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Monday musings on Australian literature: Forgotten writers 2, Eliza Hamilton Dunlop

June 28, 2021

When I started my Monday Musings sub-series on forgotten Australian writers a couple of months ago, I had a few writers in mind, including the first one I did, Helen Simpson. However, a couple of weeks ago, The Conversation published the latest in their Hidden Women of History series, and the subject was an Irish-Australian poet, Eliza Hamilton Dunlop. I figured that, being a poet, she also qualifies for my Forgotten Writers series. I hadn’t heard of her, but she has become well-known in academic circles, because of … well I’ll let The Conversation explain.

Anna Johnston, co-editor with Elizabeth Webbey, of the recently published collection of essays Eliza Hamilton Dunlop: Writing from the colonial frontier, launches her The Conversation article with

Eliza Hamilton Dunlop’s poem The Aboriginal Mother was published in The Australian on December 13, 1838, five days before seven men were hanged for their part in the Myall Creek massacre.

Dunlop, Johnston continues, had arrived in Sydney in February and was “horrified by the violence” she read about in the papers. Her poem was inspired by the evidence given in court about an Indigenous woman and baby who survived the massacre. In it, she condemns “settlers who professed Christianity but murdered and conspired to cover up their crime”.

The poem made Dunlop “locally notorious”, but “she didn’t shrink from the criticism she received in Australia’s colonial press”. She hoped

the poem would awake the sympathies of the English nation for a people who were “rendered desperate and revengeful by continued acts of outrage”.

So, who was this outspoken, confident woman?

She was born in Ireland in 1796. Her father was a lawyer, but her mother died soon after her birth. Soon after, her father moved to India, to be a Supreme Court judge, so she was raised by her paternal grandmother. Johnston writes that she grew up in a “privileged Protestant family with an excellent library”, and “grew up reading writers from the French Revolution and social reformers such as Mary Wollstonecraft”. She started writing at a young age, and had poems published in local magazines in her teens.

These poems reflected her interest in the Irish language and in political campaigns to extend suffrage and education to Catholics. After travelling to India in 1820, she wrote poems about the impact of British colonialism. Then, in 1823 she married book binder and seller David Dunlop, in Scotland. His family history inspired poems about the bloody suppression of Protestant radicals in the 1798 Rebellion.

According to ADB, she had previously married an Irish astronomer in Ireland and had two children, one born in Coleraine, Northern Ireland, in 1816. They don’t mention what happened to this husband, but they concur with Johnston about her marrying Dunlop in 1823. Johnston says that Eliza and David had five children in Coleraine, and that they were engaged there “in political activity seeking to unseat absentee English landlords”. Clearly, Dunlop was politically engaged from an early age.

The family left Ireland in 1837, arriving in Australia, as mentioned above, in February 1938. Husband David worked first as a magistrate in Penrith, before, in 1839, becoming police magistrate and protector of Aborigines at Wollombi and Macdonald River, where he remained until 1847. ADB’s Gunson says that “as a minor poet Mrs Dunlop contributed to the literary life of the Hunter River circle” and that “her acquaintance with the European literary world gave her a place of prestige, and though neither as talented nor radical as, for example, Charles Harpur, her contribution was original”.

Songs of an exile

She may not have been, as “talented” or “radical” as others, but Sydney University Press deems her a worthy subject. Their promo for the above-mentioned book says that, after the publication of “The Aboriginal mother”,

She published more poetry in colonial newspapers during her lifetime, but for the century following her death her work was largely neglected. In recent years, however, critical interest in Dunlop has increased, in Australia and internationally and in a range of fields, including literary studies; settler, postcolonial and imperial studies; and Indigenous studies.

One of those interested is Katie Hansord, who has an essay in the book and who has written about her on the Tinteán online magazine website. Hansord’s article is titled – surprise, surprise – “a forgotten colonial woman poet”. Hansord says that in addition to being a poet she was “a playwright, a writer of short stories, and a passionate advocate of human rights with a keen interest in politics”. She writes that

Dunlop’s poetry reflects her concerns with both gender and nationalism. It should be remembered that in its original publication, ‘The Aboriginal Mother’ was the fourth poem in the series ‘Songs of an Exile’ which Dunlop published in The Australian from October 1838.

The poem is easily found on the web, and has been included in many anthologies, but it is also in Hansord’s article, linked above. The poem was, as were many of Dunlop’s poems, set to music by Isaac Nathan, and performed in concerts at the time.

However, the point I wish to end on concerns the reception of “The Aboriginal mother” because it was, of course, controversial. Leading the negative charge was, apparently, The Sydney Morning Herald, which essentially believed that Dunlop had “given an entirely false idea of the native character”(29 November 1941), that, in effect, the Indigenous people were not capable of such deep feelings.

Hansord says more about this in her article:

Elizabeth Webby has also pointed out that the Sydney Morning Herald ‘which had strongly opposed the execution of the men involved in Myall Creek was for many years very hostile to her [Dunlop] and her work’ (Blush 45). This hostility seems also to have reflected a growing white masculinist nationalist agenda.

Hansord briefly discusses the construction of “Australianness” during the nineteenth century, a construction that privileged white Australian-born men. For immigrant Irishwoman Dunlop – who was also actively engaged in capturing Indigenous language and translating Indigenous songs – this was clearly not good enough, and she engaged. (You can find an example of an Indigenous poem captured in the original language and translated by Dunlop, in The Band of Hope Journal and Australian Home Companion (5 June 1958)).

Dunlop died in Wollombi in 1880, and is buried in the local Church of England cemetery. There is clearly much more to this woman, but let this be a little introduction to another interesting, independent colonial Australian woman!

6 Comments leave one →
  1. June 28, 2021 23:20

    Great find WG! I’m not full bottle on Irish history but I think it is easy now to forget that Ireland was until recently an English colony and that a judge for instance would probably see himself as distinct from the ‘Irish’. It sounds though as if his daughter took the Irish side. It would be very interesting to know more.
    My first thought was that she may have crossed over, geographically, with Barbara Baynton, also from the Hunter Valley but Baynton was further out and of course 40 years younger.
    My second was that Dunlop must have been relatively well known to get up the nose of the SMH.

    • June 29, 2021 08:18

      I thought you’d like this Bill. And I love your thoughts on her. Her poems and stories were published in The Australian, including in series, like Song of on Exile, so I think she was well known at the time. She responded to criticism… so was clearly confident.

      Trove picks up a few but I didn’t look under variations of her name like EHD which is how many were published. Her work with local First Nations people also sounds significant.

  2. June 29, 2021 08:13

    “her concerns with both gender and nationalism”, eh ? – this might be someone writing today !

    • June 29, 2021 08:22

      Yes, good point M-R. Plus ça change! Some might say she was ahead of her time but my thought is that these things just keep on being issues!?

  3. buriedinprint permalink
    July 1, 2021 08:56

    What an amazing find!

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