The Aborigine in Nineteenth-Century Australian Literature Critical Essays


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.