Settler Colonies

USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand

The examples of colonialism we have looked at so far have been colonialism by intervention, often beginning with trade but ending in military campaigns of quelling insurrection followed by direct colonial rule. It would be a mistake, however, to consider all post colonial literature as a response to oppression and enforced rule.

The settler colonies are different historically and therefore raise a different set of questions. In particular, most post colonial literature in English from these countries is not written by indigenous peoples who have acquired the language, but by English or English-descended people who have settled in these countries. There are examples of indigenous writing in English, but these are rarer.

With settlers embarking on an new life thousands of miles from their familiar homes, displacement is often one of the key concerns of this branch of post colonial literature. On the one hand, the settlers carried with them a cultural understanding and narrative modes developed in England, so the foundations are firmly rooted in English and European traditions. On the other hand, in many cases the early settlers found that their vocabulary could not encompass the environment, landscape and natural life which they encountered, creating immediate tests for the language itself. The problem for the settlers is a balance between reaching back to the home country, and a desire to maintain traditions, with the urge to develop an individual voice which reflects the new country, establishing a new indigenous tradition. This is a key differentiation from the literatures of other colonised countries, where there has often been a desire to reclaim and revalue an indigenous tradition which has been suppressed by colonial rule. Here, we can see the very beginnings of an indigenous tradition, breaking itself away from the inherited tradition which migrated with the settlers. Tied to this in the wider political context is a movement towards independence, fully gained by the USA, although Canada, Australia and New Zealand maintain connections with Britain.

For the purposes of our study, we will concentrate on Australia and New Zealand. The issues of American Literature are so vast, encompassing so many influences from varied traditions because of its history of mass immigration, that this is an area of separate study. Canada also has very specific issues of an English/French balance, which deserves particular focus.

As well as the concerns with the tension between imported tradition and new tradition, and the necessity of language itself to expand to define the new environment, the settlers were also concerned with their relationship with the established indigenous populations, the Aborigines in Australia and the Maoris in New Zealand. These issues often inform each other and are intertwined.


David Malouf’s Remembering Babylon (1993) explores these concerns in very interesting ways. Set “in the middle of the nineteenth century”, a new settlement just establishing itself on the coast of Queensland is disturbed by the arrival of a “creature” who at first resists definition. The attempts to define him in the first few pages reveal the settlers’ own fears. He comes from “beyond the no-man’s land of the swap, that was the noble abode of everything savage and fearsome… of nightmare rumours, superstitions and all that belonged to Absolute Dark.” The first response is that “We’re being raided by blacks”, but the creature has “stick-like legs, all knobbed at the joints”, its “leathery face scorched black” but also has “sun-bleached and pale-straw” hair. Finally, this hybrid, puzzling, indefinable creature calls “Don’t shoot… I am a B-b-british object!” The story that emerges from a kind of narrative charades is that this “creature” is, in fact, a British man, who, having fallen overboard from a ship skirting the coast, has lived among the Aborigines for the last sixteen years. As Gemmy, as he turns out to be called, gradually remembers his own English past from renewed contact with the British settlers, his arrival causes unease. The newness of the settlement is indicated by the regional accents: the family at the centre of the narrative are Scottish, and their dialogue is written phonetically to indicate this. There is a nervousness and uncertainty in the community. The boy who finds Gemmy is unnerved by his “whining blackfeller’s lingo”, and the “idea of a language he did not know scared him.” While there are those who want to help Gemmy, it is his emergence from a landscape which is still alien which scares the settlers, and his association with the Aborigines: “Was he in league with the blacks?… Did he slip off when they were not watching… and make contact with them? Did they visit him secretly at night?” Gemmy’s arrival in the community brings its fears into focus, and fears provoke violence. As one of the characters says about the Aborigines: “We ought to go out… and get rid of ’em, once and for all.” Suspicious about Gemmy, his presence begins to divide the community, breaking trusts and friendships. While the reader’s understanding of Gemmy grows and sympathy for his predicament and past increases, the greater the rejection and distrust by the settlers. As with Arundhati’s Roy’s The God of Small Things, one of the key aspects of the novel is the scars borne by the children in their adult years, but the novel also shows the gulf between British experience and Australia, the fears and aspirations of the new setters as they forge their new communities in a place they barely understand, and crucially with Gemmy how the past is ordered and defined, with the relationship between language and experience.

