The Australian Kangaroo Hunt Novel (1830–1858) as Bildungsroman



In Australia – and no doubt in other outposts of empire – hunting provided a rite of passage for ambitious young men to learn about local conditions and establish their colonial credentials. This article argues that the kangaroo hunt narrative therefore operated as a kind of colonial bildungsroman or novel of education. It examines three kangaroo hunt novels written by women who had in fact never travelled to Australia. The first is Sarah Porter’s Alfred Dudley; or, The Australian Settlers (1830). Porter’s novel shows that the kangaroo hunt is incompatible with the bourgeois sensibilities of an aspirant settler who revolts from ‘scenes of blood’. But other colonial bildungsromans invested in the adventure of hunting as a reward in itself. The second published kangaroo hunt novel is Sarah Bowdich Lee’s Adventures in Australia; or, the Wanderings of Captain Spencer in the Bush and the Wilds (1851); the third is Anne Bowman’s The Kangaroo Hunters; or, Adventures in the Bush (1858). Lee’s novel gives free play to the kangaroo hunt, exploring its possibilities for both Aboriginal and settler identities, while Bowman’s novel puts the kangaroo hunt into an ethical discussion of killing on the frontier. These British novelists imagine frontier experiences in colonial Australia by drawing on a range of Australian source material. Their novels present Australia as a testing ground for young male adventurers. The kangaroo hunt is their defining experience, something to survive and in some cases, finally, to disavow as they transition from emigrants to settlers.

John M. MacKenzie’s important book, The Empire of Nature: Hunting, Conservation and British Imperialism (1988), reminds us that ‘the colonial frontier was also a hunting frontier’ (7). The hunting of game in India, Africa, North America and elsewhere was always, of course, a concrete and brutal expression of settler domination over species and territory. But accounts of the kangaroo hunt in nineteenth-century Australia were also routinely imbued with imaginative force and driven by intellectual inquiry. MacKenzie notes that hunting game across the colonies was a significant indicator of the need ‘to classify and order the natural world through a new scientific understanding’ (23). But he also argues that colonial hunting as a genre of writing articulated British imperialism’s investment in what he calls ‘killing for character formation’ (41). For settlers, hunting game, he suggests, delivered an experience that was ‘rich in . . . ambiguities’. On the one hand, it was ‘primitive and elemental’, unleashing visceral urges as the animal is killed, dismembered (for trophies etc.) and sometimes consumed. On the other hand, the experience could be ‘morally uplifting’, a vital pathway towards ‘mental instruction’ and even ‘scientific understanding’ (43) as specimens are identified, classified, collected and carefully examined. Something is relinquished when an animal is killed – one’s inhibitions, for example – but something is gained, too: forms of knowledge, even self-knowledge.

In Australia – and no doubt in other outposts of empire – hunting provided the required rite of passage for ambitious young men in particular to learn about local conditions and establish their colonial credentials. The kangaroo hunt as literary genre therefore operated as a kind of bildungsroman or novel of education. For Franco Moretti, the bildungsroman in Europe saw the ‘great city’ (London, Paris, etc.) as ‘the natural goal of all young men of talent’, opening the way for their transition to adulthood. But Moretti’s European focus limits his scope; he suggests, for example, that these protagonists ‘seldom embark on long-distance journeys’ and are reluctant to ‘leave the old world’ (Atlas of the European Novel 67). This article looks at three colonial kangaroo hunt novels written by British women who had in fact never been to Australia. But they nevertheless imagine the process of settlement in detail, drawing information from various London-published, non-fictional works about the Australian colonies: works of natural history, chronicles of exploration, and books about the practicalities of colonial life. In each case, these novels send ‘young men of talent’ from the old world to the new as a means of charting their coming of age in terms of emotional maturity, the acquisition of new skills and knowledges, and their capacity to contribute to newly-developing national ideologies. Jed Esty’s work on colonialism, modernism and the bildungsroman is useful here as a reminder that ‘adulthood and nationhood’ could indeed serve ‘as mutually reinforcing versions of stable identity’ (39). But the kangaroo hunt itself can complicate this, especially on the colonial frontier: not least because what is ‘primitive and elemental’ and what is ‘morally uplifting’ here can sometimes be difficult to reconcile.

