Scholar Talk: A Soldier’s Life on the Penal Frontier

With Tamsin O’Connor

Location: State Library of New South Wales

Metcalfe Auditorium, Ground Floor, Macquarie Street, Sydney

The well-documented convict cargo was accompanied by a far more elusive group of involuntary arrivals – the soldiers. We know much about the various regiments that served in New South Wales, but far less about the enlisted men who gave them form and force.The focus of this study is the frontier penal station of Newcastle, where the soldiers were charged with a double remit – as the agents of expansion and as the enforcers of confinement. This dual military function is examined through the story of two wooden boxes, including the Macquarie Collectors chest. This is curated as a National Treasure, an early example of Australiana and as an artistic colonial collaboration. My analysis relocates the chest in its military and penal contexts where it begins too look more acquisitive than collaborative – the incidental spoils of a frontier war and the perks of an exploited labour force. A second and more humble wooden box focuses upon the experiences of enlisted men, who felt themselves to be as trapped and tormented as the convicts they guarded. Relationships between convicts and soldiers were characterised by a tension between conflict and cooperation, between class commonality and regimental discipline and between the complex loyalties of religion and ethnicity. This paper, while seeking to negotiate these micro-geographies of class, race, gender and power on the penal frontier, also aims to reveal that the soldiers, were less tangential to the construction of convict society (as opposed to the destruction of Aboriginal society) than the monolithic archive of the Colonial Office would have us suppose. Indeed some soldiers crossed the regimental rubicon and joined convict bushrangers and pirates.

And everyone loves a pirate! So do come it’s on November 5th. Melbourne cup day or Guy Fawkes – depending on your cultural reflexes!

Remember Remember the 5th November!

Tamsin O’Connor is completing her Ph.D. at the University of Sydney. Her thesis entitled, ‘All those Places of Condemnation’: Power Relations and Convict Resistance at the Penal Stations of New South Wales 1804 – 1842,’ focuses on the settlements at Newcastle and Moreton Bay, which existed on either side of the Bigge Report. She has published her research in a number of edited collections.

For more information see: https://www.sl.nsw.gov.au/events/scholar-talk-soldiers-life-penal-frontier

Source: Macquarie’s Collector’s Chest, SLNSW, showing the open drawers, specimens and the painted panels

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