by Elizabeth Lhuede
While compiling the pages for our archive, I’ve come across several poems and stories by early Australian women writers which mention or portray Indigenous Australians. I began to wonder to what degree these writers had been exposed to Indigenous culture, language and customs, and how might such proximity affect their attitudes towards and portrayal of Indigenous people.
One early writer who presents a sympathetic, if tragic, view of the Indigenous experience of white settlement is poet and lyricist, Eliza Dunlop (1796-1880). In her lyric, “The Aboriginal Mother” (1838), Dunlop portrays the devastating impact of the violence done to an Indigenous group. She adopts the voice of an Aboriginal woman who sings an anguished lullaby to a child after the death of her tribe. Having witnessed the unimaginable trauma of seeing her people “struck down by English steel”, the survivor experiences an even worse horror: “I saw my first-born treasure lie headless at my feet”. Further terrible events are related, including the woman snatching a baby from an invader’s sword.
Indigenous vocabulary appears in the poem: koopin (from the context, probably “spear”), as well as the now familiar “boomerang”. Use of such vocabulary creates a sense that the poet might have had first-hand knowledge of Indigenous people. Accompanying the title of the song, however, appear the following lines:
“Only one female and her child got away from us”.
Evidence before the Supreme Court
This creates in the reader the impression that the song is a sight imagined, an outraged meditation prompted by reading an account of the Myall Creek massacre (ref), rather than written from first-hand knowledge.
In a second song, “An Aboriginal Father“, Dunlop makes more extensive use of Indigenous language. The text purports to be a translation of a traditional song from the “Moonaroo” tribe, lamenting the ravages of European invasion. Appearing above a score by composer Isaac Nathan, the Indigenous words are handwritten and difficult to read, but I’ve done my best to transcribe them here:
Koon-gi Koon-gi Kawel-gho yue-re Koon-gi Kawel-gho yue-ree Kooma-gi Ko Ko Kawel-gho Kooma-gi Ka-ba Kooma-gi Ko Ko Kooma-gi Ko Ko Kabel-gho Kooma-gi Ka-ba Kooma-gi yue-ree
Dunlop’s translation reads:
The shadow on thy brow my Child,
like a mist o’er the clear Lagoon
Steals on with presage dim and wild
of the death clouds* direful gloom
Steals on with presage dim and wild
of the death clouds direful gloom.
Our Tribes droop by each native stream
When the founts which have fed them lie
And white man’s fire sends forth its gleam
o’er the Batwan where they die
And white man’s fire sends forth its gleam
o’er the Batwan where they die.
And thou my boy! the last – the first.
Green leaf of a smouldering tree
A stranger’s eye will crush the burst
of a Warrior’s lament o’er thee
A stranger’s eye will crush the burst
Of a Warrior’s lament o’er thee.
Notes, which preface the song, translate “loobra” as “girl” and “gin” as “a wife”; other notes interspersed in the text include the following fascinating translations:
*Death clouds, “The unseen Power”, has many names and forms, and is a spirit of evil only; living in the “Wheeguen-Eura”, Fire clouds. Pronounce the (g) hard in “Wheeguen”; Batwan-mian – the water of the Creek.
Such detail suggests the source for Dunlop’s lyric might indeed be an actual Indigenous song, but what of Dunlop’s authority to translate it, and the accuracy of her translation? The song seems so steeped in English poetic language, it is tempting to construe it more as a sympathetic outsider’s view, akin to the “noble savage” tradition of European romanticisation, rather than a faithful rendering of an Indigenous text. However, Dunlop did in fact write from first-hand knowledge.
Eliza and her second husband, David Dunlop, migrated from Northern Ireland to Australia in 1838, where he took up a post of “Protector of Aborigines” at Wollombi, near Cessnock in NSW, and became the district’s first magistrate. There the poet developed a keen interest in Aboriginal language and created a collection of vocabulary known as a “Murrigiwalda” or “sacred language“. How much more poignant do these songs become, knowing this history? Instead of Dunlop’s use of formal English creating distance, it rather conveys the depth of Indigenous people’s suffering, and the poet’s reverence, sorrow and respect for their experience.
