Encounters with Traditional Owners

What encounters? What owners? 

Judith Wright, in Aboriginals in Australian Poetry[1]notes that the major feature of 19th century Australian poetry, insofar as its attitude to aboriginal inhabitants is concerned, is the absence of almost any engagement with the traditional owners.

She says:

The list of Australian poets, from Gordon onwards, who simply do not mention aboriginals at all, is overwhelming in comparison to those who do.[2]

In Queensland, however, the position is slightly different. Until 1964, essentially all the Queensland poets who published books of verse were white, and, like most poets, they were for the most part concerned about themselves and perhaps their immediate surroundings rather than broader social conditions.

However, quite a number of the early poets who were concerned with social issues dealt with aboriginal themes, though not in a way which we could endorse now.

In general, those poets who did deal with aboriginal subject matter fall into 3 main groups:

  • those who wrote up to around 1905 dealt with aborigines as a threat, to be conquered, or occasionally as the subject of comedy;
  • those who wrote between 1905 and 1935 more or less ignored the aboriginal community even when the subject matter required otherwise; and
  • those who wrote between 1935 and 1959 saw aborigines as essentially a vanished race.

The reasons for this are relatively simple. In the period up to 1905, aboriginal population was in decline, either through the effects of an undeclared war on aboriginal population or through the impact of western diseases. In the period to 1935, most poets were unlikely to have had meaningful contact with aboriginal people at all. From 1935 onwards, a slow process of understanding, if not reconciliation, began.

For that reason, it is easier to find references to aboriginal themes in Queensland poetry in the first 50 years after separation than in the second.