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.

Monday musings on Australian literature: Explorer’s journals (1, Edward John Eyre)

I have delved before into Australian explorer’s journals when researching posts, but I must admit that I’ve never read one right through. However, I don’t think that prevents my sharing some of the things they have to offer …

Project Gutenberg Australia (PGA), which I’ve described before, is a rich resource of a wide variety of copyright-free works, including, not surprisingly, Australiana. And a special subset of this Australiana area is its Journals of Australian Land and Sea Explorers and Discoverers collection. This is, they say, “one of the most comprehensive collections [in e-book form] in the world of the journals of Australian explorers”. The earliest journal is from Abel Tasman in 1642, and the latest seems to be from David Carnegie who “led one of the last great expeditions in the exploration of Australia” at the end of the nineteenth century.

Most of you know that Australia was first settled (invaded, as indigenous people with valid reason call it) in 1788, but sightings and brief landings had been occurring for well over a century before that. PGA writes:

In March 1606 Willem Janszoon, on board the Duyfken, charted about 300 km of the west coast of Cape York Peninsula in Queensland. He is the first authenticated discoverer of Australia.

White discoverer, that is, as indigenous Australians had found it long before that. But, here’s the thing, all this European exploration really only touched the coast, so when the first settlers landed they knew nothing about the interior – and they wanted, needed, to find out what was here. Was it arable, was there water, and could we build tracks, telegraph lines etc through it? Did they also want to know, with any seriousness, “who” beyond the idea that there were “natives” who might help or hinder what they wanted to achieve?

I will probably write a few posts (not sequentially or chronologically) on these journals over time, but in this post I want to share some of explorer Edward John Eyre’s (1815-1901) comments on indigenous Australians. (For an overview of his expeditions, you can check out his entry in the Australian dictionary of biography.)

The invasion of those ancient rights …

Edward John Eyre, c. 1870

Edward John Eyre, c. 1870, by Henry Hering, (The Caribbean Photo Archive) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

I was inspired to write this post when I was looking at Eyre’s journal for last week’s Lake Eyre post, and noticed references to “natives” in the chapter summaries, such as “Plundered by the natives” for Chapter 8. The journal was published in 2 volumes in 1845, with the second volume comprising “an account of the manners and customs of the Aborigines and the state of their relations with Europeans”. This was partly based on his experience, from 1841 to 1844, as a resident magistrate and protector of Aborigines, at Moorundie, on the Murray River.

He summarises his views regarding indigenous people in the preface which he addresses to Lieut.-Colonel George Gawler “under whose auspices, as Governor of South Australia, the expeditions… were undertaken”:

For the account given of the Aborigines the author deems it unnecessary to offer any apology; a long experience among them, and an intimate knowledge of their character, habits, and position with regard to Europeans, have induced in him a deep interest on behalf of a people, who are fast fading away before the progress of a civilization, which ought only to have added to their improvement and prosperity. Gladly would the author wish to see attention awakened on their behalf, and an effort at least made to stay the torrent which is overwhelming them.

It is most lamentable to think that the progress and prosperity of one race should conduce to the downfall and decay of another (my emph); it is still more so to observe the apathy and indifference with which this result is contemplated by mankind in general, and which either leads to no investigation being made as to the cause of this desolating influence, or if it is, terminates, to use the language of the Count Strzelecki, “in the inquiry, like an inquest of the one race upon the corpse of the other, ending for the most part with the verdict of ‘died by the visitation of God.'”

He supports his views and experience, he says, with “the testimony of others … those who are, or who have been resident in the Colonies, and who might therefore be supposed from a practical acquaintance with the subject, to be most competent to arrive at just conclusions”. He believes that “the interests of two classes”, that is, the “Settlers”, and the “Aborigines”, need to be provided for, and argues that

it is thought that these interests cannot with advantage be separated, and it is hoped that it may be found practicable to blend them together.

That sounds not only humane but pretty enlightened to me. He proposes “blending” interests which seems a long way from later ideas of “assimilation”, though I don’t know exactly what he means by “blending”.

Concluding his own experience, he writes, that:

During the whole of the three years I was Resident at Moorundie, not a single case of serious injury or aggression ever took place on the part of the natives against the Europeans; and a district, once considered the wildest and most dangerous, was, when I left it in November 1844, looked upon as one of the most peaceable and orderly in the province.

Then we get to Volume 2 where he writes that the “character of the Australian native has been so constantly misrepresented and traduced, that by the world at large he is looked upon as the lowest and most degraded of the human species”. He supports his opposing view to this with Lord Stanley’s statement that the “fault [re different experiences] lies with the colonists rather than with the natives”. A little later he quotes a Mr. Threlkeld, who, in a speech to the Auxiliary Aborigines’ Protection Society in New South Wales, stated that “the whites were generally the aggressors”.

He continues in this vein throughout, picking up arguments that are negative to indigenous people and beating them down. Here is another quote he includes to support his view, this one from Gawler, himself, responding to a man “who objected to sections of land being appropriated for the natives, before the public were allowed to select”:

The invasion of those ancient rights (of the natives) by survey and land appropriations of any kind, is justifiable only on the ground, that we should at the same time reserve for the natives an AMPLE SUFFICIENCY for THEIR PRESENT and future use and comfort, under the new style of things into which they are thrown; a state in which we hope they will be led to live in greater comfort, on a small space, than they enjoyed before it occurred, on their extensive original possessions.

Not perfect, and paternalistic, but some recognition at least of entitlement! These quotes – or testimonies of others – are included as “notes” and all are cited as to who said them and where.

This is getting long, but I do want to share his thoughtful comment on the application of law:

In addition to the many other inconsistencies in our conduct towards the Aborigines, not the least extraordinary is that of placing them, on the plea of protection, under the influence of our laws, and of making them British subjects. Strange anomaly, which by the former makes amenable to penalties they are ignorant of, for crimes which they do not consider as such, or which they may even have been driven to commit by our own injustice …

These are all from Volume 2, Chapter 1. In the succeeding chapters, he documents the “appearance, habits, mode of life, means of subsistance [sic], social relations, government, ceremonies, superstitions, numbers, languages, etc” of indigenous Australians, noting the impact of Europeans on them. Records like these must surely be useful to indigenous people looking for lost histories not to mention proof of attachment to land.

As for Eyre, after leaving Australia, he had various roles in the colonies, including governor-in-chief of Jamaica where things went rather pear-shaped when he declared martial law in response to a rebellion. He was criticised, back in England, for his harshness back in England, with a Royal Commission, writes ADB historian Geoffrey Dutton, finding “that Eyre had acted with commendable promptitude but unnecessary rigour”. Dutton suggests mitigating circumstances but concludes that “the poignant contrast remains between the … humane protector of the Aboriginals in Australia, and ‘the monster of Jamaica’.”

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.