To the Desert with Sturt

Daniel George Brock, To the Desert with Sturt (edited by Kenneth Peake-Jones, Royal Geographical Society of Australia, SA Branch 1975)

1dwsAfter reading Noel Beddoe’s Yalda Crossing, I realised that Charles Sturt had been through the novel’s main location at about the time of the main characters’ arrival. I wouldn’t be surprised if Noel Beddoe had drawn on Sturt’s journal of that expedition for one or two scenes.

I wasn’t impelled to re-read Sturt’s Journal. I read both of his published narratives four decades ago, and from memory he’s a fairly dry writer. But I was reluctant to leave pre-gold-rush Australia, and I remembered that this book, the journal kept by Daniel George Brock, a minor member of a later expedition, and not published until 1975, was somewhere on my bookshelves. I’d bought it hot off the press, but been put off reading it by a review that described Brock as a self-righteous whinger. This time, I decided to give it a go.

Let me say right off that the review was right: Brock has plenty of self-righteous, self-pitying moments. He records petty slights and grievances, and constantly finds Sturt and the rest of the leadership lacking, all the while keeping to the high moral ground, insisting that he doesn’t join in the general grumbling. He’s a snob and s prig and when things get desperate he’s a bit of a holy Joe, writing pages of Methodist piety. But he’s much more than that – he’s resourceful, has a romantic steak, and can spin a comic yarn. The book is fabulous. Where Sturt wrote for public consumption, Brock wrote for his mother: on his return to Adelaide, he bundled up the pages of his journal and posted them off home to England. And what you write to impress your mum and gain her sympathy is of course very different from what you write to convey your importance to the public, potential employers and posterity.

The most interesting thing about the journal, apart from the revelation that intrepid explorers can be as mean-spirited, disorganised, cliqueish and grasping as anyone else, is its string of encounters with Aboriginal people. There’s a sequence early on that unfolds like a scripted narrative: the party hear that ‘natives’ have attacked a travelling party somewhere to their north, and as a result they are in fear of being attacked themselves, but as they come closer to the place where the attack is said to have happened they learn that the factual basis for the rumour was a brutal, infanticidal attack on an Aboriginal family by members of Mitchell’s party of explorers. Brock isn’t writing with a possible courtroom and judge in mind, so he can describe this horror unguardedly.

No doubt he glosses over unsavoury aspects of his own encounters, but they do come across as genuine encounters. He notices, for example, when one man in a group of three has different scarring and deduces he is from a different place; one old man is excited to see Sturt and manages to communicate that they have met years earlier and many miles distant, on the banks of the Murrumbidgee. On more than one occasion sexual favours are offered and rejected. I can’t tell if Brock’s sense of European superiority was modified by any of these encounters, but he has a lively interest in cultural difference. Since I’m fairly sure you won’t be reading this book (whoever you are), I hope you’ll allow me a long quote. Brock and ‘the Doctor’ (John Harris Brown) are away from the main party and unexpectedly come across ‘numerous bodies of waterfowl’ on a waterhole. The Doctor shoots into the middle of the birds:

The report not only frightened the ducks, but also two native women, which were encamped in a bend of the creek, unaware of our approach. One of the women began to scream and bellow, the other crawled under a skin dragging a child with her. Being afraid to run, they made a virtue of necessity.

The Doctor was of course rather surprised at the scream, but having made himself familar (sic), and sitting down at their fire, the women became less afraid, and began to talk. No one can tell the pleasure I felt in again looking upon a strange human face, it being so long since any but our own party having come under my notice. …

We encamped, and Flood having shot a bird, I speedily secured it, saving the fat for the natives, with which they grease themselves. As the day was closing in, two men with more women and children joined us, and we all together were quite at home. The ducks, and other birds which we had, we gave them; this with the roots they had brought would be a first rate meal for them.

Sitting down as we were all together, the various parts of our dress came under notice. Among other parts, our boots were very wonderful, the mysterious lace – one chap was turning over my foot when I drew up my trowsers and shewed him my leg, and the effect of my thus exposing the color of my unexposed limb, which was tolerably fair, upon one of the females was really laughable – every lineament of her face was marked with horror.

Shewing them how the lace was unfastened, the fellow who was dandling my foot as if it was a little baby, at once began and drew the lace from every hole. I then made signs to him how it could be pulled off, which with my assistance he did; then came another poser – the sock – did it belong to my veritable body? On pulling it off, my foot being almost white, this  set the woman (who had been eagerly watching every transition, from boot to sock, from sock to foot) to a most fearful scratching of her head, and at the same time crying a lament over me, for it is possible the color which takes place in any of their dead, is not dissimilar to the color which was now presented. The man too for a moment in deep wonder, and as he looked he too scratched his poll, and gave two very decent grunts, he then began to pull the sock on again, but could not manage it.

It getting dark, and being no doubt anxious to get their evening meal, for they were pointing to their birds and at the same time patting their bellies, they were presented with a blanket and knife of which they were highly pleased; not but what they had first rate skins, some of the best I have ever seen, so large and so well prepared.

We retired from their fire, and soon were coded in our blankets, where we had not been long before four of the ladies came and sat themselves down at the Doctor’s and Captain’s feet. Their visit was obvious, and on being sent away they were sorely displeased.

One small unexpected pleasure was the word ‘mumchancing’ meaning ‘remaining silent’, which is new to me. This time, Brock is out collecting bird specimens with one of the men, Sullivan:

The heat was very great, not a bird was to be seen, and Sullivan and I were glad to coil under a gum tree in the creek for shelter; while thus, Lewis, being out looking for seeds, came to water, but he took up his rest under another tree, for Sullivan and him having words before we left the camp, it was a case of sulks with them, Lewis had nothing but a little bread with him, and a bit of sugar, gathering mint when he wanted a pot of tea (which by the way we did alternate meals). We having some bacon, on his passing us to get a pot of water I had just frizzled some and asked him if he would share; he took part in his hand and passed up to his own fire. I could not help smiling to see him, seated on his haunches, regularly mumchancing it, he at one fire, we at another. I endeavored to reconcile them, but it was a case of no go.

I like that use of ‘coil’ too, which he uses a lot, and note in passing that his spelling follows what would now be seen as North American usage.

4 responses to “To the Desert with Sturt

  1. What intriguing windows these extracts are into this early contact period – and your compassionate description of the whole of Brock’s diary (for his mother)! As addition to Noel BEDDOE’s book! Thank-you!

    Like

    • Thanks, Jim. The more I think about this book, the more I realise what a gem it is. He was nicknamed the Methodist by the others on the party and abhorred their profanity and their smut, features of that world that otherwise aren’t all that often recorded – not that he recorded any detail.

      Like

  2. Jonathan: I am sure you have read Frank Webb’s version of Sturt’s journey… thank you for this review, takes me back to Webb with new eyes.
    Also I presume you have heard about our David Malouf Symposium next week. Hope you can make it:
    http://www.acu.edu.au/about_acu/our_university/newsroom/news/media_releases/repository/the_david_malouf_symposium

    Like

    • Hi Michael: Yes, in fact as Brock was describing the incredible heat I kept thinking of Webb’s, ‘It follows, follows, this hot nor’ easter.’ I have heard about the symposium and reluctantly will be elsewhere. I hope it goes brilliantly – well, really I know it will.

      Like

What do you think?

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

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com 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 )

Google+ photo

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

Connecting to %s