Colonialism in Ireland and Australia

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Table of Contents (Jump to)



Historical Geography


Post-Colonialism and Said’s ‘Orientalism’

Similarities between Australia and Ireland

Differences between Australia and Ireland

The notion of ‘discovery’


Works Cited


This essay will compare the historical geographies of colonialism in Ireland and Australia. First, it defines what we mean by ‘historical geography’ as this is fundamental to how this analysis will be made. Second, it discusses what we mean by colonization and why it plays such a central role in historical geography. Third, it discusses the work of Edward Said, and in particular Orientalism. It compares and contrasts the colonial experiences of Australia and Ireland within this context. Fourth, it explores the notions of ‘exploration’ and ‘conquering’ using early maps of Australia and Ireland.

Ireland and Australia are both post-colonial nations and there is a multitude of similarities in their historical geographies. Yet Ireland and Australia were fundamentally different places in the pre-colonialism era and remain so in the era of post-colonialism. This essay will compare and contrast the similarities and differences of their colonial histories.


Historical Geography

For the purposes of this essay, ‘historical geography’ is defined as a division of geography that concerns itself with “how cultural features of the multifarious societies across the planet evolved and came into being” (Wikipedia, 2006b). The discipline has traditionally considered the “spatial- and place- focused orientation of geography, contrasting and combining the spatial interests of geography with the temporal interests of history, creating a field concerned with changing spatial patterns and landscapes” (Guelke, 1997: 191). As Donald Meinig, one of the most influential American historical geographers once stated: “I have long insisted that by their very nature geography and history are analogous and interdependent fields” (1989: 79).


Any discussion of colonialism also requires a definition of what we mean by the term. Colonialism is one of the most important features of ‘modern’ history and, some might argue, the undertaking that led to the birth of ‘geography’ in the first place. To define colonialism we must first define two other key terms in history: empire and imperialism. The historian Michael Doyle defines empire as “a relationship, formal or informal, in which one state controls the effective political sovereignty of another political society. It can be achieved by force, by political collaboration, economic, social, or cultural dependence” (in Said, 1993). Imperialism is broadly the practice, the theory and the way of thinking of a dominating centre that controls a far-off land (Said, 1993); as Doyle states, “imperialism is simply the process or policy of establishing or maintaining empire” (in Said, 1993). Within this context, colonialism can be defined as the “implanting of settlements on distant territory” and is virtually always a result of imperialism (Said, 1993).

To analyse and contrast colonial experience, as well as to understand why colonialism figures so prominently in the discourse of historical geography, one must try to understand the sheer scale of colonial expansion. As Said (1993: 1) explains:

Western power allowed the imperial and metropolitan centres at the end of the nineteenth century to acquire and accumulate territory and subjects on a truly astonishing scale. Consider that in 1800, Western powers claimed fifty-five percent, but actually held approximately thirty-five percent, of the earth’s surface. But by 1878, the percentage was sixty-seven percent of the world held by Western powers, which is a rate of increase of 83,000 square miles per year. By 1914, the annual rate by which the Western empires acquired territory has risen to an astonishing 247,000 square miles per year. And Europe held a grand total of roughly eighty-five percent of the earth as colonies, protectorates, dependencies, dominions and Commonwealth … No other associated set of colonies in history were as large, none so totally dominated, none so unequal in power to the Western metropolis…

The scale of British colonialism in 1897 is visible in Map 1, marked in pink.

Map 1. The British Empire


Map 2 shows all territories ruled by the British Empire (1762-1984) and England (1066-1707) – Ireland and Australia are coloured orange to signify that they were ‘Dominions’ of the British Empire.

Map 2. All territories ruled by England and the British Empire

An anachronous map of the British Empire and England showing all the territories ruled from 1762 to 1948 (British Empire) and from 1066-1707 (England). See image description for a breakdown of colour coding.