Sarah Porter’s Alfred Dudley; or, The Australian Settlers (1830) was published by Harvey and Darton in London the same year as Henry Savery’s Quintus Servinton – generally regarded as Australia’s first novel. Porter was the sister of the famous economist and stockbroker David Ricardo; her husband was George Richardson Porter, the political economist and free trader. She published a number of educational tracts on schools and children, including the best-selling Conversations on Arithmetic (1835), which advocated independent learning: ‘The pupil’, she wrote, ‘should be led to think for himself’ (v). Her kangaroo hunt novel drew heavily on Robert Dawson’s popular travel memoir, The Present State of Australia, published in London in the same year: a work of ‘emigration propaganda’ which saw an ambitious agent for the Australian Agricultural Company chart a brief history of land development along the Karuah River, north of Newcastle, in New South Wales, in the mid-1820s. Porter’s novel begins with Alfred Dudley living in comfortable circumstances in England; but his father is swindled and soon loses much of his fortune. An unexpected letter from Australia gives ‘a brilliant account of prosperity in that far distant land’ (14). Dudley’s father decides to emigrate but wants Alfred to remain in England and attend a public school: ‘you are destined to fill a higher station than that of an Australian settler’, he tells his son (17). But Alfred insists on coming too and they finally emigrate together, leaving their mother and sister behind. Following in Dawson’s footsteps, father and son settle along the Hunter River, ‘obtaining a grant of land’ not far from Newcastle, where they build a stone ‘mansion’ and – taking instructions from William Cobbett’s Cottage Economy (1821) – cultivate an extensive property. The aim here is to acquire ‘many comforts’, ‘more comforts than their neighbours’ (39, 42). To draw on Franco Moretti’s discussion of Robinson Crusoe in his book The Bourgeois (2013), these are bourgeois aspirations (48), although they are also not that far away from the aspirations of a squattocracy.

The establishment of settlement is literally foundational; it creates the necessary conditions for the adventures that follow. Alfred helps an injured Aboriginal woman and befriends her son, Mickie. Later, he is welcomed by her tribe. Mickie, on the other hand, moves into Dudley’s mansion as a servant. We can see Dawson’s influence at work here (‘I have a complete ascendency over them’ [66]): the emphasis is on settler domination alongside a form of Aboriginal compliance imagined here as willingly given, what Porter’s novel calls ‘cheerful assistance in all our labours’ (70). Mickie talks to Alfred about ‘the delights of kangaroo hunting’ (73) and soon they go into the forest together in search of quarry. The Aboriginal boy ventures ahead ‘to catch kangaroo all by himself’: he ‘begged me not to use my gun, as he wished to prove that he was a man to-day’ (74). But when Mickie chases a large kangaroo into a waterhole, a ‘trial of strength and dexterity’ (74) follows and Mickie is in danger of being drowned. Concerned for his safety, Alfred intervenes by raising his gun and shooting the kangaroo. In this scene, a settler saves an Aboriginal life; but Mickie feels compromised, offended. Alfred realises that he has transgressed some local ‘laws of honour’ through what he calls ‘my unadvised interference’ (76).

This is the settler’s first lesson in this novel; Alfred is forced to recognise Mickie’s claim to pride and dignity and also, by extension, that settlers are indeed interfering wholesale in Aboriginal people’s lives. When they spot more kangaroos, Alfred compensates for his gaffe by handing Mickie his rifle: ‘He took my gun with delight’ (77), the novel tells us. It is unusual, in colonial Australian fiction, to see a settler giving his gun to an Aboriginal man; it draws again on Dawson here (‘I have often lent them a musket to shoot kangaroos, when it has always been taken care of and safely returned’ [68]), although unlike Dawson, Porter does not make a point of the gun’s safe return (63).

