Kangaroo Redux: Reading the Conflicts of South Australian Settler Colonialism in W.A. Cawthorne’s Kuperree


Joint Winner of the inaugural ALS PhD Essay Prize.

This essay examines the evolving discourses of settler indigenisation and Indigenous extinction in South Australia through the two markedly different editions of William Anderson Cawthorne’s poem Kuperree, a major work of nineteenth-century Australian ethnographic verse published in 1858 and 1885. With reference to archival material on the life of William Cawthorne, this essay first offers a corrective account of the publication history of Kuperree, which has been a point of confusion for scholars of nineteenth-century Australian literary history.

Archival sources on the life of William Cawthorne firmly establish chronology of the two editions: a first edition published in 1858, and a second edition in 1885. The second edition, published by William Cawthorne’s son Alfred, is almost twice the length of the original poem. The new edition frames the original story of Indigenous triumph around new and forceful declarations that Aboriginal Australians are doomed to extinction. Placed in the proper chronology, the two editions of Kuperree provide a diachronic view into the transformative changes of life in a rapidly growing South Australia and the accompanying developments in discourses of settler indigenisation and Indigenous extinction in 1858 and 1885. Through the two editions of Cawthorne’s Kuperree, this paper extends Lorenzo Veracini’s account of the literature of settler colonialism by providing a specific account of how a global literary form – the elegy for a doomed Indigenous race – functions alongside ethnographic research to frame Indigenous narrative and knowledge as historical curios and secular commodities of primarily aesthetic interest.

Partway through William Anderson Cawthorne’s 1858 poem The Legend of Kupirri; or, The Red Kangaroo: An Aboriginal Tradition of the Port Lincoln Tribe, Cawthorne ventriloquises the lament of a dying tribe of South Australia in language reminiscent of the ‘doomed race’ extinction discourses that were ubiquitous in settler-colonies of the nineteenth century:

Suggest, could none of us a cause,
Whereby this sad mysterious loss
Could be explain’d, or could be trac’d
For death had doom’d our noble race (20)

The poetic ode mourning the imagined future extinction of an Indigenous race, a form which Patrick Brantlinger terms the ‘proleptic elegy’, was a global phenomenon in settler poetry (4). The case of Kupirri attests to the transnational propagation of the proleptic elegy as form; the poem’s preface includes an excerpt of a lecture Cawthorne gave on the American Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s 1855 poem Song of Hiawatha which inspired Cawthorne’s…

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Published 30 September 2022 in Volume 37 No. 2. Subjects: Aboriginal Australians, Aboriginal Australians - Literary portrayal, Australian culture, Australian poetry, Colonial literature & writers, Poetry publishing.

Cite as: Shallit, Jonah. ‘Kangaroo Redux: Reading the Conflicts of South Australian Settler Colonialism in W.A. Cawthorne’s Kuperree.’ Australian Literary Studies, vol. 37, no. 2, 2022, doi: 10.20314/als.8d0040a7bb.