By Dr Matthew Allen, Lecturer in Historical Criminology, University of New England (UNE).
In writing about the past, historians must be aware of the pitfalls of anachronism. It is impossible for historians to avoid having their judgement shaped by the times in which they write. However, historians should try to avoid judging the past by the standards of the present.
In the September issue of Traces, I look at how the reputation of Samuel Marsden, principal chaplain of the colony of New South Wales between 1793 and 1838, is often shaped by anachronism.
A leading figure in the life and politics of the New South Wales colony from his arrival until his death, Marsden’s reputation has since been heavily contested, between two dominant visions: the virtuous and pioneering evangelist, or the greedy and ruthless flogging-parson.
But both these visions are framed by present concerns. Marsden’s supporters mythologise his role as a founding father of antipodean Christianity while his critics judge his actions – especially as a magistrate – by contemporary standards. And between these two conflicting visions the real Samuel Marsden has almost disappeared.
In fact, Marsden is a more complex and interesting figure than either of the dominant visions will allow. Only by avoiding anachronism and judging Marsden by the standards of his own times can we accurately understand his character and his role in early colonial New South Wales.
Read more about the contested reputation of Samuel Marsden in the September issue of Traces.