Call of Empire by Peter Watt

Reviewed by Ian Lipke

Peter Watt has experienced many avenues of life. He has been a soldier, articled clerk to a solicitor, prawn trawler deckhand, builder’s labourer, pipe layer, real estate salesman, private investigator, police sergeant and adviser to the Royal Papua New Guinea Constabulary. The diversity of his career is reflected in his writing which rarely floats beyond the surface. As we shall see in Call of Empire this telling of surface things works to his advantage. He has lived and worked with Aborigines, Islanders, Vietnamese and Papua New Guineans and speaks, reads and writes Vietnamese and Pidgin. He now lives at Maclean, on the Clarence River in northern New South Wales. He is a volunteer firefighter with the Rural Fire service and is interested not only in fishing, but also in the vast open spaces of outback Queensland.

Call of Empire addresses the mode of living that was common in the nineteenth century, the unblinking devotion to Empire, the uncritical acceptance of duty to a monarch on the part of those who dwelt in a colony. Such a view of adulated glamour persisted until the huge losses of World War forced a massive rethink. This glamourization was never understood by the host nation anyway.

The Steele family typify the unthinking slavishness to the imperial ideal. The book opens in 1885. Colonel Ian Steele and his friend Conan Curry have been living a peaceful life on properties in the colony of New South Wales, enjoying their young children and holding a watching brief over their various business enterprises.

When the Mahdi overruns General Gordon’s troops in Khartoum and kills the general, the colony’s soldiers answer the call from their prime minister to deal with the insult to the empire. Lieutenant Josiah Steele, Ian’s elder son, defies the wishes of his near-fiancée Marian Curry to answer the call. Ian’s younger son Samuel, while learning the family business in the Pacific Islands, becomes involved in gun-running for the Chinese.

Thus the Steele family, in their own separate ways, has a history of involvement in matters that either do not concern them or are not strictly legal. The family’s affairs are presented in ways that are ‘at a firm remove’ from immediate contact. They respond, rather, in answer to an invocation from a community more remote than their family is. In the case of Josiah Steele, the call of the empire proves stronger than the love of a woman.

The most interesting of all characters in the book is that of Marian Curry. We are meant to interpret her actions as those of a strong woman when, in fact, her viewpoints (God forbid!) suggest selfishness. She makes it clear that she does not favour a war in Africa, she issues an ultimatum that Josiah will choose between her or the war, marries another man when Josiah refuses to give up soldiering, and then when she is free once more, issues another ultimatum that Josiah quietly accepts. She is never a likeable character. Through her actions are revealed the weaknesses in Josiah’s character, who, in the long term, fails to stand up to her demands.

The Steele family are shown to be rather ruthless, despite all their talk of supporting unto death the mother country. This is best seen in Samuel, who needs very little persuasion to adopt a criminal action when urged to do so by his colleague Ling Lee. That a murder charge hung over the head of Conan Curry for much of the book was unsurprising, and was too easily explained away by a senior officer towards the end.

I felt the presentation of this tale was amateurish and could have benefited with a deep re-think.

Call of Empire


By Peter Watt

Pan Macmillan

ISBN: 978 176098 977 4

$34.99; uncorrected proof copy


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