Encounters with Traditional Owners



Encounters with Traditional Owners

What encounters? What owners? 

Judith Wright, in Aboriginals in Australian Poetry[1]notes that the major feature of 19th century Australian poetry, insofar as its attitude to aboriginal inhabitants is concerned, is the absence of almost any engagement with the traditional owners.

She says:

The list of Australian poets, from Gordon onwards, who simply do not mention aboriginals at all, is overwhelming in comparison to those who do.[2]

In Queensland, however, the position is slightly different. Until 1964, essentially all the Queensland poets who published books of verse were white, and, like most poets, they were for the most part concerned about themselves and perhaps their immediate surroundings rather than broader social conditions.

However, quite a number of the early poets who were concerned with social issues dealt with aboriginal themes, though not in a way which we could endorse now.

In general, those poets who did deal with aboriginal subject matter fall into 3 main groups:

  • those who wrote up to around 1905 dealt with aborigines as a threat, to be conquered, or occasionally as the subject of comedy;
  • those who wrote between 1905 and 1935 more or less ignored the aboriginal community even when the subject matter required otherwise; and
  • those who wrote between 1935 and 1959 saw aborigines as essentially a vanished race.

The reasons for this are relatively simple. In the period up to 1905, aboriginal population was in decline, either through the effects of an undeclared war on aboriginal population or through the impact of western diseases. In the period to 1935, most poets were unlikely to have had meaningful contact with aboriginal people at all. From 1935 onwards, a slow process of understanding, if not reconciliation, began.

For that reason, it is easier to find references to aboriginal themes in Queensland poetry in the first 50 years after separation than in the second.

First contacts –  undeclared war

In the years immediately after separation from New South Wales, the official policy of the Queensland Colonial Government towards the aboriginal population was at best one of neglect and at worst one of outright hostility.

Aborigines were not included in any form in the early state censuses. The Queensland Registrar General wrote in 1871 that:

Their wandering habits, their apparent incapacity for civilization, and the state of vagabondage into which they seem to fall whenever brought permanently into contact with the whites, would render any enumeration of them difficult…..for electoral purposes, one of the most important objects of the Census, they are altogether out of the question. [3]

However, by the 1880s the aboriginal community was already viewed as a dying race. According to the Queensland Registrar General, at the time of the 1881 census:

Perhaps but little practical benefit would result from ascertaining in any year the number of those unfortunates, who seem destined to die out before advancing settlement’. [4]

Official estimates of the aboriginal population were made to ascertain ‘in what proportions they are melting away before the onward march of civilisation’[5].  By that time, the estimated aboriginal population was 70,000, as opposed to a white population of approximately 250,000. By 1886, only 5 years later, the aboriginal population was estimated to have reduced to 32,000[6].

Both of these figures are unreliable, and it is too late to learn the actual numbers now. But it is pretty plain that one way or another white people were giving the aboriginal population decline a helping hand. According to LR Smith:

The Queensland Government had established a para military force with the sole aim of exterminating the natives in frontier regions’[7]

Dehumanising the enemy

Now, in order to have the proper public psyche for a battle, it is first necessary to dehumanize the enemy. The easiest and simplest way of doing this is to make the enemy into the aggressor. So it is not surprising, then, that much of the early literature of this period portrays the aborigine as the initiator of conflict.  

Aborigines as comic aliens – William Wilkes

The first Queensland poet in this tradition is William Wilkes (also spelt Wilks), who was editor of the Moreton Bay Courier (now the Courier Mail) from around 1848 to 1856. His poem ‘The Raid of the Aborigines’ addresses in a comic fashion, the ‘battle of the One-Tree Hill’, which took place near Helidon, in the Lockyer Valley, in 1842.  According to a contemporary source, this involved a local aboriginal group robbing the camp of some white settlers who were travelling to the Darling Downs, of ‘flour, sugar sheep shears… watches, clothing, and, in fact, whatever suited them best’[8]. Some locals pursued them up a hill, where the natives defended themselves by rolling stones.

A group of twenty white settlers followed ‘the blacks’ on foot, and after 3 weeks some kind of truce was reached and ‘so, in that direction, the war between the races ended’[9]

Wilkes’ mock epic poem describing the battle was not published until 1875, two years after his death. Though the battle itself appeared to involve no fatalities, Wilkes begins by noting the aborigines as killing shepherds (but not their sheep) with impunity:

‘For though, as you know, when a shepherd we kill
The Jackeroos all smoke their pipes and sit still,
Yet they’ll turn out like madmen and boldly give battle
If they think we’ve been spearing their sheep or their cattle!’

