Ludwig Leichhardt’s Ghosts: The Strange Career of a Traveling Myth
by Andrew Wright Hurley
Boydell & Brewer
Published October 2018
For since the haunting of the axe to strike the gum what built the boats to bear the breed they have always known the breath it was that woke the silence they were first not to hear— Evelyn Araluen
Friedrich Wilhelm Ludwig Leichhardt arrived in Botany Bay aboard the frigate Sir Edward Paget on the fourteenth day of February in 1842. He was 29, with two hundred pounds in his wallet, some clothes, and the necessary instruments for the study of natural science courtesy of his friend William Nicholson. Contrary to his hopes, he wasn’t immediately made director of the Botanic Gardens and bureaucracy stymied Thomas Mitchell’s mission to Port Essington in the north of the continent, in which he had hoped to participate.
Leichhardt funded his own by subscription in 1844. During the overland expedition from Port Moresby, two of the party turned back and the naturalist John Gilbert was killed during a retaliatory attack by Indigenous peoples. The rest arrived safely in Port Essington in December 1845. Having been given up for dead, the party were greeted as heroes on their return to Sydney in March 1846. Leichhardt was crowned the ‘Prince of Explorers’ by The Citizen.
In 1847, his next expedition attempted to cross the continent from Port Moresby to the Swan River. It was plagued by constant rain and abandoned due to the resulting illnesses. His final expedition left the north-western frontier at Mount Abundance in Queensland at the beginning of April 1848. He planned to reach the Swan River in two or three years, but vanished somewhere in a continental interior then unknown to European eyes. None of the expeditions sent after him during the next twenty years found much more than initials and dates scratched on trees. A burnt shotgun with a battered brass nameplate turned up in a boab tree at the border of Western Australia and the Northern Territory. A tent peg, a matchbox, and some ironwork from a saddle were found in the Gibson Desert further south. At times, these objects have been used as clues, but the likelihood they were traded between Aboriginal nations makes their status as evidence tenuous. Otherwise, Leichhardt ascended into myth and literature.
SMALL field telescope, brass and glassware.
TWO compasses, one prismatic.
LARGE silver hunting watch repaired in Brisbane.
MUZZLE-LOADING guns, double and single barrelled, brass-
mounted with steel ramrod.
VERY fine suite of French Glassware comprising five soda
glasses twenty-two ale glasses eight champagne and nine
ONE pair of silver-mounted double-barrelled pistols engraved
RB to LL.
HOBBLES, buckled, brass swivels.
TEA service (Derby Pattern) 13 cups and saucers.
LARGE tent, tent pegs iron.
OAK chest containing eleven solid silver afternoon teaspoons.
4 MELON shaped dish covers.
MAGNIFICENT rosewood Chippendale commode.
MEDICINE chest, borne on failed expedition to Swan river.
QUART pots, two nesting pannikins per man, each replete with
double wire handles.
LARGE very fine Dresden group of three figures ‘The Old Love
and the New’.
POWDER-FLASKS, brass and copper.
PAIR very handsome biscuit china figures, beautifully decorated
What is a ghost, asks Stephen Dedalus in Ulysses (1922). He concludes, roughly speaking, that it is a figure at the interstice of absence and presence, whether temporal, spatial or cultural. In Ludwig Leichhardt’s Ghosts, Andrew Wright Hurley takes the eponymous explorer as a ‘productive ghost’ of this kind, a liminal site of culture. Since his disappearance, Leichhardt has accrued a massive secondary literature. The historical studies conventionally move through the evidence towards a hypothesis of the explorer’s fate, but Hurley is more concerned with contrasting representations than likely answers. This departure from conventional biography is invited by the uncertainty of his subject’s archive: the empirical question of his fate — what Hurley calls the Leichhardt Mystery — and the hermeneutic question of his debated character and competence, which he calls the Leichhardt Enigma. This problem becomes the occasion for an alternative history foregrounding the hybridity and irresolution of its subject, rather than advancing a definitive interpretation.
