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.