Review of The Antipodean Laboratory: Making Colonial Knowledge, 1770–1870, by Anna Johnston

In her new book, Anna Johnson investigates how the exchange of ideas from the late eighteenth century between the Antipodes and the British Empire were to have a profound influence on the global constitution of knowledges, enabled by the rise of popular print culture. Her premise is that the Australian colonies, and New South Wales and Tasmania in particular, opened up new metaphorical and literal sites for British social experimentation, notably about the human condition, Indigenous peoples, and the natural environments of the new southern world.

The concept of a progressive ‘social laboratory’ is a well-worn trope in the characterisation of Australia in its pre- and post-Federation decades. It was proudly proclaimed at the time by commentators and the union movement, and subsequently taken up by historians, to refer to the advances brought about by women’s suffrage, welfare initiatives and an industrial arbitration system determining a ‘living’ male wage. Of course, underpinning these advances was the racial discrimination inherent in the White Australia immigration act and the violent dispossession of First Nations peoples from their lands and culture. Here, Johnston takes the ‘laboratory’ framework back a century, commencing with the arrival of the First Fleet in Botany Bay in 1788. This formative period of early colonialism was the precursor to later reforms and the developing sense of nationhood in federated Australia. The circulation of information about the Antipodean colonies, she argues, created the conditions for the intellectual and scientific debates and ideas that were to become dominant in Britain and across the imperial world.

Colonial knowledge flows were, as is demonstrated throughout this study, complex and dynamic. They were dependent on the rapid growth of literacy, the economy of the printing presses and the widening reach of popular books and newspapers. This period also saw the emergence of an array of specialist publications, such as scientific reports, moral treatises and explorers’ journals, not to mention an increasing volume of official correspondence and private letters. These writings across many forms were accompanied by the parallel circulation of visual culture, including drawings of botanical and zoological discoveries, and the vast collections of objects and specimens of scientific, ethnographical and cultural interest that were publicly and privately displayed and traded. Metropolitan and colonial philosophical and scientific associations and learned societies, expanding missionary networks and the establishment of imperial institutions dedicated to the pursuit of education and self-improvement – museums, libraries, galleries, universities – were all part of this explosion of formal and informal knowledge production and consumption.

As Johnston explains, laboratories are ‘social, historical and cultural formations that create knowledge and define what it is possible to know’ (247). Her book focuses on three interconnected areas where the British authorities, and broader interests across science and society, were particularly attentive to what was happening in the Australian colonies. These were humanitarian concerns about the treatment of Indigenous populations; responses to transportation, the punishment of convicts and their rehabilitation; and natural science. The book is structured so that each of these areas is addressed by two chapters, with the first providing a contextual overview and the second taking case studies that amplify the book’s argument. This is an effective and sensible organisation of deep archival research, offering fresh insights into some well-known texts and surfacing other more obscure writings. Importantly, Johnson positions Indigenous interlocuters as active partners in the British documentation of their First Nations knowledge systems, culture, language and beliefs.

Part I initially explores the first decade of the penal colony in New South Wales. In its experimental ‘open-air prison’, the intermingling of the military, convicts and Indigenous peoples challenged traditional ideas about European civilisation and brought about new relationships and subjectivities. A salacious British appetite for printed accounts of extraordinary colonial tales sparked serious debates about crime, morality and evangelical reform. These ideas were captured in books, newspapers and pamphlets, including eyewitness testimony written by military officers, colonial chaplains, commentators and journalists – all clamouring to further their respective causes through narratives and counter-narratives about utopian visions and the progressive or corrupted outcomes of colonial penal societies.

