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A British sea: making sense of global space in the late nineteenth century*

  • Tamson Pietsch (a1)

It is the contention of this article that historians of the nineteenth century need to think about notions of empire, nation, and race in the context of the social production of space. More specifically, it posits that the moving space of the steamship functioned as a particularly important site in which travellers reworked ideas about themselves and their worlds. Supporting this contention the article pays close attention to the journeys of J. T. Wilson, a young Scottish medical student who between 1884 and 1887 made three voyages to China and one to Australia. For it was in the space of the ship, literally moving along the routes of global trade, that Wilson forged a particular kind of British identity that collapsed the spaces of empire, elided differences among Britons and extended the boundaries of the British nation.

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1 University of Sydney Archives, JT Wilson Papers (henceforth USA, JTWP), P162 6/1, n.d., probably late August/early September 1884.

2 Withers Charles, Placing the Enlightenment: thinking geographically about the Age of Reason, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007; David Livingstone, Putting science in its place: geographies of scientific knowledge, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003; Felix Driver, Geography militant: cultures of exploration and empire, Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2001.

3 Catherine Hall, ‘Introduction: thinking the postcolonial, thinking the empire’, in Catherine Hall, ed., Cultures of empire: a reader: colonizers in Britain and the Empire in nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2000, p. 19.

4 Said Edward, Orientalism, New York: Pantheon, 1978; Mary Louise Pratt, Imperial eyes: travel writing and transculturation, London: Routledge, 1992; Elizabeth Buettner, Empire families: Britons and late imperial India, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004. Margaret Hunt, ‘Racism, imperialism and the traveller’s gaze in eighteenth-century England’, Journal of British Studies, 32, 4, 1993, pp. 333–57; Simon Gikandi, Maps of Englishness: writing identity in the culture of colonialism, New York: Columbia University, 1996, p. 8; Christopher Bayly, The birth of the modern world, 1780–1914: global connections and comparisons, Oxford: Blackwell, 2004.

5 Gilroy Paul, The black Atlantic: modernity and double consciousness, London: Verso, 1993, p. 17.

6 Anderson Benedict, Imagined communities, revised edition, London: Verso, 2006.

7 Hill Christopher L., National history and the world of nations: capital, state, and the rhetoric of history in Japan, France, and the United States, Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008, p. 39; see also Partha Chaterjee, Nationalist thought and the colonial world: a derivative discourse?, London: Zed Books, 1986.

8 Hill, National history, p. 44.

9 Duncan Bell, ‘Empire and international relations in Victorian political thought’, Historical Journal, 49, 2006, p. 283; idem, The idea of Greater Britain: empire and the future of world order, 1860–1900, Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 2007, p. 1.

10 Mackenzie John, ed., Imperialism and popular culture, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1986, p. 2. This research agenda was institutionalized in the University of Manchester Press’s ‘Studies in imperialism’ series, of which Mackenzie is the series’ editor. For the rival view, see Bernard Porter, The absent-minded imperialists: empire, society, and culture in Britain, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005; idem, ‘Preface’, in The lion’s share: a short history of British imperialism, 1850–2004, 4th edition, Harlow: Pearson, 2004.

11 Peter Cain and Anthony G. Hopkins, ‘Gentlemanly capitalism and British expansion overseas, I: the old colonial system, 1688–1850’, Economic History Review, 39, 1986, pp. 501–25; eidem, ‘Gentlemanly capitalism and British expansion overseas, II: new imperialism, 1850–1945’, Economic History Review, 40, 1987, pp. 1–26; Andrew Thompson, Imperial Britain: the empire in British politics, 1880–1932, Harlow: Pearson, 2000; idem, The empire strikes back? The impact of imperialism on Britain from the mid-nineteenth century, Harlow: Pearson, 2005.

12 Pocock J. G. A., The discovery of islands: essays in British history, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005, p. 22; Carl Bridge and Kent Fedorowich, ‘Mapping the British world’, Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History, 31, 2, 2003, p. 11.

