential of human equality in conversion while operating in a colonial social and textual space. For Moravian women converts, letters and autobiographies provided a rhetorical strategy to insist on ‘sisterhood’ in frontier societies which sought to create social distance and hierarchies based on religion, race and gender.

In this paper I propose to read indigenous women’s letters and autobiographies simultaneously as texts and as social relationships in cross-cultural encounters in a colonial world. I am in particular interested in women’s strategies to negotiate gendered and cultural differences. Finally, the paper will address the question to what extent the scope for writing the colonial self changed for indigenous converts between the commencement of Moravian missions in 1734 and the later colonial period.

Jacqueline Van Gent, Univ of Western Australia, email
Jacqueline Van Gent teaches in History and Women’s Studies at The University of Western Australia. Her research interests include gender and missions in the early modern and late colonial period. She has carried out historical research on contact history and religious change at Lutheran missions in Australia and published in Australian Historical Studies and Journal of Religious History. As a member of an ARC-funded collaborative research team she is currently working on a project about indigenous women as agents of religious change on Protestant missions in Australia and PNG. She is also researching a book entitled “’First Fruits’: Indigenous Conversions and Gender in the Atlantic World” on the experiences of eighteenth-century indigenous converts associated with Moravian missions.








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