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Inherently paradoxical: representations of Indigenous women in nineteenth-century Australian exploration literature

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posted on 2024-07-09, 01:49 authored by Sarah Muncey

The exploration of what was thought of as uncharted land was at the heart of the British-colonial project. Explorers were quite literally at the vanguard of this process of so-called ‘discovery’ and the settlement of ‘new’ lands. The mid-nineteenth-century publications of three crucial British-Australian explorers, Edward Eyre, Thomas Mitchell, and Charles Sturt, form the primary evidence of this study. The accounts of their journeys disseminated knowledge about the land and its inhabitants to the British public in a discursive forefront necessary both for dispossession and possession. Heroes in their own day and well-regarded members of a bastion of power and knowledge, the Royal Geographical Society, Eyre, Mitchell, and Sturt, were of great renown in nineteenth-century Australia and Britain’s expanding empire. Their collection of journals carried immense power to shape public perceptions of the land and peoples they depicted. Therefore, these men, and their writings, shaped the treatment, opinion, and policy toward Indigenous peoples in subsequent years.

Exploration has come more into focus in recent decades as historians examine the myths of discovery undergirding European imperialism. Thus, explorers’ journals have become rich repositories for analysing assumptions, investments, constructions, and representations. Some have used such accounts to explore representations of Indigenous culture broadly as well as representations of inter-racial entanglements. Yet, there has been no such study of explorers’ representations of Indigenous women.

This research asks how Indigenous women were portrayed in these journals to consider the racial and gendered dimensions of nineteenth-century colonial exploration in Australia. Applying discourse analysis and the postcolonial theories of Edward Said and Homi K. Bhabha, the research will uncover how these texts both produced and reflected colonial power relations and the advancement of the settler-colonial project. Specifically, this thesis will demonstrate how the explorers represented Indigenous women in their own societies, their physical appearance, and their personal nature, to consider, more broadly, how representations of Indigenous women helped secure and justify British possession.


Table of Contents

Introduction -- Prologue -- Chapter 1. 'Slave', 'servant', 'savage': representations of Indigenous women within their own societies -- Chapter 2. 'Rather good-looking .... disgusting objects': representations of the physical appearance of Indigenous women -- Chapter 3. 'Naturally timid' and 'boldly forward'? Representations of the personal nature of Indigenous women -- Conclusion -- Bibliography

Awarding Institution

Macquarie University

Degree Type

Thesis MRes


Master of Research

Department, Centre or School

Department of History and Archaeology

Year of Award


Principal Supervisor

Alison Holland


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82 pages

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