Research Stream


Mick Warren
The University of Sydney

Unsettled Settlers: Fear and White Victimhood, New South Wales and Van Diemen’s Land 1788–1838

The predominance of fear and alarm during periods of frontier unrest present settler societies such as Australia and the history of emotions more broadly with a range of important questions. How did the various agents of British colonisation understand the expression of emotion along racial lines. How did emotion feature in the imagined coherence of frontier communities and what impact did it have upon the configuration of settler identity?


A central feature of elite settler narratives regarding frontier violence often precluded Aboriginal people from the realm of ‘feeling’ altogether. This sentiment in turn corresponded with the fears that the experience of Aboriginal violence could evoke. In colonies such as New South Wales and Van Diemen’s Land throughout the 1820s, these fears often coalesced around a broader existential concern that settlers were the ultimate victims of an ‘unfeeling’ enemy, whose ‘outrages’ and ‘depredations’ could invalidate the colonial enterprise altogether.

These fears and anxieties gained imaginative coherence in the emotional rhetoric of early colonial newspapers such as the Sydney Gazette. Drawing upon Alan Lester’s insight, 'nineteenth-century newspapers did not simply give expression to the united "we" of their readership, they actively helped to forge such a collective identity'.

With the support of the press settlers mobilised this sense of community towards political ends. Time and again they expressed their alarm to colonial administrators that the abandonment of sheep-runs as a result of their servants’ fears of Aboriginal attack had left their properties ‘unprotected’. Indicative of the vicarious relationship that existed between the bodily fears of servants and the economic fears of their masters, this emotional dialectic between settler and state also demonstrates the performative aims inherent to emotional expression. That colonial administrators so often resorted to ‘terror’ in response to the threat of Aboriginal resistance also points to the performativity of violence on the Australian frontier and supports the idea of the 'logic of elimination' at the heart of settler colonialism.

Thesis Supervisors

Professor Mark McKenna, ARC Future Fellow, Department of History, The University of Sydney

Professor Iain McCalman, Co-Director, Sydney Environment Institute; Professorial Research Fellow, Department of History, The University of Sydney