Historian on tour: taking part in the slow-research movement.

I start by requesting an indulgence from you, dear reader. I proposed last week that this post would discuss my visit to the National Archives of Australia, my definition of Australia’s interests in foreign archives, and the diverse range of Pacific content as held by the National Library of Australia. Now the time has come to write about these topics I see the reality is somewhat different. Alas, although I have some answers, my mind continues to buzz with the potential of what I have seen this past week. I wish to share these findings with you, however, I need more time. To consult additional archives (ANU Archives, see you soon!), examine more NLA manuscripts and consider journal articles and books. And to choose my words carefully, to ensure they convey what I wish to say clearly. It is a slow, but fascinating, research moment. It will be written under the title of The Thrill of the Chase. For now, I discuss the materiality and content of a single document within the NLA collection, MS 4200–a letter written by Zachary Macaulay in 1800. An evangelical man with the London Missionary Society, who is remembered often for his abolitionist work.

I came by the knowledge of this document thanks to a former librarian, Graeme Powell. Graeme was employed by the National Library of Australia from 1967 until his retirement in 2006. While at the NLA Graeme worked as the Manuscript Librarian, Principal Librarian and an Australian Joint Project Officer. Like historians I know at this stage in their career, retirement has a different meaning for people outside of hospitality, trade and service industries. Mention Graeme’s name at the NLA today and there is either a smile of recognition, or a librarian will move their head slightly, to gesture in the direction of the desk Graeme is currently examining manuscripts.[1]

Due to previous conversations, Graeme had knowledge of my wider PhD thesis, which also involves examining the hidden histories. Especially concerning the London Missionary Society’s Pacific mission archives. As such, he recommended I view an NLA manuscript authored by Zachary Macaulay, who had written a letter to Joseph Hardcastle on 10 February 1800. This brief document ‘Remarks on the Duff Missionaries’ was a report on the first men and women sent into the Pacific as missionaries by the London Missionary Society in 1796-7. A year after the institution was formalised in London.

Excited about the prospect of viewing an original LMS document in Australia and wanting to see how women were represented in early LMS reports I placed my order soon after our meeting ended. At the NLA there are different versions of the letter available for consultation: the original document, a microfilm reel and typed transcripts. This was an ideal manuscript to consider the distinctions between surrogate and original manuscripts. For my purposes, I chose to view the original and typescript copies. There are Special Conditions attached to this version- the document will only be held in the Special Collections reading room for one day. So be sure to keep a close eye on your requests to know once it has been delivered.

The letter was delivered to me in the NLA Special Collections room, encased in a stiff, black, embossed document folder. This is storage device was intended to protect the letter on all sides. I opened the folder, which is A4 in size. I was stunned and delighted to see iridescent covers on the interior. Green, gold and silver swirls adorned the inside, so too did a bookplate marking it as one of the Rex de C Nan Kivell collection. Its strong case opened like an envelope, revealing what I had come to consider as the ‘Macaulay’ letter. Within the folder is the original manuscript, a typed transcript and one copy of the typed transcript. The latter two documents are positioned one above and one below the original, acting like a textual buffer from harm.

The Macaulay letter, written in 1800 about the Duff missionaries of the London Missionary Society, is evidence women were a crucial aspect of Pacific missions since the beginning.

The first page in the folder is a half sheet of typewriter paper. I am informed by an unknown author that Dr Niel Gunson had transcribed this letter in 1964. I chuckled. Was there no chapter in my thesis where this esteemed Pacific scholar did not appear? Further research revealed Niel used the Macaulay letter in an article for The Journal of Pacific History, On the Incidence of Alcoholism and Intemperance in Early Pacific Missions’ (1966). Unlike Niel, I was not here with a concern for the drinking habits of LMS missionaries on the Pacific frontiers. I was interested in whether women had a notable presence in the early LMS manuscripts and archives. If they did, that meant archival processing and historiographical discourse had obscured women. I’m interested in this line of questioning as it seems the very processes that appear to bring researchers’ attention to the content of manuscripts do so to the jeopardy of certain people, places and topics. The key issue is, when did such actions begin?

