The 6 and 7 of December 2017 were marked by the third annual conference on monarchies at the University of Sydney. I have attended all three, and each year they have just gotten better and more assured, like a good red!
There were 13 scheduled papers, with three additional papers and a final roundtable discussion, plus a conference dinner all of which made for a packed and stimulating two days. Geographically, the papers touched upon almost all points in an area roughly bounded by India, China, Japan, Australasia, Samoa and Hawaii, with a particular focus in two sessions on Indonesia and the Netherlands East Indies. The dynasties were indigenous, such as Norodom (Cambodia), Hamengkubuwono (Yogyakarta), Tupou (Tonga) and Yamato (Japan), as well as colonial Hanover, later Windsor (India, New South Wales) and Orange-Nassau (Netherlands New Guinea).
Several themes emerged from the papers, each responding in some way to the conference title ‘Monarchies, Decolonisation and Royal Legacies in the Asia Pacific’. Papers also touched upon sources and raised further issues for future research.
Some general observations are useful at this point. The distinctions between settler and plantation colonies were not as sharp as I expected (or as Imperial historiography had lead me to believe). There seems to be as much overlap and continuity as there is difference. The symbolism of monarchies and crowns was treated seriously in all the papers, rather than regarded as something ‘soft’ or curious and not really suited to thoughtful study. Female royals such as queens and vicereines seem much more evident in Asia Pacific royal history than in Australian history, although I suspect that may be a historiographical rather than historical affect? The new technologies that came with colonialism produced records, especially visual records such as photographs, that are increasingly available for research. This was also evident in earlier conferences where speakers touched upon, for example, the rapidly developing technologies that shortened long-distance travel and brought royals and subjects into closer contact.
The major storylines (for me) arising from the papers fall into five main themes: historiographical biases, change and continuity, power relationships, religious relationships and symbolism. I touch upon each below, in a fairly generalised way that I hope will not identify anyone’s specific work or reveal new and innovative ideas and projects they are working on before they are ready for publication.
Many speakers referred to the absence, or very limited, attention given to imperial and indigenous monarchies during the huge transitions across the Asia Pacific between the 1940s and 1970s. Nationalist historians, writing as colonial powers withdrew from or abandoned erstwhile territories, largely ignored monarchical and viceroyal forms and practices. This has deeper implications, for example in settler societies such as New South Wales a failure to notice the contribution of locally-resident Chinese intellectuals, within the framework of common British subjecthood, to wider debates about citizenship. Another effect has been the largely invisible exclusion of viceroyal histories from Australian nationalist histories.
Historiographical biases have occasionally been raised in earlier conferences, but were this year a more persistent theme, all the more remarkable for being identified across so many areas. This has much potential to receive more attention in the future as ‘national’ historiographies are re-examined by newer, younger eyes not so bounded by twentieth-century borders.
Change and continuity
Many papers explicitly or implicitly challenged ideas of monarchies as timeless and unchanging structures. The active insertion by several speakers of temporal dimensions into the study of sovereigns and reigns reinforced perhaps counter-intuitive ideas of royal identities being retained through change, not stasis.
Crowns are engaged in continual processes of re-making and re-imagining, some more effectively than others. This can be seen through the co-option of western trappings of monarchy, especially in Pacific island kingdoms, or the presentation of royals as exemplars of middle class respectability. Another lens was articulated through arguments over whether royal change was a return to original, purer forms of monarchy or a transformation into new democratic institutions; whether ancient rituals were being reinstated in older forms stripped on later accretions, or were rituals being commodified for consumption by newly-wealthy consumer cultures.
A third perspective, or perhaps group of inter-related perspectives, could be heard in arguments over whether the retention of indigenous monarchies at the end of a colonial period was intended to keep old elites within the new nation-states, even if, in retrospect, this often turned out to be transitional rather than permanent. This view segues into the divisibility of the British crown and the creation of the ‘tropical dominions’, the very diverse uses of the royal prerogative by viceroyals and, I think, an emergence of viceroyalty as a distinct ‘type’ of monarchy. Some of these papers hark back to Miles Taylor’s key note at the first conference in which he identified the viceroyal use of royal prerogatives as an area in need of research, an area the third conference presages as likely to grow in the future.
