Status and Empire: Opportunists and Impostors in the British Imperial World, c. 1700 – 1850.

People Involved

Associate Profesor Kirsten McKenzie

Project overview

In 1830s Australia, a former convict, John Dow, successfully impersonated Edward Viscount Lascelles. He was only one of a number of impostors and opportunists climbing the social ladders of Britain, the West Indies, South Africa and Australia. In my forthcoming research I plan to use their stories as the route into a transnational study of how status hierarchies were transformed in the British imperial world, c.1700-1850. The intention with this project is to show new ways of understanding the changing nature of status, and the disputed connection between status and material wealth. By drawing together the small politics of everyday interpersonal relations with broader questions of social change I hope to illuminate contemporary debates over constitutional reform, access to political power, and ideas of liberty.

Project details

For several months in 1834, a “mysterious personage” could be observed making his way around the interior of the colony of New South Wales. Bedecked with gold chains, he carried a great briefcase, and kept a close watch over a tin box, over whose unknown contents observers mulled with intense curiosity. He “neither visits nor associates with the landholders” claimed the editor of the Sydney Monitor, Edward Smith Hall, but “without ceremony enters the convict huts, examines their huts, beds and bedding, &c. – and having arranged his scribbling apparatus, asks such questions of the said convicts touching the manner in which they are treated by their masters respectively, and commits both question and answer to paper; and having obtained such information as he requires at one farm, he then departs for another.” This imposing stranger, the Monitor continued “goes by the different appellations of Lord Viscount Lascelles, and ‘Commissioner of Enquiry,’ and also ‘Government Spy!’” (Monitor, 1834) A year later, it emerged in court that the supposed Viscount Lascelles was in fact a former convict who had served out a seven year sentence for fraud in Van Diemen’s Land.

The impostor was a man of many aliases, most commonly known as ‘John Dow’. As the Monitor’s report suggests, his activities excited interest at the time, but they have remained a footnote in Australian history. Looked at within a nationally-bounded framework, Dow’s imposture is an entertaining tale of a brazen felon duping a series of gullible provincials. Yet its wider significance remains obscure until it is seen in both local and trans-national terms. This ostensibly isolated incident is in fact a chapter in a sprawling saga of opportunism and imposture which reached right across the British empire and spanned the eighteenth and the nineteenth centuries. In this project, I take up the threads left hanging from Dow’s imposture in New South Wales and demonstrate that they weave together the lives of a series of related individuals, men whose dramas of personal reinvention form part of the wider fabric of an imperial culture. Edward Lascelles came from a family who epitomised the social opportunities of empire. They had amassed a spectacular fortune in the slave economies of the West Indies, transforming their status from that of merchants and money-lenders in Barbados to prominent members of the British aristocracy. John Dow was playing the peer in a world of rapid social mobility, a world in which rank was the focus for overt concern and debate. Stories such as these are a colourful part of their local context, but they are also a route into profound questions about changing patterns of social hierarchy spreading across the globe. They shed light on such critical issues as the nature of status in the British imperial world, and the disputed connection between status and material wealth. They connect to contemporary debates over constitutional reform, access to political power, and ideas of liberty. This project will demonstrate that, just as the incident of Dow impersonating Lascelles in colonial Australia cannot be understood outside its wider imperial context, questions of status, power and politics in the world of Dow and Lascelles remain narrow and unfinished when confined within a nationally-focussed analysis.

By means of a series of case studies that flow directly out of the story of John Dow and Viscount Lascelles I will investigate the following research questions:

  1. How do impostors help make visible changing patterns of hierarchy, the connections between wealth and status, and the performance of particular status roles?
  2. How did the economic opportunities of empire transform patterns of social hierarchy and definitions of status in both Britain and its colonies?
  3. How did individuals leaving Britain for the colonies reinvent themselves on the periphery and what ideas of status did they employ to do so?
  4. How did wealth deriving from empire impact upon those attempting to improve their status within Britain itself and what were British attitudes to wealth sourced in the colonies?
  5. How did disputes over the nature of social status inform political power struggles and constitutional changes in the context of new ways of thinking about race, gender and class?