Documentary Editing, Association for


Date of this Version


Document Type



Documentary Editing, Volume 21, Number 4, December 1999.

ISSN 2476-1796 (electronic); ISSN 2167-1451 (print)


1999 © the Association for Documentary Editing. Used by permission.


It is common for documentary editors to defend the writings with which they are dealing as important in some historical or social sense. If the author of the work is famous, or the document very old, such a defense is easy. For less well known or more recent individuals, the editor will present a case for publication: the style of the writing is remarkable, or the documents bear witness to significant events, or they have value because the writer belonged to a particular, perhaps marginalized, section of society. Nicholas Thomas and Richard Eves, the editors of the letters of Vernon Lee Walker and Louis Becke, make no such claims for their subjects. Walker and Becke were "bad colonists": not bad because they indulged in atrocious acts or suffered from serious character flaws (although they both voice contemporary racist beliefs), but bad because they were simply not very successful at the colonists' pursuit. Their letters relate tales of loss, illness, sunburn, and social ostracism. For Walker at least, the adventure of colonization proved fatal. This very failure to succeed is offered by the editors as a point of interest, as a counterpoint to "the confidence of colonialism in the epoch of Stanley" epitomized in contemporary "optimistic, blandly self-assured" accounts of landscape and scenery.