Review: Rex Butleron the colonial kangaroo

Unprecedented Creatures

The European explorers and colonists who came to Australia in the late eighteenth century were struck by the unprecedented kangaroo. James Cook, after running aground on a reef off far north Queensland in June 1770, spotted one ‘the full size of a Grey Hound, but for its walking or running, in which it jump’d like a Hare or Deer’. John White, the surgeon general of the new colony, noted that its velocity ‘as far outstrips that of a greyhound as that animal outstrips that of a common dog’.

Of course, from the beginning the kangaroo was hunted as a source of necessary food by the hungry arrivals. Just days after seeing his first kangaroo, Cook sent a man ashore to kill one and bring it back to the ship. Watkin Trench, a marine on the First Fleet, later remarked that ‘the tail is considered the most delicate part, when stewed’. And, in the early days of the colony, as the first plantings failed, the colonists had regularly to hunt kangaroos to survive. As Francis Barrallier, an explorer and land surveyor, recorded in his Journal, ‘Kangaroo soup comforted us and made us forget our fatigue for a while’.

Then, as the colony prospered and spread, the newcomers could begin to imagine first that they were still part of England and later that they had found their own distinctive culture. Kangaroo hunting soon became a sport in emulation of the British leisured classes. The colonists initially brought hunting dogs from England and subsequently began to breed their own suited to the challenging task of chasing kangaroos over rough terrain. Here is a correspondent for the Tasmanian resorting to some lines from Sir Walter Scott to evoke the way the hunt brought the colonists together and fostered the camaraderie necessary to sustain a British outpost on the other side of the world: ‘Their peal the merry horns rung out,/ A hundred voices joined the shout;/ With bark, and woop, and wild halloo’. And as the colony further grew, the settlers began more and more to emulate the manners and etiquette of the English fox hunt, although the kangaroo was a much more formidable and ultimately gratifying quarry. Here is a report in the July 1835 edition of the Colonial Times of a hunt involving the wealthy landowner Thomas Gregson of Risdon in Tasmania that is seen to offer a special test of the colonial dogs. It speaks at once of a continued emulation of the customs of the motherland and even, as kangaroos are favourably compared to foxes, something of a competition with them: ‘Fox hunting is as far inferior to following the hounds after a boomer, as sparrow shooting is to that of snipe’.

Still later, as the colony moves beyond Sydney and Hobart and extensive grazing lands are opened up for sheep and cattle, both to feed those now working in cities and to export back to England, settlers from the mid-nineteenth century on began systematically clearing the land. Kangaroos henceforth are seen not as the original inhabitants of the place the colonists had only recently come to, but as a pest in competition with the species the Europeans had introduced. The squatter Niel Black, owner of the extensive property Glenormiston, near Terang in Victoria’s Western District, speaks of ‘one of the grandest kangaroo hunts ever had’, in which over 20,000 kangaroos were driven into an enclosure, with half of them escaping but the rest ‘slaughtered in the yard’. And the only regret such landholders express – consistent with the growing industrialisation of agriculture – is that they did not make proper use of the kangaroos killed but typically only cut off their tails and handed the rest over to the few Aboriginal inhabitants allowed to remain on the land. This, to draw a distinction, would no longer be a ‘frontier’ activity, part of the necessary encounter of the European colonisers with the new world they now inhabited, but a ‘post-frontier’ one, which is about exploiting to the maximum extent the land taken from its traditional owners, along with its fauna and flora. (For, along with the clearing of the land of kangaroos, went the cutting down of such things as the native forests to allow for the greater cultivation of the soil.)

And, along with the clearing of the land of kangaroos, there was a commensurate clearing of the land of its original human inhabitants. (Ironically, the large-scale rounding up of kangaroos was indebted to the Aboriginal method of hunting them by driving them into a waiting corral of humans armed with spears, which was given the name battue, derived from the French for battle or struggle.) In the early days of the colony, Aboriginal people were taken from the land because, as much as anything, they were competing for the same kangaroos and the land had to be cleared to plant crops. Later, as the European possession of the land grew more certain, some Aboriginal people were allowed to participate in the hunting of kangaroos – and, indeed, before the adoption of the battue, there exist several written and pictorial depictions of Aboriginal people being permitted to shoot the colonists’ guns. Here is Robert Dawson, manager of a million-acre property north of Newcastle, writing of the uneasy détente achieved between Europeans and Aboriginal people over the hunting of kangaroos, although to be clear Aboriginal people were always placed in a subservient position operating under European instruction: ‘[After] we bivouacked for the night on the banks of the Karuah … My black friends had squatted themselves around the fire, smoking their pipes, and awaiting their turn to partake of the favourite beverage’.

