Book Review – The Paper War by Anna Johnston

Cover of the book, The Paper War, by Anna Johnston

The Paper War: Morality, Print Culture, and Power in Colonial New South Wales by Anna Johnston, (Crawley, Western Australia: UWA Publishing, 2011).

Sydney Town was young and rambunctious when the ship carrying an ambitious missionary docked in 1824.  Into this colonial outpost stepped Lancelot Edward Threlkeld, determined to make his mark in the world, eager to convert Aboriginal people to Christianity and confident that his way was the right way.  He went on to establish an Aboriginal mission at Lake Macquarie which closed in 1841 after years of controversy.  Author of The Paper War, Anna Johnston, uses the archives about Threlkeld and his Aboriginal mission to examine how language was used and knowledge created.  The Paper War is primarily an academic treatise on the archival record but includes some biographical details about Threlkeld to provide context for her analysis.

Johnston argues that understanding the anxieties and ambitions of Sydney’s residents surrounding issues of social respectability is crucial to understanding the archival record.  The British living in Sydney Town had been removed from a class-based society and re-assembled in the antipodes, tasked with creating a new society. This was a disorienting process full of peril and opportunity.  A new social order needed to be created, but how?  Naturally the British inhabitants of Sydney fell back to the rules that ordered their communities from where they had come thousands of miles away, but these rules didn’t quite work in this colonial outpost.  Smelling opportunity, those who were regarded as members of the lower classes in Britain refused to acquiesce to their ‘betters’ in the fledgling colony as they would have done in Britain.  Some succeeded in achieving influence which would have been beyond their grasp had they not left their homeland.  Those in power felt under threat.  Disputes were common and played out publicly through the courts and the vibrant press.  It was a fractious, litigious society.Threlkeld was a participant in many of these public dramas either as a bit player on the side or the subject of a storm of invective hurled at him by those he pushed too far. He was one of the many aspirational settlers who pushed the social rules and acted beyond the restrictions that they would have been bound by in England because of their lowly status at birth.  He was a prolific writer but the words flowing from his pen as well as his social deportment upset the powers that be.  The title of the book, The Paper War, is a phrase coined by Threlkeld referring to the flurry of paper that fuelled the disputes in which he was involved.

Threlkeld studied the Aboriginal language spoken in the region of his mission at Lake Macquarie. His skills as a translator were used in a number of court cases.  However, Threlkeld acknowledged that an Aboriginal man called Biraban not only taught him but also collaborated with him in much of his translation work.  We know about Biraban from others but we do not hear from Biraban himself because his own words were not recorded.

Aborigines were important participants in early colonial society, however the archival record about them is poor.  It would be easy for a researcher to reflect the paucity of evidence by ignoring Aborigines entirely or simply repeating the accounts of the settlers.  Using the techniques of close and nuanced reading of the archive, Johnston makes every attempt to include Aborigines in her account, to acknowledge their contributions to the bank of knowledge developed in colonial Australia, but also to alert the reader when analysis is compromised by the silence of the archives regarding Aboriginal people. Again and again Johnston reminds us that it is the settlers who are summarising and reporting what Aborigines say and do.  What didn’t the settlers record?  When did they completely misunderstand what the Aborigines said and did? We see Aborigines in the archive through a fog created by settlers, many of whom had very little understanding of Aboriginal culture.  A few weeks ago I wrote about the problem of archival silences regarding women.  Indigenous people suffer from this problem also.  Johnston handles this issue well.

Johnston carefully dissects newspaper reports as well as private correspondence. She demonstrates the importance of close reading of the reports of disputes and court cases carried by five colonial newspapers. Using the 1827 execution of the Aboriginal man, ‘Tommy’, she draws the reader’s attention to the different tone of the reports; the importance of knowing who the editor was and their greater agenda which coloured these articles; the need to pay attention to the jockeying for superiority by the settlers who played a role in the execution; and the greater understanding gained by comparing the accounts of the execution published by a number of different newspapers.  While Anna Johnston regards herself as a literary scholar, not a historian, the reading techniques that she uses are the bread and butter for many historians.

