Personal Liberty, British Identity and Surveillance in the Antipodes, 1780s - 1830s

People Involved

Associate Professor Kirsten McKenzie

Project overview

This project will use debates over surveillance to demonstrate how a distinctively British concept of individual liberty came into being in the Australian and Cape colonies between the 1780s and the 1830s. It combines a study of legislative change with a focus on everyday social interaction in order to demonstrate how the limits of who could gain access to these rights were tested and refined. By so doing, this project will come to a new understanding of the connections between national identity and ideas of freedom.

Project details

The aim of this project is to use debates over surveillance to demonstrate how a peculiarly British concept of individual liberty came into being in the antipodean empire. It will show that this concept was forged as much on the streets, in everyday social interaction, as it was in the policies and practices of imperial administrators. Liberty was not just an idea - it was a way of structuring social interaction. It was something at stake in people’s lives, a rhetoric they used in everyday encounters. At a time when the British nation was itself being forged, a new empire in the Southern hemisphere acted as a laboratory in which these rights, and the issue of who could claim them, were tested and refined. Blackstone’s Commentaries lists “personal liberty” as the second of the three “great and primary” rights held by “every Englishman”. Colonists lived in a world where these ideas were manifested in vernacular form in daily life - part of a general assumption that British subjects were imbued with particular rights against arbitrary power. Such folk beliefs were frequently at odds with legislative realities.

The project will focus on three areas in colonial Australia and South Africa in which the relationship between surveillance, personal liberty, and British identity was especially contested:

  1. Instances of imposture, reinvented identity and escape amongst free and bonded peoples and the attempts made to control such behaviours.
  2. The state’s use of spies and informers and the popular response to such activities.
  3. Debates over vagrancy legislation that threw up a vexed relationship between race, legal status and definitions of Britishness.