All of this is to be found in Ken Gelder and Rachael Weaver’s The Colonial Kangaroo Hunt, their history of the hunting of the kangaroo by the British colonists and the various methods it went through and different meanings that became attached to it. Much of the book is the meticulous recreation of the practice through a vast array of colonial newspapers, reports, travelogues and memoirs. The book reveals how, despite the kangaroo soon becoming the best-known symbol of the land, it was hunted at first individually for food and then in increasingly great numbers to clear the land, as though beyond any sustenance they might take from livestock it represented a past or prior occupation of the country that the colonists would rather not be reminded of. The authors trace the shift in its depiction, from at first being seen as living peacefully ‘in flocks like sheep’, in the words of explorer John Oxley in 1820, to being a ‘scourge and an oppressor, eating the sparse herbage of the overstocked squatter’, in the words of grazier Rolf Boldrewood in 1884. They follow how the hunting of kangaroos moved from a quotidian necessity to a wider social celebration that at first drew on the rituals of Empire and then sought to surpass them. There have already been, of course, both scientific and popular accounts of the kangaroo before this – to name just two, Terence Dawson’s Kangaroos (2012) and John Simons’ Kangaroo (2013) – but Gelder and Weaver are the first to narrate the birth of the colony through its relationship to the kangaroo, or even to suggest that the hunting of the kangaroo is a metaphor for the newly emerging Australia.   

The book is a slow burn, narrated in a patient, detailed and largely emotionally detached style. Although each new written or visual source is almost invariably exposed as racist in its assumptions, the authors hold back their ultimate argument until almost the very end. The book has chapters on the first shooting of the kangaroo, its being hunted, first as sport and then as business, and even the relationship between the colonists and Aboriginal people through the hunt, but they are all documentary. Even when artists depicted scenes they had never actually witnessed they worked off eye-witness accounts.

It is only in the final chapter, ‘Kangaroo Hunt Novels and Fantasies’, that the authors really let go – or slightly let go, for their tone still remains scholarly and impartial. Gelder and Weaver look at a number of novels, fictionalised memoirs and illustrated children’s books that take the kangaroo hunt as their subject. Amongst them are Sarah Porter’s Alfred Dudley; or, The Australian Settlers (1830), in which a young English boy emigrates to Australia and bonds with Aboriginal people over kangaroo hunting; Sarah Bowdich Lee’s Adventures in Australia; or, the Wanderings of Captain Spencer in the Bush and the Wilds (1851), in which a British soldier becomes lost in the outback and meets and helps a wounded Aboriginal man who teaches him how to hunt kangaroos; and Ethel Pedley’s Dot and the Kangaroo (1899), in which a kangaroo finds a young girl who is lost in the bush, takes her to a corroboree and then leads her back to the family farm. In all of them – this reflecting the liberties allowed in fiction – the authors are no longer tethered by facts or even internalised social norms, but are freely able to express what is on their minds, or even give expression to what is not on their minds or what they do not even know about themselves yet.

Here is Gelder and Weaver’s payoff. Like patients talking to their psychoanalyst, it is through these fictional texts that the new colonists reveal themselves. By projecting their fears and desires about the kangaroo they are able to speak of who they are and what they believe in a way they otherwise could not. It is in these fictions – and others that Gelder and Weaver treat – that they say it as clearly as they can to someone who is properly listening: the hunting and killing of kangaroos is a stand-in for the hunting and killing of Aboriginal people. And it is only on this basis – that in effect Aboriginal peoples help hunt and do away with themselves – that Europeans and Aboriginal peoples could form any kind of a relationship.