I love the focus of this book on close analysis of language, her use of newspapers and court cases as important historical sources and the respectful acknowledgement of Aboriginal participation in the settler society.  But I finished reading the book feeling that it was almost two different books published under the one cover.  Nowhere does Johnston claim this book is a biography.  Rather the author explicitly states that it is not.  Yet the author does need to give her analysis of the archives some context so the opening paragraphs and the first chapter are biographical whereas in the subsequent chapters the analytical mode dampens the personal connection the reader has developed with Threlkeld.

This book is by a literary scholar and released by an academic publisher.  For this reason the reader should expect this book to be a denser read than a history intended to be a bestseller.  While the thread that holds this book together is undoubtedly Threlkeld, like a thread, he is always present but frequently he lurks in the background rather than being the focus of the discussion.  He may be mentioned but for most of the book Johnston’s focus is on analysis of the text in the archive.

The blurb on the back of the book and the abbreviated version on the publisher’s website seem to be designed to boost sales, however, I do not think they reflect the nature of the book.  They present the book as if it was solely a biography.  Yes, this book is an account of “[a] web of intrigue, corruption, slander, whistleblowing and backstabbing…”, but if you are expecting this to be a fast-paced, scandal-laced, bestselling biography from cover to cover you will be disappointed.  Rather, this book is a thoughtful, thoroughly researched and detailed examination of language that requires the reader to work with the writer to reap the fruits of the book.

In her final chapter Anna Johnston reflects on the ‘history wars’ in Australia and argues for:

… a close re-reading of key texts of our colonial past in order to shift the debates surrounding the history wars… to generate subtle and nuanced understandings of the complex role of representation in colonialism and its aftermath.

p. 221.

I couldn’t agree more, however, this type of historical analysis has been practised by historians for some years now.  Johnston situates her argument in terms of the writings of chief protagonists in the Australian history wars, Henry Reynolds and Keith Windschuttle from 1998 and 2000.  Their works may have been the impetus for Johnston’s project, however, Australian history has moved on since then.  Many of the URLs mentioned in the footnotes were viewed between 2002 and 2004. Was the bulk of the research for this book completed during this period?  It would make sense for a book written in 2004 or 2005 to refer heavily to the divisive historical debates of the turn of the century, but a book published in 2011 should have have greater emphasis on more recent historical debates.

I disagree with Johnston’s assertion that:

Australian historians have all too often imagined their role as ‘merely a copyist or amanuensis’, an ‘impartial onlooker, simply repeating what happened’.

p. 224.

In this passage Johnston is quoting from an article by Paul Carter in 1987.  Is she suggesting that this is the state of history now?  I started my history degree in 2007.  We were always encouraged to question our sources and to question the work of the historians we were reading.  Essays that were merely narrative without searching analysis were awarded significantly lower marks.  We practised the close reading advocated by Johnston.  Certainly some historians of years gone by had a tendency to act as the independent expert witness creating the national narrative, and there are some who still do this now, but to typecast all Australian historians in this vein is not fair.

Logo for the Australian Womens Writing Challenge 2012

Overall I am glad that I bought the book. I love the subject matter and it made me think.  I certainly recommend it to any reader who desires a greater insight into the nuts and bolts of how a historian analyses historical material.  However, keep in mind that this is an academic piece of work. It is not bed-time reading.

This review is part of my contribution to the Australian Womens Writing Challenge 2012.

Further Reading

4 thoughts on “Book Review – The Paper War by Anna Johnston

    • And a big thankyou for your review which brought this book to my attention! I also found the discussion in the comments on your review very interesting and useful.


  1. Thank you so much for referring me here, Yvonne – while I think that perhaps this book is a bit scholarly for my needs, your review articulating ways an historian can tackle the missing indigenous voice in the historical archive is exactly what I’ve been looking for. Thanks!


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