13 Magee Gary B. and Thompson Andrew S., Empire and globalisation: networks of people, goods and capital in the British world, c. 1850–1914, Cambridge: Cambridge University, 2010.

14 For David Harvey’s tripartite definition of space as absolute, relative, and relational, see ‘Space as a keyword’, in Noel Castree and Derek Gregory, eds., David Harvey: a critical reader, Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2006, pp. 270–93. Following on from Lefebvre, Harvey also speaks of a second tripartite dimension to space as that which is experienced, conceived, and lived: see Cosmopolitanism and the geographies of freedom, New York: Columbia University, 2009, pp. 141–8.

15 Antoinette Burton, ‘Introduction: on the inadequacy and the indispensability of the nation’, in Antoinette Burton, ed., After the imperial turn: thinking with and through the nation, Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003, pp. 1–26.

16 Hall Catherine and Rose Sonja, ‘Introduction: being at home with the empire’, in Catherine Hall and Sonya Rose, eds., At home with the empire: metropolitan culture and the imperial world, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006, p. 5. These arguments have not gone uncontested: see Linda Colley, Captives: Britain, empire and the world, 1600–1850, London: Jonathan Cape, 2002, pp. 125–6; eadem, Britons: forging the nation, 1707–1837, New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1992; Peter Mandler, ‘“Race” and “nation” in mid-Victorian thought’, in Stefan Collini, Richard Whatmore, and Brian Young, eds., History, religion, and culture: British intellectual history, 1750–1850, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000, pp. 224–45.

17 Hall, ‘Introduction’ in Cultures of empire, p. 7; eadem, ‘Culture and identity in imperial Britain’, in Sarah Stockwell, ed., The British empire: themes and perspectives, Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2007, pp. 215, 204; see also Partha Chatterjee, The nation and its fragments: colonial and post-colonial histories, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993.

18 Tony Ballantyne and Antoinette Burton, ‘Introduction: the politics of intimacy in an age of empire’, in Tony Ballantyne and Antoinette Burton, eds., Moving subjects: gender, mobility, and intimacy in an age of global empire, Urbana, IL: University of Illinois, 2008, p. 3; Doreen Massey, For space, London: Sage, 2005, p. 63. See also Harvey, Cosmopolitanism; Tim Cresswell, On the move: mobility in the modern Western world, New York: Routledge, 2006.

19 Massey, For space, pp. 65, 7.

20 Matthias Middell and Katja Naumann, ‘Global history and the spatial turn: from the impact of area studies to the study of critical junctures of globalization’, Journal of Global History, 5, 1, 2010, p. 165.

21 Ballantyne and Burton, Moving subjects, 2008; David Lambert and Alan Lester, eds., Colonial lives across the British empire: imperial careering in the long nineteenth century, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

22 Constantine Stephen and Marjory Harper, Migration and empire, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010; Simon J. Potter, ‘Empire, cultures and identities in nineteenth- and twentieth-century Britain’, History Compass, 5, 1, 2007, p. 57.

23 Belich James, Replenishing the earth: the settler revolution and the rise of the Angloworld, 1780–1939, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.

24 Tim Cresswell, ‘“You cannot shake that shimmie here”: producing mobility on the dance floor’, Cultural Geographies, 13, 2006, p. 73.

25 Glen O’Hara, ‘The sea is swinging into view: modern British maritime history in a globalised world’, English Historical Review, 124, 510, 2009, pp. 1132–3.

26 See Smallwood Stephanie E., Saltwater slavery: a middle passage from Africa to American diaspora, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007.

27 Gilroy, Black Atlantic, p. 4.

28 Emma Christopher, Cassandra Pybus, and Marcus Rediker, eds., Many middle passages: forced migration and the making of the modern world, Berkeley, CA: University of California, 2007; Clare Anderson, ‘“The Ferrignees are flying – the ship is ours!” The convict middle passage in colonial South and Southeast Asia, 1790–1860’, Indian Economic and Social History Review, 42, 2, 2005, pp. 143–86; James Bradley and Hamish Maxwell-Stewart, ‘Embodied explorations: investigating convict tattoos and the transportation system’, in Ian Duffield and James Bradley, eds., Representing convicts: new perspectives on convict forced labour migration, London: Leicester University Press, 1997; eidem, ‘“Behold the man”: power, observation and the tattooed convict’, Australian Studies, 12, 1997, pp. 71–91; Anderson Clare, Legible bodies: race, criminality and colonialism in South Asia, Oxford: Berg, 2004.