The kangaroo hunt works here as a kind of bonding lesson between a settler and his Aboriginal companion. But that night at an Aboriginal camp, Alfred distances himself from the feasting that follows – and from the sight of Mickie ‘burying his hands in the entrails of the animals, and tearing off the skin with all the delight and dexterity of a veteran hunter’ (78–79). This is where MacKenzie’s ‘primitive and elemental’ and ‘morally uplifting’ aspects of the hunt come into conflict. For Alfred, it is now a matter of rejecting the former and embracing the latter: ‘I would willingly draw a veil over the excesses of my sable hero. I wish to paint him to you only in his most attractive points, and should be sorry to exhibit my little Mickie engaged in all the gross gluttony of a kangaroo feast’ (80). The kangaroo hunt from his perspective is never ‘morally uplifting’; what is ‘morally uplifting’ is his rejection of its ‘inhumanity’, of being ‘cruel in sport, and of finding pleasure in the exercise of any pursuit which would cause pain to even the meanest creature that has life’ (79).

Porter’s Alfred Dudley wants to show that the kangaroo hunt is incompatible with the bourgeois sensibilities of an aspirant settler: this is her protagonist’s moment of enlightenment. The novel’s form of ‘emigration propaganda’ is to do both with disavowing frontier violence (saving Aboriginal people rather than shooting them) and refusing to hunt kangaroos: ‘my principles’, Alfred tells us, ‘revolt from scenes of blood’ (80). Aboriginal people are not dispossessed here, but they are only accommodated in so far as they fit into the novel’s regulatory framework for what constitutes successful colonial settlement: productivity, compliance, assistance, and ‘comfort’ (‘a tribe of these have comfortably settled down on Mr Dudley’s estate’). Alfred’s trajectory from a fifteen-year-old to ‘rather more than twenty’ (172) at the end of the novel finally produces an identity that is indeed settled, recalling Jed Esty’s point above about the ‘mutually reinforcing versions’ of ‘adulthood and nationhood’ (39).

In Porter’s colonial bildungsroman the kangaroo hunt needed to be experienced and then disavowed, so that settlement could happen. But other colonial bildungsromans invested in the adventure of hunting as a reward in itself. Sarah Bowdich Lee’s Adventures in Australia; or, The Wanderings of Captain Spencer in the Bush and the Wilds was published in London by Grant and Griffith in 1851. The Preface insists that it will focus on natural history in the new world and not on what Lee calls (thinking of the early goldrush days in Victoria and New South Wales) ‘the fast-increasing riches of the settlements’ (iii). Her first husband was T. Edward Bowdich, who had worked for the African Company of Merchants and lived for a time in Ghana. In 1819 they both went to Paris to prepare for a second African expedition. They also worked closely with the famous French naturalist Georges Cuvier; in fact, Lee went on to publish a biography of Cuvier in 1833.

After Bowdich’s death in Africa in 1824, Lee returned to London, married again, and continued her researches in natural history. Her best-known publication is The Fresh-Water Fishes of Great Britain – issued in ten parts between 1828 and 1838 – a remarkable work both artistically (it contained forty-four exquisite watercolour paintings) and scientifically (as one of the first British books to draw on Cuvier’s classification system for fish [Orr 45]). In the 1840s, she began to publish natural history text books for schools and popular adventure fiction. Porter’s Alfred Dudley had relied on one primary source about the colonies, a land speculator’s memoir which was also a work of emigration propaganda. But Lee’s Adventures in Australia drew on a large number of London-published Australian source texts, all to do with the discipline of natural history: including Robert Brown’s (1804–1806) Prodromus of the Flora of New Holland and Van Diemen’s Land (1810) – Brown had sailed with Matthew Flinders on the HMS Investigator and went on to become head of the Botanical Department at the British Museum – the physician-naturalist George Bennett’s Wanderings in New South Wales, Batavia, Pedir Coast, Singapore, and China (1834), and John Gould’s seven-volume The Birds of Australia (1840–1848). Much of Lee’s novel consists of species description, with scientific names added in numerous footnotes.

