Parliamentary Empire: British Democracy and Settler Colonialism, c.1867-1939

Crowd outside meeting of Te Kotahitanga (the kupapa Maori parliament) at Papawai, 1897. Richard Seddon, Prime Minister of New Zealand is front row, third from left

David Thackeray (Exeter) and Amanda Behm (York) have been awarded a Research Project Grant by the Leverhulme Trust for their project ‘Parliamentary Empire: British Democracy and Settler Colonialism, c.1867-1939’, which will run from 2021-24. We will shortly be advertising two funded PhD studentships and will be holding a conference at Westminster, which is planned to lead to a special issue of Parliamentary History. The project team are interested from hearing from colleagues working on topics in this field.

Our project examines the role of parliament and the parliamentary idea in civic life in the UK and the British settler colonial world. While we might take for granted constitutional history as the bedrock of historical and civic education across imperial countries from the mid-nineteenth century until 1945, our project proposes a more daunting problem. At the heart of constitutional history lay a reverence for parliament, which found its most celebrated expression in Walter Bagehot’s 1867 description of the Commons as a ‘mirror’ of the British nation, expressing the popular will, educating the people politically, hearing grievances, and legislating.

Yet for all its studied neutrality, parliamentarianism emerged and remained as a cipher at the heart of British imperial politics. In that ‘golden age’ of constitutional history writing, there simmered widespread anxieties about the ability of parliament to mediate the body politic while confronting questions of an expanding electorate and votes for women. Equally significant was the ferment pitting settler colonial groups against the legislative and moral claims of their fellow imperial subjects across a vast transoceanic space.

By exploring how a range of constituencies through and beyond the settler colonies appealed to values of British parliamentarianism, we shed new light on the connected debates about democratic governance and political inclusion that characterised the emergence of nations within a fractious British Empire. The late nineteenth century witnessed a flourishing of local parliaments, parliamentary debating societies, petitions to parliament, and women’s parliaments. This culture was not confined to ‘overseas’ Britons and masculine settler colonists. Maori parliamentary movements, in particular, indicate how indigenous peoples could adopt and adapt the practices of British parliamentary culture to seek redress and assert notions of sovereignty. Women’s mock parliaments, which spread across Britain and the settler colonies, satirised transimperial parliamentary culture and highlighted women’s exclusion from national bodies.

We look forward to exploring how being ‘parliamentary’ was central to diverse claimants’ appeals for political inclusion and authority as they contested  ‘British’ values and appealed particularly to those supposedly on the fringes of the political nation, such as working men, women, indigenous peoples, and foreign and intra-imperial migrants. Our focus is on how ideas of ‘British’ parliamentarianism were performedand contested: how some forms of popular parliamentarianism such as debating societies could promote reverence for the Westminster model while others rejected parliament as an adequate ‘mirror’ of nation and empire. These challenges to, and alternative models of, parliament’s role in public life shine new light on the transnational flow of ideas and networks which continue to connect and divide the British Empire through its tumultuous redrawing.

Continue reading “Parliamentary Empire: British Democracy and Settler Colonialism, c.1867-1939”

The misguided attacks on ‘This Land Is Your Land’

Some of Guthrie’s greatest champions have had difficulties with the song. Al Aumuller/Library of Congress

Will Kaufman
University of Central Lancashire

In recent years, Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” has become a rallying cry for immigrants. And in July, after President Donald Trump tweeted that four Democratic congresswomen of color needed to “go back where they came from,” Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, one of the four targeted, responded with a tweet quoting Guthrie’s lyrics.

But not everyone sees the song as an anthem for inclusion.

In June, the Smithsonian’s online magazine, Folklife, published a piece that lambasted the song for its omissions.

The article, titled “This Land Is Whose Land?,” was written by folk musician Mali Obomsawin, a member of the Native American Abenaki tribe. She wrote of being shaken up “like a soda can” every time she heard the song’s lyrics:

“In the context of America, a nation-state built by settler colonialism, Woody Guthrie’s protest anthem exemplifies the particular blind spot that Americans have in regard to Natives: American patriotism erases us, even if it comes in the form of a leftist protest song. Why? Because this land ‘was’ our land. Through genocide, broken treaties and a legal system created by and for the colonial interest, this land ‘became’ American land.”

Obomsawin’s article immediately generated a flurry of responses from conservative media outlets.

Commie Folksinger Woody Guthrie Not Woke Enough for Mob,” jeered Breitbart’s John Nolte, delighted with this evidence of internecine strife among what he dubbed the “fascist woketards” of the American left. The Daily Wire’s Emily Zanotti soon joined the fray, penning a piece under the headline “This Land Is NOT Your Land: Woke Culture Now Demanding Woody Guthrie Be Canceled Over Folk Music Faux Pas.”

But Obomsawin and her conservative critics might be surprised to learn that some of Guthrie’s greatest champions have also had difficulties with the song.

As the author of three books on Guthrie, I sometimes wonder how the folksinger would respond to the criticism of “This Land Is Your Land” for its omissions.

While we can’t know for sure, a glance at some of his unpublished writings and recently discovered recordings can offer some clues. Continue reading “The misguided attacks on ‘This Land Is Your Land’”

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. Continue reading “Arthur H. Adams and the problem with settler colonial studies”

Colonising the Verse: Genre, Imperialism and Frontier Violence in Firefly and Serenity

“They Aim to Misbehave”. Painted by Danielle “Elle” Babin-Sather, 2013. https://www.patreon.com/Babsl

This post is the first in a roundtable co-edited by Marc-William Palen and Rachel Herrmann on science fiction and imperial history. You can read our call for posts here. Posts will run twice a week between now and the second week in July. We look forward to hearing your thoughts on these posts!

Joel Barnes
University of Melbourne

Five hundred years in the future, humanity has left earth and expanded into a new solar system. New planets have been terraformed and colonised. Life at the centre of this system is luxurious, sophisticated, civilised. On the outer fringes, existence is more precarious, eking out a living a more dangerous game. This is the world of Joss Whedon’s regrettably short-lived television series Firefly (2002) and its feature film follow-up Serenity (2005). Both follow the rag-tag crew of the spaceship Serenity, led by captain Mal Reynolds (Nathan Fillion), as they struggle to make ends meet by means legal and otherwise on the rough outer edges of this fictional universe, known in the show’s jargon as “the Verse.”

The Verse is cast in the mode of not one but two genres—the space opera and the western—that dramatise life on the frontier, and much of its humour and interest lies in the productive tension between their respective visions of that setting. According to Whedon, Firefly’s genesis lay in his reading of The Killer Angels (1974), Michael Shaara’s historical novel about the Battle of Gettysburg. He afterwards became “obsessed with the idea of life on the frontier, and that of course [made him] think of the Millennium Falcon.”[1] In imagining the space opera as an adapted western that shifted nineteenth-century imperial tropes into an extraterrestrial future, Whedon was merely making explicit long-standing undercurrents within the genre. (Gene Roddenberry’s working title for Star Trek—a constant intertextual counterpoint in Firefly—had been Wagon Train to the Stars.[2] Its trademark incantation of “space, the final frontier” was not incidental.) Continue reading “Colonising the Verse: Genre, Imperialism and Frontier Violence in Firefly and Serenity