“From the Spear to the Pen”: How Indigenous writing has enriched our literary landscape

by Marie Munkara


From the noble savage to the dull witted primitive the representation of indigenous people in literature by the non-indigenous has provided interesting reading since the days of early settlement in this country. But one can only ponder how much of the colonial depictions were based on scientific theory as naturalist Charles Darwin’s belief that the Australian Aborigine was only one rung up the evolutionary ladder from the great apes must have shaped the attitudes of many in the new penal colony. His comment in 1835 that “All the aborigines have been removed to an island in Bass Strait, so that Van Diemen’s Land enjoys the great advantage of being free from a native population”[1] would certainly have influenced views. After all Darwin was a man of great learning and for the uneducated masses it was assumed that anyone who could read or write would have to know what they were talking about.

A journal entry by another public figure, the explorer William John Wills (from the Bourke and Wills expedition) on leaving the depot at Coopers Creek, is another fine example of nineteenth-century literary condescension towards indigenous people:

A large tribe of blacks came pestering us to go to their camp and have a dance, which we declined. They were very troublesome, and nothing but the threat to shoot them will keep them away …. From the very little we have seen of them, they appear to be mean-spirited and contemptible in every respect.[2]

I can well imagine the “blacks” having the same thoughts about Wills and his cronies as they stalked off back to camp leaving the bad mannered explorers to their fate.

But not all literature of the time espoused such uncharitable sentiments. There were some shining exceptions such as the Anti-Slavery Society whose aim was to “civilise” indigenous peoples through Christianity. They later became known as the Aborigines Protection Society and their writings reflected a far more generous and warm hearted attitude towards their “sooty brethren”[3] than the crusty words Wills had recorded in his journals for posterity. And there were also the observations of Tom Petrie, the son of a Brisbane settler in the mid 1800s who wrote extensively about cultural practices of the Brisbane tribes and also recorded some of their language. In Tom Petrie: Reminiscences of Early Queensland written by his daughter Constance Campbell Petrie (1904), Petrie says:

This black, as a small boy, came to Jimbour with the first or second party of Europeans under the late Mr. Henry Dennis about 1843. He came from the Namoi, in New South Wales, and was an exceptionally fine specimen of an aboriginal. In manner, dignity of bearing, and intelligence, he resembled a superior type of white man.

Archibald Heston, editor of the Ipswich Observer (and later the Toowoomba Chronicle) was another who showed a rare sensitivity to the forbearance and suffering of indigenous people of the time (1870’s): “and as they had no-one to whom they could appeal and nowhere to go they finally regarded their doom as inevitable and bore their wrongs in silence”[4].

ON plateFrom the writings of this period it was obvious that indigenous people were not viewed as equals by the majority of the populace, a fact that would not have been lost on the original inhabitants either. So it’s interesting to see that a century after Heston’s observations the first stirrings of literary radicalisation of indigenous people began to occur. And how better to fight the oppressor than with one of the oppressors own weapons – in this case the Written Word. The fear that an educated blackfella was a dangerous one was coming into its own as indigenous writings became a forum to present views in a powerful and highly politicised way. I’m sure Archibald Heston would have been overjoyed to know that “they” had decided to no longer bear “their wrongs in silence”, as the birth of the indigenous literary movement, that would change the face of Australian literature for ever, began. The poems of Odgeroo Noonuccal and Kevin Gilbert must have been a brazen shock and a welcome joy to readers as these black perspectives articulated the realities of life for indigenous Australians and the struggles for recognition. Delivered with fire, dignity and aplomb, their poems are legendary. Odgeroo Noonuccal and Kevin Gilbert had opened the flood gates.

CarpentariaCoverAnd now, Indigenous literature in Australia is gaining momentum as Kim Scott and Alexis Wright win coveted awards such as the Miles Franklin. Indigenous productions such as Redfern Now and The Gods of Wheat Street grace out television screens. Theatre productions such as Black Medea by Wesley Enoch wow audiences right up and down the east coast while Troy Cassar-Daly wins Golden Guitars for his song writing. Australian Indigenous writers have very effectively, and not always quietly either, crossed over the boundaries of all writing genres and have firmly made their place in the literary world.

[1] Australian Museum Website – Charles Darwin on the Australian Aborigines
[2] Henry Reynolds Black Pioneers p50
[3] Gary Presland First People p98
[4] Henry Reynolds Black Pioneers p86

Photos taken from Internet sources – National Museum of Australia; Wikipedia; Pinterest.