More than a decade later, a young Louisa Atkinson wrote her story, Gertrude: an emigrant (1857), a passage from which was recently extracted on this blog. Atkinson was born in 1834 on a property called “Oldbury” in Sutton Forest”, near Berrima in NSW; she lived briefly lived in the Shoalhaven district on the NSW south coast, and subsequently spent most of her life further north in Kurrajong Heights. In Gertrude, a description of a tribal gathering near the Shoalhaven River is related to the main character, Gertrude, by her companion, Mr Tudor:
“The Blacks had selected a well grassed level about a mile from the River, thinly scattered over with high and heavy timber. When we arrived only a few women were visible, squatting in a group on the ground, near a small fire of light wood; they had lying on their knees a ‘possum skin cloak, folded into a small compass, with the fur turned in.”
The wealth of specific detail in this passage suggests to me the scene, while not perhaps witnessed first hand, was at least observed by the teller and faithfully recorded by an attentive listener. Atkinson notes the tribes’ adoption of European “bad habits”, such as the use of alcohol, tobacco and – strangely – swearing; and the overall sense created is of an ending: the Indigenous tribe is described as doomed, “people fast sinking into a heathen grave, and soon to be no more the dwellers in the land”. This elegiac tone imparts to our nation’s first people a tragic dignity, suggesting something valuable and noble is being lost before it is fully known; but there is little sense of Indigenous resilience or resistance.
One nineteenth-century poet whose work does mention Indigenous resistance is Amy Susanna Staniforth (c.1790-1868). What drove the poet to write a history of Australia in verse, a long, rambling – some might say, ambitious – poem, would be interesting to discover. Published in 1863 in a collection with the same simple title as her poem, Australia, the poem mentions in passing the character and fate of Indigenous tribes, but with the worst kind of stereotyping, describing “hordes of blacks” – “By nature cannibals – a savage brood” – who threaten white explorers. Staniforth depicts one Aboriginal woman as a grotesque baby-eating monster:
Upon this station lives “Barratta’s Queen,”
Who, a few years since, was by many seen
picking a human bone – but not a white –
We are “too salt” to suit black’s appetite.
This “Queeny” is a favourite of mine,
Though owning little of the “face divine;”
She suckles each black babe whose mother dies,
And though now old, thus keeps up fresh supplies. (17)
Yet, as the poem continues, the poet reveals a surprising sympathy for Indigenous tribes, characterising their violence against white settlers as understandable acts of resistance:
The huts are built, the flocks and herds increase,
But ’tis not always they are held in peace:
For as the white man penetrates the wood,
The blacks are driven further for their food.
Is it then strange they should resist the foe?
Or give up all without a single blow?
Alas! the blows were many – murder flew
From bush to hut – the victims scarcely knew
A moment’s peace by day, or sleep by night,
So raged the warfare between black and white. (18)
Her sympathy only extends so far: the vector of “from bush to hut” suggests Staniforth considers the only “murder” here is that done by the tribes, rather than the violence perpetrated by the white settlers. The resistance, she suggests, is ultimately futile. Without any trace of irony, the above stanza concludes:
But now (with few exceptions) natives know
By war they cause their own tribes’ overthrow
Living in peace, they feel their int’rests blend,
And know the white man is their strongest friend.
With obvious sleight of language Staniforth’s verse establishes the victims of invasion as agents of their own demise. However, the reference to those “few exceptions” tells the reader that Indigenous resistance is far from over; at the time the poem was written, evidently the poet was aware of ongoing acts of rebellion. The tension between the poet’s overt racism, on the one hand, and her sympathy for the plight of Indigenous tribes, on the other, raises a question. What exactly was Staniforth’s authority to comment on Indigenous people and their struggles?
