Monday Musings on Australian literature: Three Top End explorers

Well, folks, I’m back on the grid, but still in the Top End holidaying, so I’m going to make this one as short and sweet as I can.

As we traveled through Arnhem Land we learnt about various early 19th century explorers in this region, particularly Phillip Parker King (who makes an appearance, if I remember correctly but can’t check here, in Michelle Scott Tucker’s Elizabeth Macarthur: A life at the edge the world) and Ludwig Leichhardt (who inspired Patrick White’s Voss). Journals of these two, plus of Matthew Flinders, are available at Project Gutenberg Australia, and this is what I’m sharing today (for my benefit as much as yours, as I plan to come back to them!)

Matthew Flinders (1774-1814)

A Voyage to Terra Australis undertaken for the purpose of completing the discovery of that vast country, and persecuted in the years 1801, 1802 and 1803, in His Majesty’s ship The Investigator, and subsequently in the armed vessel Porpoise and Cumberland schooner. With an account of the shipwreck of the Porpoise, arrival of the Cumberland at Mauritius, and imprisonment of the commander during six years and a half in that island. By Matthew Flinders Commander of The Investigator. In 2 volumes with an atlas. London: Printed by W. Bulmer and Co. Cleveland Row, and published by G. and W. Nicol, booksellers to His Majesty, Pall-Mall, 1814.

Whew. They wrote long title pages, some of these explorers.

Anyhow, it is in Vol. 2 Ch IX, that Flinders writes of this region, and it is 1803. He describes the landscape, the plants, sightings of indigenous people. This description which seems to refer to Melville Island (part of the Tiwi Islands) particularly appealed because of our own experiences:

No inhabitants were perceived, nor any fresh traces of them; but as dogs were seen twice, it is probable the natives were watching us at no great distance; they had visited all the places where I landed, and should therefore seem to possess canoes. Traces of the same strangers, of whom mention has been so often made, were found here; and amongst others were partitions of frame work and part of a large earthen jar. Kangaroos appeared to be rather numerous in the woods, brown doves and large white pigeons were tolerably plentiful, and a bird nearly black, of the size and appearance of a hen, was shot; there were also cockatoos, both black and white, and a beautiful species of paroquet not known at Port Jackson. The aquatic birds were blue and white cranes, sea-pies, and sand-larks. Besides fish, our seine usually brought on shore many of the grey slugs or sea cucumbers, but not so abundantly as in Caledon Bay.

Australian Green Ant Gin and Tonic

Australian Green Ant G&T

We were not here pestered so much with the black flies as before; but the musketoes and sand flies were numerous and fierce. Most of the bushes contained nests made by a small green ant; and if the bush were disturbed, these resentful little animals came out in squadrons, and never ceased to pursue till the disturber was out of sight. In forcing our way amongst the underwood, we sometimes got our hair and clothes filled with them; and as their bite is very sharp, and their vengeance never satisfied, there was no other resource than stripping as expeditiously as possible.

We, too, were pestered by mosquitoes in the Top End, but what Flinders didn’t know is that those Green Ants make good bush food and medicine. I tried a gin and tonic made with Australian Green Ant Gin, and ate a fresh green ant off the real rocks as well! Can’t believe I did that, actually, but when in Arnhem Land …

Phillip Parker King (1791-1856)

Narrative of a survey of the intertropical and western coasts of Australia. Performed between the years 1818 and 1822. By Captain Phillip P King, R.N., F.R.S., F.L.S., and Member of the Royal Asiatic Society of London. With an Appendix, containing various subjects relating to hydrography and natural history. In Two Volumes.

Phillip (two “ll”) Parker King was the son of the Australian colony’s second governor, Philip (one “l”) Gidley King.

Anyhow, in Vol. 1 Ch 2, for example, we are in April 1818, and King discusses Port Essington which he named for a “lamented” friend. This later became the short-lived settlement of Victoria, 1838 to 1849, partly on the basis of his recommendation:

During our examination of Port Essington, we found no fresh water, but our search for it did not extend beyond the precincts of the sea-beach, since we were not in want of that article, having so lately completed our stock at Goulburn Island; but from the number of natives seen by us, and the frequency of their traces, which were encountered at every step we took, there must be fresh water; and had we dug holes, we should doubtless have succeeded in finding some, particularly in the vicinity of the cliffs.

Wood is abundant and convenient for embarking, but the trees are generally small: the waters are well stocked with fish.

As a harbour, Port Essington is equal, if not superior, to any I ever saw; and from its proximity to the Moluccas and New Guinea, and its being in the direct line of communication between Port Jackson and India, as well as from its commanding situation with respect to the passage through Torres Strait, it must, at no very distant period, become a place of great trade, and of very considerable importance.