Post-Colonialism and Said’s ‘Orientalism’

One of the most influential texts on post-colonialism discourse is undoubtedly Edward Said’s book Orientalism, originally published in 1978. ‘Orientalism’ is, in essence, the ‘study of Near and Far Eastern societies and cultures by Westerners’ (Wikipedia, 2006c). Since the publication of Said’s book, the term became (rightly) laden with negative connotations; Said’s book was at heart a critique of Orientalism as “fundamentally a political doctrine that willed over the Orient because the Orient was weaker than the West, which elided the Orient’s difference with its weakness…As a cultural apparatus Orientalism is all aggression, activity, judgment, will-to-truth, and knowledge”. The book serves as the basis for one of the primary dichotomies in the study of human geography: ‘us’ and ‘other’ (or the ‘Orient’/‘Occident’ distinction).

Similarities between Australia and Ireland

It is in this context that we can identify the primary similarity between the historical geographies of Ireland and Australia. If within this context we are meant to define the ‘colonisers’ as ‘us’ (i.e., those involved in Western geographical discourse) and the ‘colonised’ as ‘them’ or ‘other’, we reach a crucial problematic area with regards to the two nations at hand. Ireland and Australia are both nations left out of the post-colonial dialogue even though they are undeniably post-colonial. However, discussing these two nations within the dialogue of post-colonialism would ignore the fact that they are both relatively wealthy nations, members of the First World, with few similarities to the nations that are generally being discussed within the sphere. Yet, within the framework of ‘other’, they do share many similarities mainly because they are both peripheral from a Euro-centric viewpoint (Litvack, 2006: 2) – though this, economically at least, is increasingly untrue concerning Ireland. Macintyre (1999: 24) writes with regard to Australia:

The Orient came to stand for a whole way of life that was inferior to that of the West: indolent, irrational, despotic, and decayed. Such typification of the alien and other, which the critic Edward Said characterizes as Orientalism, had a peculiar meaning in colonial Australia where geography contradicted history. Fascination and fear mingled in the colonists’ apprehension of the zone that lay between them and the metropole. As a British dependency, Australia adopted the terminology that referred to the Near, Middle and Far East until, under threat of Japanese invasion in 1940, its prime minister suddenly recognized that “What Great Britain call the Far East is to us the Near North”.

Slemon has argued for a discussion within post-colonial discourse of a “Second World” to accommodate those nations that cannot place themselves “neatly on one side or the other of the ‘colonizer/colonized’ binary” (Kroeker, 2001: 11). After all, both nations could be considered not just ‘victim’ but also ‘accomplice’ and ‘beneficiary’ of colonialism (Litvack, 2006). Slemon’s idea is helpful in creating an alternative for the “difficult examples of post-colonial, white, settler cultures” like that of Australia, New Zealand and Canada. Though Ireland is different, one could easily argue that the ‘Second World’ is a better fit than the ‘Third’. In short, Ireland and Australia’s position in between these two very separate worlds of ‘colonizer’ and ‘colonized’ is an underlying similarity in their historical geographies of colonialism.

Differences between Australia and Ireland

There is an important discrepancy within the context of ‘Orientalism’ between Australia and Ireland. Abiding by the rules of historical geography, just as humans make their cultures and ethnic identities we also make our own histories. More often than not, memory is matched to history but as Collingwood (1970 in McCarthy, no date: 13) states “memory is not history, because history is a certain kind of organized or inferential knowledge, and memory is not organized, not inferential at all”. Though undoubtedly ‘memory’ impinges on Irish history the same as any other, Irish history at least seems to have some type of consensus. On the other hand, there are two distinct versions of Australian history: one that begins when the British landed in Botany Bay in 1788, and one that begins at least 40,000 (and possibly 120,000) years before that. Conventional Australian history to this day remains the version that begins with the arrival of the British – as the old African proverb goes: only when lions have historians will the hunters cease to be heroes. Key to the differences between Australia and Ireland in this context are issues of ‘domination’ and ‘race’. The underlying argument here is that whilst the Irish were undoubtedly oppressed by British rule, it was a fundamentally different kind of oppression than that faced by Australia’s Aboriginals.