To mark them as alien, he notes that the aborigines are ‘snake eating’ people, who pause on Helidon Hill for a feed of ‘savoury ‘possum’, ‘sweet flying fox’ and ‘delicate grub’. He pauses at length to describe the native tribe’s warpaint and armoury, but the ‘raid of the aborigines’ itself, only occupies 4 lines:

‘The grass he hath fired, their sheep he hath ta’en,

Their drays he hath plundered, their oxen hath slain.’

Almost the whole of the remaining 6 pages of the poem are given over to white retaliation, though as this is a comic poem, no-one ultimately gets hurt. What is clear is that there is simply no question that the Europeans have a right to be on the land. To the extent that aborigines prove a threat, they must be removed.

White violence as retaliation: Cornelius Moynihan

This theme carries through in a number of other poems of the period. Cornelius Moynihan, in The Feast of the Bunya, (1901), deals with the triennial gathering of southern Queensland aboriginal tribes at Mount Mowbullan to feast on bunya nuts.

The poem, which extends for the best part of some 900 lines in ballad metre, is not without its sympathies for aboriginal people, whose population in Queensland had, by the time of publication of the poem, dwindled to 15000.

However, Moynihan sees fit to deal over 3 pages with the aboriginal murder of the Fraser family in 1857, and the reprisals that followed. The acts are, it is clear, retaliation for aboriginal aggression:

And vengeance swiftly follows
The fiends in scores are slain
And heaps of skulls and thigh-bones
Lie bleaching on the plain.  [10]

There is no sense that occupation of the land might itself have been seen to be an act of aggression. 

Sweet revenge: FC Urquhart

The most notorious example in Queensland literature of the Aborigine as aggressor, is Told by the Campfire by FC Urquhart (1891)[11]. Urquhart was a policeman. As a young man he joined the Queensland Native Mounted Police Force, and according to Ross Johnston, he

was summoned to Cloncurry in 1884 to lead a detachment of armed settlers and police against the Kalkatunga (Kalkadoon) Aborigines; in a campaign that culminated in pitched combat at Battle Mountain the Kalkatungu were slaughtered and their armed resistance ended.[12]

Eventually Urquhart rose to the rank of Commissioner, and then in 1921, to that of Administrator of the Northern Territory. He spent a good deal of time in the north and west, and Told by the Campfire, shows his attitude to aboriginal contact.

It begins with a scene round a campfire at night. The narrator tells the story of how his wife ‘Sal’, were living in a lonely place in the outback ‘in the early eighties’. His wife gives birth to a baby with the aid of a nurse. The next day, the narrator sets off to round up his cattle, where he ‘found that the blacks had been there, and had broken up the mob’.

When he gets back to his ‘humpy’, he finds his wife’s body ‘all cut and hacked to pieces’. The nurse is decapitated, and the baby is ‘half roasted in the fireplace at the side’.

Native troopers arrive, and together with their white boss and the narrator they proceed to ambush the blacks’ camp where ‘the mercy them devils gave to Sal were the mercy we showed then.’ Reprisal is sweet:

‘I have heard a lot of playin’
On piannys and organs too;
But the music of them there rifles
Were the sweetest I ever knew.’

So, we get a graphic, even gory 12 line description of the initial aggression, and a generic, bloodless two line evocation of the reprisals. 

Throughout all of these poems there is simply no suggestion that the European settlers have in any sense deprived the aboriginal inhabitants of anything like property or that the settlers were in any sense invading someone else’s land. I don’t think there is any sense of conspiracy among the authors: the idea just didn’t register with them at all.

Instead the aborigines were, to these colonial poets, a natural phenomenon to be overcome in the same way that the forests, the weather and the snakes were to be overcome. So it is again and again in these early poems. To George Essex Evans, the ‘Nation Builders’ are a ‘handful of heroes’ who face:

‘Thirst, and fever, and famine, drought, and rain, and flood,
And the bones that bleach on the sandhill, and the spears that redden with blood’.[13]

For Arthur Bayldon, ‘Our Pioneers’ were 'ever vigilant for raids/of wild blacks from ambuscades’.[14] Etcetera.

Ownership by conquest: John Mathew

The reward for conquest of these natural phenomena was ownership. The Reverend John Mathew grew up in Queensland and became the Australian Moderator of the Presbyterian Church. He had extensive contact with aboriginal groups and his later prose work again shows some sympathy for the plight of aboriginals.

But the white man is still the owner.  He dealt with the position of the squatter in his long narrative poem, Corroboree (1902):

‘We who had taken life in hand,
Explored and mapped the unknown land,
We who had cleared and led the way,
Stood ground and kept the blacks at bay;
Had deemed the plains our own by right,
To sell or will to whom we might.’[15]

Black gender identity

The last plank in the dehumanizing of aborigines was to make them, one way or another, sexually unattractive. So, Aborigines were seen as sexually taboo, and in many of the poems of the period, aboriginal males are portrayed as a voracious threat to white womanhood, while aboriginal women are the subject of what now seems like sick comedy.