The novel’s protagonist, Captain Edward Spencer, is not quite a ‘young man of talent’; he is instead a resourceful soldier who had served in the Bombay Native Infantry in India and probably fought in the Second Anglo-Sikh War in 1848–49. He has already been educated in England, at Eton. His journey from Bombay (Mumbai) to the north of Australia via Timor-Leste actually begins as a kind of anti-bildungsroman, with Spencer refusing the possibility of learning anything new: ‘I have no intention of making discoveries’, he declares, ‘and no desire to come in contact with the very barbarous people of these places’ (17). Spencer visits Australia on a year’s leave of absence to improve his health, bringing his horse and dog with him, and a talking parrot. Not long after arrival, his ship and crew are lost in a storm. Lee’s novel is about Spencer’s subsequent ‘wanderings’ in Australia; it appeared in print a year before John Morgan published The Life and Adventures of William Buckley: Thirty-Two Years a Wanderer Amongst the Aborigines of the Then Unexplored Country Round Port Phillip, now the Province of Victoria (1852) – and a decade before Horace Wheelwright’s Bush Wanderings of a Naturalist; or, Notes on the Field Sports and Fauna of Australia Felix (1861). Wandering was a colonial trope, structurally defined against the emigrant’s imperative to settle; it relates a series of incidents that often involve the character literally losing his way. Richard Hibbitt has noted that the noun error derives from the Latin verb errare – to wander – which leads him to think about what he calls ‘the value of detour’ in the nineteenth century bildungsroman (31). Can wandering have a goal or a purpose? In Spencer’s case, he has just one aim while in Australia: to shoot a kangaroo. ‘If I could but shoot a kangaroo’, he tells himself, ‘I would go back [to India] directly’ (30). Killing a kangaroo, as the novel puts it, is ‘the object of his present ambition’ (35).

Lee’s Adventures in Australia is nevertheless determined to see to Spencer’s education, despite his reluctance to learn. The author immerses him in the details of native species (he examines, and often eats, almost every species he sees), and launches him directly into frontier conflict. Attacked by a group of Aboriginal people, Spencer fires above their heads and quickly moves on. Wandering is outside the paradigm of settlement and its role in Aboriginal dispossession; Spencer keeps moving to avoid conflict, but it follows him wherever he goes (‘Traces of the native Australians were now seen to be everywhere’, 109). Under attack again, he kills an Aboriginal man. The novel writes, ‘he felt greatly distressed at having been obliged to kill the native . . . it preyed upon him’ (73). This is the first moral lesson his frontier experience has to offer, although it might seem at odds with his earlier role as a military officer in India active during the Anglo-Sikh Wars. We might therefore say that Spencer’s time in Australia functions as another kind of detour for him, inviting a different kind of reflection.

Meanwhile, Spencer helps a wounded Aboriginal man called Kinchela. Later, they speak Malay together, rather than the debased form of pidgin English we find in Porter’s Alfred Dudley. They become companions: Lee is less invested in the kind of master-servant relationship we saw with Dudley and Mickie in Porter’s novel. She in fact refers to Kinchela as ‘the Australian’, giving him some level of equality with Spencer – who then watches him expertly stalk, hunt and kill ‘an enormous kangaroo’ and afterwards praises the Aboriginal man ‘for his skill and courage’ (148). Unlike Alfred Dudley, Spencer never intervenes in the kill, nor does Kinchela ever need his help. When he watches Kinchela cook the meat afterwards, he recognises that he ‘far out-does my best efforts’ (135). He initially feels disgust at the way Kinchela eats the kangaroo (his ‘gross habits’); but in contrast to Dudley, he ‘tried to reason himself out of the disgust which he felt’ (149). Unusually, Spencer is the one who needs to adjust in this novel, adapting his perspective in recognition of new expressions of cultural difference. It makes this particular bildungsroman reconcile the ‘primitive and elemental’ and ‘morally uplifting’ responses to the hunt in a way we did not see with Porter. Spencer reflects at one point that his journey ‘has only been for the gratification of my appetite’ (283); ‘there is a charm in this wild life’, he writes, ‘which attaches me to the place, and I feel as if I could not as yet go back to the old world forms’ (290).