29 Hamish Maxwell-Stewart, ‘Founders and survivors: Australian lifecourses in historical context’, (consulted 23 March 2010), presented at the Sydney Sawyer Seminar, 21 August 2009.

30 Jonathan Hyslop, ‘Steamship empire: Asian, African and British sailors in the Merchant Marine c.1880–1945’, Journal of Asian and African Studies, 44, 1, 2009, pp. 50–1; see also idem, ‘The world voyage of James Keir Hardie: Indian nationalism, Zulu insurgency, and the British labour diaspora 1907–1908’, Journal of Global History, 1, 3, 2006, pp. 343–62.

31 Hyslop, ‘Steamship empire’, p. 51.

32 Haines Robin, Life and death in the age of sail: the passage to Australia, London: National Maritime Museum, 2006, p. 269.

33 Ian Tyrrell, ‘Reflections on the transnational turn in United States history: theory and practice’, Journal of Global History, 4, 3, 2009, p. 471.

34 These letters are held in the University of Sydney Archives. However, the correspondence is not complete, some parts were lost prior to deposit, and the order has been confused.

35 J. G. A. Pocock, The discovery, pp. 181–91.

36 For a full exploration of Wilson’s life and work, see Patricia Morison, J T Wilson and the fraternity of Duckmaloi, Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1997. Wilson’s paternal grandfather was a gardener and sawyer, and his maternal grandfather was a stonemason.

37 Ibid., p. 14.

38 Competition for medical appointments in Edinburgh was fierce, and working as a ship’s doctor was something often done by graduates of modest means.

39 Wilson mentions meeting or trying to meet up with Mr Paterson (in Hong Kong, profession unknown), Dr Underwood (a medical doctor in Foochow (Fuzhou)), and the Bamfords (Presbyterian missionaries in Shanghai) and his tone seems to suggest that his parents knew of all of them. He also ‘had an introduction’ to an Edinburgh graduate, Dr Beatley, who ran the hospital in Hong Kong.

40 USA, JTWP, P162 6/1, n.d., probably late August/early September 1884.

41 Hyslop, ‘Steamship empire’, p. 53.

42 USA, JTWP, P162 6/1, n.d., probably late August/early September 1884.

43 Ibid.

44 USA, JTWP, P162 6/1, 5 September 1884.

45 Ibid.

46 USA, JTWP, P162 6/1, 4 February 1885.

47 USA, JTWP, P162 6/1, 5 September 1884.

48 Ibid.

49 Ibid.

50 Ballantyne and Burton, Moving subjects, pp. 4–5.

51 USA, JTWP, P162 6/1, 5 September 1884.

52 USA, JTWP, P162 6/1, 18 November 1884.

53 USA, JTWP, P162 6/1, 26 September 1884.

54 Ibid.; ‘Foo-choo after the attack’, written for the London Daily News, published in the New York Times, 8 November 1884.

