September 14th, 2012


Southwell goes South, Part IV: He Just Smiled, and Gave Me a Vegemite Sandwich

This is the last gleaning of my British Library harvest. Time beat me, I'm afraid, before I was able to write down very much of what Daniel Southwell had to say about Australia itself. Also, quite a bit of it was written in his log books rather than his letters, and there he tended to write very small indeed, to the extent that I had to borrow a British Library magnifying glass to pick my way through. I'm particularly sorry that I never got as far as his discussions of Aboriginal language, but console myself that I can always go back, and that the Australian sections are the parts that have probably been pored over most thoroughly by others before me. Indeed, I quoted some of them in my entry from three years ago.

Still, I do have some material, both about the land and its inhabitants. As for the former, Southwell found the country beautiful, but he was unimpressed with the potential of Sydney cove for agriculture, and couldn't understand how such a lush forest could be sustained by such poor soil.

Here the settlement is fixed, and the place already wears some appearance of cultivation. The soil near the sea is at best but indifferent, and nothing can be more strange than to see so much of vegetation, and that of the gigantic sort, on a soil that one would think scarcely could afford nutriment for tinder-wood.

This district, so far as hitherto we know of it, yields not vegetables for which we have a kitchen name, but here are several green things, of which we make use, that are not unwholesome, and in the eating we endeavour to think them better than they are. It is extraordinary, that no good fruits, or such as might be made so by management, are here. Some berries of the basest order, bastard figs, and the like are now and then to be met with. […]

In the excursions which our people occasionally make into the country, they find however, that the trees in certain places stand farther apart, and here and there are some tolerably good spots, compared to that where we are fixed. And so it had need be; but still it is all as nothing compared to the arable and pasture of our own dear shore. […]

The largest quadruped yet seen on this continent, shall we call it? – is the kangaroo, being of the size of a large dog. There are vast timbers, and a great variety of birds, but they too are hard to be got at.

He wrote at first that yams were doing quite well, but later had to amend the letter after they too failed, admitting that "the reign of the yam" was over.

There are some intriguing descriptions of the flora and fauna, but I was able to decipher only small amounts. He was impressed with the "Snakes of 2 yards 2 ½ chequed with very agreeable colours and scales all over"; and he was well aware not only that kangaroos had a "false belly", but that other species did so too, including opossums and a "kind of rat". I experienced a thrill of excitement when I saw the following, which at first glance seemed to anticipate evolutionary theory, but is perhaps just a throwback to the Great Chain of Being (it all depends on what the words are that I was unable to make out):

Most of the [?] of this place are handy with their paws [...] partaking of the monkey yet very monkeish in their manners and seem to have some relationship, and I am apt to think are a distant gradation from them as are links in the chain which makes nature in [?] [?] from one form to another.

As far as the indigenous Australians are concerned, the reading was something of a wince-fest, although it did seem to me that Southwell's attitude moderated over time. In his initial description to his mother in 1788 he describes them as "brandishing their lances with a variety of anticks, more like monkies than warriors; and in truth their chattering, tho’ somewhat more sonorous, put one in mind of those small gentry[?]." Uncle Weeden, writing on 24th May 1789, is at least an advocate of good relations, but perhaps just a wee bit patronising?

I am happy to learn that rigour is avoided towards the natives. They may in a course of time guess better at their interests, and then come to. But if you once draw the sword against them, you will assuredly have very little occasion for the scabbard. Captain Tench’s book pleased me much. He seemed a man well calculated to negociate matters with the more intelligent, if there be any such, among your dark neighbours. The first especial point is to lure such to your society so as to introduce Language as the medium of good fellowship.

Perhaps Daniel takes this to heart, because he does start trying to find out all he can about the indigenous population. Unfortunately, he discovers that they aren't half as interested in him as he is in them, and that the main problem is getting them to pay him any attention. In his log book for 24 May 1790, though, he writes: "On this day 2 of the natives passing by in their canoes nearer [?] than usual we made signs to [?] them on board, which by degrees they did." They were surprised to see a twelve-month-old girl on board, and started what Daniel heard as a "guttural moaning", after which they "also saw the mother of it (the first white woman I suppose they ever saw) which occasioned a second peal in which one would have thought they were [?] their lungs."

At the far end of his stay, Daniel's view of natives seems to have changed quite a bit - if not of the Australians themselves then at least of the inhabitants of Duke of York's island (now part of Papua New Guinea, I think?), where on 23 May 1791 he writes a long proto-ethnographic description. Here's the final part of it:

These people are for the most part of the middle size, and tho several were here seen that much exceeded it yet the numbers it is probably of those who come below it is the most considerable. They are robust and well set, the nose flattened but not so much as in other nations and their countenances open and agreeable enough and might probably be more so were they not addicted to that custom of chewing Betel and Chinam, so universally practised in all this quarter of the globe and which by making the teeth black and decay and staining the lips and mouth as of a gore of blood seems shocking, at least to an European, for with them it is reckoned very becoming and delightful.

Their hair is of a woolly texture and as I apprehend naturally black and inclined to be long although I never saw either of considerable length or that colour being almost always of a dingy whitish cast and often of a reddish as tho burnt, and this is likely the case for they constantly dust it with a kind of lime in appearance the same as the chinam, which when it rains or otherwise gets wet may burn the whole of their hair or wool, so worked up into a number of plaits or twisted in some way or other like the thrums of a mop and indeed (meaning no disparagement) has very much the appearance of that well known piece of domestic furniture. Many of their heads were absolutely white and none were darker than a singy browne.

Like most savages that are known they pierce the ears and nose for the reception of ornaments, the former with extra large orifices. The last mentioned feature had this peculiarity for not merely the middle cartilage but the nostril also were perforated and that with a particular taste [?] of ingenuity as I never before ever heard of, for the holes being bored I suppose of the proposed dimensions and big enough to receive a black-lead pencil of the usual sort were nicely bush’d [?],* if I may be allowed the expression, with a ring cut of a reed or tube and neatly let in and most likely never to be removed, intended it may be to prevent their natural tendency to collapse or else to defend them from the irritation or fretting which the ornament might otherwise occasion. These are of various sorts and worn perhaps only on certain occasions, for I saw several sometimes with and sometimes without them.

Their pendants were composed of shells and bones, teeth of animals and also small tubes or bits[?] of reed curiously ornamented with fanciful marks of variegated stains, I apprehend by burning, and 5 or 6 inches in length, which when thrust through the nose rather affected the sound of their voices in speaking. Their most superb adornment however I take to be the shell-work, in which they are very curious consisting of several rows of hanging round the neck and breast. Those thus attired appeared to be persons of distinction, and though in itself simple had really a graceful appearance.

* I'm guessing this is "bushed" as in OED v.1.2 "To protect (trees, etc.) with bushes or cut brushwood set round about; to support with bushes." [ETA: But see heleninwales's comment below.]

Okay, so they're still "savages", but here that seems a relatively neutral description, and with phrases such as "at least to an European" and "meaning no disparagement" he acknowledges that aesthetic canons are not universal and that these people deserve courtesy. But of course, I may be seeing here what I want to see, which would be an ethnographical arrogance of my own...