Adventures in Australia is close in kind to The Life and Adventures of William Buckley, since it charts a similar account of a solitary European who comes to live with Aboriginal people, recognising their customs and practices and even getting involved in inter-tribal warfare. At one point, Spencer joins a group of Aboriginal people on a large-scale kangaroo hunt: ‘it was no longer the stealthy, artful attack of the native . . . it was a regular battue . . . the natives then dashed on them with their spears, and effected a great slaughter’ (259–60). Lee’s novel was illustrated by emigrant artist John Skinner Prout, who lived and worked in Tasmania for much of the 1840s. Prout’s lithograph of the battue (Figure 1) shows Aboriginal people surrounding a large mob of kangaroos, spearing them at close range. But it also shows Spencer on his horse, charging through the centre (more in keeping with his military identity). He clearly stands out here – accentuated by his white dress and white horse – going against the collective spirit of the battue and scattering the kangaroos in front of him. But he is carrying a spear, not a rifle; so, in this sense, he is integrated into the action, and he is certainly an enthusiastic participant. In the novel, he makes a series of ethnographic observations about Aboriginal hunting, the rights to game, and so on, all of which suggest he is learning from his experiences. He has also come to understand that Aboriginal hunting is a matter of recognising tribal boundaries: ‘each tribe in every part had its peculiar hunting grounds, though disputes often arose about the boundaries, and led to war. When white man, however, appeared, they did not mind these boundaries, and took all, drove Kangaroos away, and by-and-bye they should all starve’ (236–37). This is the point of view of a wanderer – not a settler – who is steadily gaining Aboriginal knowledges, at least as far as the novel understands them.

Figure 1: ‘The Kangaroo Hunt’ by John Skinner Prout, in Sarah Porter’s Alfred Dudley; or, The Australian Settlers.
Figure 1: ‘The Kangaroo Hunt’ by John Skinner Prout, in Sarah Porter’s Alfred Dudley; or, The Australian Settlers.

Early in the novel, Spencer goes into a cave and sees ‘a rude painting of a man carrying a Kangaroo, and also a number of those animals, with a spear-head flying among them’; he thinks the paintings ‘showed a greater degree of civilisation among the natives than he thought they possessed’ (89). This is another moment in his education, and it also reveals another important Australian source for Lee’s novel. She takes her account of Aboriginal cave paintings from the ambitious explorer and army officer George Grey’s Journals of Two Expeditions of Discovery in North-West and Western Australia, published in London in 1841. Towards the end of 1837, Grey mounted a hazardous expedition that began in Hanover Bay, north of Broome, in the Kimberley region. On 26 March 1838, Grey sketched some paintings he saw in caves near the Glenelg River: in fact, he was the first European to produce a record of Aboriginal rock art. One of these represented ‘a kangaroo in the act of feeding, two stone spearheads, and two black balls; one of the spearheads was flying to the kangaroo, and one away from it; so that the whole subject probably constituted a sort of charm by which the luck of an enquirer in killing game could be ascertained’ (204).