55 USA, JTWP, P162 6/1, 26 September 1884.

56 Quoted in Morison, J T Wilson, p. 44.

57 USA, JTWP, P162 6/1, 24 December 1884.

58 USA, JTWP, P162 6/1, letter dated 26 December 1884, entry written 28 December 1884.

59 Ibid.; see Morison, J T Wilson, p. 44.

60 USA, JTWP, P162 6/1, letter dated 26 December 1884, entry written 29 December 1884.

61 USA, JTWP, P162 6/1, n.d. probably 29 January 1885.

62 Ibid.

63 Ibid.

64 USA, JTWP, P162 6/1, 16 February 1885, posted from Hong Kong.

65 USA, JTWP, P162 6/1, 4 February 1885.

66 USA, JTWP, P162 6/1, 5 September 1884.

67 USA, JTWP, P162 6/1, 4 February 1885.

68 USA, JTWP, P162 6/1, 16 February 1885, posted from Hong Kong.

69 USA, JTWP, P162 6/1, 25 February 1885.

70 Ibid.

71 Ibid.

72 Ibid.

73 Morison, J T Wilson, p. 46.

74 Ibid., pp. 46–7.

75 Edward Caird, Hegel, Edinburgh and London: William Backwood and Sons, 1883, p. 163.

76 USA, JTWP, P162 6/1, 16 February 1885.

77 Ibid.; USA, JTWP, P162 6/1, 17 April 1885.

78 USA, JTWP, P162 6/1, 17 April 1885.

79 Mr Matheison was the son of a dissenting minister (probably from Scotland) who had trained as a civil engineer and was living in Shanghai with his wife, working ‘in business’. He had been a passenger on Wilson’s first voyage.

80 USA, JTWP, P162 6/1, 17 April 1885.

81 Ibid, written 18 April 1885.

82 USA, JTWP, P162 6/1, 4 June 1885.

83 USA, JTWP, P162 3/1, Anderson Stuart to Wilson, Sydney, 11 April 1885. Morison dates this letter 1886, but in Anderson Stuart’s letter to Wilson of 15 August 1886, reference is made to a letter Wilson had sent Stuart ‘exactly a year ago’ – in 1885 – in which Wilson was responding to Stuart’s hint that a place might be available in Sydney.

84 Ibid.

85 USA, JTWP, P162 6/1, Wilson to his parents, 26 April 1886.

86 USA, JTWP, P162 6/1, 1 May 1886.

87 USA, JTWP, P162 6/1, 26 April 1886.

88 USA, JTWP, P162 6/1, 18 June 1886.

89 USA, JTWP, P162 6/1, 31 May 1886.

90 Ibid.

91 USA, JTWP, P162 6/1, 1 May 1886.

92 Christopher Harvie, Scotland and nationalism: Scottish society and politics, 1707 to the present, 4th edition, London: Routledge, 2004, pp. 59–79, 92–7.

93 USA, JTWP, P162 3/1, Anderson Stuart to Wilson, Sydney, 15 August 1886.

94 Ibid.

95 Morison, J T Wilson, p. 52.

96 USA, JTWP, P162 6/1, Wilson to his parents, 18 January 1887.

97 USA, JTWP, P162 6/1, 17 February 1887.

98 Ibid.

99 Mungo MacCallum in the Union Recorder, 8 October 1942, quoted in Morison, J T Wilson, p. 56.

100 USA, JTWP, P162 6/1, 17 February 1887; James A. Froude, Oceana; or, England and her colonies, London: C. Scribner’s Sons, 1886, p. 387.

101 USA, JTWP, P162 6/1, probably 3 March 1887.

102 Ibid.

103 In 1898, he remarried in a Presbyterian ceremony Mabel Mildred Millicent, who was the daughter of Julian Salomons, chief justice, Free Trade politician, and member of the Sydney Jewish community.

104 USA, JTWP, P162/14/5, ‘For the empire!’

105 See Deving Thomas M., Scotland’s Empire, 1600–1815, London: Allen Lane, 2003; John M. Mackenzie with Nigel Dalziel, The Scots in South Africa: ethnicity, identity, gender and race, 1772–1914, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2007.

106 Massey, For space, pp. 6–9.

107 See Belich, Replenishing the earth, p. 180.

108 Clare Anderson’s project, ‘Marginal centres: subaltern biographies of the Indian Ocean world’ (see (consulted 19 August 2010)), addresses some of these questions.

109 Hyslop, ‘Steamship empire’; idem ‘World voyage’.

* I would like to thank Virginia Scharff, Ruth Harris, Jonathan Hyslop, and the anonymous reviewers of this article for their help and useful comments, and Julia Horne, Geoffrey Sherington, and the staff of the University of Sydney Archives for facilitating access to Wilson’s letters. Earlier versions of this paper were presented in York, UK, and at the University of Adelaide, Australia, in 2009.

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