Two Postscripts to Barron Field in New South Wales: The Resurrection and the Great Seal

By and | 13 May 2024

Barron Field was, as we argued in our recent book Barron Field in New South Wales, responsible for the first volume of poetry published in Australia – a status flaunted in its title, First Fruits of Australian Poetry – and responsible also for the first articulation of the doctrine that later came to be known as terra nullius: that is, the foundational and genocidal legal fiction under which Australia was colonised by the British on the basis of its being previously uninhabited: i.e., that Aboriginal people, at least in the eyes of the law, simply didn’t exist, and, as not existing de jure, could be handled so as to become equally inexistent de facto. Our book examined what these two notable firsts had to do with each other.1 We claimed that it was no coincidence that the first Australian poet – the first person to have laid claim to that title, and indeed to have invented that category – was also the first legislator of terra nullius. Through close readings of the six poems that made up Field’s book from its second edition in 1823 – the first edition of 1819 contained just two poems – we argued that, far from being merely supplemental to his legal reformulation of the basis of colonisation, poetry was in fact instrumental to Field’s program to re-establish New South Wales on a new constitutional footing premised counterfactually on the non-existence of Aboriginal societies. To revert to a famous tag by Percy Shelley to which we paid considerable attention in the book: this poet really was the unacknowledged legislator of white Australia. In this foundational moment, the liberal colonial regime that underpinned future national development was poetic, we claimed, in inspiration, design and operation.

We won’t rehearse the argument of the book at any greater length here. Instead, we want to append two postscripts that would need to be incorporated into any second edition, if such an unlikely publication were ever to transpire. They concern two points brought to our attention post-publication, and while these points don’t in our eyes invalidate what we said in the book, they do add further and important layers of detail to the account we gave there of Field’s poetico-legal transformation of the settler-colonial constitution.

The first involves the title of Field’s volume, First Fruits of Australian Poetry. In the book, we traced some of the meanings mobilised in Field’s use of the phrase ‘first fruits.’ This was a category of law from the Old Testament – a kind of tax owed to God and so payable to his priestly representatives on earth. This specific scriptural meaning underlay its later ecclesiastical use, where it named a tax owed by clergy to the Pope. That tax then became a point of contestation in the Reformation, where, in England, it was redirected from the Church in Rome to the monarch himself. Field’s title also mobilised a classical heritage through the phrase lanx satura – the name of an offertory platter of fruits – which tied Field’s work to the genre of satire, understood as kind of discursive smorgasbord. The etymological link of satire to satura had been outlined by John Dryden, amongst others, and had become central to generic understandings of satire through the eighteenth century. Field’s title brought these two meanings together: tax, because it was in a legal judgement he gave which overturned Governor Macquarie’s power to impose taxes in the colony that he instantiated the terra nullius principle; satire, because he offered his poems as a satiric substitution for the taxes he had stripped from the Governor. The title, in other words, effected a complex, if also ultimately rather lame, joke, which in our reading tends to be how Field often operated: jokey, complicated, wretched.

What we failed to note in our book was that this phrase, ‘first fruits,’ also carries a set of specifically New Testament scriptural meanings. These were pointed out to us by Miranda Stanyon and Matthew Champion, to whom we’re much indebted. Perhaps most crucial of the New Testament instances of the phrase is 1 Corinthians 15:20: ‘But now Christ is risen from the dead, and has become the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.’ What we took to be the name of a priestly tax is then also a name for the resurrection. This repurposing of a category of taxation into a figure of the risen Christ marks the phrase, as employed by Field, as the site of a full-blown dialectical transformation.2 Field’s colonial project might have been jokey and lame, but for that very reason it could for him serve powerfully redemptive ends. In other words: it was precisely thanks to the hyper-ironic and self-conscious badness of his poetry that it could effect a transcendent rewriting of colonial relations in toto.3 We don’t believe we undersold the scale of Field’s ambitions in our book: to the contrary, we described his project as being nothing less than the wholesale transfiguration of political and cultural life in New South Wales. What we failed to register, however, is the way he encoded those resurrectionary ambitions right from the very first words of his title. The Risen Christ of a liberal Australia trumpeted by First Fruits of Australian Poetry – that is, bad poetry coupled with the terra nullius operation – was to overturn the Old Law of penal sacrifice – that is, the prison camp under gubernatorial dictatorship.