Relationships and power
This is a theme that might seem rather ‘standard’ in any study of monarchy, but when discussions move to models of monarchical authority within imperial contexts, such as a centre-periphery model versus network models, and questions of how types of monarchies reflect conceptions of power and state, some assumptions can be challenged. The primacy of metropolitan centres may be unquestioned from a European perspective, but from an Asia Pacific perspective they have to be questioned. Imperial subjects, whether indigenous or settler, lived within more polycentred societies in which viceroyalty and indigenous aristocracies may be just a splendid, and more tangible, than far-away Europe.
One fascinating entrée into this theme came through art history, with the active competition between indigenous and colonial artists for painting or photographic royal and viceroyal portraits, in which subjects are depicted in both indigenous and imperial costumes. This seems to challenge ideas of a simple one-way Western re-imagining of indigenous monarchies through Orientalist lens.
Another avenue came through papers in which monarchs or dynasties form alliances with non-elite or minority groups that, again, seems counter-intuitive. Tentative links between these alliances and the role of petition cultures in colonial societies, both settler and plantation, are suggested, as were symbolic and competitive relationships between royals and political classes. This in turn leads to considering the complexities of the intergenerational transmission of titles and roles in indigenous dynasties and power structures, complexities that could be misunderstood by colonial powers, or could be very well understood and manipulated to imperial ends. Scholars need to distinguish between positions taken today by leadership/elite groups and local/family/clan groups within indigenous communities about historical and contemporary monarchies, and avoid conflating these dynamics.
A final thought in power relationships arose in discussing ways the decolonising of museums, and repatriation of cultural materials, brings indigenous/monarchical relationships to the fore, and can reveal long histories of educating imperial royals about indigenous people, strongly suggesting the need to better consider indigenous agency in indigenous/crown relationships, especially when mediated through imperial art and museum collecting practices.
Relationships and religion
Another timely theme was the complex relationships between crowns and religions. One area this was explored was in the transitions from one dominant religion to another, such as from Hindu to Muslim in Java. Another was the role of Christianity (or perhaps more specifically particular Christian denominations) in shaping and developing new court forms drawing on both indigenous and European practices, such as in Tonga. A third area touched upon contemporary royals as defenders of civil society against political and religious fundamentalism. This was a disparate theme, but one which I suspect carries a lot of promise for future research.
It seemed to me that papers from scholars working mainly in Asian rather than European studies were more conscious of distinctions and relationships between symbolic and worldly or temporal power, and less likely to regard the symbolic as being of lesser significance.
Distinctions between symbolic and temporal or worldly roles and authority helped to draw-out considerations of the symbolic powers indigenous monarchs retained when colonial administrations took over day-to-day decision making. Another was the many ways in which indigenous monarchies and aristocracies were incorporated into imperial honours systems, which seems to have been more widespread than just the British Empire. The phrase “Ornamentalist community of interest” may be a way to go beyond Cannadine’s original thesis. The importance of understanding dynastic or internal quarrels over symbolic authority as more than personal desires or vanity was also touched upon.
New technologies also have a role to play, illustrated by the use of photography in connecting indigenous and imperial monarchs and visually revealing one to the other, and pointed to ideas of how cosmopolitanism can be accommodated with ideas of imperial subjecthood.
The Order of the Crown of India was established by the Empress Victoria in 1878, and membership was only open to royal, aristocratic and viceroyal British and Indian women. Its better-known Australian members were Lady Caroline Denison (vicereine, Van Diemen’s Land, Norfolk Island and New South Wales, 1847-1860) and the Duchess of Gloucester (vicereine, Australia 1944-1947).
Moving on from the themes evident across papers, some speakers also drew attention to sources beyond political or administrative archives. Art, especially portraiture, was one such source, and within (although not entirely) art history, being attentive to styles of clothing and dress, and to the accoutrements and backgrounds framing the subject of a painting can suggest avenues for research beyond the paper archive. Photographs, and their provenance, were also skilfully deployed in some papers, and offered one way of gaining perspectives from a subject’s point of view on royal, viceroyal and aristocratic institutions and personalities. Obtaining such perspectives was a point of discussion on several occasions.