Victoria Settlement

Victoria Settlement

We toured the ruins of Victoria, and were shown the plants that indigenous Australians use to find fresh water!

In this chapter King refers to altercations with “natives” in which he and his men used muskets to scare them off. I need to read more regarding King’s experiences with “the natives”, but perhaps if he hadn’t been so fearful he may have found some water.

Ludwig Leichhardt (1813-1848)

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 by Ludwig Leichhardt (1813-1848).

Leichhardt’s Ch 15 covers his arrival at Port Essington. I’ve only dipped into it, but it seems to confirm our tour guide’s comment that Leichhardt was known to speak well of indigenous Australians (and was not popular for it). Leichhardt was also keen to document local plants, which is also evident (though all the explorers did this to some degree I think.)

Anyhow, here is a description of a meeting with “natives” on 2 December 1845, 15 days before he reached Port Essington:

The natives were remarkably kind and attentive, and offered us the rind of the rose-coloured Eugenia apple, the cabbage of the Seaforthia palm, a fruit which I did not know, and the nut-like swelling of the rhizoma of either a grass or a sedge. The last had a sweet taste, was very mealy and nourishing, and the best article of the food of the natives we had yet tasted.

I’d love to share more of these journals – and of how they relate to the experiences we’ve had and the knowledge we’ve gained, but time is short. Who knows, I may explore them in a little more depth in the future.

26 thoughts on “Monday Musings on Australian literature: Three Top End explorers

  1. I envy you the gin and the trip. Great idea digging up those journals. I’ve had Ernestine Hill’s Mathew Finders novel in my TBR for ever, must get to it.

    • Thanks Bill. You can buy the gin I think at some liquor outlets, though it’s more expensive than your more standard varieties. The trip though is another thing!

      I haven’t read My love must wait either, though many of my friends did at school. Don’t know why I didn’t.

  2. It sounds as if you are having a great trip. My journeys also tend to be educational too. IMO it is a great way to travel. I also think that it is very a neat thing to do to tie your reading to traveling. I consider myself an adventurous eater. As for the green ant thing…I think that it would only happen if someone that I was with challenged me by also doing it 🙂

    • I agree Brian re travel. I have to be learning something when I travel.

      What happened with the green ants was that we were on a walk and came across them. The guide offered us to try assume noone offered, so I did. Several followed suit after that. Not quite a dare but I couldn’t let her down! If it had been bigger and squidgier I don’t think I could have done it.

  3. Brava, bravissima! Especially for that Leichhardt insight! I am just now midway through Marcia Langton’s comprehensively excellent Welcome to Country having two days ago completed my reading of Bruce Pascoe’s just released New Edition of Dark Emu (updated, etc). And your time in the NT reminding me of the visit my wife and I made just three years ago. Recently in touch with a kinship connectiion in Casuarina whose father-in-law was a Stolen Generations man of Gurindji background. Everything informs the way our lives and country and reading is connected. Blessings upon you WG!

    • Thanks Jim. I saw Marcia Langton’s book in the Darwin bookshop yesterday but didn’t buy it as I figure I’ll be able to get it here. I hadn’t heard about it.

      Do you know what changes Pascoe has made to Dark Emu? We will be seeing Bangara Dance theatre’s show based on that book later this week. I am so looking forward to it.

  4. Ah ha, I discovered during Rare Book Week why those titles are so very, very long.
    It’s because in the days of ordering books by catalogue, when you couldn’t get to the bookshop to browse, the long title was basically a blurb that enabled the potential buyer to decide whether to buy the book or not. *And* it was also a technique for an author to attract the attention of a publisher. Matty Flinders wouldn’t have roused much interest with ‘A Voyage to Terra Australis’ but I bet their eyes perked up when they read the word ‘shipwreck’!

    • Haha, I guess that would have attracted them, Lisa. Thanks for that insight. It makes sense. They also say things like – with map, appendix, etc etc. Obviously, now I understand, all for the same reason.

      • Good point, Lisa. Sounds almost like a nineteenth-century Goodreads! But I still wonder that readers at that time might not have found the simple “A Voyage to Terra Australis” sufficiently compelling on it’s own. Maybe they were just as fussy about taglines and as hungry for recommendations as they are now (“Gawd, Terra Australis; that’s so last century, man…Napoleon’s on the way back, don’t you know?”) 🙂

  5. Lovely use of explorers’ journals, Sue. I read a lot of them in my two years as a postgrad in English in the early 70s, including Leichhardt’s. It would have been great to read them in country.

