South Australian Settler Memoirs

By Nettelbeck, Amanda | Journal of Australian Studies, June 2001 | Go to article overview

South Australian Settler Memoirs


Nettelbeck, Amanda, Journal of Australian Studies


In this article I want to look at the ways in which settlers from the first wave of migration to South Australia constructed a sense of regional identity in the colony through the genre of memoir. Memoir is one of the narrative forms in which the process of first settlement was recalled and ultimately mythologised in terms of what would become, for following generations, a regional legend of foundation. I am not going to attempt anything like a survey of materials but will look more specifically at several examples in order to gauge how, as narratives, they perform a commemoration of colonial history.

What is memoir and what narrative characteristics does it imply? An orthodox characteristic attributed to memoir is that it foregrounds the formative effects of anecdotal experience. This has commonly been a description of its distinction (however slippery) from autobiography `proper'.(1) The power of memoir in contributing to the creation of a social history is that, with its focus on `actual experience', it evokes a more compelling version of nation-formation than just about any other form of narrative. This process is presumably what Terry Goldie is referring to when he says that we as a settler-culture nurture a `national character' that is based upon a fascination with the recorded `actual experience' of arrival and settlement and that the narrative potency of such records lies in the fact that there seems to be `no fictional intermediary to reshape the story'.(2) Yet these `actual experiences' are of course mediated, not only by the selective process of memory which bridges the temporal gap between the writing present and the written-about past but also by the ideological structure of colonialism itself, according to which the history of arrival and settlement is evaluated and characterised.

Another orthodox characteristic given to memoir is that it is marked by an attention to the inner life of the speaker rather than to the external world he or she inhabits.(3) Yet this is not largely tree of pioneer memoirs, in which the writer's life is often very deliberately bound to the empire's history of colonial endeavour, a history that both frames and justifies the production of the memoir itself. The question that this focus on exteriority inevitably raises, according to Joan Fitzgerald, is: `"what history" or rather "whose history" [does the writer] see themselves as participating in?'(4) Many writers of foundational memoirs, for instance, will declare their intention to bear witness to the pioneer past and to the values with which it is associated: self-reliance, adaptability, perseverance, endurance, as well as loyalty to God and empire.(5) In this sense, the writer of the pioneer memoir could draw upon an evolving mythology of national foundation in the process of remembering the localised past. Two conceptual frameworks consequently inhabit the narrative: the anecdotal memory of the past and the foundational mythology of the present. The kinds of questions that attend pioneer memoirs, then, are for what (and whose) purposes are they told? What kinds of values and legends are endorsed -- or perhaps challenged -- in their depiction of the past? How do the events that they record fit within a regionally accepted story of foundation?

Drawing specifically on South Australian examples, I want to look at two groups of narratives about foundational history produced during different time periods. The first is the group of `foundation' memoirs that were produced a generation after the first wave of South Australian colonial settlement by those who were part of it. These appeared primarily through the 1870s and the 1880s, forty to fifty years after the proclamation of 1836. The second group of narratives I want to consider more briefly -- a group that extends beyond memoir to other kinds of written memorials -- are those that appeared in the year of South Australia's Centenary in 1936; some of these are foundation memoirs published posthumously and some hark back to that foundation period without bearing direct witness to it. …

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