'The Life, the Loves, of That Dark Race': The Ethnographic Verse of Mid-Nineteenth-Century Australia
O'Leary, John, Australian Literary Studies
Writing in 1938, the Australian anthropologist W.E. Stanner noted that the thought, culture and even the literature of his country had scarcely been affected by the life and death of its indigenous people. 'There are no epics on the last of the tribes', he stated, adding that in general Australian culture had remained almost innocent of any touch which was Aboriginal in origin or derivation ('The Aborigines' 2-4). Aboriginal people, he later concluded, had been subject to 'something like a cult of forgetfulness practiced on a national scale' ('After the Dreaming' 214).
Stanner's judgment was not entirely accurate. Some Australian writers had dealt with Aboriginal themes in the years before the Second World War. An example is Mary Gilmore, whose collections of verse The Wild Swan (1930) and Under the Wilgas (1932) contained a number of poems dealing with Aboriginal subject matter. 'I tried to point out what Australia has lost in distinctive literature in not using the aborigines and aboriginal lore, with their native customs and words', she wrote (Wild Swan 36 note). In poems such as 'Where Now Is Bribenabooka?' and 'Our Lost Field' Gilmore referred to Dreamtime legends to underscore her ubi sunt theme (Wild Swan 32-33; 36).
Affecting as Gilmore's poems are, they do not constitute the 'epics' whose absence Stanner noted. Such epics do exist, but to find them one has to go back to the mid-nineteenth century, to colonial poets who lived several generations before Gilmore. These poets produced a distinctive kind of verse about Aboriginal people, one I have termed ethnographic verse. Though mentioned in passing in the standard literary histories, this curious sub-genre has received little serious critical attention and is today largely forgotten. (1) Such a lacuna is damaging, for it limits our understanding of the cultural interaction between Australian settler society and Aboriginal people, at a time when colonial race relations are the subject of intense scrutiny. The fact that ethnographic verse raises complex questions about representation and agency should not deter us from reading it and attempting to assess its significance.
A curious sub-genre
Ethnographic verse was a loose, heterogenous sub-genre that mixed poetry with anthropology, or ethnology as Victorians called it. Its subject was the life of Aboriginal people before, or during the very first phase of, European colonisation--the 'life, the loves, of that dark race' as one writer, George Rusden, put it (Moyarra 84). In mixing literature and science, ethnographic verse, though unusual, was not unique--early scientific texts such as Lucretius' De Rerum Natura had been in verse, while at the end of the eighteenth century and the beginning of the nineteenth, Erasmus Darwin had published several poems on scientific subjects. Two generations later, in colonial Australia, it was still thought possible to use poetry to convey scientific information. Literature and science were not opposed as they are today, with anthropology in particular having not yet formulated itself as a science.
Ethnographic verse in Australia fell into two broad types. There were tribal dramas, which described the life of pre-European Aboriginal people in the course of narrating a story of love, death and revenge. These stories could be based on genuine Aboriginal anecdotes or stories, or they could merely imitate them, making use of selected Aboriginal elements to give the poem an Aboriginal 'feel'. Authentic as these stories often were, they tended to be treated in a highly sentimental, melodramatic manner.
Different in character were the retellings of tribal legends or Dreamtime myths, or as much of these as Aboriginal people were prepared to communicate to uninitiated listeners. These poems usually included a description of the life of the tribe to whom the legend or myth belonged, but they did not contain the melodramatic plot found in the tribal dramas. …