The Aborigine in Nineteenth-Century Australian Literature Essay - Critical Essays

The Aborigine in Nineteenth-Century Australian Literature


The Aborigine in Nineteenth-Century Australian Literature

Works by and about the Aborigine, a collective term for the groups of indigenous peoples in Australia, form a significant element in nineteenth-century Australian literature. The study of many such works, however, is still a relatively recent phenomenon, as contemporary scholars increasingly look to expand modern perceptions of history and literature to include those of native cultures, and to define the ways in which marginal voices have been suppressed or eliminated by mainstream intellectual discourse.

Regarding the history of the Aborigines in Australia, contemporary anthropologists believe that aboriginal peoples began to inhabit the continent some 40,000 years ago, or perhaps longer. Europeans first visited the region during the early modern period of world exploration and called their discovery Terra Australia, a continent thought necessary to balance the Eurasian landmass in the north. Dutch travelers discovered the continent in the seventeenth century, but the first significant contact between Aborigines and white Europeans occurred in 1770, when the English explorer Captain James Cook landed at Botany Bay on Australia's eastern coast. With little regard for the native population, Cook claimed the new land for England, opening the way for the 1788 construction of an English penal settlement at Port Jackson, in the region of what is now metropolitan Sydney. Sometimes contradicting Cook's documentation, Aboriginal legend features a number of mythic versions of early exchanges with white explorers and settlers and offers alternate viewpoints on the events that transpired. In any case, the pivotal year 1788, according to a westernized understanding of Aboriginal reckoning, marks the end of the so-called “Time of Dreaming,” a pre-historical period broken by the subsequent era of invasion and white colonization with its consequent dispossession of Australia's indigenous population. Concurrently, early European literature of the era regards the dark-skinned Aborigines through a relatively simplified lens of perception, which critic Ross Gibson (1984) has categorized as generally dichotomous: the natives being viewed either romantically, in the Enlightenment tradition of the “noble savage,” or disparagingly, as irredeemable barbarians.

With the coming of the nineteenth century and the development of an Australian literature written by European visitors and settlers, the Aborigine became a common feature of the mostly romantic or semi-autobiographical fiction of the period, and frequently appeared in personal reminiscences and verse as well. Charles Rowcroft's novel Tales of the Colonies (1843) is generally indicative of literary projections of Aborigines and was intended for popular consumption in England. It features the tropes of the Aborigine as a flawless tracker or a treacherous murderer, as well as the already well-worn motif of the lost white child who falls into the hands of bushrangers and blacks. W. A. Cawthorne presented a decidedly more tranquil and impartial portrayal of relations between whites and Aborigines in his The Kangaroo Islanders: A Story of Australia before Colonization (written in 1823; published in 1926). While violence does figure into the tale—its Captain Meredith is slain by Aborigines—Cawthorne's novel features sympathetic and well-rounded portrayals of Aborigine women and describes elements of Aboriginal mythology within its narrative framework. A portion of James Tucker's The Adventures of Ralph Rashleigh (written between 1844 and 1845; published in 1929) considers contact between convicts and Aborigines in the thematic contexts of freedom. The work itself is generally weighed toward narrative romance rather than naturalistic documentation, although critics have remarked on Tucker's more objective sensitivities to the world of the Aborigine. The black native also figures prominently in Charles de Boos's 1867 novel Fifty Years Ago. It follows settler George Maxwell's search for vengeance on a group of Aborigines who slaughtered his wife and family. Written with a view toward psychological detail, the work also presents a balanced portrayal of its central Aboriginal figure, tribal leader Macomo, and of the other natives who assist Maxwell in bringing the outlaws to justice. Aborigines appear in numerous other works of fiction by European-born or white Australian writers of the period, with most authors opting to portray them in a sensationalistic or reductive manner. Still, critics have observed that a movement toward increasing verisimilitude became steadily apparent as the nineteenth century passed into the twentieth. In verse, colonial representations of the native Australian have tended, even more than many of those in fiction, to mythologize or romanticize the Aborigine. G. W. Rusden's narrative poem Moyarra (1851) is ostensibly an account of primitive Aborigine life, but instead transfers European sensibilities of nobility and love to an exotic setting. Charles Harpur and Henry Kendall, the two outstanding Australian lyric poets of the mid-century period, sketched a more confrontational view of the Aborigine and the white, especially in their pastoral, landscape poetry. As critic Ivor Indyk (1993) has observed, these poets generally employ images of Aborigines as symbolic of the threat of nature or of the possibility of violent death in a savage world.