A closer reading of the forms and rituals of courts, whether royal, viceroyal or aristocratic, were highlighted by several papers, as was the architecture and landscapes of viceroyal residences. The evolution of these forms and styles has some element of organic response, some element of intention and design, but commonly they have a capacity to be read for underlying power and spiritual/religious relationships, and changes and adaptations in those relationships, and to understand the formation of new symbolic relationships between sovereigns and subjects in colonial environments.
Future research issues
By the end of the conference, I think several discrete areas for future research were clearly evident. The first of these is the language and vocabularies of ‘monarchy’. These need to be better understood, even if only to provide some common ground for shared conversation. Asian Pacific monarchical structures are not the same as European, and European monarchies had to be adapted to Asia Pacific societies which, in some cases, had in turn to adapt to imperial ideas of monarchy. I think these are better approached as iterative and mutable processes that require particular vocabularies. Many indigenous titles and hierarchies are not easily translatable into English or European languages, and these more nuanced understandings need to be comprehended by scholars today who do not need to ‘simplify’ such structures for imperial audiences. Royalty, viceroyalty, aristocracy, nobility, gentry and commonalty are not all the same, and better understandings of historical and contemporary vocabularies will help avoid their conflation if multiple power and symbolic relationships are to be understood.
The second area of research lies in power and symbolic relationships. One is understanding the ways indirect rule created or reinforced new monarchies and dynasties who can be understood, not as subservient to imposed empire, but as classes in transition. There is a need to ask who is involved in these processes, and why. Polycentric power structures and systems need to be identified and comprehended, especially if these are counterpoints to singular imperial hierarchies in which all roads lead to a European metropole. A related area is to ask how viceroys and colonial administrations understood the popular power and authority (or claims to such authority) by indigenous monarchs and rulers, and vice versa.
As the colonial era transitioned into the era of the nation-state during the mid-20th century, I think it is worth considering the strategic choosing of sides by indigenous monarchs, such as Cambodia, Yogyakarta and Hyderabad, even Japan. Not all indigenous monarchies failed to survive the transition, so what strategic, long term thinking did they employ, how were they able to transform themselves, and why did some fail where others succeeded? What was the role of relationships between newly professionalising colonial administrations and local aristocrats in preparing (or not) for such transitions. Finally, it would be useful to ask who rejected royal forms of government in new post-colonial states, and who benefited from such rejection?
Spatial and material issues
The third area for research, I think, lies in spatial and material history. Palaces, Residencies, Government Houses – such imperial or royal sacred spaces become desacralised when monarchs are overthrown and dynasties terminated, but which is cause and consequence, and how iterative is such a process? How much reliability can be given to statements/ or inferences by political classes and curators that post-royal or viceroyal estates are ‘opened up’ as popular museums? Can narratives of museumising spaces/places be read and questioned as analogies or metaphors for reconceptualising a crown or dynasty as historical and past? In order to deal with such matters, it is necessary to consider the cultural imaginaries provoked and maintained through the architecture and landscapes of such residences. I make a special plea, here, for greater attention to ‘built heraldry’ in viceroyal settings. There is some relevant literature on European and Brazilian examples, but they can’t be applied uncritically to the Asia Pacific – which leads back, in a way, to questions of language and vocabulary.
I hope this conference report will convey some sense of the scope of contemporary, ‘right now’, work on royal histories from Australasian (in the older, looser sense of ‘south of Asia’ or ‘southeastern Asia’) or perhaps ‘Tenggara’ perspectives. These perspectives have some resonances with similar work in Europe but also have some distinctive Austral-Asian characteristics. However, this report may imply a coherence and specific research program that does not really exist. As far as I know, none of the conference speakers focuses exclusively on royal history or court studies, and they come from a diverse range of disciplinary fields. Compared to similar studies in Europe the field is in its infancy, but it also has its own particularities that are beginning to develop (see programs below). Professor Robert Aldrich and Dr Cindy McCreery, both of the University of Sydney’s History Department, are the leaders in this development, and I look forward too much more original and innovative work to appear in the future. Roll on ‘Monarchies Conference No 4’!
Conference Programs: No 1 Crowns and Colonies: Monarchies and Colonial Empire, 2014, No 2 Royals on Tour: The Politics and Pageantry of Royal Tours, 2015, No 3 Monarchies, Decolonisation and Royal Legacies in the Asia-Pacific, 2017.