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Samuel McLean defending Colonial Relations: The Douglas-Connolly Family and the Nineteenth-Century Imperial World.
Adele Perry’s Colonial Relations: The Douglas-Connolly Family and the Nineteenth-Century Imperial World is a nuanced and textured consideration of families, relationships, authority, and colonialism, examined through the lens of the family of colonial governor James Douglas and his wife, Amelia Connolly. However, this book is not a biography. Rather, as Perry herself notes, “I utilize available archival evidence about one extended family to anchor an analysis of the nineteenth-century imperial world, to ground and focus these wide, wandering, and sometimes daunting histories.”(p. 5) Based on research conducted at twelve different archives on three different continents, this book is a veritable tour-de-force that blows all of its competition out of the water.
First and foremost, this book is an example of social history at its very finest, showcasing just what social history is capable of achieving. Perry begins her analysis from the ground up, considering in depth the information that is revealed and concealed in colonial archives. She then applies feminist, postcolonial, transnational, micro, and cultural theoretical approaches to her sources to provide a masterful and complex analysis. And this is by no means confined to a single topic; over the course of this book, Perry examines the meaning of family, intimacy, governance, Empire, and Nation. This book should be held up as an example of how to do good, rigorous, modern social history. It is a great example of what Mary Beard meant when she said that the job of the academic is to make everything less simple. There is some serious craft here, and it should be appreciated accordingly.
At the heart of Perry’s analysis is the relationship between Douglas and Connolly, and the way that she uses the concept of the relationship to explore topics is masterful. On the one hand, it is a study of a changing relationship, as the Douglas-Connolly family acts in different social and political roles. There is also the concurrent shifting of space, not only from Guyana to Canada, but also as British Columbia changes to become more involved with the British Empire. Further, there is also a generational shift, as Perry begins with the environment and space of Douglas’ birth and education, and progresses through to his family. The way that Perry manages the interplay between these three transitions is masterful because the reader maintains their points of reference at all times in her analysis.
As a British historian, this book also appeals to me because of its forceful demonstration that Canadian history is international history. Relying on the latest research on transnationalism, as well as the imperative to “think global, act local,” this book takes the reader to the United Kingdom, to Guyana and to British Columbia, and shows how intricately they were connected. What is so impressive is the way that we as the readers have to think about both the local situation being discussed, as well as all the international contexts, frequently at the same time. It is about ‘Empire, nation and region’, and Perry balances them very well. More than that, however, it shows how internally complex these places were, and these intimacies were connected internationally. That said, it is definitely first and foremost a “Canadian” history.
This book is both an example and an argument for the kind of history all Canadians should be doing and studying, one that is inclusive and considers the experiences of all people, without privileging one perspective. Perry has a sharp and fine-grained analysis that focuses on the lived experiences of people in the past. She takes for granted, in a positive way, that the experiences of Indigenous peoples should be at the centre of any analysis of Canadian colonial history, which is a lesson to all of us, no matter which field we are working in.
While I am sure that the other books on the short list for the MacDonald prize have well earned their place, Perry’s Colonial Relations is exceptional.
Samuel McLean studied at the University of Guelph and Wilfrid Laurier University before going doing his PhD at King’s College London. He is a councillor for the Canadian Nautical Research Society and Social Media Editor for www.BritishNavalHistory.com. Sam’s primary academic interests are the institutional development, academic practice and processes, and collaborating with great people on great project.
Don’t forget to check out the other posts in our CHA Reads Series!!
- Series Introduction
- Mary-Ellen Kelm defending The Vimy Trap, or, How We Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Great War.
- Sean Carleton defending Imperial Plots: Women, Land, and the Spadework of British Colonialism on the Canadian Prairies.
- Samuel McLean defending Colonial Relations: The Douglas-Connolly Family and the Nineteenth-Century Imperial World.
- Joanna Pearce defending A Place in the Sun: Haiti, Haitians, and the Remaking of Québec.
- Stephanie Pettigrew defending Kouchibouguac: Removal, Resistance, and Remembrance at a Canadian National Park.
- Group Discussion on the Sir John. A Macdonald Prize shortlist.