The domination and repression of the Irish during British colonial rule was done in the context of engagement. The ‘native’ Irish were certainly disadvantaged by the British, and this was a typical feature of colonialism – Meinig has long drawn attention, within his geographical analysis of imperial expansion, to the employment of supreme political authority by the invaders over the invaded (Meinig, 1989). The relationship between the British and the Irish fits very neatly into Meinig’s theories of subjugation. One of his arguments is that the goal of imperial expansion was to extract wealth and in doing so to forge new economic relationships to reach these ends. The political authority of the British (invaders) over the Irish (invaded) is illustrated by the manipulation of ethnic and religious identities that occurred “in order to keep the subject population from uniting against the occupying power” (Wikipedia, 2006a). Economic exploitation under British rule had an “ethnic (and latently nationalist) dimension because it was expressed through religious discrimination” (Komito, 1985: 3). The legacy of this ‘divide and rule’ strategy (as well as the link between religion and nationalism) remains in Ireland today.

The Great Irish Famine remains, to this day, “the defining moment in Irish…history” (Kenny, 2001). Between 1840 and 1850, the Irish population was reduced from 8.2 million to 4.1 million – including out-migration as well as deaths from starvation (Guinnane, 1998). Irish land was by and large owned by English landlords and worked by Irish tenants; at the time of the famine, these peasants had to choose between paying the rent for the land with their other crops (and possibly starving), or eating their rent and being liable to eviction. The British government first ignored the famine and when relief effort was made it was erratic and unreliable. “Many had died from starvation; those who emigrated, and those who survived in Ireland, remembered the inadequate and uncaring response of Britain. More than any other single event in history, the Famine came to epitomize, for many Irish people, the quintessential example of British attitudes to its neighbour” (Komito, 2006: 3).

On the other hand, the policy of the British towards the Aboriginals in Australia was not one of subjugation but extermination. Whereas most of the Irish in Ireland (as well as the estimated 80 million Irish that live abroad) proudly claim Celtic ancestry, the natives in Australia suffered a dramatic decline with European settlement, brought on by the “impact of new diseases, repressive and often brutal treatment, dispossession, and social and cultural disruption and disintegration” (Year Book Australia, 1994). Conservative estimates of the Aboriginal population pre-1788 place the figure at somewhere around 300,000, though many anthropologists now believe there were probably closer to one million Aboriginals in 1788. Data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics reveals that in 1966 (approaching the ‘bicentennial’ of the ‘founding’ of Australia that was so widely – and rightly – protested by the Aboriginal population) there were only 80,207 ‘indigenous’ members of the population. Even if one assumes (or accepts) a figure of zero population growth, this figure is still only about 26 percent of the original population. Whilst the Aboriginal population continued to expand at the end of the 20th century – an ‘estimated resident Indigenous population’ of 469,000 is projected for this year – it is clear to see that it came close to being exterminated. This increasing number of indigenous people still represents only about 2.4 percent of the total Australian population (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2006).

And so comes the issue of race. Much of Said’s work, for example, deals with the ‘white’ man’s oppression of the ‘brown’. Whereas the Irish were certainly subjugated, they were viewed simply as inferior. The Aboriginals, in contrast, were viewed as subhuman, “and as animals they possessed no rights, nor any claim to morality” (Pilger, 1989: 27). Australia, here, seems to have more in common with the ‘Dark Continent’ than with any imperialism within Europe. Some colonial nations, often referred to as ‘settler countries’, had the same attitude towards the natives as that in Australia. In Canada, New Zealand, and even Latin American settler countries’ Argentina and Uruguay, little effort was made by the colonist to maintain the existing order, to establish commercial (or other) relations with the inhabitants, or even to recruit them as labour. Instead of involving themselves with the native populations, these lands were simply cleared and settled as “fresh field of European endeavour” (Macintyre, 1999: 20). Again, this is not to argue that the Irish were not oppressed during English dominion but simply to state that they were at least acknowledged in a way that the Aboriginals were not. One might even venture to argue that the treatment of the Aboriginals in Australia was so horrific that it has led to their virtual writing out of traditional Australian memory and consequently history. In The Fatal Shore, Robert Hughes’ describes what he calls ‘a national pact of silence (Pilger, 1989) over the Aboriginal issue. There is no topic more sensitive in Australia than that of the Aboriginals. This aspect of the British colonial legacy has certainly constructed a version of history that, as many Australians say, is “missing something” (Pilger, 1989). Burgmann and Lee make clear at the beginning of their book, A People’s History of Australia, that their aim is ‘not merely to compensate for past neglect, but to assert that we can only understand Australia’s history by analysing the lives of the oppressed’ (in Pilger, 1989: 3). After all, “a nation founded on bloodshed and suffering of others eventually must make peace with that one historical truth” (Pilger, 1989: 3).