Hurley calls this approach metabiography and ‘mortography’: the writing of death or of different hypothetical deaths. His method draws on Jacques Derrida’s concept of hauntology, formulated in Specters of Marx (1993), which is a better joke in French, where it’s homonymic with ‘ontology’ and less a neologism than an echo or distortion of ‘proper’ philosophy. More recently, Mark Fisher used it to think about the unravelling futures and unfulfilled promises of late capital. At its simplest, hauntology boils down to a way of thinking about the relationship between time, language and interpretation, without presupposing a working model thereof — a kind of negative historiography, if you like. According to Fredric Jameson, this approach recognises that ‘the living present is scarcely as self-sufficient as it claims to be; we would do well not to count on its density and solidity, which might under exceptional circumstances betray us’.
Hurley brings this approach to an archive deeply marked by its ambivalences and lacunae. In symbolic terms, the explorer is inherently liminal, transgressing what Valerio Massimo Manfredi describes as ‘the ancient god of the Limit’:
The spectre of Odysseus is part of the dawn of the referent … it should be said that the spectre was still hovering around the caravels of Christopher Columbus … since Verne and Conrad, the ghost of Odysseus has become more discreet, as the last blank spots were coloured in on world maps.
Conrad called exploration the conquest of truth. In that regard, it is occasionally styled as a uniquely secular, almost scientific heroic tradition. But despite the lustre of technical progress and ancient or archetypic symbolism, exploration is an uncannily ephemeral phenomenon. In her article ‘What is an Explorer?’ (2011), Adriana Craciun argues that, much like the Romantic author, the explorer is a false historical object. It is the creation of a privileged cultural moment of individuation, serving the convenience of the colonial project. Following Foucault, Craciun argues that explorers evolved as distinct figures as a ‘consumer product of the early tourism and travel industries developing in the nineteenth century age of empire’. She interprets the explorer as a signifier of solitary genius, writing over complex organisations of labour involving soldiers, scientists, botanists and mariners, not to mention Indigenous guides and trackers. Even when referring to a defining heroic figure of the nineteenth century, the term explorer retains an element of its pejorative pre-Victorian meaning: a ‘universally negative connotation of espionage or cowardly wandering … consistent with the Enlightenment French usage explorateur as a synonym for spy/espion’.
Craciun traces the semiotics of atmospheric phenomena in the writings of explorers in South America. She concludes that the optical illusion known either as Ulloa’s rings or Bouger’s halo becomes an organizing metaphor for the explorer subject-position. This structure organises landscapes such that the spectator is foregrounded with an illusion of exclusive possession:
In O’Reilly’s Luminous Phenomenon we see the makings of an author-centred ideal of exploration. A projected shadow in an empty void, a plagiarized text in an unauthorized format, a renegade theory from a self-promoting colonial impostor: the Luminous Phenomenon enlightens as a ‘hole in light’ does, making visible the making of an Explorer.
Paul Carter makes a familial point in The Road to Botany Bay (1987), where he notes a particular trope or gesture in the journals of a number of explorers, including Leichhardt. The strangeness and sublimity of the Australian continent prompts a reverie, in which key autobiographical details, mirage-like, briefly assume the qualities of a universal revelation, entangling the personal and the absolute. This optical effect has a temporal dimension with nationalist implications. As Robert Dixon notes in The Course of Empire (1986), the explorer-author operates as a vehicle for both past and future, becoming simultaneously ‘the prophet’ of a settler-colony’s ‘continental destiny’ and a historian of its cultural past. Paul Genoni identifies yet another duality: explorers’ journals had to satisfy the scientific priorities of official bodies of funding and patronage, and the political ones of public opinion.
These studies converge in ascribing to the explorer a distinctive slipperiness, reminiscent of that which Jameson considers a mark of modernity. In A Singular Modernity (2002), Jameson surveys a range of influential attempts to define his subject as a particular concept or project and concludes that it can be more accurately identified as a trope or uniquely energetic rhetorical effect, rather than anything more substantial. One of the most interesting dynamics of this trope is a slippage where the modernity effect appears to create itself, like a strange loop, ‘the production of the subject by the object and the object reciprocally by the subject’.
