There is a war against statues; there is fearmongering against words. Open the National Library’s online catalogue and this chilling prose (or is it just a pose?) spills across the screen:
Some words or descriptions in the catalogue may reflect the attitudes of the period in which the works were created, and may now be considered inaccurate, inappropriate or offensive.
This is not the way to enter the past, with loaded words to impose superiority and self-censorship. The young should not be made afraid, bored or censorious by our past—which is what it was and not what we would want it to have been. They should be taught to read with tolerance and understanding and not be educated into smug idiocy. Hide or ignore the past’s own reality and the result is bad history (think Henry Reynolds and Lyndall Ryan) and the praising of the foolish historical novel Bila Yarrudhanggalangdhuray by Anita Heiss (see my review, “River of Despair”, September 2021).
On the dangerous shelves is Peter Cunningham’s Two Years in New South Wales (1827). Cunningham was a naval surgeon on convict transports and an unsuccessful settler. He wrote with enthusiasm of the new colony and described all levels of its society—the Aborigines are part of the full picture he develops. When Manning Clark published (his best book?) Select Documents in Australian History in 1950 he used Cunningham for extracts on convicts and settler life—not Aborigines. Times have changed. There is humour in Cunningham’s book (in the dangerous country of gender and race) which the sensitive and arrogant present will find intolerable.
This essay appears in October’s Quadrant.
Click here to subscribe
A modern Australian city just a few years ago. From the train a bus takes us to our hotel. We are keen to explore. Nearby is a park with views down to the beachfront. There is a threatening group of people sitting on the ground, drinking and arguing noisily. Then a young man approaches us for money. We look about then and walk on into the city centre. We come to busy Mitchell Street and as we cross it there is a sudden disturbance quite close by. Traffic stops. One man in a security uniform chases another through the vehicles—no horns express annoyance, locals are used to these scenes. The man is caught up with and sullenly surrenders a stolen bottle of red label Johnnie Walker. The men separate and walk in opposite directions—you sense the futility—one is white, one is black—what would be the point of doing anything different? The befuddled thief wanders off, the traffic flows, we look through the window of an Aboriginal art gallery—it seems today to be entirely devoid of Aboriginal employees.
I don’t have to leave home to see the homeless, or be asked for money. In that half an hour in Darwin we have wandered not through the city’s modern Bicentennial Park but into 1820s Sydney—when some of the older residents still spoke of The Camp. No, it’s not the people grouped on the ground who open a door onto the past, though they too could be found, with more or less clothing, in any early colonial panorama of the settlement. It is the hand gesture of the young grifter asking/demanding money. It’s the identical gesture you see in the 1838 engraving Barrack from George Street produced by the deaf printmaker and artist John Carmichael from the work of an unnamed painter. In this colonial artwork the man with the outstretched hand is the well-known Sydney Aborigine Bungaree (right), who died in 1830. In the foreground he is instantly recognisable in his cast-off uniform and cocked hat—elegantly raised in his right hand as his left reaches out soliciting money from a soldier. The same hand gesture I encountered in Darwin. Typically, moderns see in Bungaree a warrior dispossessed and mocked.
Cunningham’s account of Bungaree as self-created performer welcoming new arrivals in the Harbour is brilliant (I think) but you can see the problems for modern students and their woke instructors:
King Boongarre, too, with a boat load of his dingy retainers, may possibly honour you with a visit, bedizened in his varnished cocked hat of “formal cut”; his gold-laced blue coat, (flanked on the shoulders by a pair of massy epaulettes,) buttoned closely up, to evade the extravagance of including a shirt in the catalogue of his wardrobe; and his bare and broad and platter feet, of dull cinder hue, spread out like a pair of sprawling toads, upon the deck before you. First, he makes one solemn measured stride from the gangway; then turning round to the quarter-deck, lifts up his beaver with the right hand a full foot from his head, (with all the grace and ease of a court exquisite,) and carrying it slowly and solemnly forwards to a full arm’s-length, lowers it in a gentle and most dignified manner down to the very deck, following up this motion by an inflection of the body equally profound. Advancing slowly in this way, his hat gracefully poised in his hand, and his phiz wreathed with many a fantastic smile, he bids massa welcome to his country. On finding he has fairly grinned himself into your good graces, he formally prepares to take leave, endeavouring at the same time to take likewise what you are probably less willing to part withal—namely, a portion of your cash. Let it not be supposed, however, that his Majesty condescends to thieve: he only solicits the loan of a dump, on pretence of treating his sick gin to a cup of tea, but in reality with a view of treating himself to a porringer of “Cooper’s Best”, to which his Majesty is most royally devoted.
The State Library of New South Wales has an online biography of Bungaree and refers to his usage of the word country: “This is perhaps the first recorded use of the term Country by an Aboriginal person to reference their lands, waters and ancestral connections.” In fact Bungaree may have learnt this English word and its meanings from having accompanied the explorers Matthew Flinders and Phillip Parker King. Bungaree styled himself “king” so obviously he had a country. Country, and all the meanings it holds, comes from English usage. It is non-Aboriginal writers who have used a familiar word to create a sentiment which may not have existed in the Aboriginal experience until it was named in English, and then land rights established the frontiers.