Mary Hannay Foott, in Up North (1885), tells the true story of a Mrs Watson who was living on an island off the north coast of Queensland, with her husband and two children. Her husband set out to look for sea cucumbers, which were then a commercial commodity. She ‘was attacked by wild blacks from the mainland’, defended her home ‘with her revolver’ and perished when she tried to escape the island in a makeshift boat[16]:

Into Thy hands let me fall, O Lord-
Not into the hands of men-
And she thinned the ranks of the savage horde
Till they shrank to the mangrove fen.

In fleeing, she was saving her honour, as well as her life:

For the demons of murder and foul disgrace
On her hearthstone dared not light;
But the Angel of Womanhood held the place,
And its site is a holy site. [17]

To this early Queensland poet, aboriginal men are ‘demons’ who threaten ‘foul disgrace’. But to others, aboriginal women are simply disgusting and comical. Message to white men: keep your hands off.

In To a Black Gin (1873) James Brunton Stephens sets the scene:

Thou art not beautiful, I tell thee plainly,
Oh, thou ungainliest of things ungainly!
Who thinks thee less than hideous dotes insanely.

Stephens goes out of his way to portray his disgust at the prospect of mating with such a woman, a ‘partner in thy fetid ignominy, The raison d’etre of this picanniny’. He doubts that she can be human:

Eve’s daughter! With that skull! and that complexion!
What principle of “Natural Selection”
Gave thee with Eve the remotest connection?

And so on. It’s not as if he is a minority figure, expressing a minority view. By 1888, he was given ‘the highest reputation of any living poet in Australia’ on the basis that the ‘essential quality of his work is subtlety’[18]!

Woe betide any white man who finds a black woman attractive. Wilkes, in The Raid of the Aborigines describes an aboriginal woman who captures the heart of a white man:

Her eyes would have melted the heart of a stone,
And her nose was adorned by a kangaroo bone.

The white man runs off with her, thinking only of love, to find that:

Like thunder the horrid conviction did greet him
The cannibal jade only wanted to eat him 

A slow turning tide.

Of course, even in the 19th century, not everyone saw aborigines as a hostile or contemptible force. Even Urquhart recognizes that there are people who do not share his view. Told by the Campfire begins:

“Poor blacks!” you was saying, was you?
Well if you ain’t got no call
To speak on ‘em any different,
Don’t mention ‘em at all.

The idea that anyone thinks that ‘blacks’ might be ‘poor’ clearly concerns the author:

For it ‘allus riles me somehow,
To hear you chaps from South’
A-talking to us old bushmen,
With soft sawder in yer mouth.

The explanation is simple, though: the misunderstanding comes from people ‘from South’ who don’t know what the real problems are.

By 1905, there were, however, some signs that attitudes were beginning to change. Ernest Favenc explored remote Queensland for 14 years. His one book of poetry, Voices of the Desert (1905), reflects a deeper understanding of the land than many of his contemporaries.  His poem In the Great Drought -The Native Dead, though, focuses on aborigines dying, not at the hands of Europeans, but in the drought. For one of the few times before the second world war, however, there is a hint of guilt:

Our blood is red on your garments white
Our lands are fast in your hold;
E’en the barren rocks of the mountain height;
We must yield to your lust for gold.

The poem ends with an invocation of the Christian God, for once in sympathy with the aboriginal cause.

Go, call on your Christian God and spread
Your hands on the altar stairs
Pray – ‘give us this day our daily bread!’
Do we find place in your prayers?
Let the night wind mourn o’er the native dead,
For all that Australia cares.[20]

However, by 1905, this sympathy was basically too late. In 1897, the Aboriginal Protection Act became law.  As a result aboriginal reserves were created which effectively separated much of the remaining aboriginal population from the European community. That community was becoming increasingly urbanized in any event, and, given the decline in aboriginal population, most white Queensland poets were unlikely to make meaningful contact with any aboriginal Australian.

Perhaps this accounts for the virtual absence of any treatment of aboriginal issues in Queensland poetry (except as an historical fact) between 1905 and  1935. For example, a number of poems were written to commemorate the centenary of the establishment of Brisbane which either ignore prior aboriginal ownership or minimize it.

Emily Coungeau, in Commemoration, the Centenary Prize Poem, for the discovery of the Brisbane River (1924), notes that the escaped convicts Pamphlett, Finnegan and Parsons, landed at Moreton Island ‘mid kindly savages’. However, according to the poem, when Oxley sailed down the Brisbane River, ‘Over barbaric beauty silence hung’ [21].  To another poet of Brisbane’s centenary, JH Bardwell, ‘dusky figures lurked’ when Oxley sailed up the Brisbane River, but the aboriginal presence only accounts for 2 lines in a 40 line poem.[22] In Colin Bingham’s The Brisbane Centenary (1924), aborigines don’t feature at all [23]. Instead, the land is vacant until convicts arrive.