According to some observers, the explorer is also emblematic of a distinctly modern way of thinking about the connection between subjectivity and space. Craciun links a number of detailed descriptions of optical phenomena to the Cartesian and Kantian subject-positions that are broadly paradigmatic of modern philosophy. Further, the Argentine philosopher Enrique Dussel argues that the discovery of the ‘new world’ and the radical alienation from place it occasioned is the spatial expression of Cartesian dualism. He reads the position of the masterful explorer in a foreign land as a metonym of a sovereign and disembodied (ghostly) rationality: ‘Hernán Cortés was the first who could really claim the name and who epitomized modern subjectivity’.
Whether or not we follow this argument home philosophically, it resonates with key scenes of exploration literature. Conrad’s Mr Kurtz is an explorer and he epitomises a radical spatial alienation:
There was nothing either above or below him, and I knew it. He had kicked himself loose of the earth. Confound the man! He had kicked the very earth to pieces. He was alone, and I before him did not know whether I stood on the ground or floated in the air.
Conrad’s abyss recalls an epiphanic section of Nietzsche’s ‘Parable of the Madman’, which represents the consequences of the death of God as a vertiginous vision of an arbitrary and untethered cosmos. Kurtz’s dying vision of indelible horror can be interpreted in a number of ways: one of them is as an intimation of the sublimely empty universe beyond the dead God of the limit.
This survey suggests that the explorer is a signally complex figure: an invaluable concentration of intellectual property with potent political, romantic and colonial valencies, yet one fraught with slippage and contradiction. In Leichhardt’s case, we can add the fact of unexplained absence and racialised anxieties of emptiness. In the early Australian colonies, missing and otherwise ‘martyred’ white explorers became potent vehicles of nationalist sentiment. Elizabeth Furniss argues that the explorers became ‘condensed symbols’ of the aspirational values of Australia’s foundational history, but the failed or ghostly explorer has certain uses that eclipse those of the successful, living ones. An element of this process is broadly contextual: Felix Driver notes in Geography Militant (2001) that the Victorians had a flair for translating failure into martyrdom. But the process also addresses the particular exigencies of the Australian colonial project. Elspeth Tilley shows that narratives of white vanishing, a common trope in Australian literature, work to emplace and consolidate settlement. She argues that this process produces the illusion of an autochthonous European mythology, effecting ‘a white indigenization that displaces actual Indigenous claims to the land’. In addition to the pragmatic fact that the lost expedition generated recovery attempts, which charted new ground for the colony even though they didn’t find their object, Leichhardt’s ghost may have been more ideologically useful to settlement than his successful return.
Hauntology is a way of traversing this complex territory, and, by extension, thinking through some of the contradictions of modern Australia. Other than lurid conjectures in texts like Augustine’s City of God, the Australian continent entered the European mind through the writing of explorers. When Abel Tasman anchored at Blackmans Bay in Hobart, he noticed trees notched with flint instruments at long intervals and concluded that the inhabitants were giants, which eventually lead Jonathan Swift to locate the land of the Houyhnhnms roughly to the west of Tasmania in Gulliver’s Travels. This strain of fantastic and fetishised exoticism is one of the conspicuous forces in the development of Australian literary nationalism. It is palpable in Marcus Clarke’s seminal 1876 preface to the poetry of Adam Lindsay Gordon, where he christens Australia the continent of weird melancholy, and later in the fanciful Lemurian novels illustrating a lost (white) Atlantean civilisation in the interior.
This fantasy of belonging is a motif in a number of archetypic explorer narratives. The explorer’s heroic death in conflict, either with Indigenous people or the hostile landscape, transforms him into a sacrificial Aeneas whose death atones for colonial transgression and contributes to an authentic sense of settler dwelling. In the case of vanished explorers, this heroic motif sometimes joins that of the ‘Wild White Man’: a nativisation fetish simultaneously romanticised as a form of belonging and dreaded as a form of racial regression leading to miscegenation and insanity. The latter is present in Conrad’s portrayal of Kurtz, which was informed by the historical examples of Edmund Barttelot’s descent into violence and instability as leader of the rear column of the Emin Pasha expedition and the atrocities of the Voulet-Chanoine rebellion: ‘I’m no longer a Frenchman, I’m a black chief. With you, I will found an empire.’ In Australian fiction, Katharine Susannah Prichard’s Coonardoo (1929), Conrad Sayce’s Comboman (1934), and Xavier Herbert’s Capricornia (1939) tread similarly fraught territory of racial mythology. In Leichhardt’s case, these affective materials acquire curiously Pentecostal overtones; the fledgling colony’s young prince of explorers is simultaneously apotheosized into a Christ-figure and an Abrahamic father siring a new race of ‘white black fellows’ in a hidden oasis in the interior.