Without this account of Bungaree our history would be the poorer. However, historians spurn the idea that it exhibits any affection, sympathy and amusement. In 1979, after citing the above text in his book When the Sky Fell Down, the journalist and historian Keith Willey condemned Cunningham: “Passages like this contain no hint of pathos or understanding of all that Bungaree has lost, in human and material terms, since the adventurous times of his youth. He and his people are presented as pure caricature.” He also said: “Cunningham was far from unusual among contemporary writers in his patronising and heartless portrayal of Aborigines.” Bungaree was an accomplished performer and Peter Cunningham was an equally accomplished and well-disposed critic of his performance. With Bungaree, and in other instances in Cunningham’s book, the conversations he recalls are the only opportunities we have to hear these otherwise silenced voices from our past.
The young man in the park has reminded me of Bungaree and while I don’t recall the conversation with my pushy supplicant it certainly wasn’t anywhere near as interesting as a long-ago conversation between Peter Cunningham and his “kettle-boiler”:
When walking out one morning, I accidentally met a young scion of our black tribes, on turning the corner of the house, who saluted me with “Good morning, sir, good morning”; to which I in like manner responded, and was proceeding onwards, when my dingy acquaintance arrested my attention by his loud vociferation of “Top, sir, I want to speak to you.” “Well what is it?” said I. “Why, you know I am your servant and you have never paid me yet.” “The devil you are!” responded I; “It is the first time I knew of it, for I do not recollect ever seeing your face before.” “Oh yes, I am your servant,” replied he, very resolutely; “don’t I top about Massa —’s, and boil the kettle for you sometimes in the morning?” I forthwith put my hand in my pocket, and gave him all the halfpence I had, which I left him counting, and proceeded on my walk; but before advancing a quarter of a mile, my ears were again assailed by “Hallo! top, top!” I turned round and observed my friend in the “dark suit” beckoning with his hand, and walking very leisurely towards me. Thinking he was despatched with some message, I halted, but as he walked on as slowly as if deeming I ought to go to him than he come to me, I forthwith returned to meet him; but on my reaching close enough, what was my astonishment on his holding out the halfpence in his open hand, and addressing me in a loud, grumbling, demanding tone with—“Why this is not enough to buy a loaf! you must give me more.” “Then buy half a loaf,” said I, wheeling about and resuming my walk, not without a good many hard epithets in return from the kettle-boiler.
In two sentences Richard Broome, in Aboriginal Australians, reduces this bright vignette to a dour, preachy sermon:
A colonial doctor named Peter Cunningham found his “donation” of money in a Sydney street repulsed by an Aboriginal man as he had not given enough. These were not Aboriginal beggars, for their view of sharing did not allow such an interpretation. Besides, some no doubt saw a street donation as paying rent to the original owners.
The historian’s moral superiority is suffocating, and he has also fabricated by inserting the word donation into his text as if it is a quotation from Cunningham, who never uses the word and certainly did see the young Aborigine as a beggar. The supplicant asked for payment for work (?) and not for rent or from an idea of taking his share of the other’s money. The story was told by Cunningham to illustrate the following clear statement:
As beggars, the whole world will not produce their match. They do not attempt to coax you, but rely on incessant importunity; following you, side by side, from street to street, as constant as your shadow, pealing in your ears the never-ceasing sound of “Massa, gim me a dum! massa give me a dum!” (dump) If you have the fortitude to resist firmly, on two or three assaults, you may enjoy ever after a life of immunity; but by once complying, you entail upon yourself a plague which you will not readily throw off, every gift only serving to embolden them in making subsequent demands, and with still greater perseverance. Neither are their wishes moderately gratified on this head—less than a dump (fifteen pence) seldom proving satisfactory.
In traditional Aboriginal life, in the colonial period and today—where did/does sharing end and begging begin? What Cunningham experienced in 1827 was familiar to Watkin Tench in November 1790 (see 1788: Watkin Tench edited by Tim Flannery):
With the natives we are hand in glove. They throng the camp everyday, and sometimes by their clamour and importunity for bread and meat (of which they now eat greedily) are becoming very troublesome. God knows, we have little enough for ourselves!
The language used and the attitudes of these witnesses is a priceless treasure for opening our eyes to the past. In the present, in half an hour in Darwin, I saw not tradition but the familiar modern acquaintances of misery, drugs and alcohol exacerbated by a victim culture. Tench gave food, Cunningham gave halfpennies—modern tourists offer more coins: the problems remain.
Though the language used by the Aborigine does not interest the academic propagandist, the delicious and sympathetic use of “top, top!” is a reminder of a fact remarked on by Watkin Tench that the Sydney Aborigines were unable to pronounce the English letter s: “having no sound in their language similar to it”. Perhaps it could be added to the three-point test of Aboriginality to ensure that fair people insisting on a dark Aboriginal identity are genuine.