In short, the history of the colonizer and the colonized in Australia and Ireland is enormously different. Australia has, for the last few decades, seemingly been coming to terms with their national past and incorporating the near total-destruction of Aboriginal life and culture into their accepted version of history. Ireland, of course, maintains a history as ‘constructed’ as any other nation’s – theirs, unlike that of the Australians, does not seem to be ‘silencing’ any important truths.

The notion of ‘discovery’

In the early nineteenth century, the primary aims and concerns of Geography were: to collect and publish new facts and discoveries, to develop instruments of use to travellers, and to accumulate geographical texts, in particular maps. Geography was, in many ways, an instrument of the empire, an impression that is illustrated well by the number of military men that were members of the Royal Geographic Society in the early nineteenth century. Topography and mapping by and large went hand in hand with notions of colonialism and expansion. Wood wrote that maps ‘work’ because they “give us reality, a reality that exceeds our vision, our reach, the span of our days, a reality we achieve no other way” (1993: 4-5). In short, maps “manage to pass off for evident truth what is hard won, culturally acquired knowledge about the world we inhabit; a reality unverifiable by the naked eye” (Klein, 1998: 1). This section will argue that early colonial maps of both Ireland and Australia used cartography to meet their colonial desires. The key difference was that early maps of Australia displayed a land ‘unconquered’ and ‘uninhabited’ whereas colonial maps of Ireland represented a land very much ‘conquered’.

Early maps of colonial Australia and Ireland also illustrate another key difference: the British believed they had discovered Australia, whilst they never assumed to have discovered the Emerald Isle. In reality, they had not ‘discovered’ Australia either – “the very fact that Cook discovered Australia strikes many today as false as the British claim to sovereignty over it” (Macintyre, 1999: 25). After all, “how can you find something that is already known?” (Macintyre, 1999: 25). The conception of ‘unconquered’ and ‘vacant’ land figures very prominently in the geography of discovery and colonialism. The sheer size of Australia allowed its settlers to believe they had found a previously unconquered, uninhabited landmass. Clearly, there is an element of sheer size. The Australian continent has an astronomical area of 7,682,300 square kilometres, compared to Ireland’s 70,300. Early maps of Australia often display an indeterminate continent, and “decorated it with lush vegetation and barbarous splendour” (Macintyre, 1999: 25). Other maps often neglected the south coast entirely, and left a vacant (or unexplored and therefore non-existent?) centre, as seen in Map 3, which is believed to date from the 1800s. Part and parcel of colonial imagination has been to make out no territorial limits in its desire for the unknown and the unconquered.

Map 3. Early Map of Australia

Early Map of Australia

Source: MSN Encarta.

Map 4. Early Map of Australia


Map 4 further emphasizes the unconquered aspect – by leaving great tracts of the continent blank on maps it was easier to believe that those very tracts were untouched and uninhabited. The vast emptiness of early Australian maps can also be viewed as a reactionary defensive mechanism. Numerically, the colonizers in Australia were (initially) a minority. In colonial theory in general, this was problematic because minorities were established as ‘outsiders’ in society. It was doubly problematic in Australia because of its role as the ‘dumping-ground for convicts’ (Macintyre, 1999: 18) in its early English settlement. To conceptualise and construct a large vacant space allowed for the idea of an uninhabited continent to flourish, and allowed the early colonizers to reject the idea of being a minority.

In contrast, early maps of Ireland try to conceptualise a country that is controlled and conquered. In a study of the English construction of Irish space in a series of Elizabethan and Jacobean maps, Klein (1998: 4) found that most “do little to hide their involvement in the colonial politics of their historical moment. In gradually redefining the ‘savage’ Irish wasteland as a territorial extension of the national sphere, they are quite openly engaged in negotiating the political accommodation of Irish cultural difference into a British framework”.

Baptista Boazio’s Irlande (Map 5) is believed to be the first map of Ireland, dating from 1559. Today, this map does not meet with much approval – “the lavish ornamental flourish, the purely fictional character of some of the map’s topographical details and … the extravagant use of colour are all features that suggest that precise geographical information was not the map’s principal objective” (Klein, 1998: 15).