Johnson then examines the disastrous impact of colonial land expansion on First Nations peoples. Her focus is on the colonial collecting of Aboriginal languages and words, an activity spurred by settler curiosity, scientific discovery or moral obligation. Linguistic knowledge production and documentation is positioned as a shared and often fraught endeavour between colonists and the generosity of Indigenous peoples. A string of vignettes probe the methods and motivations of white collectors, beginning with First Fleet officer William Dawes, who compiled his Sydney Notebooks of Gadigal words in early colonial Sydney, through to settler Harriott Barlow, who recorded eight different language groups on her homestead in central Queensland from the late 1860s. The contemporary circulation of these linguistic records was varied, and they appeared in scientific articles as well as in literary writings. By the twenty-first century, as Johnson points out, these colonial sources have assumed a new role and importance within projects of Indigenous language reclamation.

In Part II, Johnson’s argument turns to print culture and the regulation of settler society. The penal colonies were instrumental to the European conception of crime and punishment, with British theories implemented and modified. Philosopher Jeremy Bentham’s modern experimental panopticon model of incarceration arose as a response to the flaws of the transportation system. Philanthropists and missionaries, such as Elizabeth Fry, were also well-connected and articulate advocates for social reform and moral improvement. Their writings and firsthand ‘witnessing’ of colonial life were circulated through global publishing networks and correspondence and were to be influential in the demise of transportation. Similarly influential were convict testimonies of brutality and redemption, the subject of the second chapter in this pair. Johnston examines how Alexander Maconochie, the dismissed Commandant of the brutal prison at Norfolk Island, drew upon the print accounts by convicts to further his theories of ‘penal science’. Maconochie claimed that the suffering of prisoners harmed society more generally and that punishment should be rehabilitative rather than degrading. On his return to Britain, Maconochie’s experiences in convict experimentation such as secondary punishment were mobilised within metropolitan debates and approaches to modern prison reform.

The book’s third part is titled ‘Inventing Settler Science’ and moves from questions of morality and social order to the making of European scientific knowledge through botanical collecting practices. From Cook’s voyage on the Endeavour onwards, the unique qualities of Antipodean plants required a rethinking of European botanical classification, with the natural world an open laboratory of unimaginable wonder. The publication of scientific illustrations and field notebooks and the display of botanical specimens formed part of intricate connections between the Australian colonies and European voyaging, collecting and scientific understandings of natural history. A close reading of the mid-nineteenth-century Tasmanian Journal of Natural Science, established in 1841 by Lady Jane Franklin, traces its documentation of specimen collecting and analysis by local settlers and amateur and professional botanists. The journal created new scientific literacies among its readers, with the realisation of the economical and spiritual relationships between Indigenous peoples and their environments being just one notable component of colonial and metropolitan knowledge-making.

The Australian colonies offered experimental opportunities for free settler and convicts alike, including the granting of land to individuals by the authorities and the potential for personal re-fashioning and social mobility. Among those who benefited from these conditions were British women, and Johnston has cleverly highlighted the gendered nature of knowledge-making and settler women’s contributions to scientific, religious and social networks of ideas and advocacy.

The Antipodean Laboratory makes a significant and original contribution to the cultural and intellectual histories of the British Empire, illuminating the influence of the Australian colonies to the global evolution of social and scientific ideas and practices. Johnston’s work is scholarly – fittingly given its subject of knowledge-making – and she writes with assurance and an elegant turn of phrase. This brief review cannot do justice to the richness of the archival material and Johnson’s careful and reflective discussion of a remarkable range of individuals and the texts they produced and read about early colonial Australia.

Published 25 May 2024 in Volume 39 No. 1. Subjects: Aboriginal dispossession, Colonial literature & writers, Colonisation of Australia, Convicts, Natural environment.

Cite as: Darian-Smith, Kate. ‘Review of The Antipodean Laboratory: Making Colonial Knowledge, 1770–1870, by Anna Johnston.’ Australian Literary Studies, vol. 39, no. 1, 2024, doi: 10.20314/als.cf40cbf3b2.

  • Kate Darian-Smith — Professor Kate Darian-Smith is a cultural historian of Australia who has written on colonial narratives and nationhood.