Monday musings on Australian literature: Explorers’ journals

In last week’s Monday Musings post I quoted from some explorers’ journals. There’s something wonderful about reading early impressions of a place – which in the case of Australia means the impressions of Anglo-European explorers, by sea in the late 17th and 18th centuries, and by sea and land in the nineteenth centuries. The impressions of our indigenous inhabitants who have been here 40,000 or more years, depending on which region we are talking about and which scientist you listen to, are not written, but passed on orally and in rock art. I won’t be discussing them in this post, but of course theirs is a significant part of our historical record.

I’ve mentioned Project Gutenberg Australia before. Just to recap, it’s a sister (why do we say sister not brother? is sibling better?) site to Project Gutenberg. It provides access to international texts that are in public domain – in Australia. This means you’ll find non-Australian texts here, including, due to different copyright legislations, some texts not yet available via Project Gutenberg. However, its main value is that it provides an entrée to Australian material, through various sections which organise the content by subject/type. One of these sections is the Library of Australiana. Last time I wrote about this I focused primarily on Australian fiction and poetry. This time it’s the Explorers’ Journals.

PGA introduces this section by describing how “the map of the inland of the continent was drawn, first with the discovery, by Blaxland Lawson and Wentworth, of a way across the Blue Mountains”, and then by explorers like Sturt, Oxley, Eyre, Stuart, Giles, Leichhardt, and Burke and Wills, while the continent’s outline was “mapped by navigators including Cook, Flinders, King and Stokes”. PGA continues:

At the time of their discoveries there was great interest in the exploits of these explorers and it was a was a common practice for them to prepare a journal of their expeditions for publication in England. Then, for more than a century afterwards, their exploits were taught in schools.

A reassessment has since taken place, where settlement is seen as invasion and exploration is seen as expropriation. Of course, these were men of their time and as such behaved in a way which would be unacceptable to us now. However, their courage, determination and curiosity shine through in their writing. Furthermore, in reading their journals we are able to take part in the journeys which they made. Sue Asscher, who prepared many of the ebooks listed below, summed it up very well when she commented “I do love and hate the explorers [my emph]: they kill anything that moves, turn turtles over, poke through graves, look up grass skirts, take things for further examination never to be returned, scoff at anything superstitious, etc. taking notes all the time…and then call, with a sneer, some native girls who come to take a look at them, the explorers, ‘the inquisitive sex'”.

And so, for the modern reader, these journals have multiple interest. They tell us about:

  • the landscape as it was (or as it was understood) at the time of exploration;
  • meetings with local indigenous people and how communication with them went; and
  • attitudes, of both the specific explorers and, by a degree of extrapolation, of the times.

This is all important. More than the specific names and dates, it’s useful to know what the country looked like (compared with now, for example) and how those early contacts went. It surely helps us better understand and manage the present and prepare for the future. I wonder how much of this is taught in schools, today. In my day it was more the “heroic” stuff – the first to discover this (path, lake, river, mountain, or whatever it was), the tragedy of the near miss, and so on. We learnt little of the details and the experience.

PGA contains the journals of nearly 30 explorers, some well-known, and others less so. They are listed alphabetically, starting with Gregory Blaxland (chronicling his trip across with Blue Mountains in 1813 with William Wentworth and William Lawson) and ending with William John Wills (member of the tragic Burke and Will expedition). His journal, edited and published by his father in 1863, is poignantly titled, Successful exploration through the interior of Australia, from Melbourne to the Gulf of Carpentaria. From the journals and letters of William John Wills. It was successful, measured by its goal of reaching the Gulf, but not so if your measure of success includes the safe return of the party!

"Ludwig Leichhardt" by Friedrich August Schmalfuß (1791–1876), (Leichhardt-Museum, Trebatsch) - Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

“Ludwig Leichhardt” by Friedrich August Schmalfuß (1791–1876), Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Another tragic explorer was Ludwig Leichhardt. I’ve chosen him for my example because of his link to literature – he was the inspiration for Patrick White’s wonderful novel Voss – and because for a few years in my childhood, I lived in a town on the Leichhardt River. Unlike Wills’ posthumously published journal, this one by Leichhardt is for a trip from which he returned – Journal of an overland expedition in Australia: From Moreton Bay to Port Essington, a distance of upwards of 3000 miles, during the years 1844-1845. (Don’t you love the long, descriptive titles of these journals!).

Leichhardt prefaces his journal with a quote from Goethe:

Die Götter brauchen manchen guten Mann
Zu ihrem Dienst auf dieser weiten Erde.

(“The upper powers – Gods?- need many a good man for their service on this wide earth”.)

Presumably Leichhardt saw himself as, or aimed to be, such a good man, and saw his exploration as “service”. In chapter 2, he describes a meeting with “friendly natives” in southern Queensland:

On the 30th October, towards evening, we were hailed by natives, from the scrub; but, with the exception of one, they kept out of sight. This man knew a few English words, and spoke the language of Darling Downs; he seemed to be familiar with the country round Jimba; and asked permission to come to the camp: this, however, I did not permit; and they entered the scrub, when they saw us handle our guns, and bring forward two horses to the camp. On the 3rd of November they visited us again, and communicated with us, behaving in a very friendly way: they pointed out honey in one of the neighbouring trees, assisted in cutting it out and eating it, and asked for tobacco; it was, however, impossible to make any presents, as we had nothing to spare. They particularly admired the red blankets, were terror-struck at the sight of a large sword, which they tremblingly begged might be returned into the sheath, and wondered at the ticking of a watch, and at the movement of its wheels. The greater part were young men of mild disposition, and pleasing countenance; the children remained in the distance, and I only saw two women.