    • Thanks Jonathan. What were you focusing on in postgrad English that you read those?

      I liked what I read of Leichhardt and will read more. I could only read a little because most of the time we were in country we had no internet access, but we were still in Darwin when, and the experience very fresh when I looked at it. He has a more flowing writing style than the other two I looked at here, I think.

      • I read a lot of them, including the wildly ‘poetic’ Ernest Giles (Australia Twice Traversed, or The Romance of Exploration), George Grey, Sturt. I settled on Edward John Eyre because of his journal’s connection with Patrick White and Francis Webb. I love Webb’s sequence ‘Eyre All Alone’, and White said that his inspiration for Voss came when reading eyre’s journals during the London Blitz. I had no idea what I was doing and my thesis came to nothing, but it was rich reading

      • Weirdly, all I remember of the Leichhardt that I read is a passage where he says that in the morning members of the expedition would talk about their dreams, and while others talks about a range of things, his own dreams always ended with him arriving at the camp where he was actually sleeping.

  6. Hi Sue (and everyone),

    Bill Peach’s TV series “The Explorers” was a staple of my younger days, and gave me a childhood fascination with the Explorer’s Backpack (probably not actually historically accurate) and, even more significantly, the Explorer’s Journal. Though I have to say, I’ve only read and snippets of the journals of the people you mention here, courtesy of both Peach and Tim Flannery. We had a computer game at my primary school that was steeped in the same wilderness-with-handwritten-travelogue tradition.

    You mentioned Leichhardt and plants. He wasn’t a botanist per se, but he collected plant specimens obsessively. As I understand it, when four of his bullocks were drowned while attempting to cross the Roper River, he had to burn a significant proportion of the plants he had preserved. You mentioned also his literary style; I presume his manuscript was written in English? Quite an achievement for a native-born Prussian, even with his classical education.

    I also have to mention Randolph Stow’s “Midnite” here, which I had as an audio-book as a child. When Midnite and his gang decide to give up bushranging (bushrangers were another obsession of mine), they go off to the Never-Never Desert (“where all explorers and poets go to die.”) There they encounter “a rather miserable German called Johann Ludwig Ulrich von Leichhardt zu Voss. But in Australia, he’d called himself Mr Smith, and he was in possession of two bad-tempered camels called Sturm and Drung.”

    It’s only with adult hindsight that one can recognise what a brilliant pastiche this is, encompassing the tropes and prejudices of colonial Australia, mid-twentieth century Australian literary culture, and German Romanticism, all within a children’s book…

    • Oh Glen I hadn’t read Midnite but now you have inspired me. That’s a hoot.

      Yes, re Leichhardt’s journal being in English. I wondered too when I went looking for it, and was relieved. I knew he wasn’t a botanist but have only just realised through this trip how keen he was to understand and document the plants. I love that.

      I don’t remember Peach’s Explorers series – I may have been at that stage in my life when I wasn’t keeping up with TV. It would be interesting to see how it stands up now.

      • Peach’s series was aired maybe twice during the ‘eighties, when it was made, and then once again in the early ‘nineties. We had a VCR by then (albeit a pretty ragged one) so I taped most of the episodes (all since lost, of course.) There is one episode on YouTube – the one dealing with both Stuart and Burke & Wills. I think you’d have to say that the series successfully evokes elements of the “exploration story” but also leaves out a lot. Some of that would be the product of time constraints (ten half-hour episodes) as well as lingering colonial/European bias, although Peach does still incorporate indigenous elements and tensions. Flannery’s collection of journal extracts (also entitled “The Explorers”) is a good latter-day corrective to these omissions, as is his introduction to the same. But even with these limitations, the style of narration and presentation in the program is far more succinct and weighty than the sing-song, kindergarten-teacher style employed by most TV documentary presenters now. I’ve noticed this contrast in regards to various other documentaries dating from thirty years ago or more.

        Flannery’s book is available in Text Classics. And it includes an extract from Emily Creaghe…

        • Thanks for all this Glen. I’ll check out You Tube, and Flannery’s book. I was living in the USA from 83-85 and 90-93. I suspect this is why I missed Peach??

    • Oh good for you Jess. That would be great to see. I hadn’t heard of Creaghe at all. Project Gutenberg don’t have any journals written by women. I love hearing about 19th women pioneers. We know of course about all those botanists but explorers? Not much.

  7. Hi Sue, great to know you are having a wonderful and engaging trip. I think you would have enjoyed Back Roads the other night on the ABC. They travelled to the Tiwi Islands..

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