Scots and Empire

Reviewed by Margery Fee

In this book, I encountered a word I had never seen before: prosopography is “a description of a person’s social and family connections, career, etc.,” or “the study of such descriptions” (“Prosopography, N.”). Kröller acts as prosopographer for several members of one family. In 1853, two McIlwraith men emigrated from Ayrshire, Scotland, to Canada and Australia, where each prospered. Beginning in that year, the book’s five-hundred-page coverage ends in 1948, when T. F. McIlwraith’s book about the Nuxalk, The Bella Coola Indians, was finally published. Writing is at the centre of this book. The McIlwraiths kept in regular touch with far-flung family, friends, teachers, and other social connections. However, sometimes the record went dark. Kröller aptly notes that “intensely populated archival islands are separated by extensive waters of biographical silence” (170). Nonetheless, she keeps a fascinating story afloat, even when back-tracking in time, or moving away from the McIlwraiths to those closely connected to them.


Kröller assimilates many media and genres: letters, postcards, works of fiction and poetry, journals, diaries, obituaries, government reports, Christmas annuals, magazines and newspapers. To give some idea of the magnitude of the task, she notes that over an eight-month period, one Ontario McIlwraith boasts of receiving at least 432 letters, and sending 530 (71). Written with input from several contemporary family members, this work required visits to and communication with many archives in Australia, Canada, Germany, New Zealand, South Africa, the United States, and the United Kingdom. Kröller immerses us in the lives of women and men from many backgrounds while casting a critical eye on the everyday sexism, racism, homophobia, and jingoism that often marked the assumptions of the privileged settlers at the centre of the work. How they “articulated their identity as imperial subjects over time” shifts between generations and even within individuals as their circumstances change (4). Some juggled multiple identifications as they travelled or sought a job or an audience for their writing.


The first chapter deals with Sir Thomas McIlwraith (1835-1900), three-time premier of Queensland. Next up is Thomas McIlwraith (1824-1903), who settled in Hamilton, Ontario, and devoted hours spared from his coal business to ornithology, producing two editions of The Birds of Ontario (1886, 1894). Another chapter explores his children’s “Family Album,” of which one daughter, Jean (1858-1938), took the lead. She features in a later chapter as an editor for Doubleday in New York and a Canadian author. The ornithologist’s grandson, T. F. McIlwraith (1899-1964), took part in the British occupation of Germany in 1918, attended Cambridge, conducted fieldwork with the Nuxalk, and became the first head of anthropology at the University of Toronto. His correspondence with his sister Dorothy (1891-1976) supports the last chapters. Like her aunt Jean, Dorothy worked for Doubleday in New York before editing both Short Stories, by then a Western and adventure-story magazine, and Weird Tales (1940-54), an early science fiction and fantasy magazine. The siblings’ love of verse was ingrained: they recited it together as they did the dishes. T. F. was known for stirring recitations, including “Gunga Din” and “The Cremation of Sam McGee,” delivered to his mates in the King’s Own Scottish Borderers. Shared imperial popular culture helped soldiers through cataclysmic events.


The first McIlwraith to feature, Sir Thomas, has been described as “a burly 6 foot womanizer with the instincts of a gambler” (qtd. 33). His attempt to annex New Guinea in 1884 was rebuffed by British government, in part because “based on its previous record in the treatment of Aboriginals, Queensland could not be trusted with the Native population of New Guinea” (50). In one interview, McIlwraith defends settlers from accusations of murder and rape by accusing the “last dregs of a doomed race” of sexual licence and cannibalism, concluding that their “savagery was ineradicable” (61). That Germany had interests in New Guinea meant that rival attempts to set up so-called protectorates could spark war between the European powers competing for resources and “cheap” labour. Kröller’s ability to include German material adds another empire to the mix. It also situates the lives of some elite young women at a finishing school in Dresden at the outbreak of the First World War. The cheerful, slangy letters of Beulah Gillet Knox, who later married T. F. McIlwraith, focalize this section, which also outlines the wartime career of her aristocratic schoolmate and lesbian heroine Eileen Plunket.


Kröller moves from analysis of settler-colonial and imperial ideologies and institutions to minute details of daily life. We learn about the transatlantic telegraph cable; “shotgun ornithology,” the preferred method before good binoculars and portable cameras (85); the coal business, as conducted by postcard, known as “the poor man’s telephone” (79); the recycling and hoarding of paper, including the strategic deployment of free letterhead; girls’ crushes on opera singers in Dresden; and much more. What distinguishes this work from some family histories is its clear-eyed attention to the good and the bad, including the impact of empire on women, Black people, Indigenous people, and other “imperial subjects” (4). Its narrative arc from Sir Thomas McIlwraith to T. F. McIlwraith puts this shift into perspective, as T. F. moves from his early imperialist views, full of stereotypes of those he encounters in the war and at Cambridge, to a new understanding learned by living with the Nuxalk. T. F. would not have been able to attend Cambridge but for the war and the mentorship of the Master of Downing College, Sir Albert Seward, and his wife Marion, whom T. F. first met while billeted at the College as a cadet. We learn about the treatment of women students, the presence of Indian students preparing for the civil service in India, then called “the Great Dependency,” and the rebellious attitudes of battle-scarred men to university regulation. Even graduating with a first did not spare T. F. from the “indispensable role of patronage” in getting a position (407). Assiduous support from his professors helped him find field work in Bella Coola, which he eventually parlayed into a professorship at the University of Toronto. His two-volume The Bella Coola Indians (reprinted 1992), as well as related correspondence, At Home with the Bella Coola: T. F. McIlwraith’s Field Letters 1922-24 (2003), are available today with good introductions. Kröller describes Nuxalk reaction to his ethnography, expressed at a memorial potlatch in 1991 to which the McIlwraith family was invited. Chief Lawrence Pootlass (Nuximlayc) stated, “[T]hese books are more than gold to us” (446). Kröller’s meticulous and readable rethinking of settler life stories, identifications, and ideologies certainly provides an inspiration and a model to others who wish to repudiate a “Great Man” or Whig history that imagines “our” ever more glorious future. The story ends on a positive note, with T. F. McIlwraith’s Nuxalk name being passed on to his son. And his grandson, Thomas (Tad) McIlwraith, works on land claims as an anthropologist at the University of Guelph.

Works Cited

Barker, John, and Douglas Cole, eds. At Home with the Bella Coola Indians: T. F. McIlwraith’s Field Letters, 1922-4. U of British Columbia P, 2003.

McIlwraith, T. F. The Bella Coola Indians. Updated ed., U of Toronto P, 1992.1

“Prosopography, N.Canadian Oxford Dictionary, edited by Katherine Barber, 2nd ed., Oxford UP, 2005,



1The first edition of The Bella Coola Indians was published by University of Toronto Press in 1948, and is now out of print. An updated edition, published in 1992, has been cited in this review.

This review “Scots and Empire” originally appeared in Canadian Literature, 17 Apr. 2023. Web.

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