Review of The Colonial Kangaroo Hunt by Ken Gelder and Rachael Weaver

Abstract

Ken Gelder and Rachael Weaver have accomplished an impressive feat of scholarship in collecting and curating a record of settler interaction with the kangaroo from 1770 to 1900. It is not a pretty picture, though many of the fine illustrations in the volume do their best to make it so. This sort of exploration of a well-defined – if small – area of colonial Australian experience has only been possible with the expansion of the Humanities in Australian universities in the last fifty years in addition to the philanthropy of private citizens. This elegantly published book comes from the Miegunyah Press, an imprint of Melbourne University Press, which is funded by bequests from Sir Russell and Lady Grimwade. The Humanities are now threatened by the present Australian Government’s current tertiary education policies which will make such research in the Humanities extremely difficult. This book exemplifies the character of research we will sadly lose as a result.

The Colonial Kangaroo Hunt, by Ken Gelder and Rachael Weaver. Miegunyah Press, 2020.

Ken Gelder and Rachael Weaver have accomplished an impressive feat of scholarship in collecting and curating a record of settler interaction with the kangaroo from 1770 to 1900. It is not a pretty picture, though many of the fine illustrations in the volume do their best to make it so. This sort of exploration of a well-defined – if small – area of colonial Australian experience has only been possible with the expansion of the Humanities in Australian universities in the last fifty years in addition to the philanthropy of private citizens. This elegantly published book comes from the Miegunyah Press, an imprint of Melbourne University Press, which is funded by bequests from Sir Russell and Lady Grimwade. The Humanities are now threatened by the present Australian Government’s current tertiary education policies which will make such research in the Humanities extremely difficult. This book exemplifies the character of research we will sadly lose as a result.

A utilitarian might ask: what is to be learned from such a narrow area of cultural investigation? Of course, kangaroos were hunted by settlers, as they must have been for the past sixty thousand years by Indigenous Australians. Yes, Europeans hunted kangaroos in common with Indigenous practice for food, but also for scientific curiosity, sport and eventually, it would seem, pure bloodlust. Gelder and Weaver’s study is organised into chapters which explore these issues chronologically. The first two chapters, starting with Cook in 1770 and the New South Wales and Van Diemen’s Land’s settlements in the late eighteenth and very early nineteenth centuries, deal with ‘Shooting the First Kangaroo’ (Chapter 1) and ‘Settlers, Aboriginal People and the Kangaroo Hunt’ (Chapter 2).

The first chapter is an account of the Enlightenment project of scientific taxonomy and of how to incorporate the kangaroo, and marsupials and monotremes generally, into the European intellectual order. The process seems to have been: shoot, name, eat. The authors, through a wide range of sources, have created a compelling and disturbing narrative of colonial arrogance somewhat tempered by the rather sentimental early visual representations of the kangaroo. The chapter ends with Governor Hunter’s (1793) vivid account of a particularly grisly fight between a kangaroo and a pack of greyhounds (the purpose-bred Kangaroo dog not yet extant), which the authors rightly interpret as a potent summary of the colonial domination over an existing natural order:

This remarkable passage describes a vicious battle between settler-colonials and a native species. At one level, it works as a precursor to violence on the colonial frontier as local Aboriginal populations are killed or dispossessed. At another level, it expresses settler domination over species themselves: a naturalist’s knowledge of species is only the first part of a chain of colonising events that . . . includes naming, describing, visually representing, killing, eating, dissecting, transporting (exporting) and exhibiting. (20)

As the authors note, Hunter’s account of a triumph over a ‘shy’ grazing creature which, unlike other colonial hunting targets such as lions, tigers and bears, does not offer much of a physical threat becomes an essential narrative trope as a ‘colonial rite of passage, especially for young men’ (21).

The second chapter catalogues in vivid detail the contrasting responses of early settlers. John Bingle in Newcastle in 1821 chronicles the abundance of game for food and the employment of convict ex-poachers to provide it daily; that iconography of plenty and pastoral ease is complemented by Joseph Lycett’s contemporary pictures of the district supporting both black and white hunting practices in peaceful coexistence. That was not the case in contemporaneous Tasmania where the brutality of the Black War and the presence of so many escaped convicts would seem to suggest a greater level of violence than on the mainland, but, as recent studies have suggested, the Hunter Valley frontier in the 1820s had its own distressing history of massacres and fatal interactions.