The explorer hears words on the wind and the wind where it isn’t. The explorer wears a hat but no collar. He’s a crack shot but doesn’t like to kill, when he does he mutters reverently under his breath near the relevant carcass or corpse, before returning his gaze to the guillotine horizon. The explorer moves crookedly among society, he fumbles with his neckerchief and drinks too much with the one friend from university he still talks to. It’s important to stay abreast of abroad and skim the obituaries but the paler distance of the horizon is always calling him. The explorer knows that reality is elsewhere. The explorer chose the desert for its purity. The explorer died for our sins. The explorer rose from the dead because the explorer couldn’t die. The explorer has been seen on the road to Emmaus, where he left a footprint and a bootnail on the verandas of the Gundagai hotel where he skipped on the bill. The explorer would like to acknowledge™ the traditional owners™ of the land™ upon which he™ stands. The explorer sows the desert with dragon’s teeth which burrow for ground water, one day it will be a paradise with a day spa. The explorer scratches cuneiform hymns in the red red dirt. The explorer is dead, he remains dead, and we have killed him. The explorer will come again to judge the living and the dead. Consider then the explorer who came too soon, and had to follow the drovers back to lightning ridge. The explorer can be German or French, but he has to be Australian, which is good enough for any man. The explorer has a crisp turn of phrase and a cartographic eye. You shall hear of explorers and rumours of explorers and pale shadows shall drag themselves from the desert but be not troubled, the time of the explorer is not yet come. The explorer died for our pretext. If you meet the explorer on the road eat him.
Hurley navigates a cornucopia of Leichhardtian literature in English and German, including a Romantic eulogy penned by Henry Kendall in 1880, a boom of short fiction in the 1890s, a Nazi radio play in 1937, and of course Voss (1957). Patrick White’s best-known novel has been, like Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children (1940), a frequent candidate for the dubious label of great Australian novel, and the national sentiments involved in it. Voss is based on Leichhardt’s case, as it was rather disparagingly interpreted by Alec Chisholm’s Strange New World (1938). As White noted in ‘The Prodigal Son’, it was also informed by an alchemical process involving reading Eyre’s journals in London during the Blitz, his experiences of middle-eastern deserts in the British air force during the Second World War, and his reflections on Hitler, the ‘arch-megalomaniac of the day’. The novel’s genealogy is as motley as other explorer narratives and, Hurley notes, it also bears the mark of other literary Leichhardts in English and German. Hurley reads White’s portrait of Voss as a fractured assemblage of Modernism’s wider inheritance of colonial myth, emphasising the hybridity of the character, the novel, and the lineage which informs it, which has been minimised or misinterpreted at points in the history of White studies.
White’s critics are divided between those who consider him an essentially satirical formalist resembling a popular idea of Joyce and those who regard him as a psychoanalytic or spiritual prophet figure like Lawrence. This was the substance of the 1973 Quadrant debate between Dorothy Green and Leonie Kramer. It is evident today in the antithesis between Brigid Rooney’s description of White’s Dogwoods trilogy as ‘mythic, biblically charged national fictions,’ and Andrew McCann’s observation that White’s prose style empties out and travesties ‘as ruin the very signifiers of its own theological orientation’. The former version of White is epitomised by Stan Parker’s epiphany during the storm in The Tree of Man (1955):
As the rain sluiced his lands and the fork of lightning entered the crests of the trees. The darkness was full of wonder. Standing there somewhat meekly, the man could have loved something, someone, if he could have penetrated beyond the wood, beyond the moving darkness. But he could not, and in his confusion he prayed to God, not in specific petition, wordlessly almost, for the sake of company. Till he began to know every corner of the darkness, as if it were daylight, and he were in love with the heaving world, down to the last blade of wet grass.