The Secret River by Kate Grenville won the 2006 Orange Prize for fiction. She spoke very interestingly about it on BBC Radio 4’s Front Row, saying that she felt the need to face up to the country’s colonial past, and particularly the white settlers’ relationship with the Aborigines. The publication of this novel in 2006 shows that Australia is still coming to terms with its history and its relationship with the Aboriginal peoples. The novel follows the fortunes of William Thornhill from the harsh and brutal world of the Thames to an equally brutal world in Australia, following transportation for theft. The white settlers have to come to terms with an environment and a landscape which is completely alien to them. Thornhill finds it “a place out of a dream, a fierce landscape… [he] felt his eyes wide open, straining to find something he could understand.” The narrative is marked by the balance in some of the settlers between progressing in the new land and hankering for a home which is no longer home. Though his wife longs for London, Thornhill feels that it is “a place that was part of his flesh and spirit” and soon both recognise that London is now an alien place which has no reality for their children. The settlers’ responses to the peoples who already inhabit the land are mixed. Some adapt and live alongside, but these people are treated with as much suspicion as the Aboriginals themselves by the other white settlers. Having only experienced harshness and summary justice themselves, the settlers inevitably move towards brutal conflict. Though Genville’s narrative style does not shirk the brutality of settlers’ actions at all, there is a clear understanding of their position. Their own bleak backgrounds, harsh experiences and first taste of freedom and power lead the settlers to aggression, and they do not understand the Aboriginal shifting and nomadic way of life: “There were no signs that the blacks felt the place belonged to them. They had no fences that said this is mine.” As Thornhill says, with some sympathy, “”There won’t be no stopping us. Pretty soon there won’t be nowhere left for you black buggers.” Grenville’s presentation of the Aboriginal people is sympathetic, granting them a poise and dignity; they are “like part of the landscape”, living symbiotically with it and moving through the apparently impenetrable bush with ease. This is contrasted with a settler’s view that the only response, echoing Kurtz in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, is to ‘sterminate them… ain’t it the only way?”

The key poetic voice of Australia is Les Murray, who has been described as “one of the finest poets writing in English, one of a superleague that includes Seamus Heaney, Derek Walcott and Joseph Brodsky.” (Blake Morrison, Independent on Sunday) Space allows us to examine only one poem here, ‘Physiognomy on the Savage Manning River’, published in his collection The Daylight Moon (1987). The poem begins “Walking on that early shore…”, which as well as an early morning evokes the first encounter between settlers and that place, and the poem continues to delve into history. “Beyond the river”, we are told, “extends the deserted/Aboriginal hunting park”, and the imagery Murray employs suggests even now the memory of a threat reminiscent of Remembering Babylon: “Beyond are the ranges, edge over edge, like jumbled sabres.” He also refers to the mythic hairy man of Aboriginal folklore: “It is the feared long-unburnable/dense forest of the dooligarl”, thus evoking the fears the early settlers felt when confronted with an unfamiliar and threatening landscape. Note here the incorporation of Aboriginal vocabulary into the English of the poem, already showing how the language has been stretched by its new encounters. The poem focuses on Miss Isabella Kelly, who in the nineteenth century achieved notoriety rather than admiration by being an independent female pioneer settler, upsetting the conventional imported British values of the time. Murray refers to her indomitable spirit, as she “rode beside/her walking convicts three days through the wilderness”, balancing the traditional male roles with her own femininity, “sidesaddle…/throned and footless in her hooped midcentury skirts”. In this historical view, Murray also acknowledges what drew settlers to this new world, a combination of “men escaping the black mills” and “families tired of a thousand years’ dim tenancy”. This is a land of opportunities and a release from the social shackles of Britain – at least for men – but also a land of fear and perceived threat. In the poem, Murray suggests that time, including settlement and raising families, beginning to belong, familiarises people and place, and importantly begins to absolve guilt: “What do families offer us?/Some protection from history,/a tough school of forgiveness.” The long poem ends with a pragmatic voice, further distancing any sense of responsibility: “if we asked leading questions, we might hear,/short of a ringing ear,/something like: We do what’s to be done/and some things because we can./Don’t be taking talk out of me.” The final lines are perhaps ominous: “The black dog will have his day yet./Not every dog, as in English, but the black dog.”

