Illawarra rounding Cape Horn

Major Field: The British Empire

The photograph I have posted above was taken from the deck of a ship named the Illawarra as it rounded Cape Horn some time towards the end of the nineteenth century. The Captain of this ship was a man named David Banks Carvosso, and it was likely his hand that scrawled “men have spent their best years mid scenes like this who might well have been archbishops,” across the back of the photo. Captain D.B. Carvosso, who was “well known in the Australia trade,” made his living transporting wool from Australia to Britain, and migrants from Britain to Australia. [1] He had also worked shipping indentured laborers from South Asia to the Caribbean but had left that business after a disastrous voyage in 1865. While en route from Calcutta to Demerara his passengers and crew were first devastated by a cholera epidemic, and then saw their ship wrecked off the South African coast. [2]

Captain Carvosso was the scion of a Methodist family who, in the half century that had followed the Napoleonic Wars, had scattered to the farthest reaches of the British Empire and beyond. His grandfather was William Carvosso, a celebrated lay evangelist from Cornwall who ministered to tin miners during the social turmoil of the Industrial Revolution; in the 1820s his father Benjamin became one of the first missionaries to visit the convicts and settlers of Van Diemen’s Land and New South Wales; his cousin Robert Rundle was a missionary among the Cree and Sioux Nations of the North American prairies during the 1840s; his brother Joseph Hobart was a missionary in Jamaica in the 1850s, and retired to become a teacher and champion of aboriginal education in Queensland; and his sister Louisa married Henry Reeves, of the Anglican Church Missionary Society, who worked among the Chinese in Shanghai during the Tai’ping rebellion in the late 1850s, and then again in the town of Yale, British Columbia, during the Cariboo Gold Rush in the 1860s. It was the family business it seems, to try and shepherd the marginalized and displaced peoples of the nineteenth century through the dislocation and turmoil of the Second Empire.

For the past three years Prof. Thorne has been helping me to find ways to help make sense of the Carvossos’ experience of that Empire. A good portion of the work I have produced during that process is posted below. The center piece is the paper on Robert Rundle and his Cree friend Maskepetoon. It remains sprawling and unpolished, but will likely be the foundation of a thesis chapter. The historiography paper is not only a literature review but also an attempt to begin reconceptualizing “the British Empire” to meet my subject’s particular needs. Transnational approaches offer an intriguing avenue for that re-conceptualization, but I am suspicious of their tendency to spin their subject as a global, rather than a trans-local history. The short essay on transnationalism, which I wrote for a first year historiography class, speaks directly to this concern.

The three book reviews could easily have been combined into a second historiographical essay on missions and empire, but in their present form they will give you a much clearer sense of my ongoing struggle to learn concision. The first, on theBritish Missionary Enterprise was published this winter in The Economic History Review, the other two are earlier, longer, and more rambling attempts to come to terms with the heated debate over the complicity of missionaries in the imperialist project. These reviews can also be read as an element of my work with Prof. Piot on the ongoing conversation between anthropologists and historians.

The three syllabi and the reading list provide, if nothing else, a sense of how much I still have to do. They are the sketch of the conceptual structure which I must build in order to frame the Carvossos. Their story after all, is not just the story of missions and empire, but of the origins of Modern Britain. The industrial transformation of the Cornish countryside, the explosive growth of nonconformist Christianity throughout Britain, massive migration, and the political reform of the British state between the age of Atlantic Revolutions and that of Global Empires, are all as much my subject as are the scattering of the Carvossos and the drama of frontier evangelism.


[1] Marine Engineer and Naval Architect: A Monthly Journal of Marine Engineering, Shipbuilding and Steam Navigation , vol. 3, (London, 1881-83), p. 188.

[2] “The Total Loss of the Fusilier, Shocking Mortality,” Lloyd's Weekly Newspaper (London, England), Sunday, September 24, 1865; Issue 1192.