The poet’s biography in the AustLit database is scant, so I went digging to find out more about her. Born in England as Amy Susanna Lowley, she married an eminent Sheffield surgeon, William Staniforth, a man many years her senior, and was widowed in 1834. In the early 1850s, she and her adult daughters arrived in Australia where, in August 1853, they advertised for pupils at “Ariel Cottage, Redfern”, NSW, Staniforth having taken over from a former partner, Madame Robertson. Staniforth relocated the school to Glebe, a suburb of Sydney, where she fell on hard times: her household effects were seized and sold, and she applied for insolvency. From Sydney, she moved to Yass, where she ran a boarding school for “ladies“, perhaps until her daughter Georgina’s marriage in 1858 to Henry Ricketson, a pastoralist, who owned a station at Barratta, near Deniliquin, on the Edward River. A note on the poem “God is Good” – But what is Man? shows the poet residing (or at least writing) at “Lambing Flat”, now Young, as late as November 1860; but some time in 1860, she had at least visited Barratta, writing on the birth of her grandson. In 1861, when she wrote the foreword to her collection, she was either staying or living at the station permanently, and it is there that she died in 1868:
Amy Susanna Staniforth, aged 72 years, died at Baratta Station, Edward River, the residence of her son-in-law Henry Ricketson… Her remains are expected at Deniliquin… (“Death of Mrs Staniforth“, The Age 16 Jul 1868)
The poem’s reference to “on this station”, and “Barratta’s Queen”, therefore, would presumably suggest first-hand experience. When we read back over the description of Queenie’s reputed cannibalism, however, what stands out as key is the passive construction of the phrase, “was by many seen”, in combination with the timing, “a few years since”. Staniforth’s portrait has all the hallmarks of gossip: a tall story embellished with each telling; a yarn to scare a newcomer to the district, rather than an eye-witness account. A similar derivative expression appears in a note attached to her poem, “The Settler’s Grave“, which states: “It is well known that black gins are compelled by their coolies (husbands) to destroy their half-caste offspring” (emphasis added; p47). If Staniforth’s portrayal of Queenie was inspired by a tall tale, it doesn’t excuse her racism, but it might help to explain the poet’s dehumanisation of one Indigenous woman when she shows sympathy for the displaced tribes generally.
Another writer from far-western NSW was Marie Braithwaite, born in the 1860s, the decade Staniforth died. In at least one of her short stories, Braithwaite presents a very different picture of Indigenous people. Braithwaite’s name, like Staniforth’s, was new to me and, as there is no biographical information on the AustLit database, again I went digging.
Marie Braithwaite, born Maria Black, arrived with her parents in Australia at the age of four in the mid-1860s, the family settling in the Lillimur district of Western Victoria; she lived there till her marriage in 1890, after which she and her husband Edward moved to Broken Hill, NSW. While he worked as a blacksmith, she raised four children and, in the late 1890s, started publishing short stories under the pseudonym, “Jack Rugby”. Over the ensuing decade, Braithwaite published thirty stories, including a serialised novella. In 1925, her husband Edward died, and Marie subsequently suffered ill health until her own death in 1927. While I’ve found no diaries, letters or photos relating to Braithwaite, it’s evident from her writing that she had intimate knowledge of Indigenous people, most likely coming into contact with them as a child growing up in Western Victoria. Such knowledge features prominently in her romantic short story, “Betty Pops the Question” (1906).
The story introduces “Betty”, an old Aboriginal woman, working alongside Bathsheeba Macgregor, a young white woman, on laundry day: together they are “blueing the whites” and rubbing the linen. From Bathsheeba’s point of view, Betty is not only a “wise old gin”, she is “her” invaluable and reliable household help:
It was mostly Betty she [Bathsheeba] had, as Betty was not so given to wandering as the rest of the tribe, she and Jimmy often being content to stay in their wirlie and live on ‘possum, and snake, and fish, when the rest of the tribe went on their raids. Jimmy, too, was faithful and honest. Bathsheeba could always depend on Jimmy for wild fowl and fish when he was camping near. And Betty’s industrious fingers plaited most of the mats that covered Bathsheeba’s rooms. Dear, delightful old rooms, spotless and clean, in the low-thatched farmhouse on the hill, high and dry from ebb and flow of river floods. There was always a faint odour of crushed river rushes from the mats on the floor – oblong, and round, and square – whatever design took Betty’s fancy at the time. (7)
(What a remarkable image the latter is: Betty’s hand-crafted mats in Bathsheeba’s hut bringing in the scent of the river!)