Aboriginal literature itself in the nineteenth century existed primarily in the form of oral tradition and contains tales, myths, and legends passed along verbally from generation to generation. Additionally, there exists evidence of works by Aborigines written as far back as 1796 in a range of genres, including essays, letters, poems, journalism, as well as traditional stories rendered on paper. The vast majority of these compositions, however, have not yet been extensively studied by linguists or literary scholars. In contrast, recent anthropological studies have begun to uncover some of the richness of traditional Aboriginal oral literature and have initiated the process of recording, classifying, and analyzing the native Australian oral tradition. Among varied topics, the Aboriginal view of myth and history has drawn the attention of several recent scholars, notably Chris Healy (1990), who has commented on the ways in which historical accounts of contact between Aboriginal populations and European settlers have generally been recorded and mediated via the perspective of the latter. Healy argues that expanding western historical sensibilities to include an Aboriginal point of view of the engagement between whites and blacks in Australia could well benefit a future understanding of Aboriginal history, culture, and literature.

Representative Works

Alfred Dudley of the Australian Settlers (novel) 1830

Rolf Boldrewood
Robbery under Arms (novel) 1882-83
Old Melbourne Memoirs (reminiscences) 1884

W. A. Cawthorne
*The Kangaroo Islanders: A Story of Australia before Colonization (novel) 1926

Kinahan Cornwallis
Yarra Yarra, or the Wandering Aborigine (poetry) 1856

Thomas Curr
Recollections of Squatting in Victoria (reminiscences) 1883

Charles de Boos
Fifty Years Ago [also published as Settler and Savage] (novel) 1867

Charles Harpur
The Bushrangers, A Play in Five Acts and Other Poems (drama and poetry) 1853

Richard Howitt
Five Years Experience in Australia Felix (history) 1846
The Australian Emigrant: A Rambling Story Containing as Much Fact as Fiction (novel) 1854

William Jackman
The Australian Captive (novel) 1853

W. H. Leigh
The Emigrant: A Tale of Australia (novel) 1847

Catherine Martin
The Silent Sea (novel) 1892

Thomas McCombie
Arabin; or, The Adventures of a Colonist in New South Wales (novel) 1845

George Gordon McCrae
Mämba (“The Bright-Eyed”): An Aboriginal Reminiscence (poetry) 1867
The Story of Balladeädro (poetry) 1867

Rosa Campbell Praed
Fugitive Anne (novel) 1902

Charles Rowcroft
Tales of the Colonies (novel) 1843

G. W. Rusden
Moyarra (poetry) 1851

James Brunton Stephens
The Black Gin and Other Poems (poetry) 1873

James Tucker
The Adventures of Ralph Rashleigh (novel) 1929

*This work was written in 1823.

†Written between 1844 and 1845.

Criticism: Overviews

Ross Gibson (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: Gibson, Ross. “Savages and Slaves: Images of Aborigines.” In The Diminishing Paradise: Changing Literary Perceptions of Australia, pp. 140-94. London: Sirius Books, 1984.

[In the following excerpt, Gibson documents European perceptions of Aborigines during the period 1770 to 1850, noting the prevailing double image of the Aborigine as either a degenerate barbarian or a noble savage.]

Why, a literature might be made out of the aboriginal all by himself … In his history, as preserved by the white man's official records, he is everything—everything that a human creature can be. He covers the entire ground. He is a coward—there are a...

(The entire section is 11379 words.)

Bain Attwood (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: Attwood, Bain. Introduction to Power, Knowledge and Aborigines, edited by Bain Attwood and John Arnold, pp. i-xvi. Bundoora, Victoria: La Trobe University Press, 1992.

[In the following excerpt, Attwood considers the theoretical issues surrounding white European interpretation of the Aborigine.]

This [essay] is concerned with European Australians and our ways of knowing ‘the Aborigines’. In particular it considers both Aboriginalism1 as a mode of discourse which, like Edward Said's ‘Orientalism’,2 produces authoritative and essentialist ‘truths’ about indigenes, and which is characterised by a mutually supporting relationship...

(The entire section is 8143 words.)

Criticism: Representations Of The Aborigine In Australian Literature

J. J. Healy (essay date 1972)

SOURCE: Healy, J. J. “The Treatment of the Aborigine in Early Australian Fiction, 1840-70.” Australian Literary Studies 5, no. 3 (May 1972): 233-53.

[In the following essay, Healy surveys mid-nineteenth-century portrayals of Aborigines in Australian fiction, suggesting that the most impressive of these can be found in Charles de Boos's 1867 novel Fifty Years Ago.]

In his Impressions of Australia Felix … Richard Howitt attacked the credibility of ‘Whited Sepulchre Emigration Books’. He expanded his comment:

Truth is unaccommodating—a stately walker on highways—not permitting any of that wandering in by-paths. …...

(The entire section is 9912 words.)

J. J. Healy (essay date 1978)

SOURCE: Healy, J. J. “The Literature of Contact: Tucker.” In Literature and the Aborigine in Australia 1770-1975, pp. 26-48. St. Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 1978.

[In the following excerpt, Healy presents a brief overview of nineteenth-century literary works that represent white Australian contact with Aborigines, and goes on to assess this process in regard to James Tucker's novel Ralph Rashleigh.]

