On Monday 25 May 2020, the SouthHem team attended the first of two ‘Virtual Conversations in American & Indigenous Studies’ organised by the Centre for Indigenous & Settler Colonial Studies at the University of Kent. These events served as an opportunity to engage with some of themes posited in the call for papers for the Entangled Modernities symposium, which has now been delayed due to ongoing Covid-19 health and safety precautions. The first of these events served as a virtual book club, with participants invited to read Kate Fullagar’s recently published monograph, The Warrior, the Voyager, and the Artist: Three Lives in an Age of Empire (2020), and consider how the themes and methodologies in Fullagar’s work might be applied to their own research. Fullagar generously joined us for the second half of our discussion to talk through some of our responses to her book.
Fullagar’s work brings together the lives of British artist Joshua Reynolds and two Indigenous men, the Cherokee Ostenaco and the Ra’iatean Mai, both of whom stood for portraits by Reynolds during their well-publicised visits to London in the eighteenth century. Through their interconnected biographies, Fullagar considers how these three men—separated across the globe for most of their lifetimes—related to an emerging ‘age of empire’. To what degree did they welcome and accommodate empire? Or try to resist and challenge it? In the case of Mai and Ostenaco, Fullagar’s account reveals ‘how the intrusion of empire into Indigenous societies was momentous but never total. It was important but not overdetermining’ (6). It also offers a fresh perspective on Reynolds, positioning him as both an anthropological specimen and as an imperial subject navigating his own uneven and often ambivalent relationship to imperial expansion, even as he gained renown as a portraitist of empire.
Sarah Smeed (Kent) began our discussions with an introduction to Fullagar’s book that foregrounded its attempts to ‘excavat[e] empire’s culture’ (5) through its emphasis on how imperial actions impacted individuals. By stressing the shared points of contact between these figures, Smeed articulated how Fullagar opens up different perspectives on all three men to illustrate how their legacies were shaped, but not wholly defined, by empire.
Porscha Fermanis (UCD), Ben Marsh (Kent), and Lara Atkin (Kent) considered this work within a lineage of speculative historical biographies, and were particularly taken with the ways in which Fullagar’s analysis self-consciously acknowledges the speculative nature of archival sources themselves and how this might encourage us to reorient our thinking around what these historical representations could indicate, while reinforcing how contingent they remain. When she joined our discussions, Fullagar reminded us that all scholarly writing is inherently persuasive, if not speculative, drawing on specific pieces of evidence to persuade their reader. While Indigenous histories are often, of necessity, more reliant on speculation than other forms, it is worth remembering that archives themselves are also partial and speculative, offering us insights into what people supposedly did, and what they chose to memorialise, rather than what they actually did or saw.
Atkin acknowledged the discomfort many scholars struggle with in trying to work with colonial sources given the ways in which Indigenous movements and representations were frequently spectacularised and/or caricatured in the popular press. In reading these texts for moments of Indigenous agency and resistance, Fullagar’s work reinforces the value of noticing where Indigenous figures are conspicuously absent from the daily press. Where and when did the figures begin to disappear from the archive? Why were these figures no longer deemed of interest to the general public (or to more regional and local readerships)? Such questions remind us that silences and absences can be presences in themselves. Kristofer Ray (Hull) stressed that, given the oral cultures of most Indigenous societies in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, we cannot afford to dismiss written sources, even if they are predominantly imperialist in tone and nature. We need instead to think more critically about how we can read between the lines of these texts and try to understand their underlying biases.
David Stirrup (Kent) queried how permissive we can (and should) be in our speculations—as both authors and readers—especially when we write about Indigenous peoples as non-Indigenous scholars. Given the intensely local nature of many of these histories, and their embeddedness in community, what knowledges might we be missing or lacking access to? Even when our research has a firmly imperial or historical base, what are our responsibilities to try and do this type of recovery work in collaboration with contemporary Indigenous people?
Many of us were taken with Fullagar’s use of the biographical mode to engage with some of the problems inherent in recovering Indigenous histories. How can we use biography to make a historical argument, especially in relation to the eighteenth century when there would have been stark disjunctions between how these three men understood and framed both their own life stories and the very idea of a biography itself? As Fullagar outlines in her prologue: ‘Rather than abandon the genre for some or all of these figures, my comparisons occasion instead an effort to discover and then to integrate the ways that each man himself would have understood the concept of his life story’ (9).
Atkin highlighted Fullagar’s use of women’s life writing scholarship, such as Natalie Zemon Davis’ Women on the Margins: Three Seventeenth-Century Lives (1995), remarking on the potential value of situating Indigenous history relationally within another set of under-served biographical scholarship on non-elite women. Acknowledging the relevance of a genealogy of female and feminist biography, Fullagar also remarked on the importance of histories of gender and sexuality for her work, even when the three primary subjects are all men, prompting discussions about the matrilineal nature of Cherokee society and the homosocial nature of Reynolds’s circle.
Fermanis discussed Fullagar’s work as a move away from encounter or cross-cultural collision paradigms and towards the mediated nature of biography in order to explore the rhetorical nature of our own self-construction, and how we recover and ‘re-construct’ others. Responding to this point, Fullagar framed her decision to utilise biography as a way of compensating for the emphasis on empire and/or imperial subjects in encounter histories (often weighted as a 50/50 split, if not higher). Through a biographical approach we can focus on the lives of these Indigenous peoples both before and after imperial contact.
At a time when we are seeing a resurgence in the Western world of ‘pride’ in empire, and a renewal of its ‘positive’ legacy, histories such as Fullagar’s invite us to constantly unsettle the idea that empire was ever as cohesive or as unilateral as it was first believed. For both Ostenaco and Mai, empire was far from the most significant aspect of their lives. As Fullagar outlines: ‘Discovering the whole life of an eighteenth-century Indigenous person—upon which imperialists impinged as just one of many actors or for just a finite period—puts empire into more modest place. It also helps keep Indigenous people the main characters in their history’ (8). Those interested in the figures Fullagar’s book explores might also wish to listen her interview for History Today’s Travels Through Time podcast in 2019.
Dr. Sarah Galletly
ERC Postdoctoral Fellow, SouthHem