I dismissed the transcript and went directly to the letter. Having seen transcripts that were not direct copies, but with annotations by researchers, I wanted an opportunity to make my own judgments as to its content before agreeing with Niel. This is a well-travelled letter, in time and space. I slowed the movements I made to turn the pages of the letter. The paper of the interior pages was heavy and thick but worn regardless. Some of the pages had torn along the fold lines, indicating the letter was read a number of times. There is no indication on the document by whom. The cover letter, I realised, having seen an address on the other side of the page, also performed the task of the letter’s envelope. There is a 2cm hole on this page that has obliterated content from the letter. At some point, attempts were made to correct the damage caused by travel or storage. Sticky tape was applied to envelop side of the page, offering structure where the page has torn.

Macaulay put the working-class background, upbringing and careers, of the men and women that joined him on the Duff front and centre in his letter. He detailed their education, religious beliefs, actions and childrearing skills, or lack thereof. As I carefully shifted the pages and read the contents of the letter I was delighted to see a quote, the only quoted content in the entire letter. It was from a woman. She has no first name. Macaulay identified her only through her marital status, as the wife of Reverend William Gregory.

Initially, Macaulay casts her as a wife, over-burdened with the family’s childcare arrangements. He described the morality of the reverend first, then that of his wife. Macaulay’s description of the lack of family work by Rev. Gregory stated the Rev Gregory was–

‘extremely indolent lying along the deck or on Chests whole days, never assisting his wife tho’ She was burdened with four Children.’

In the next section, Macaulay applied his judgemental pen and notions of a missionary’s morality to the behaviours of Mrs Gregory. There she is not an overburdened wife and mother, but a questionable wife and mother, and one with poor drinking habits, which led to a dereliction of duty. We can see this in the following excerpt;

Their four children were much neglected in their education & sometimes made drunk with wine and spirits. Mrs G. wen reproved for this used to say “I was brought up to drink wine myself and so shall my children.”’

This is just a small sample of a wholly intriguing letter. This manuscript provides insight into the issues facing first white settlers in the Pacific. Macaulay does make assumptions about the reader’s knowledge. He failed to mention if the ship had adequate water supplies or if the alcohol given to children was used for medicinal purposes. This indicated the audience were meant to be people like him, white leaders of the London Missionary Society of the middle class, concerned with fostering the evangelical movement into the Pacific.

Overwhelmingly, these men and women were described in terms that frame them as working-class people, not quite fit enough to be the first round of LMS missionaries in the Pacific. The wives were former alehouse girls or domestic servants. The women’s actions are highlighted as highly questionable, against questions regarding their passions, whereas their husbands were deemed unfit for missionary work due to their inaction. The women seemed to grant their husband’s a recognition that was not granted to the single men on board the Duff. The latter were described in one or two lines, or in a group description. This is curious. Did Macaulay run out of paper, time, patience, or knowledge?

Returning the letter to the folder, nestled safely between the Gunson transcripts, I muse the value of seeing the original in person. This manuscript is a fascinating sample of how women were subject to competing representations in the LMS manuscripts. I wonder– is this ambiguity is the reason why women are represented so inconsistently in the LMS archive? I mentally ticked off actions I had performed that would have been difficult with a digitised, microfilmed or microfiche version; measured the hole in the envelope, describe the feel of the letter accurately, note the rips along the fold lines. I also considered how my approach focused on the content of the letter, the position of women in the rhetoric of the LMS and the NLA archive, not the materiality of the letter. These social and cultural details were available to me whether I was viewing the original, transcript or a surrogate.

I returned the letter to NLA staff, happy to have worked with an original, and to have the opportunity to take the time to slow down and describe a manuscript. Ultimately, I remained convinced it is the ability to read the author’s words, the meanings they conveyed and the absences they constructed that is crucial to my analysis of Pacific texts.

This is the thought that comforts me, as collections are increasingly digitised.

Deborah Lee-Talbot

[1] It’s moments like this that make me look forward to retirement as a historian. It seems to be a period of indulgence for scholars. A slow research moment, much like a slow-food movement.