Literature is concerned with the problems of meaning and reality. There are sub-forms of literature whose major purpose is entertainment and where the energies of the writer move toward the distortion of meaning and the subversion of reality. Australia had a...

(The entire section is 8314 words.)

Susan Sheridan (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: Sheridan, Susan. “‘Wives and Mothers Like Ourselves, Poor Remnants of a Dying Race’: Aborigines in Colonial Women's Writing.” Kunapipi 10, nos. 1-2 (1988): 76-91.

[In the following essay, Sheridan traces the principal themes in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century women's writing regarding Aborigines and the related contexts of racial and sexual difference.]

The bicentenary of invasion and settlement, 1988, challenges non-Aboriginal Australians as never before to confront and analyse the racism that pervades hegemonic cultural discourses and practices. Looking back to the noisy decades around the turn of the twentieth century, the crucial...

(The entire section is 6097 words.)

Ivor Indyk (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: Indyk, Ivor. “Pastoral and Priority: The Aboriginal in Australian Pastoral.” New Literary History 24, no. 4 (autumn 1993): 837-55.

[In the following excerpt, Indyk concentrates on the ominous presence of the Aborigine in the pastoral poetry of Charles Harpur and Henry Kendall.]

As Virgil demonstrated, the pastoral form can be made to speak of many things. Yet to the relationship between the pastoral singer and the landscape celebrated in the pastoral song Virgil also granted a certain kind of priority. The first of his Eclogues opens directly onto this relationship by comparing the situations of two shepherds, the one in possession of his land, the other...

(The entire section is 2920 words.)

Criticism: Aboriginal Myth, Literature, And Oral Tradition

Catherine Berndt and Ronald Berndt (essay date 1982)

SOURCE: Berndt, Catherine and Ronald Berndt. “Aboriginal Australia: Literature in an Oral Tradition.” In Review of National Literatures: Australia, edited by L. A. C. Dobrez, pp. 39-63. New York: Griffin House Publications, 1982.

[In the following essay, Berndt and Berndt identify and analyze a number of myth-narratives and songs from the Aboriginal oral tradition.]

For the great majority of Australians, the most authentically Australian literature is virtually a closed book. One reason is that it is an oral literature. To some people this expression is still a contradiction in terms. However, since the Chadwicks' work on Oral Literature justified and...

(The entire section is 7935 words.)

Kenneth Maddock (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: Maddock, Kenneth. “Myth, History and a Sense of Oneself.” In Past and Present: The Construction of Aboriginality, edited by Jeremy R. Beckett, pp. 11-30. Canberra: Aboriginal Studies Press, 1988.

[In the following essay, Maddock relates and interprets several mythic stories concerning Aboriginal contact with the outside world, including tales of meetings with Captain Cook and the Macassans.]

This [essay] concerns Aboriginal myths of early or initial contact between Aborigines and outsiders.1 I have included all the stories I could find on the subject, with a view to seeing whether they convey a message about an Aboriginal sense of identity formed...

(The entire section is 8158 words.)

Chris Healy (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: Healy, Chris. “‘We Know Your Mob Now’: Histories and Their Cultures.” Meanjin 49, no. 3 (spring 1990): 512-23.

[In the following essay, Healy evaluates the merits of an Aboriginal understanding of history as opposed to the standard, western conception of the past.]

Which of our traditions we want to carry on and which we do not is decided in the public process of transmitting a culture. The less we are able to rely on a triumphal national history, on the seamless normality of what has come to prevail, and the more clearly we are conscious of the ambivalence of every tradition, the more intense are the disputes about this process of cultural...

(The entire section is 5200 words.)

Penny van Toorn (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: Van Toorn, Penny. “Early Aboriginal Writing and the Discipline of Literary Studies.” Meanjin 55, no. 4 (1996): 754-65.

[In the following essay, van Toorn describes the difficulties associated with the study of pre-twentieth-century Aboriginal writing.]

The history of Aboriginal writing might have any number of beginnings depending on the way we constitute it as an object of knowledge. In the discipline of literary studies, Aboriginal writing is usually considered to be a recent phenomenon. It is thought to have begun tentatively with David Unaipon's Native Legends (1929) and then to have lapsed for thirty-five years before being inaugurated in its...

(The entire section is 4268 words.)

Further Reading


Schürmann-Zeggel, Heinz. Black Australian Literature: A Bibliography of Fiction, Poetry, Drama, Oral Traditions and Non-Fiction, including Critical Commentary, 1900-1991. New York: Peter Lang, 1997, 320 p.

Annotated bibliography of primary and secondary sources relating to Aboriginal literature.


Attwood, Bain, ed. In the Age of Mabo: History, Aborigines and Australia. St. Leonards, N. S. W.: Allen & Unwin, 1996, 193 p.

Comprised of essays by various contributors featuring contemporary perspectives on and approaches to Aboriginal history.


(The entire section is 380 words.)