Assimilation and Destruction in Nineteenth-Century Australia

Speaker: Roisín Laing # Durham University

5th Feb 2018

15:30 - 17:00

6th Floor Staff Room, Chrystal Macmillan Building


The Indigenous population of Australia declined rapidly during the period of British colonial expansion there in the nineteenth century. Contemporary scientific writing generally accounts for this decline by reference either to the racial characteristics, or to the cultural practices, of Indigenous Australian peoples themselves.

The view that Indigenous Australians are culturally inferior to their colonists has generally been understood as less harmful than the view that they are racially inferior. An analysis of a range of scientific sources from the early nineteenth century suggests, however, that the paternalistic idea that assimilation into British culture would protect Indigenous people complements, rather than counteracting, the systematic eradication of Indigenous peoples which was necessary under British colonial rule. An analysis of historical events indicates that efforts to assimilate Indigenous peoples into colonial culture are, likewise, indistinguishable from efforts to eradicate them.

By situating scientific texts in the context of historical events, I will indicate that the study of culture operates in symbiosis with the study of race to rationalise the eradication of Australia’s Indigenous peoples which took place during the nineteenth century. Through this contextualised, literary critical analysis of the science writing of colonial Australia, I will demonstrate the extent to which scientific theories can be interpreted such that they promote a vast range of often contradictory and often devastating political ends. 

Roisín Laing is a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow in the English Studies department at Durham University. Following her PhD on the influence of Darwinian evolutionary theory on literary and scientific studies of childhood precocity in the late nineteenth century, Roisín took up a Visiting Research Fellowship at the University of Sydney. This fellowship provided a basis for her current research into the co-production of nineteenth-century ideologies of childhood and race in the evolutionary theories of the period. She has published research on literary authors including Henry James, Rudyard Kipling and Frances Hodgson Burnett, and on scientific writers including Charles Darwin, James Sully and G. Stanley Hall.