Captain Spencer’s journey loosely follows Grey’s route as the latter makes his way down the coast (eventually) towards the Swan River. Lee also reproduces some of Grey’s observations about native flora and fauna, his ethnographic details about Aboriginal people, and his experiences of violent frontier conflict. These two texts connect the notes of an ex-military wanderer to the journals of a military explorer sent by the Colonial Office to establish the basis for settlement in Western Australia: so wandering may not be all that far from colonial expansion after all. Spencer’s experiences give us a character on the verge of ‘going native’. But in a discussion of Benjamin Disraeli’s contemporaneous novel Tancred; or, The New Crusade (1847), Cara Murray suggests that the bildungsroman ‘ensures that nobody “goes native”’ (85): wandering characters like Disraeli’s protagonist are always, finally, reabsorbed back into the acquisitive logics of empire. In Lee’s novel, Captain Spencer finally journeys east to South Australia where he meets a wealthy squatter, Philip St John. ‘Where we now stand’, St John tells him, ‘there will probably, in a few years, be the homestead of some settler’ (283). But when Spencer tells the story of his wanderings, the squatter is at least encouraged to reflect on the role of land acquisition in Aboriginal dispossession:

What you told me last night, about their inherited hunting grounds, prevented me from sleeping soundly . . . my mind was labouring under a feeling of usurpation, which made me very uncomfortable . . . we have usurped their lands, and driven Kangaroo away, as they say, which, in other words, is to deprive them of their sustenance. (285–86)

This is a lesson the wanderer can now pass on to the settler: disturbing the colonial project with guilt (and sleeplessness). Other settlers pressure Spencer to join them; romantic possibilities present themselves; but Spencer remains in character as a wandering, solitary figure and, with his horse, dog and parrot, finally leaves Australia and returns to military service in Bombay.

Lee’s Adventures in Australia is a tribute to species biodiversity at the edge of empire. But Lee also situates this within a framework of natural theology, where to learn about the natural world is to appreciate the sheer range of God’s creation: enabling readers, as she puts it, to ‘admire His wonderful works’ (51). The third kangaroo hunt novel we want to discuss – written once again by an English woman who never came to Australia – is Anne Bowman’s The Kangaroo Hunters; or, Adventures in the Bush (1858). Bowman was the eldest daughter of a well-respected amateur naturalist from Newcastle, Robert Benson Bowman. With her brother Thomas, she took over the family printing and bookselling business in Richmond. She was also a prolific writer and educationalist, publishing a series of school textbooks, advice books for women on domestic economy and, interestingly, a raft of adventure novels that took their young protagonists to various frontiers around the globe.

The novels by Porter and Lee were published by small-scale specialist publishers in London and probably sold modestly. But The Kangaroo Hunters enjoyed an ‘unusually high degree of popularity’, published in multiple editions in London and New York by Routledge, in Philadelphia by Porter and Coates, translated into French, and reprinted later on in Melbourne by E. W. Cole (Pope 36). It begins in England by introducing Mr Mayburn, a recently widowed parish priest with ‘ornithological tastes’ who, now that his capable wife has died, is concerned about the future education of his children (6). The cleric naturalist was by this time a familiar figure who worked to reinforce the connections between natural history, theology and education. William Paley’s Natural Theology; or, Evidence of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity was published in 1802; the following year saw the publication of William Bingley’s popular Animal Biography, which argued that the study of natural history would bring about the moral improvement of the ‘rising generation’: ‘they must not be contented merely with reading: the principal use of [natural history] is to direct them to contemplations on the objects themselves, and to induce a taste for more minute investigation’ (24–25). Bowman’s adventure novels take up this challenge, sending their characters to remote locations where they can immerse themselves in what Bingley had called, drawing on the Swedish zoologist Carl Linnaeus, ‘the empire of nature’ (also the title of John MacKenzie’s book): meaning, among other things, species you would find across the British empire. Bingley is a possible model for Mr Mayburn; in The Kangaroo Hunters, he takes his children, Hugh, Arthur and Margaret – along with Gerald, the son of a dying friend, and two parish orphans, Jack and Ruth – to Australia, intending to do missionary work. But the aim is also to educate these children in the natural sciences, to encourage the ‘minute investigation’ of species; Gerald, he complains, ‘has no taste . . . He has no judgement in the science. He has never learned to distinguish the Corvidae [crows, ravens, etc.] from the Columbidae [pigeons, doves]’ (6).

