by Whispering Gums
An article on the Irish-born Australian poet, Eliza Hamilton Dunlop. Politically engaged in social justice issues, she was active in mid-nineteenth century literary circles, particularly in the Hunter region of New South Wales.
In 2021, The Conversation published the latest in their Hidden Women of History series, and the subject was an Irish-Australian poet, Eliza Hamilton Dunlop. The article was written by Anna Johnston, who co-edited with Elizabeth Webbey, a collection of essays Eliza Hamilton Dunlop: Writing from the colonial frontier, which was published in 2021. Johnston begins her article in The Conversation with
Dunlop, Johnston continues, had arrived in Sydney in February and was “horrified by the violence” she read about in the papers. Her poem was inspired by the evidence given in court about an Indigenous woman and baby who survived the massacre. In it, she condemns “settlers who professed Christianity but murdered and conspired to cover up their crime”.
The poem made Dunlop “locally notorious”, but “she didn’t shrink from the criticism she received in Australia’s colonial press”. She hoped
the poem would awake the sympathies of the English nation for a people who were “rendered desperate and revengeful by continued acts of outrage”.
Who was this outspoken, confident woman?
Dunlop appeared in our blog earlier this year in a post by Elizabeth Lhuede, so this post aims to flesh her particular story out a little more. It also makes an interesting response to last week’s post on Ada Cambridge, who came to Australia some three decades after Dunlop, and who had mixed responses to the Aboriginal people.
Eliza Hamilton Dunlop was born in Ireland in 1796. Her father was a lawyer, but her mother died soon after her birth. Not long after this, her father moved to India, to be a Supreme Court judge, so she was raised by her paternal grandmother in Ireland. Johnston writes that she grew up in a “privileged Protestant family with an excellent library”, and “grew up reading writers from the French Revolution and social reformers such as Mary Wollstonecraft”. She started writing at a young age, and had poems published in local magazines in her teens.
These poems reflected her interest in the Irish language and in political campaigns to extend suffrage and education to Catholics. After travelling to India in 1820, she wrote poems about the impact of British colonialism. Then, in 1823 she married book binder and seller David Dunlop, in Scotland. His family history inspired poems about the bloody suppression of Protestant radicals in the 1798 Rebellion.
According to Gunson, who wrote about her in The Australian Dictionary of Biography back in 1966, she had previously married an Irish astronomer in Ireland and had two children, one born in Coleraine, Northern Ireland, in 1816. Gunson doesn’t mention what happened to this husband, but he and Johnston concur about her marrying Dunlop in 1823. Johnston says that Eliza and David had five children in Coleraine, and that they were engaged there “in political activity seeking to unseat absentee English landlords”. Clearly, Dunlop was politically engaged from an early age.
The family left Ireland in 1837, arriving in Australia, as mentioned above, in February 1838, only a few days after Governor Sir George Gipps had arrived, a man whose high principles and strong sense of justice matched their own values. Husband David worked first as a magistrate in Penrith before, in 1839, becoming police magistrate and protector of Aborigines at Wollombi and Macdonald River, where he remained until 1847.
Gunson says that “as a minor poet Mrs Dunlop contributed to the literary life of the Hunter River circle” and that “her acquaintance with the European literary world gave her a place of prestige, and though neither as talented nor radical as, for example, Charles Harpur, her contribution was original”.
Songs of an exile
She may not have been, as “talented” or “radical” as others, but Sydney University Press deems her a worthy subject. Their promo for the above-mentioned book says that, after the publication of “The Aboriginal mother”,
She published more poetry in colonial newspapers during her lifetime, but for the century following her death her work was largely neglected. In recent years, however, critical interest in Dunlop has increased, in Australia and internationally and in a range of fields, including literary studies; settler, postcolonial and imperial studies; and Indigenous studies.
