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Queensland, 1859: Reflections on the Act of Becoming

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  26 February 2016

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We don't so much write the meaning of a period, as the history of some possible meanings; we study what was able to emerge within, and against, what seems to at first glance at least, to be a dominant field of social perception.

Dana Polan

It has been observed elsewhere that Queensland, as a self-governing colony, did not ‘arise like the sun at an appointed time’ within an Empire on which the sun never set. Rather, to paraphrase British historian E.P. Thompson in another context, ‘It was present at its own making.’ December 1859 was only a moment of disjuncture according to certain political, administrative and fiscal effects. As a society, as a culture, Queensland was already in full and exuberant existence, having carved out a sense of its own intrusive perpetuity over a preceding period of some 35 years from both the lands of others and the labours of mostly convict, emancipated and indentured men and women. And these in turn marked the Antipodean sequel to ‘blue water’ Imperialism – trans-oceanic nomads drawn by the hazy promise of land on foreign shores or projected unwillingly there by the logic of their metropolitan transgressions. People of many nations, of ‘interacting, sometimes colluding, sometimes colliding cultures’, from its generative convicts, soldiers, penal commandants and manifold Aboriginal peoples to its waged workers, squatters, selectors, merchants and administrators, were in effect this colonial society in embryo, both formed and in process of formation. Only a name for the place was now lacking. Although small, isolated and stunted, this was nevertheless a multi-faceted, diverse and unequally graded social order, cloaked only one-dimensionally in the mantle of Britishness and Christianity. What follows are some observations about this conceptually unstable sense of consonance and divergence and the coincident business of simultaneously being and becoming.

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