Our second postscript allows us to describe one instance of this characteristically dialectical transformation in more detail. It concerns the Great Seal of New South Wales, and was brought to our attention by Kyle Kohinga, someone to whom we’re also much indebted. The story is a little complicated, and to understand it we’ll first need to sketch out a network of references, meanings and practices in place in New South Wales right from the very start of the colony before we can return to Field and some of the details of the aesthetic and political revolution he effected around 1820.

Let us begin with Governor Phillip, who in November 1788 sent a box of white clay taken from Sydney Cove to Sir Joseph Banks. In his diary of his voyage with Cook in 1770 – a passage later incorporated into the official account compiled by John Hawkesworth – Banks had noted how the Gweagal people of Botany Bay

paint them[selves] both white and red… The red seemed to be ochre, but what the white was we could not discover; it was close grained, saponaceous to the touch, and almost as heavy as white lead; possibly it might be a kind of Steatites, but to our great regret we could not procure a bit of it to examine.4

The passage suggests that Banks had handled this material – he remarks its ‘saponaceous’ or soapy feel – without being able to acquire any, reflecting, perhaps, its high cultural value to Aboriginal people. In 1788, Phillip was now in a position supply the great patron of New South Wales with a sample, writing to him that specimen ‘No. 1 contains the White Clay with wch. the Natives mark themselves… I should not think it worth sending, but that you mention’d it in your Voyage.’5 Banks forwarded this sample of Australian earth, which had first become an object of British desire when he had noticed its importance in Aboriginal cultural practices, to Josiah Wedgwood for analysis, who published his findings in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, while also demonstrating the material’s potential commercial value by using it to fashion the allegorical medallion shown in Figure 1.

Designed by Henry Webber, an in-house artist at Wedgwood’s Etruria works, the medallion shows Hope (identifiable by her attribute of an anchor) greeting Peace (holding an olive branch), Art (holding a painter’s palette) and Labour (holding a sledgehammer). Commerce is represented by the ship on the left margin; Progress by the buildings on the right; and Plenty – the first fruits, you might say, of this allegorical gathering – by the overflowing cornucopia at the bottom. Below the figures appears an inscription – Etruria – and the date, 1789.

  1. Thomas H. Ford and Justin Clemens, Barron Field in New South Wales: The Poetics of Terra Nullius (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 2023).
  2. As a historico-philosophical curio of the difficulties inherent in explicating the significance of the phrase, it’s significant that Giorgio Agamben doesn’t give a gloss of the term in his commentaries on St Paul; nor does his English translator understand its context or import. Discussing the whole/part relation of Romans, Agamben asserts: ‘As remnant, we, the living who remain en to nyn kairo, make salvation possible, we are its ‘premise’ (aparchē; Rom. 11: 16)’ (TTR 57). The English translator turns aparchen in Romans 8: 23 into ‘initial source’; ditto at 11: 16. See Il tempo che resta: Un commento alla Lettera ai Romani (Torino : Bollati Boringhieri, 2000), which gives ‘primizia’ for 8 :23 and 11 : 16, that is, ‘first fruits.’
  3. See Thomas H. Ford, ‘Notes on Bad Poetry,’ Cordite Poetry Review, 2023
  4. John Hawkesworth, An Account of the Voyages Undertaken by Order of HIs Present Majesty for Making Discoveries in the Southern Hemisphere Volume 3 (London: W. Strahan and T. Cadell, 1773), p. 230. For the history of colonial engagement with this material, see Nicolas Pitt, ‘Clay and ‘civilisation’ – imperial ideas and colonial industry in Sydney, 1788-1823,’ History Australia, Vol. 16, No. 2 (2019), pp. 375-398.
  5. Arthur Phillip to Joseph Banks, 16 November 1788, no. 0001, series 37.08, Banks Papers, SLNSW.
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