Arthur H. Adams and the problem with settler colonial studies

Arthur H. Adams

Helen Bones
Western Sydney University

A 1936 obituary for the poet and novelist Arthur H. Adams begins with the words ‘Arthur H Adams has died an Australian’. This statement reflects a primary preoccupation with Adams for critics. Adams’s legacy as a well-respected writer of the early twentieth century and one-time editor of one of Australia’s most influential literary publications, the Bulletin’s ‘Red Page’, is clouded by the ‘problem’ of his multiple allegiances: to New Zealand, to the United Kingdom, to Australia, and to the British Empire. Adams was born and raised in New Zealand, spent time in China and the United Kingdom, and then spent the last 30 years of his life living in Sydney. A poem he wrote at the age of 18 upon moving to Australia for the first time declared: ‘My heart is hot with discontent / I hate this haggard continent’.[1] These lines are often quoted as evidence of his persistent ambivalence to his place of residence. Because the response to Adams has largely revolved around attempts to reconcile him with imagined notions of national constructions (was he a New Zealander or an Australian?), the realities of the interlinked colonial world he inhabited and wrote about have been obscured or ignored.

Arthur H. Adams’s life and work reflects the reality that the Australian and New Zealand ‘settler’ colonies began as a single endeavour bound up in a larger story of colonial complicity. His novels and poetry portray a trans-Tasman world entangled in colonial networks. In Grocer Greatheart (1915), for example, a Sydney businessman finds himself marooned amongst various colonial characters on a Pacific island, reflecting the interconnected maritime world that was the circulatory system of the British colonial world. Adams’s first novel, Tussock Land: a Romance of New Zealand and the Commonwealth (1904), is indicative of the ease of mobility back and forth across the Tasman Sea between Australia and New Zealand due to the countries’ shared legacy. Like many Australasians of past and present, the book’s protagonist, King Southern, moves between Dunedin, Sydney, and Wellington as economic necessity or spiritual and romantic fulfilment dictates.

But what can Adams’s writings also tell us about settler colonialism of the British Empire? I recently published a chapter exploring this question in an edited volume about settler colonialism put out by Routledge (Archiving Settler Colonialism, edited by Yu-ting Huang and Rebecca Weaver-Hightower).

Settler colonialism, the editors state in the volume’s introduction, ‘denotes a distinct governing structure in which settler-invaders colonize by replacing Indigenous peoples on Indigenous lands’ (p. 3). It is a worthy enough distinction to make—ex-colonies that continue to be dominated by non-indigenous agents, such as Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the United States, have particular colonial legacies and unaddressed inequalities that cannot be understood within a blanket postcolonial remit. However, caution is necessary to avoid separating so-called ‘settler’ colonies from the larger story of European imperialism. In my opinion, the branch of study known as ‘settler colonial studies’ is, at times, in danger of doing just that. A number of the chapters in this book raise critiques or questions about this paradigm, including mine.

One issue arises with the name ‘settler’ itself.

The use of the word ‘settler’ is loaded with political implications, as are other alternatives—as an example, in 2016 a great deal of controversy was stirred up when it was reported that the University of New South Wales was instructing students to refer to early European arrivals as ‘invaders’ or ‘occupiers’ rather than ‘settlers’. In today’s highly polarised political climate, using the word ‘settler’ in Australia can be read as taking a side in the ‘History Wars’—the side of conservative politicians and ‘commentators’ who refuse to admit that historical understandings of Australia should be anything but celebratory. The word ‘settlement’ is inadequate to describe the colonial dispossession and violence towards indigenous peoples that the process entailed and continues to this day. As well as sounding cosy and benign it encourages the conclusion that these events happened a long time ago and the matter is now ‘settled’.

Secondly, as eminent historian Tony Ballantyne has said, ‘the Anglo-Celtic colonists of New Zealand were anything but settled’,[2] and New Zealand and Australia were part of an imperial network throughout which communications, goods, cultural commodities and people circulated. Separating ‘settler’ communities from other colonial contexts gives members of those communities licence to distance themselves from the direct exploitation of resources and people in the ‘New World’ that funded Britain’s naval dominance of the world and imperial expansion. Compensation paid to slave owners in the Caribbean after abolition, for example, contributed ‘a material resource base’ to parts of the colonising project in Australasia, according to recent research presented by Alan Lester in a keynote address given at the International Australian Studies Association conference in December 2018.

The intertwined origins of Australia and New Zealand as part of a British colonial land-grab in the South Pacific have been overshadowed by the subsequent attempts to establish each country as a nation with its own narrative. These narratives tend to gloss over colonial dispossession and instead ignore or appropriate indigenous perspectives to bolster a story of egalitarian progress from pioneering beginnings. In service of these ideologies, trans-Tasman novels such as Adams’s are only appreciated in their constituent ‘New Zealand’ and ‘Australian’ parts. For example, Adams’s Tussock Land has been valued only for its descriptions of New Zealand scenery, not its depiction of trans-Tasman mobility. In ignoring the wider concerns of colonial writers, nation-builders have not only robbed contributors of full recognition of their literary outputs but also obscured literary reflections of the intertwined colonial projects. This problem is not something that can be adequately addressed by portioning colonial contexts into ‘settler’ and ‘non-settler’.


[1] Arthur H. Adams, ’Written in Australia’, Maoriland and Other Verses (Sydney: Bulletin Newspaper Company, 1899), p. 9.

[2] Tony Ballantyne, ’On Place, Space and Mobility in Nineteenth-Century New Zealand’, New Zealand Journal of History 45:1 (2011), p. 61.