Aborigines as comic aliens – William Wilkes

The first Queensland poet in this tradition is William Wilkes (also spelt Wilks), who was editor of the Moreton Bay Courier (now the Courier Mail) from around 1848 to 1856. His poem ‘The Raid of the Aborigines’ addresses in a comic fashion, the ‘battle of the One-Tree Hill’, which took place near Helidon, in the Lockyer Valley, in 1842.  According to a contemporary source, this involved a local aboriginal group robbing the camp of some white settlers who were travelling to the Darling Downs, of ‘flour, sugar sheep shears… watches, clothing, and, in fact, whatever suited them best’[8]. Some locals pursued them up a hill, where the natives defended themselves by rolling stones.

A group of twenty white settlers followed ‘the blacks’ on foot, and after 3 weeks some kind of truce was reached and ‘so, in that direction, the war between the races ended’[9]

Wilkes’ mock epic poem describing the battle was not published until 1875, two years after his death. Though the battle itself appeared to involve no fatalities, Wilkes begins by noting the aborigines as killing shepherds (but not their sheep) with impunity:

‘For though, as you know, when a shepherd we kill

The Jackeroos all smoke their pipes and sit still,

Yet they’ll turn out like madmen and boldly give battle

If they think we’ve been spearing their sheep or their cattle!’

To mark them as alien, he notes that the aborigines are ‘snake eating’ people, who pause on Helidon Hill for a feed of ‘savoury ‘possum’, ‘sweet flying fox’ and ‘delicate grub’. He pauses at length to describe the native tribe’s warpaint and armoury, but the ‘raid of the aborigines’ itself, only occupies 4 lines:

‘The grass he hath fired, their sheep he hath ta’en,

Their drays he hath plundered, their oxen hath slain.’

Almost the whole of the remaining 6 pages of the poem are given over to white retaliation, though as this is a comic poem, no-one ultimately gets hurt. What is clear is that there is simply no question that the Europeans have a right to be on the land. To the extent that aborigines prove a threat, they must be removed.

White violence as retaliation: Cornelius Moynihan

This theme carries through in a number of other poems of the period. Cornelius Moynihan, in The Feast of the Bunya, (1901), deals with the triennial gathering of southern Queensland aboriginal tribes at Mount Mowbullan to feast on bunya nuts.

The poem, which extends for the best part of some 900 lines in ballad metre, is not without its sympathies for aboriginal people, whose population in Queensland had, by the time of publication of the poem, dwindled to 15000.

However, Moynihan sees fit to deal over 3 pages with the aboriginal murder of the Fraser family in 1857, and the reprisals that followed. The acts are, it is clear, retaliation for aboriginal aggression:

And vengeance swiftly follows

The fiends in scores are slain

And heaps of skulls and thigh-bones

Lie bleaching on the plain.  [10]

There is no sense that occupation of the land might itself have been seen to be an act of aggression.