Yet as the story progresses, Bathsheeba’s view and the author’s are shown to be at variance: Betty is portrayed as very much her own woman, while Bathsheba is revealed to be greatly indebted to Betty’s generosity, and that of her husband Jimmy. While Bathsheeba has a proprietorial sense of Betty, as well as the land and animals around them, this ownership is by no means conceded by Betty. Rather, both she and Jimmy are shown as belonging to the land, skilled in survival and generous to the white settler, whom, it soon becomes clear, is perceived as probably only a visitor.
What makes this story particularly fascinating is Braithwaite’s use of a shared hybrid language the women use to communicate. This form of “pidgin” commences almost as soon as the story begins:
“Now be careful, Betty; that’s my white muslin jacket; you must not tear the lace. Yes; those go in, too – all the fine white things first.”
“What for you think’m big one stupid. All same, ’nother one black gin. Betty plenty big one wash long white lubra. No mixum dirty close longa white ones. What for too much tell Betty all same stupid?” And the old gin emitted a long, low gurgling laugh, in which Bathsheeba Macregor joined merrily, much to the satisfaction of Betty, who was a wise old gin, and loved all things to run smoothly. Bathsheeba was tall and finely formed, and with a stately carriage that would have dignified a princess. The face was neither beautiful nor lovely, but it was good, with an angelic sweetness of expression that mirrored the soul within.
“No use’m board, Betty?” she queried with the soft little cooing laugh that always thrilled Betty to the heart.
“No want ’em,” said Betty, shaking her head as she drank in the light of the dear eyes above her. “What for you thinkum me got hands – all same rub, rub, rub, rub?” suiting the action to the word, and rubbing with might and main. (7)
A different writer might have continued Bathsheeba’s initial perfect English, contrasting this with the Indigenous character’s “pidgin”, thus creating and reinforcing a sense of a power imbalance. Instead, the shared language creates an equality between the two women; it avoids infantilising the non-native-English-speaker or, worse, depicting Betty as “uncivilised”. It also adds to a vivid sense that this author is writing from lived experience: the reader might justly infer that Braithwaite herself was a fluent speaker of this hybrid language, and conversed in it with Indigenous women she knew intimately, thereby gaining knowledge of their characters, customs, talents and habits.
While today’s reader may well baulk at Bathsheeba’s exploitation of Betty’s labour in exchange for the pittance of tea, cake and tobacco, the narrative, with its careful use of irony at Bathsheeba’s expense, makes the exchange far more nuanced. Braithwaite achieves this mostly by having Betty see things about Bathsheeba that the girl herself is barely, if at all, conscious of. While Bathsheeba labours over the laundry, she reflects on the loss of a suitor, Jack Morgan, in whom she has been disappointed. As she thinks about him, Betty is thinking about her.
To Bathsheeba it was like Eden – if only there was no sin.
She caught herself up with a sharp sigh, and turned to the silent native woman, who was watching her with wondering, bleary eyes –
“You think this nice place, Betty?”
“Oh, berry nice – berry good – plenty tucker. Catch’m ‘possum, choot’m duck, catch’m fish, kill’m snake. Berry good place, this one long Jimmy and Betty.
In Betty’s world, she and Jimmy belong to the land, but she is unconvinced Bathsheeba will stay, and says so:
“Bumby, come, dhrackly, you go way?” queried Betty, at the same time grunting thanks for the fresh helping [of tea and cake].
[My note: from the context, “bumby” is “by and by” and “dhrackly”, “directly”.]
When Bathsheeba queries why Betty thinks she is planning to leave the district, Betty responds:
“You think Betty big one stupid, all same ‘nother black gin. What for? Bumby sun go down, moon come. Then white fellow come. Then gall [girl] come.”