One of those interested is Katie Hansord, who has an essay in the book and has also written about her in Tinteán online magazine. Hansord’s article is titled, not surprisingly, “a forgotten colonial woman poet”. Hansord says that in addition to being a poet Dunlop was “a playwright, a writer of short stories, and a passionate advocate of human rights with a keen interest in politics”. She writes that
Dunlop’s poetry reflects her concerns with both gender and nationalism. It should be remembered that in its original publication, ‘The Aboriginal Mother’ was the fourth poem in the series ‘Songs of an Exile’ which Dunlop published in The Australian from October 1838.
The poem is easily found on the web, and has been included in many anthologies, but it is also in Hansord’s article. The poem was, as were many of Dunlop’s poems, set to music by Isaac Nathan, and performed in concerts at the time. Johnston and Webby have identified about 60 poems of hers published in colonial newspapers between 1838 and 1873. They note that literary scholars have been reassessing early- to mid-nineteenth-century English poetry, and have identified
the increased number of women writing poetry and their publication in new media forms such as annuals and the popular press; a fresh appreciation of sentimental literary modes as vehicles for expressing political ideas; and the place of poetry in exploring ideas about Britain’s nineteenth-century colonies.
Dunlop seems to be part of this development, and Johnson and Webby note
her commitment to writing and reading as ways to engage with both social issues and personal experiences, these elements mark a distinctive literary presence. In her Australian writing, Dunlop imagined a new settler society that valued knowledge about Indigenous cultures and thoughtful responses to the environment …
They argue that she was writing at a time when “intensely local issues places and people” were “linked to global literary concerns”.
This brings me to the point I wish to end on. It concerns the reception of “The Aboriginal mother” because it was, of course, controversial. Leading the negative charge was, apparently, The Sydney Herald*, which essentially believed that Dunlop had “given an entirely false idea of the native character” (29 November 1941), that, in effect, the Indigenous people were not capable of such deep feelings.
Hansord says more about this in her article:
Elizabeth Webby has also pointed out that the Sydney Morning Herald ‘which had strongly opposed the execution of the men involved in Myall Creek was for many years very hostile to her [Dunlop] and her work’ (Blush 45). This hostility seems also to have reflected a growing white masculinist nationalist agenda.
Hansord briefly discusses the construction of “Australianness” during the nineteenth century, a construction that privileged white Australian-born men. For immigrant Irishwoman Dunlop – who was also actively engaged in capturing Indigenous language and translating Indigenous songs – this was clearly not good enough. (You can find an example of an Indigenous poem captured in the original language and translated by Dunlop, in The Band of Hope Journal and Australian Home Companion (5 June 1958)).
Dunlop died in Wollombi in 1880, and is buried in the local Church of England cemetery. There is clearly much more to this woman, then I’ve shared here, but let this be a little introduction to another interesting, independent colonial Australian woman!
‘The Aboriginal Mother’, The Sydney Herald, 29 November 1841, p. 2.
Niel Gunson, ‘Dunlop, Eliza Hamilton (1796–1880)‘, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, 1966, accessed online 27 August 2022.
Katie Hansford, ‘A forgotten colonial woman poet‘, Tinteán, 6 November 2015.
Anna Johnston, ‘Hidden women of history: Eliza Hamilton Dunlop, the Irish Australian poet who shone a light on colonial violence‘, The Conversation, 17 June 2021.
Anna Johnston and Elizabeth Webby, ‘”Proud of contributing its quota to the original literature of the colony”: An introduction to Eliza Hamilton Dunlop and her writing’, Eliza Hamilton Dunlop: Writing from the Colonial Frontier (Sydney Studies in Australian Literature), Sydney University Press, 2021.
Samuel Clyde McCulloch, ‘Gipps, Sir George (1791–1847)‘, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, 1966, accessed online 29 August 2022.
* According to Wikipedia, The Sydney Herald was founded in 1831, and was renamed The Sydney Morning Herald in 1842, the year after this article was published.
Whispering Gums, aka Sue T, majored in English Literature, before completing her Graduate Diploma in Librarianship, but she spent the majority of her career as an audio-visual archivist. Taking early retirement, she engaged actively in Wikipedia, writing and editing articles about Australian women writers, before turning to litblogging in 2009. Australian women writers have been her main reading interest since the 1980s.