The kangaroo battue, the traditional way Aboriginal peoples had organised large-scale hunting of the animal, involved driving a mob into a circle of men holding lighted bark and lighting the grass behind the game, and then closing the circle around them, spearing or clubbing them to death. The authors reproduce Francis Louis Barralier’s account of a Battue (1802) and it was possibly this practice which led to the Risdon Cove Massacre in Tasmania in 1804 when soldiers opened fire on a large group of men, women and children who were hunting, not threatening the white population. Added to this was the effect of colonial hunting of kangaroo meat on the food supply of the Indigenous population. Nevertheless, during the period to the 1840s on the mainland, the authors record more relaxed and respectful, yet still patronising, accounts of relations between the two races during kangaroo hunts. They are, one assumes, constrained by the nature of journal and record keeping; those who are literate and aware of cultural and historical perspectives tend to be more circumspect and sanguine.

Once taxonomy, a name and the greater prevalence of imported meat sources were established, the kangaroo could take the part of the fox, and the ceremonial spectacle of ‘the unspeakable in full pursuit of the uneatable’ of the ‘old country’ could fully flourish. Chapter 3 has a complete history of the development of kangaroo hunting as a sport starting in 1811 and evolving into a simulacrum of English practice together with packs of hounds and the elaborate recreation of the social customs of hunting as established in the eighteenth century. Australian practice and its reporting in the newspapers and sporting magazines emphasised how the Australian bush and the kangaroo were far more challenging and exciting to the mounted huntsman than the newly enclosed fields of England. However, it was not always possible for the natural world to be forced to match the social calendar. The arrival of the Duke of Edinburgh in 1867 at John Moffatt’s ‘bush palace’ Chatsworth House in the Wimmera provided no kangaroos for sport; eventually, thirty-five kangaroos were rounded up and herded into a cattle yard and shot so that the Duke could depart with ‘some skin and claws’.

The social kangaroo hunt obviously had its highs and lows as a cultural practice, but more significant and of greater interest to historians of colonial literary culture is the subject of Chapter 4, ‘The Kangaroo Hunt Poem’. The authors show how certain tropes from earlier hunting poems were readily incorporated into colonial examples. Of particular interest is the trope of the weeping victim of the hunt, consciously mimicked by some writers from Shakespeare (As You Like It, II, i, 36-40), which persists in journals, novels and poetry. The trope carries with it the idea of regret, of some transgression against natural goodness, which is often seen in gendered terms – the hunted creature is feminine. But apart from John Peel-style hunting poems, there is the more ambitious and challenging six-part quasi-epic of Charles Harpur, commentary on which makes up a major part of this chapter. The poem, together with Harpur’s extensive notes, have, as the authors note, ‘been reappraised through the framework of what is now called environmental humanities – which, in literary studies at least, thinks about the kinds of narratives that give expression to transformative interactions between humans and the natural world’ (105). Harpur’s endnotes to the poem record in detail the markings, sounds and behaviour of the birds and animals in the forest which provide the backdrop to the poem. Judith Wright recognised Harpur’s gift for careful observation in her poem ‘Extinct Birds’ and the love he had for the clearly changing environment around him. The authors have set this major poem, The Kangaroo Hunt, or, a Morning in the Mountains, which occupied Harpur for many years and underwent many revisions, as the central point of their study. It was Harpur’s ambition to rework his culture’s inheritance to fit its new environment in both poetry and prose, as the end notes, which seem as significant as the primary text and combines scientific observation with the more fluid realities of poetry. In doing so, the mystical ecology of the forest could be contrasted with the benefits of labour and the transformation of the natural by colonial husbandry into peace and bounty. Unlike an American contemporaneous epic of hunting, the death of a kangaroo is a much milder affair than that of a white whale, but then that perhaps is the difference in the world views of the two derived European cultures. The settler battle with the spirit of Australia (as Barron Field described the kangaroo in the first poem written about the animal) is far more matter of fact than Ahab’s final confrontation with the forces of Nature:

Till up the foremost hunters run

In silence, briefly touched each one

With pity, – a swift inward sting:

But soon the flaying is begun,

Soon ended – and the quartering

As deftly also done:

Then harken how the mountains vast

Through all their echoey gorges ring

With calls that tell the slaughter’s past. (88)

But then the poet himself has a far more modest notion of the Romantic artist in the New World, as in the last lines of the poem:

And as homeward he wends with glad Whip [his dog] at his side,

Humble the step of his bardic pride. (88)

There is no kangaroo hunt without attendant dogs. Chapter 5 is devoted to the evolution of the kangaroo dog and its literary importance, which is hardly surprising as dogs in general are very much the currency of human discourse as our species’ significant other. But the kangaroo dog seems to have had a special place in the nineteenth-century rural Australian imagination. Not only were they valuable, commanding high prices from very early on in the colonies, they were a symbol of social significance and, in the early days, a necessity for independence in the bush. From journals, letters, and newspapers the authors have gathered a comprehensive account of how important these dogs were and have given us some insight into their social significance and how to read them when they appear in fictions by Steele Rudd and Joseph Furphy. As well as dogs, the chapter gathers the evidence of the trade in kangaroo skins and the evolution of kangaroo hunting from sport into bloody industrial slaughter in kangaroo battues where the animals are herded, as per Aboriginal practice, but then slaughtered in large numbers. Wake in Fright has a long tradition behind it.

