Lecture by Bruce Buchan

Hints', Howls, and Hakas: Hearing Britain's Empire in Australia and the Pacific, c. 1690-1790.


On the 4th of June 1788, the infant British colony in Sydney Cove celebrated His majesty’s birthday with a 21-gun salute. As the gunfire reverberated around the harbour, colonists reflected on how differently this mighty noise was heard by European newcomers and by Australia’s Indigenous inhabitants. What they heard is not in dispute, but the disparity in how they heard it encapsulates a deeper anxiety about the audible register of civility in British cross-cultural encounters between ‘Europeans’ and ‘Islanders’ in the Pacific. In this paper, I will explore the audible implications of these anxieties expressed in a selection of British accounts of such encounters from the late seventeenth to the late eighteenth century. I will argue that these anxieties were regularly assuaged not simply by recourse to the modulated civility of polite sound, but to the intrusive and often terrifying recourse to discordant noise. In arguing so, I want to complicate recent interpretations of European soundscapes that prioritise the cohesive force of purposive sound over the disruptive effects of intrusive noise. The audible context of early cross-cultural encounters in the Pacific and Australia demonstrates that mere noise – or what the European newcomers heard – played a significant role in purposive activities (such as the establishment of imperial authority). Moreover, the sounds of early colonial encounters – what the European newcomers listened to – often did not confirm shared meanings but activated deep anxieties about their inability to communicate their civility to the Indigenous inhabitants they encountered. In this way, I want also to question the value of historical analyses that continue to separate normative and purposive ‘sound’ from valueless and random ‘noise’.