According to their statements, the scrub extends to the Condamine.

Intersting … the continuing friendly disposition despite what seems to be little coming back from the explorers.

There are many references to such meetings, and learnings, from “the natives”. Here are excerpts from chapter 5:

The natives had, in my absence, visited my companions, and behaved very quietly, making them presents of emu feathers, bommerangs, and waddies. Mr. Phillips gave them a medal of the coronation of her Majesty Queen Victoria, which they seemed to prize very highly. They were fine, stout, well made people, and most of them young; but a few old women, with white circles painted on their faces, kept in the back ground. They were much struck with the white skins of my companions, and repeatedly patted them in admiration. Their replies to inquiries respecting water were not understood; but they seemed very anxious to induce us to go down the river. (from Feb 27)

In consequence of the additional fatigues of the day, I allowed some pieces of fat to be fried with our meat. Scarcely a fortnight ago, some of my companions had looked with disgust on the fat of our stews, and had jerked it contemptuously out of their plates; now, however, every one of us thought the addition of fat a peculiar favour, and no one hesitated to drink the liquid fat, after having finished his meat. This relish continued to increase as our bullocks became poorer; and we became as eager to examine the condition of a slaughtered beast, as the natives, whose practice in that respect we had formerly ridiculed. (from Feb 29)

So interesting … and so wonderful that this material is now available for reading by anyone with access to the internet.

16 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: Explorers’ journals

  1. I can quote the odd passage from Australian explorers’ journals from memory, having watched Bill Peach’s mini-series “The Explorers” many, many times when I was younger:

    “The Murrumbidgee rose six feet on us in one night. For the last ten days we have pulled against it with determined perseverance. But human efforts, in the face of privations such as ours, tend to weaken themselves. The men have lost that proper and muscular jerk with which they once made the waters foam and the oars bend. Their bodies swing with an awkward and laboured motion. Their hands have become nervous. Their persons are emaciated. Their faces have become haggard. Their spirits – wholly sunk. It grieves me to the heart to see them in such a condition as this, at the end of so perilous a service.”

    That was from Sturt’s return voyage up the Murrumbidgee, undertaken while desperately short of provisions, after having followed the course of the Murray to the sea.

    One cannot overlook the destructiveness and injustice of the colonial project, nor the blinkered superiority of those Europeans who wandered out into the unknown (and Sturt was a prime example of that!) But I was fascinated with Australian exploration when I was young, and with the texts and the sheer act of journaling that went with it (I had a childish obsession with swags and backpacks too, as a result.) Depending on the particular explorer and the situation they’re writing about, there is often a pacing and rhythm to the language which is quite delicious. The letters of servicemen in the American Civil War share with the journals a combination of lyricism and intensity that is nowadays so rare.

    • Wow, thanks, Glen. That’s a great quote. I’ll have to look at Sturt’s journals. As you say, there’s a lot wrong with the colonial project, but it happened and reading these journals can contribute to our understanding. There’s something impressive about the desire to and explore and the perseverance, even if with hindsight we see what it meant. Would we have thought any differently had we been in those times, I wonder?

      • Interesting question. You have to remember the pre-eminence of God and Country and Duty within the consciousness of those times. I suspect we might have been under the thrall of them, too, if we were fortunate enough not to be dirt poor and thus largely bent upon sheer survival. Christian Soldiers would not have been an inappropriate epithet for the Civil War combatants – their letters are full of it, on both sides.

  2. Explorer accounts were discussed quite a bit in the Coursera MOOC on Australian literature I did a few months ago. Also on the TBR pile. And the Australian GB site has been really useful.

    • Oh, you’re right Sylvie. I had a look at the course list and noticed that. Overall it looked like a really interesting course. I’m not sure I could commit the hours to it right now, but one day.

  3. I doubt that you’ll faint with astonishment when I confess that I have never read one single explorer’s writings, ST … 😦 How this happened, I know not – well, other than that I am an ignorant and narrowly-read old fart. And that the history teaching nun I had at school for my final few years made it so STULTIFYINGLY BORING that I managed to not pass one history exam, including my matriculation year. Nearly killed my father.
    Anyway. I think I must check them out now, thanks to you !!!

    • Oh, MR, don’t beat yourself up. I suspect many of us have not read them. History was not always taught well, which is why I didn’t do much of it at university though I was fascinated by it. It’s sites like Project Gutenberg that makes them more easily accessible to us all.

  4. Great post. I’m sure the explorers couldn’t imagine the very different way in which we would be reading their journals two centuries later. I must look through the texts available on the Australian version of PG – thanks for pointing us to it.

    • Glad to be of use Nathan … it would be interesting to know what they’d think now wouldn’t it – but such is life. We are not to know what’s around the corner after out allotted lifespan.

  5. Just come back from TO and catching up on my blogging visits. You know, WG, your post reminds me of the movie Dances with Wolves. I’ll say, ca around the same era. I think any explorer is their own ethnocentric. But being an explorer, they are already more equipped than those who didn’t venture out to accept differences and varieties of human cultures. PGA is doing some good works.

    • That’s a nice point Arti about explorers being more equipped to accept differences. The diaries/journals do show that openness to a degree. You can see the tension in their writings between what they (think they) know and believe and being open to new knowledge and ways of doing things.

  6. It’s really fascinating to read these kinds of things, isn’t it? The US has a lot of explorer journal literature too, perhaps the most famous is Lewis and Clark. I’ve only read excerpts of it though. One of these days I would like to read some of John Muir’s journals from when he was exploring California.

    • Oh yes, Stefanie, I expect you would have similar journals over there. I’ve only read one John Muir essay, which I really enjoyed. Would love to read more of his writing. His journals would be fascinating.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s