In the event, Mayburn and the children are shipwrecked on an island somewhere off the coast of Western Australia: ‘Worse than Robinson Crusoe’s island’, Hugh declares, ‘for we have not even the goats’ (76). They do manage to retrieve guns and powder, but the question of whether to use them on the frontier provokes an ethical discussion. ‘Shed no blood, I beseech you, my son’, Mayburn says to Arthur; ‘We are intruders; do not let us become invaders . . . Even if we should be attacked, we have no right to retaliate, but should rather take to flight’ (77–78). Mayburn’s position recalls both Alfred Dudley (‘my principles revolt from scenes of blood’) and Captain Spencer – except that Mayburn will not even shoot in self-defence. He has the same view of native species, urging restraint even as he encourages the children to collect specimens for him: ‘I release you from the severe studies which . . . are unfitted to our circumstances and the relaxing climate. I merely require from you to obtain me specimens – single specimens only . . . and, if it were not cruel, I should long to possess some of these rare creatures in all their beauty’ (90). But the children almost immediately begin to kill animals and birds, feasting on the spoils. They then pause to consider the ethical implications of shooting Aboriginal people. ‘I should not feel that I had the same right to shoot a native’, Arthur says, ‘that I had to shoot a kangaroo’ (170). As Spencer does in Lee’s novel, the children go into a cave and look at rock art: ‘I couldn’t draw so good a kangaroo as that myself’, Gerald remarks (174). Under attack from Aboriginal people soon afterwards, Gerald wounds one of them with his hand-made bow and arrow. Another attack sees Arthur shoot an Aboriginal man in the head with his rifle (207). The Kangaroo Hunters is thus a frontier novel which 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.

Later, the group comes across the aftermath of an inter-tribal war and rescues an Aboriginal woman and her child. The novel reproduces the kind of relationships we have already seen with Mickie in Alfred Dudley and Kinchella in Adventures in Australia, where settler intervention is rewarded with Aboriginal gratitude and service – while at the same time (in Adventures in Australia, at least) some level of Aboriginal autonomy is granted. The woman, Baldabella, ‘despised assistance’ (223), the novel tells us, and like Kinchella she turns out to be a successful kangaroo hunter. Mayburn’s sons soon plead for a kangaroo hunt: ‘We are hungry, and kangaroo meat would fill us’, Hugh says to his father; ‘and therefore . . . we have a right to kill and eat’ (226). The ethical discussion about the right to kill turns to weighing up the value of different native species: ‘it is more humane’, Hugh argues, ‘to destroy one kangaroo than a dozen cockatoos or pheasants’ (227). But Baldabella is the first to kill a kangaroo, with her boomerang. Later, when she is captured by an Aboriginal tribe, Arthur shoots a kangaroo with his rifle and trades the animal for her release – which elicits further Aboriginal gratitude and obligation.

One ‘morally uplifting’ lesson here is to do with identifying the proper limits to settler violence against Aboriginal people. ‘We have no right deliberately to destroy so many human lives’ (292), Arthur says; ‘We are in the power of these strangers . . . our only hope must be in conciliation and treaty’ (387). Killing native species, on the other hand, is tied to more ‘primitive and elemental’ needs. Kangaroo hunting in particular is claimed as a ‘right’, not least, to satisfy this family’s voracious appetites; but it can also produce the kind of disgust we saw with Alfred Dudley. When Hugh and Gerald chase a kangaroo into a cave, they engage in a frantic struggle – with Hugh held tight in the kangaroo’s embrace, as the illustration in the 1858 Porter and Coates edition shows (Figure 2). As Gerald stabs him, the kangaroo lashes out and the boy is badly injured. Hugh finally kills the animal, but is immediately filled with remorse: ‘I should never like to kill another in that way; it was just like murdering one’s grandfather’ (350). Even so, the boys continue to entertain the fantasy of a life devoted entirely to kangaroo hunting. As Hugh expresses it, ‘we will squat by ourselves; like Robinson Crusoe and his man Friday, build a hut, and shoot kangaroos’ (369). This is a fantasy about the castaway adventure novel as a perpetual source of pleasure, untroubled by frontier violence and with kangaroos as an endlessly renewable resource, this time to be hunted without limits – where ‘Kangaroos . . . abound here enough for all’ (385).