New Zealand

Perhaps the most famous New Zealand writer is Katherine Mansfield, but she holds an odd position, since she spent most of her life in England and Europe, and many of her short stories are set there, and distinctly European in flavour. Perhaps this is in itself indicative of a literary spirit yearning back to the English and European centre, feeling that as a more suitable home for her literary endeavours. Most of her stories have a light touch and are minutely observed, and often directed by a subtle narrative style where the narrative voice is difficult to determine, third person but weaving in and out of characters’ consciousnesses. Some critics have interpreted this post colonially, seeing in it a difficulty of secure placement and identity, a form of narrative displacement. There is also a very sharp concentration on women, their lives, consciousness, social expectations and relationships with men in Mansfield’s short stories, suggesting the beginning of a feminist consciousness. Perhaps for our purposes it would be sensible to focus on the New Zealand stories, in particular Prelude, At the Bay (two stories which concern the same family), The Garden Party, Millie and The Woman at the Store. (Each of these can be found in The Garden Party and other Stories published by Everyman, though many stories can also be found on the internet, as Mansfield is now out of copyright). The first three of these stories juxtapose European manners and social expectations with the New Zealand environment and see them being stretched and tested. There is sometimes a gentle sense of absurdity as the manners are maintained out of context. At other times characters deliberately test the boundaries of acceptability, sensing the possibilities of freedom. This is perhaps most apparent in the character of the unconventional Mrs Harry Kember and Beryl’s yearning for freedom and fulfilment in At the Bay. Millie and The Woman at the Store are quite different, suggesting a simmering violence under the surface of the new settler communities. In the first, Millie’s maternal instincts are aroused as she protects a young boy from a lynch mob, but when he is spotted and chased the following night “a strange mad joy smothered everything else… she laughed and shrieked and danced in the dust,” shouting “Shoot ’im down. Shoot ’im!” In the second, when three men travelling through the bush seek rest at the store, it slowly becomes apparent that the woman who runs it has murdered her husband. In these stories, Mansfield describes a much more uncertain, dangerous world which faced the first settlers.

Extracts from At the Bay and The Garden Party

Peter Hawes’ novel Playing Waterloo (1998) is a rollickingly absurd and funny novel which tinkers with the ‘what ifs’ of history. A young computer software genius invents a huge role-playing game to re-enact historical battles based on masses of historical data. Two tetchy academics challenge each other to fight the battle of Waterloo again. Briefly, Napoleon wins and the computer takes a side-slip into a non-historical universe. King George flees to New Zealand and Napoleon gives chase. The central battle that takes place is one that of course never happened historically, between the European military genius of Napoleon and the Maori military genius Te Rauparaha. What Hawes achieves, apart from some very funny historical satire at the expense of European heroes and monarchs is an evaluation of Maori tradition and skills of warfare, as Te Rauparaha’s tactics and manoeuvres repeatedly outwit the far superior firepower of Napoleon’s forces. As he says to one of Napoleon’s captured men: “Themperor Napoulo Ponopati seems very good at huge battles – what’s he like at tiny battles?… Perhaps you are telling me that Themperor Napoulo Ponopati is new to the game of small-scale warfare?” The fears of the unknown, the foreignness of the landscape, the assumption of European superiority in the face of this, are evoked in Napoleon’s response to New Zealand, while that assumed superiority is repeatedly undercut. The novel, although humorously, raises questions about the history of New Zealand by proposing an alternative to the historical European colonialism.

Although traditional Maori poetry is part of an oral tradition, there are Maori poets who write down their poems, sometimes with English translations. Hone Tuwhare was one of the most celebrated, and wrote in English. One of his poems, ‘Monologue’, begins: “I like working near a door. I like to have my work-bench/close by, with a locker handy.” The poem describes a readiness for movement, a sense of transience and readiness for instability. There are other attractions of being near the door; “I am the farthest/ from those who have to come down to shout/instructions in my ear”, which suggests an independence of spirit and a dislike of external direction. The poem is informed by a gentle tone of pessimism; being close to the door makes exit easy when there will be “a reduction in staff”. The poem ends “I always like working near a door. I always look for a/work-bench hard by – in case an earthquake/occurs and fire breaks out, you know?” The poem has a casual easy colloquialism and a freedom of form. Reading the poem post colonially, it is tempting to interpret Tuwhare’s sense of instability as a Maori expression of the effects of colonialism.

After some very traditionally English beginnings, New Zealand poetry has developed notable freedom of form, establishing a clear break with the inherited traditions. This, for example, is an extract from David Mitchell’s ‘Silences’:

“ah! words. words! WORDS!

are pretty, petty

aaaayet man
has set them

since this fell time began/ this
time round/ this spare & dying
aaaaaasun . . .

who is there, here, with heart
who does not fear at last or least
in some fool part or wise/ the dark
blue frieze of


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