The book ends with an extended study of the kangaroo hunt in novels and fantasies through the nineteenth century to Ethel Pedley’s Dot and the Kangaroo (1898). What is remarkable is that the first three novels published from the 1830s to the 1850s were all written by women who had never been to Australia and relied on existing narratives as their sources. One of them, Anne Bowman’s The Kangaroo Hunters; or, Adventures in the Bush (1858), was widely popular with multiple editions in London, New York, Philadelphia and Melbourne, as well as a French translation. The authors note that they are part of a colonial bildungsroman tradition, in which a young man emigrates to the colonies, goes through a rite of passage, usually killing a kangaroo, and becomes a successful settler. Part of the discourse involves processing the ethics of colonial domination and its associated violence. As the authors note of The Kangaroo Hunters, it is:

. . . therefore a colonial frontier novel that problematises ethical frameworks around the killing of native species and Aboriginal people. It offers a non-violent Christian settler perspective (‘we have no right to retaliate’) that is then shown to be incompatible with the imperative to survive and defend property at any cost. (166)

Even though white settlement was one hundred years in the past, the next wave of kangaroo hunt novels in the 1890s still treated the frontier and killing kangaroos as a necessary rite of passage for imperial warriors or, as the authors describe them, novels ‘. . . underpinned by Christian values, a robust anti-intellectualism, a love of active outdoor life, and a commitment to militarised forms of discipline and organisation’ (172).

It is not surprising that all of the novels cited in this category were written by men. In contrast to these novels of bellicose imperialism are novels of fantasy in which kangaroos can speak and make their case against bad treatment. However, the issue is complicated by Arthur Ferres, who published one colonial bildungsroman, entitled His First Kangaroo: an Australian Story for Boys, in London (1896), in which the trophy animal’s ears and scalp are removed, and a fantasy novel, His Cousin the Wallaby, and Three Other Australian Stories, in Melbourne (1896), in which a young boy persecuted by an evil stepmother is befriended by a talking wallaby and introduced to an old man wallaby wearing a turban to cover his missing ears and scalp! This remarkable contrast in Ferres’ two works possibly articulates a growing concern in pre-Federation Australia with the consequences of settlement and the possibility of extinction of native species. Loss is the motif in the last work treated by the authors in Ethel Pedley’s Dot and the Kangaroo (published posthumously in 1899). Dot is lost in the bush and is befriended and fed by a talking mother kangaroo who has lost her joey while being pursued in a kangaroo hunt. The kangaroo weeps when she realises Dot is lost and weeps again for her lost joey, yet this time it is not a kangaroo weeping at the moment of her death, but in trans-specific empathy. After many tribulations and experiences with other Australian species, Dot is reunited with her family and the mother kangaroo’s joey is restored. It is a fitting conclusion to this study of a barbarous cultural practice and one which the authors use eloquently to conclude their study:

As she looks toward Federation and the beginning of the twentieth century, Pedley – already a dying woman – asks a kangaroo to forgive human cruelty and hope that future Australians will take Dot’s lesson away with them and reassess their relationship with the natural world. As we have seen, the colonial kangaroo hunt is a brutal event. It might also be exhilarating and exciting, fashionable and sociable, challenging and, sometimes, disappointing. In every case, it is an expression of settler domination over land. But Dot and the Kangaroo suggests it can also be an occasion for introspection and reflection: one that can take you into an understanding of native species that might lead to new levels of respect for the dignity of animals and their right to continue to live. (195)

Gelder and Weaver have amassed a deeply researched narrative of a particular colonial cultural trope. It is carefully supported by extensive and searching accounts of the written texts, the curating of which is a work of great scholarship. Additionally, there are many fine reproductions of supporting works of art, some of which are read into the text with great insight and sensitivity. We are fortunate to have writers who have the time to accumulate the sources and process them into a telling narrative, and publishers with the funds to publish that work with the care and finesse it deserves.

Published 30 April 2021 in Volume 36 No. 1. Subjects: Aboriginal culture, Pioneers & settlers, Kangaroo hunt, Indigenous history and culture, Charles Harpur, Ken Gelder, Rachael Weaver, Humanities Research.

Cite as: Croft, Julian. ‘Review of The Colonial Kangaroo Hunt by Ken Gelder and Rachael Weaver.’ Australian Literary Studies, vol. 36, no. 1, 2021, doi: 10.20314/als.dcbdd48db9.