Bathsheeba’s blushes show Betty is on target; she has articulated what Bathsheeba herself has been asking herself, ever since her falling out with Jack. Why does she stay?
A different gentleman, Allan Frankfort, arrives, ostensibly to help Bathsheeba with the laundry, and again Betty sees more than Bathsheeba gives her credit for. Betty notices the girl growing annoyed at the interloper, and she becomes convinced that this isn’t the man her “mistress” has been pining for. As she watches the two interact, the narrative continues in her point of view, in an approximation of inner monologue:
There was nother fellow she bin see long night time – that must be the one – this fellow better go long.
The hybrid language conveys a sense of Betty’s interiority, even if, in reality, her inner monologue would more likely have been in her native tongue. Nevertheless, for an author to create a sense of an Indigenous character’s deep point of view in this way, and at this time, seems to me remarkable.
Betty’s perspicacity certainly comes as a surprise to Bathsheeba. Having noticed Bathsheeba’s annoyance, Betty asks if her companion is angry with her:
“You no crass long ool Betty?”
“Dear, oh, dear no. What makes you think me cross long Betty? Very good one Betty – plenty wash and scrub, and sweep ‘long Miss Sheeba. No cross Betty.” Assured Bathsheeba in her sweetest tones.
“Onny crass long that nother fellow carry’m bucket? Uch?” The last word is simply a quick sudden indrawing of the breath, used as an anxious interrogation.
Before answering this question Bathsheeba began to consider. Had she been cross? She certainly had been annoyed – and she did not like Allan Frankfort with his free and easy style, and his over-readiness to take advantage. Still, she did not know that she had seemed undignified enough to show it even to this untutored black woman.
More than anything, Braithwaite’s description of the word “uch”, how to produce it and its meaning, gives this passage an air of being a faithful account of lived experience. The author is happy to have Bathsheeba underestimate her Indigenous companion, not only regarding Betty as “untutored”, but also “greedy” and self-willed. The joke is on the young white woman: whereas Betty can read her mood even before she’s aware of it herself, she continues to misread Betty’s motivations and actions; she assumes Betty’s announcement of her intention to stop work is a symptom of tiredness, whereas the narrative reveals the “old gin” is quite capable, after a day’s hard laundry labour, of walking five miles cross country in order to effect a reunion between the estranged lovers. Braithwaite’s admiration for Betty, and her sense of the woman’s connection to the land, is unmistakeable:
The geography of the place here was so well known to her, that she could have traversed it blindfolded. After walking a quarter of a mile she struck the track again – an uneven one, winding in and out among the trees.
What happens to Bathsheeba and her estranged suitor as a result of Betty’s intervention, I’ll leave you to discover, as this short story will be published in full here on Friday. The transcription of the hybrid language doesn’t make it particularly easy to read in parts, but it’s worth the effort. In this story Braithwaite demonstrates more than mere sympathy for Indigenous people, however laudable in other early writers that may be: her intimate knowledge allows her narrative to convey admiration and empathy, the deepest form of respect.
As I continue to trawl through the archives, I hope to discover many other examples of Indigenous representations in early Australian women’s writing, good, bad and indifferent. If you come across any that I could add to or highlight on our archive list, please let me know.
Amy Susannah Staniforth, Australia and Other Poems (Wilson and Mackinnon, 1863) – image of Staniforth taken from this edition.
Lead image: “Dance at the Conclusion of the Cavarra Ceremonies (1845), from Hodginson, C. Australia, from Port Macquarie to Moreton Bay; with descriptions of the natives, their manners and customs. (London, T and W Boone, 1845)
Elizabeth Lhuede completed her PhD on “Modernism and Postmodernism in Twentieth-Century Australian Poetry” in the mid-nineties at Macquarie University, where she later taught English and Creative Writing. More recently, she instigated the Australian Women’s Writers Challenge and, under the pen-name Lizzy Chandler, has had two e-novellas published with Harper Collin’s Escape imprint (romance and romantic suspense), one of which has been anthologised in print.