What the colonists truly meant when they trapped and shot kangaroos or otherwise drove them off the land was clear even in those newspaper accounts and official reports discussed earlier, but it is in this last chapter that Gelder and Weaver allow themselves to spell it out. At one point, they quote the talking kangaroo from Dot and the Kangaroo: ‘“White humans are cruel, and love to murder”, the kangaroo says. “We must all die”’. While they conclude of the lesson the young boy learns in Sarah Porter’s Alfred Dudley: ‘Aboriginal people are not dispossessed here, but they are only accommodated insofar as they fit into the novel’s framework for what constitutes successful colonial settlement’. But, then, tipped off by this late insight, we can see the same point hinted at everywhere in what comes before. It is there already in the chapter ‘The Kangaroo Hunt as Sport’, in which they write of Charles Troedel’s revised lithograph version of Nicholas Chevalier’s Mt Abrupt, The Grampians (1864), in which the original Aboriginal family at rest has been replaced by a group of European men on horseback chasing kangaroos: ‘It is as if the kangaroo hunt has wiped out any trace of Aboriginal presence in the land’. And even those first encounters with the kangaroo were already understood as a substitute for the encounter with those other Indigenous inhabitants . As Gelder and Weaver say of a vivid description by John Hunter, the second governor of the colony after Arthur Phillip, of a fight he saw between a kangaroo and dog: ‘At one level, it works as a precursor to violence on the colonial frontier as local Aboriginal populations are killed or dispossessed’.

The thought that the kangaroo, not just in fictional fantasies but in the most documentary of colonial descriptions, stands in for Aboriginal people is extraordinary. Put simply, we will never be able to look at another written or pictorial description of a kangaroo hunt the same way, or at kangaroos themselves. Of course, we might have been tipped off to such a brilliant analytical alternative by Gelder and Weaver’s previous work. Gelder’s co-written 1998 Uncanny Australia: Sacredness and Identity in a Post-Colonial Nation is one of the first books to in effect psychoanalyse Australian culture and Weaver’s 2006 study of the nineteenth-century mass murderer Frederick Deeming, The Criminal of the Century, is a study not only of a single psychopath but a whole society. And art historians since David Hansen’s extraordinary retrospective of John Glover at the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery in 2003 have learnt to read the otherwise unexplained black tree stumps in Glover’s work as memorials to the Aboriginal people killed and displaced during Tasmania’s Black Wars. I have been at lectures drawing on the material of the book in which Gelder and Weaver have presented their argument and heard the audience gasp at the obviousness of it, as though our collective unconscious has finally been analysed, so that even though we might continue to perpetrate the same injustices we cannot any longer say we are unaware of doing so.

Tim Bonyhady’s The Enchantment of the Long-Haired Rat: A Rodent History of Australia is a very different creature. It is altogether more diffuse, ground-level and harder to get your arms around. If the kangaroo enables the analysis of a whole culture and society, the problem Bonyhady has is saying something fixed and identifiable about the rat at all. Paradoxically, if the rat stands for anything, it is for all of those creatures that are too small to come to our attention, too insignificant to make stand for anything, or at least for one single thing. (Throughout the book, Bonyhady will speak at once of all the creatures the rat is mistaken for and all of the creatures that are mistaken for the rat.) But, of course, in saying this, as Bonyhady is well aware, he is making the rat the greatest of all creatures, the democratic representative of all those without a voice. Indeed, the only word Bonyhady allows himself to describe the rat, repeating that of two CSIRO scientists who, after spending weeks trying to catch one in their trap as part of an experiment, go outside of their tent one night with torches to see them scurrying everywhere, is ‘fantastic’. Or to put all of this another way, if the metaphor of the kangaroo is some attempt to speak of what cannot be spoken of, so that it can be objectified and forgotten, the rat speaks of the impossibility of this, the constant return of the repressed, despite the best efforts of settlers to do away with it and live as though the land has always been theirs.

Or at least until recently. If the majority of Bonyhady’s book deals with the periodic and unceasing ‘irruption’ of the long-haired rat population out of nothing after long periods of drought and despite the depredation of such introduced species as cats and rabbits, towards the end of the book he raises the possibility that this periodic demonstration of nature’s power, of something that is outside the reach of the human, is coming to an end. The effects of long-term climate change are no more visibly to be seen than with this otherwise invisible occupant. In the final mournful words of the book, Bonyhady writes: ‘If not even the exceptional rains of 2010 and 2011 could lead the rat to irrupt on an immense scale, what will? The mayaroo’s great days and those of its [predator] kite are gone’. And it is perhaps no coincidence that for a long time Bonyhady has attempted to theorise a new environmental law, which would be a matter not of amending the existing framework within a world-view still centred on the human, but entirely refiguring the law in the name of all relevant ‘actors’, both human and non-human. Bonyhady speaks of the impending extinction not only of the long-haired rat but of many species of Australian rats, and of course one of the implications – as with the kangaroo – is that we are one of them.