The land is depopulated of traditional owners, and owned by white people building a white land. In Rustling Leaves (1920) Coungeau expresses sympathy for the dead pioneers ‘with no loving hand/to pillow soft their dying head’, who died so that Queensland’s

………starry standard, ever white, unsoiled shall be
Urging her onwards toward her glorious destiny.[24]

1930s and onwards, sympathy for a vanishing race.

By the mid 1930’s, however, things were beginning to change. The element of hostile racism which is a feature of earlier verse begins to disappear.

E.R. Murray ends her 1946 anthology ‘Songs of the Road’ with one of the few sympathetic treatments of aboriginal people:

She was black and I was white-
The troop train started in the night-
But sorrow knows not class or creed-
Caste or colour – birth or breed-
Sorrow knows not pride of place 
Nor chill reserve’s unchanging face.[25]

The emphasis though is on the breaking down of a traditional barrier. A note of sympathy begins to creep in, but the race is still doomed. So, E.M. England, in begins her 1944 collection ‘Queensland Days’ with a piece called ‘Dark Girl Singing’:

Out in the orange twilight
We heard a dark girl sighing
An ancient song of an ancient
Race that is swiftly dying….  [26]

The first book by an aboriginal poet was not published until 1964, but even then the theme of vanishing continues both in white and in black attitudes. James Devaney says, in the introduction to Kath Walker’s We Are Going:

‘Kath Walker is not a full-blood, but though fully integrated into the white community, accepting and accepted, she puts her own race first and is a dedicated worker for them,’

But the theme of vanishing is notably prevalent in her title poem:

‘The scrubs are gone, the hunting and the laughter.
The eagle is gone, the emu and the kangaroo are gone from this place.
The bora ring is gone.
The corroboree is gone.
And we are going.’

The story of the next fifty years is for others to tell.

[1]Wright, J. Because I was invited, Melbourne Oxford University Press, 1975, pp 138-150

[2]Ibid, at p143.

[3]Quoted in Smith, L.R.,The Aboriginal Population of Australia, Canberra, ANU Press, 1980, at p 14.  

[4]Ibid, at p 15.


[6]Ibid p133.

[7]Ibid p15, citing Henry Reynolds.

[8]Campbell, J. The Early Settlement of Queensland, Brisbane, Bibliographical Society of Queensland, 1936, at p20. See http://nla.gov.au/nla.aus-f1804.

[9]Ibid, p21

[10]Moynihan,C,  The Feast of the Bunya, Facsimile Edition, Brisbane, Watson Ferguson, 1985, p57.

[11]Urquhart, F.C., CampCanzonettes, Brisbane, Gordon and Gotch, 1891, p 8.


[13]Evans, G Essex, The Secret Key and other verses, Sydney, Angus and Robertson, 1906, p15.

[14]Bayldon, A, The Eagles, Collected Poems, Melbourne, E.A.Vidler, 1921, p60. 

[15]Mathew, J. Australian Echoes, London, Melville and Mullen, 1902,  p 72. 

[16]Foott, M.H. Morna Lee and other poems, London, Gordon and Gotch, 1890, p10.

[17]Mrs Watson’s fate was a topic of contemporary and continuing interest. See for example, Douglas Sladen’s ‘Mrs Watson, a Queensland Heroine’ in Sladen, DBW, ed., Australian Ballads and Rhymes, London, Walter Scott, 1888 at p210. See also the poems The White Captive  and Song of the Black Captor in Mathew, op cit, at pp 17-19.

[18]Ibid, at pp 274-5.  Note also Brunton Stephens’ comic ballad on the extinction of the aborigines, ‘King Billy’s Skull’. 

[19]Campbell, op cit, at p 37 and 39.

[20]Favenc, E. Voices of the Desert, London, Elliott Stock, 1905, p23

[21]Coungeau,  E, Palm Fronds Brisbane, WR Smith and Paterson 1927, pp9-11.

[22]Bardwell, J.H., Silken Threads, and other Poems,  Brisbane, Watson, Ferguson and  Co, 1924, at p 13. 

[23]C. Bingham, Marcinelle and other verses, Brisbane, Carter-Watson, n.d., [1925].  Bingham came to realize his omission. Much later, in his autobiography, he wrote that ‘white Australians had failed in their duty to the real natives of the country’ (Bingham, The Beckoning Horizon (1983), p80).

[24]Coungeau, E. Rustling Leaves, Sydney, William Brooks and Co, 1920, p11.

[25]Murray, E.R, Songs of the Road and other verses, North Devon, Arthur H Stockwell, n.d.,p 64  

[26]England, E.M., Queensland Days, Sydney, Dymock’s Book Arcade, 1944, p7.