The colonial past keeps changing

Brian Elliott and Adrian Mitchell, Bards in the Wilderness: Australian colonial poetry to 1920 (Nelson 1970)

1bwTo judge by pencil notes in the margins, I read Bards in the Wilderness 40 or so years ago, but – such are the joys of age-related cognitive decline – I didn’t remember any of it when I picked it up again recently, looking for information on how white settlers in New South Wales thought about Aboriginal Australians in the first half of the 19th century. The book’s title didn’t bode well – you can only refer to Australia as a ‘wilderness’ if you ignore millennia of prior occupancy: those ‘bards’ were actually living in what Bill Gammage describes as The Biggest Estate on Earth.

Elliott and Mitchell’s introduction explains that poems were selected for what they demonstrate about the colonies’ preoccupations – ‘political, social and moral’, ‘for what they contributed to the foundation of the Australian literary tradition’.

On the evidence of this selection, the settlers didn’t think about Aboriginal people much at all. Up to 1850, which is as far as I read, there are exactly four references:

  • Charles Tompson’s 1826 ‘Black Town’ is an elegy for a failed attempt by Governor Macquarie, ‘the chosen Delegate of Heav’n’, to educate ‘Poor restless wand’rers of the wooded plain’ in the joys of tenant farming – the failure, it is strongly implied, being the result of the Natives’ fecklessness (rather than because, as Heather Goodall puts it in Invasion to Embassy, to take part in the scheme ‘would mean that they would lose control over their children and be denied access to other areas of their country’). Aboriginal people themselves are notably absent from the scenes portrayed in the poem.
  • John Dunmore Lang’s ‘Colonial Nomenclature’ rattles off a list of ‘native names’ as preferable to ‘Downing Street appellatives’, though again none of the people who gave the settlers words like Parramatta, Illawarra and Woolloomooloo are acknowledged.
  • Charles Harpur’s ‘The Creek of the Four Graves’ does feature frontier violence and there are Aboriginal actors in its drama, but the poem tells of an unprovoked lethal attack by ‘stript and painted Savages’, who turn out to be terrible at bushcraft as well as mindlessly violent.
  • ‘Tullamarine’, by Richard Howitt, comes the closest to acknowledging a common humanity with Aboriginal people: the speaker is an Aboriginal woman who utters a distinctly Victorian lament for a child who has died – of natural causes, nothing to do with any dispossession.

So what some people these days consider the most interesting thing – politically, socially and morally – about the early colonial period is passed over in virtual silence, sometimes silence of a pretty aggressive kind, as in the common trope that this new land has no history, these plants and animals have never been celebrated in song.

Perhaps one has to look elsewhere than to poets to find the traces I was after: the notebooks of William Dawes (which hadn’t come to the attention of scholars when this collection was published), the journals of early settlers as explored by Inga Clendinnen (in Dancing with Strangers) and others, the journals of explorers like Eyre and Sturt, who had a lot to report. Forget the poets.

But hold on, maybe it’s not so much that the early colonial poets ignored Aboriginal people so much that these editors de-selected poems that didn’t ignore them. The book’s scholarly paraphernalia suggests this might be so. According to the note on ‘Tullamarine’, Charles Harpur wrote unsuccessful ‘poems on elegiac Aboriginal subjects’ (not included here because, presumably, the editors didn’t consider that they contributed to ‘the foundation of the Australian literary tradition’). And William Charles Wentworth’s long poem, ‘Australasia‘, of which no excerpt is included, is quoted in the Introduction as referring to ‘the mournful genius of the plain’, which, the editors gloss, may or may not signify ‘aborigines’ [sic]. ‘Australasia’, it turns out, includes a passage of 64 lines addressed to Aboriginal people. They may not be great poetry, they may include sentiments that make a modern reader of whatever heritage cringe, but they’re there, acknowledging the pre-colonial inhabitants, beginning:

Ye primal tribes, lords of this old domain,
Swift‐footed hunters of the pathless plain,
Unshackled wanderers, enthusiasts free,
Pure native sons of savage liberty,
Who hold all things in common, earth, sea, air

I can only surmise that in 1970 non-Indigenous literary scholars felt that the kind of verse written about contact between Europeans and Indigenous Australians was best left undisturbed in its place of first publication.

A quick look at John Kinsella’s 2009 Penguin Anthology of Australian Poetry suggests that times have changed: even though this anthology doesn’t have a particular emphasis on colonial times, it includes three poems by Eliza Hamilton Dunlop that indicate a level of awareness not even hinted at in the Elliott and Mitchell anthology.. ‘The Aboriginal Mother’ is similar in tone and form to Howitt’s ‘Tullamarine’ but the mother is lamenting the loss of her man and her firstborn in, according to the site I’ve linked to here, the Myall Creek Massacre of 1838. Her other two poems are ‘The Aboriginal Father’, a transliteration of an Aboriginal song, and the translation of a poem by an Aboriginal man named Wullati.

I wonder if any scholars have taken on a 20-teens version of the Elliott and Mitchell anthology that reflects early colonial poets’ contributions to what we now see as ‘the Australian literary tradition’.

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