Map 5. Boazio’s Irlande

Source: Klein, 1998.

The Kingdome of Ireland (Map 6) was the standard representation of Ireland for the first half of the 17th century. This map portrays a “neat and perfectly controlled area; a peaceful and quiet expanse”. The “pictorial surface of the map achieves both homogeneity and balance, suggesting a spatial harmony devoid of conflict” (Klein, 1998: 17). Moreover, the ‘wild men and women’ of Ireland depicted on the map seem to register a cartographic “transfer of political authority in Ireland from native Irish to English colonizers” (Klein, 1998: 17).

Map 6. Speed’s Kingdome of Ireland

Source: Klein, 1998.

In short, early maps of Ireland and Australia made great attempts to represent (and reaffirm) colonial ‘truths’. As Klein (1998: 1) states, “it should be noted that some eyes are as blind as others are observant, and contemporaries also recognized that the abstraction of geometric scale may quietly conceal rather than openly disclose geographical information”. Representation of these two nations were different in that Australia was represented as unconquered and ready for the taking, whereas Ireland was represented very much as ‘conquered’. This had to do with both the differences in size of the two nations at hand, as well as with their proximity to England.


This essay has attempted to analyse the historical geographies of colonialism in Australia and Ireland. It has shown that though the two nations share some overriding similarities (many simply attributed to being post-colonial), there are also a multitude of differences in their historical geographies.

The comparison was made in two basic contexts. First, the analysis was made within Said’s Orientalism. It argued that both Ireland and Australia were stuck between the binary of ‘us’ and ‘other’, between the First and Third Worlds. However, it argued that due to a variety of factors including, but not limited to, race, proximity, and area, their experience of ‘Orientalism’ was fundamentally different.

The second sections analysed the representation of colonialism in early maps of Australia and Ireland. Here the countries again displayed significant difference: Australia was depicted as a land waiting to be conquered, and Ireland as ‘neat’ and ‘controlled’.

A further general note can be made in that this essay demonstrated the power of memory and history on geography, and vice versa. Having analysed the historical geographies of Australia and Ireland, one would certainly agree that geography and history are “analogous and interdependent fields”.

Works Cited

Australian Bureau of Statistics (2004) Yearbook Australia: Population – Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Population, available from:

Guelke, L. (1997) ‘The Relations Between Geography and History Reconsidered’, History and Theory, 36 (2), pp. 191-234.

Hughes, R. (1986) The Fatal Shore: The epic of Australia’s founding, New York: Vintage Books.

Klein, B. (1998) ‘Partial Views: Shakespeare and the Map of Ireland’, Early Modern Literary Studies, Special Issue 3, 1-20.

Kroeker, A. “Separation from the World: Post-colonial aspects of Mennonite/s wiring in Western Canada”, Winnipeg, Manitoba: University of Manitoba.

Litvack, L. (2006) Theories of Post-Coloniality: Edward W. Said and W.B. Yeats, available from:

Macintyre, S. (1999) A Concise History of Australia, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

McCarthy, M. (no date) ‘Historico-Geographical Explorations of Ireland’s Heritages: Toward a Critical Understanding of the Nature of Memory and Identity’, available from:

McCarthy, M. (2003), ‘Historical geographies of a colonized world: the renegotiation of New English colonialism in early modern urban Ireland, c. 1600-10, Irish Geography, 36(1), 59-76.

Meinig, D. W. (1982) ‘Geographical analysis of imperial expansion’, in Baker, A. R. H. and Billinge, M. (eds.) Period and place: Research methods in historical geography, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Meinig, D. W. (1989) ‘The Historical Geography of Imperative’, Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 79, 79-87.

Pilger, J. (1989) A Secret Country, Sydney: Random House.

Said, E. (1979) Orientalism, New York: Vintage Books.

Said, E. (1993) Culture and Imperialism, lecture given at York University, Toronto, Canada, 10 February 1993.

Wikipedia (2006a) British Empire, available from:

Wikipedia (2006b) Geography, available from:

Wikipedia (2006c) Orientalism, available from: http://en.wikipedia/org/wiki/Orientalism

Wood, D. (1993) The Power of Maps, London: Routledge

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