Figure 2: ‘Fight with the Kangaroo’, in Anne Bowman’s The Kangaroo Hunters; or, Adventures in the Bush.
Figure 2: ‘Fight with the Kangaroo’, in Anne Bowman’s The Kangaroo Hunters; or, Adventures in the Bush.

But Bowman’s novel finally returns its wandering family to a post-frontier world of settlement. Mayburn and his children are reunited with a squatter they had met when they emigrated to Australia, Edward Deverell – who by this time has established a prosperous homestead and station. ‘Our black neighbours are all tame’ (443), he says, and the station itself is vigorously protected by native police. Deverell has none of the settler melancholy we saw with Philip St John in Lee’s novel. Aboriginal people are either dispossessed or placed in local schools; the land is now cultivated, with orchards and vineyards; the emphasis is again on ‘comforts’ but also on plenitude and abundance and ‘hospitality’. Mayburn’s family settles on the property; the one concession to the improving influence of natural history is to build a local museum for native species. Having reabsorbed its roaming characters into the ‘acquisitive logics of empire’, however, this particular bildungsroman seems uncertain about its closing lessons. Arthur decides to return to England to complete his education. Margaret decides to teach in the local schools. But Gerald – who Mayburn identified at the beginning of the novel as a young man with ‘no taste . . . no judgement in the science’ – becomes a head ranger and promises to ‘call you all around me for a field-day, to beat the bushes, and keep up our character of successful KANGAROO HUNTERS’ (463). Kangaroo hunting is, by the end of the novel, a post-frontier activity, recreational (for pleasure) rather than essential (for survival). It is cast as the means of transitioning from emigrant to settler; it also works to transform the old model of the cleric naturalist into a new form of active secular masculinity where the scientific study of species is now residual, secondary to the project of land development and settler expansion.

None of these three colonial novels by British women has a strong female protagonist, with the possible exception of Baldabella in The Kangaroo Hunters. Their focus is instead on young men on the frontier, their conduct, and the lessons they are capable of learning. Porter’s novel wants settlement without ‘scenes of blood’: which means the kangaroo hunt must be a relic of the frontier, something you have to leave behind. Lee’s novel gives freer play to the kangaroo hunt, exploring its possibilities for both Aboriginal and settler identities; its wandering, kangaroo-hunting protagonist has the capacity to disturb the complacency of settlement, but (returning to India at the end) leaves its progress unchecked. Bowman’s novel puts the kangaroo hunt into an ethical discussion of killing on the frontier; but when the frontier is over and settlement triumphs, it also wants to claim the romance of the kangaroo hunt as a formative, defining aspect of settler identity. These British adventure novelists imagine frontier experiences in Australia by drawing on a range of available London-published source material about the colonies. To recall John MacKenzie’s remark, their novels are all about ‘killing for character formation’ – or in some cases, not killing. The kangaroo hunt is a ‘primitive and elemental’ event, an ‘ambition’, an adventure. But it also works as a testing ground for young settlers-to-be, something to survive and in some cases, finally, to put behind them. The ‘morally uplifting’ trajectory for the kangaroo hunter here is settlement itself.

Published 5 July 2019 in Volume 34, No. 1.. Subjects: Australian animals, Bildungsroman, Colonial literature & writers, Kangaroo hunt, Sarah Porter, Sarah Bowdich Lee, Anne Bowman.

Cite as: Gelder, Ken and Rachael Weaver. ‘The Australian Kangaroo Hunt Novel (1830–1858) as Bildungsroman.’ Australian Literary Studies, vol. 34, no. 1, 2019.