Broome has also excluded the “hard epithets” thrown at Cunningham who he says was “repulsed by an Aboriginal man as he had not given enough”. Cunningham was abused and the vocabulary doubtless included some interesting English additions, but pre-contact Aborigines had a highly developed store of insults which they were willing to share. In April 1791 Tench noted, after describing a verbal exchange between Aborigines and a soldier in which the latter was defeated:
use any angry expression to them, they retorted in a moment by calling him every opprobrious name which their language affords. Their general favourite term of reproach is gonin-patta, which signifies, “an eater of human excrement.” Our language would admit a very concise and familiar translation. They have, besides this, innumerable others which they often salute their enemies with.
Has anyone other than Cunningham recorded the Sydney Aboriginal pleasure in pumpkin?
The black children absolutely dance and scream when they see one—pumpkin and sugar being their delight. To the half of a shrivelled pumpkin hanging at the door of my tent on my first essay in settling, one of our sooty satyrs could do nothing for some minutes but fidget and skip; and with his eyes sparkling, and countenance beaming in ecstasy, exclaim, “Dam my eye, pumbucan, dam my eye, pumbucan!” such being the nearest point they can attain to the right pronunciation of their favourite fruit.
Richard Broome, again in Aboriginal Australians, asserts a typically modern and evasive reaction to colonial accounts of Aboriginal infanticide: “But settlers gave too much weight to infanticide as a factor in [Aboriginal] population decline. The evidence for it remains slim and the settlers’ claims were value-laden shaped by the discourse of savagery.” QED.
When Peter Cunningham discusses black-white prostitution and black infanticide he includes a direct comment by Bungaree—surely very aware of the white disapproval of the black custom:
Personal prostitution among those associating with the whites is carried on to a great extent, the husbands disposing of the favours of their wives to the convict servants for a slice of bread or a pipe of tobacco. The children produced by this intercourse are generally sacrificed, as is also one of the children in twin cases,—the husbands usually enforcing the death of the former, and want of sufficient sustenance compelling mothers to kill the latter. On Boongarre being once remonstrated with for allowing a woman to destroy a twin-child, he shrugged up his shoulders, and merely said, “Bel boodgeree (not good) kill it picaninny,” but made no subsequent effort to kill the practice.
Piccaninny was a West Indian word that arrived with the colonists. In Austral English (1898) Edward E. Morris states, “After a while English people thought it was aboriginal Australian, while the aborigines thought it was correct English. It is pigeon-English.”
No modern film or documentary maker has truly represented life on early Sydney streets, for one aspect in particular is completely ignored. Today, the language used by Cunningham would have him convicted and exiled to Pinchgut for race crimes.
The women everywhere, that I have seen, wrap themselves in some species of cloak made of opossum skins, or else in a blanket, but the men walk carelessly about quite naked, without betraying the least shame; even many at this day parading the streets of Sydney in natural costume, or with a pair of breeches probably dangling around their necks, which the modest meaning donor intended to be applied elsewhere. It is amusing to see the consequential swagger of some of these dingy dandies, as they pace lordly up our streets, with a waddie twirling in their black paws. No Bond-Street exquisite could ape the great man better, for none are better mimics of their superiors; our colonial climatized females mincing it past these undraperied beaux, or talking with them carelessly face to face, as if unconscious of their nudity;—while the modest new-comers will giggle, blush, cover their eyes with their fingers, and hurry confusedly by.
Watkin Tench had earlier seen Aboriginal nudity and masculine bodies—Cunningham would have understood. One day, “soon after our arrival”, said Tench, he was talking and sharing new vocabulary with a group of “Indians” while pointing to the novelty of sheep, horses and cows:
But unluckily [!!], at the moment, some female convicts employed near the place made their appearance, and all my endeavours to divert their attention from the ladies became fruitless. They attempted not, however, to offer them the least degree of violence or injury, but stood at the distance of several paces, expressing very significantly the manner they were attracted.
There is a thought that won’t leave me alone. The end of Aboriginal Australia was not marked by flag raising, violence or disease. It was the planting of a flower, and the loving cultivation of backyards. In the whole period of the Aboriginal dominance of the continent no one had ever planted a flower—simply for beauty. The first cultivated bloom in New South Wales? Perhaps a marine from HMS Sirius, in 1787, snapped off a geranium cutting in Cape Town and took it back on board to brighten the voyage for his wife. By 1827, Cunningham saw newcomers landing at the government wharf in Sydney Cove and walking into George Street to discover the sturdy family homes:
with verandahs in front, and enclosed by a neat garden paling, lined occasionally with trim-pruned geranium hedges; they have besides usually a commodious garden backwards, decked with flowers, and teeming with culinary delights.
The beginning of our combined story, with all its faults and pleasures, told with frightening words between dusty covers on library shelves tagged with trigger warnings.