This passage is representative of White’s poetics: a sweeping, dense psychological drama punctuated with ferrous lyricism, which yields to startling aphorism at his best and vacuous platitude at his worst. Even here, though, one notes that the vision is perspectival. According to the conventional narrative, White’s prophetic strain reached its height during his years at Castle Hill, after his return to Australia and before his move to Paddington in 1964, where he resumed writing for the theatre. The parodic dimension of his work then became increasingly prominent until it reached its zenith in Memoirs of Many in One (1986), which he claimed to have edited for one Alex Xenophon Demirjian Gray. While broadly accurate, the conventional narrative is short on detail: there are achingly transcendent passages in The Twyborn Affair (1979) and the portrayal of Amy Parker in The Tree of Man is exuberantly sardonic. The performative or negative dimension is also present in much of his earlier work and I would argue that the relationship between the numinous and the profane in his writing is a constitutive tension rather than an evolving philosophy.
Wilhemina R Huntley of Prospect House Point Piper is pleased to recommend one F. W. L. Leichhardt for divers matters botanical, cartographic, and generally exploratory. He comes from only the best Prussian families, is a commendably able leader, and has excellent table manners. He said something very nice about my niece Gertrude as she was descending the balustrade in her morning dress, chiffon and lace naturally, as the morning sun filled the hall lingering, as it will, over the trompe-l’œil. F.W.L. Leichhardt is a gentleman of the highest moral standing, having studied theology, lepidopterology and pneumatic thaumaturgy at the universities of Göttingen and Berlin, and is as sure a rein-hand with a Phaeton or a curricle as any in Christendom. F.W.L Leichhardt is sure to enliven the social occasion of your choice, from a formal evening ball to a casual soiree among family and close confidantes, he knows the rules of both whist and quadrille and is blessed with a fine manly baritone. F.W.L Leichhardt has inexhaustible uses, from polishing the silver to trimming the hedges and fishing vermin out of the ha-ha. When mixed with three parts weak soda water F.W.L Leichhardt will remove soot residues from ceiling-roses grimed by petroleum lamps. To make F.W.L. Leichhardt pare and quarter, put it in layers in a stone jar with sugar sprinkled between each; add a teacupful of water, and bake it in a cool oven.
When asked what poetry could do for Australia, A. D. Hope is said to have replied that it could justify its existence, succinctly summarising the latent complicity of settler writing. While the question of how far irony permeates White’s style is largely of an academic interest, it arguably acquires a larger significance in this context, particularly in his colonial novels, Voss and A Fringe of Leaves (1976). It is quite possible to read Voss in dramatically different ways. The earlier novel The Tree of Man certainly adopts an allegorical stance towards settlement, attempting to reify and justify it, populating what White called ‘the Great Australian Emptiness’. This is clear from its opening pages where Stan strikes a tree with an axe, and reinscribes terra nullius: ‘It was the first time anything like this had happened in that part of the bush.’ This national gesture is completed in the final pages, where Stan’s grandson ponders the poem he will write, which will sow the seeds of a richer Australian future:
So that in the end there were the trees. The boy walking through them with his head drooping as he increased in stature. Putting out shoots of green thought. So that, in the end, there was no end.
If one reads Voss through the same lens, as an extension of this agricultural labour, it becomes a sacrificial myth: a young man, who literalises and manifests a madness implicit in secular modernity, as Kirilov does in Dostoevsky’s Demons (1872), becomes a martyr, telepathically communes with his beloved Laura, and with the Unheimlichkeit of his absence inspires in a coterie of his settler disciples a more authentic mode of dwelling. This ambition is undeniably a force in the novel, but wittingly or otherwise White’s pessimism and instinct for irony eclipse his prophetic tendencies here.
The other Voss is a bathetic misadventure: an explorer dies in the desert and the clumsy metaphysical cant with which settlement marks his death is congruent with the incompetence that led him there. By way of example, a well-known passage in the novel occurs at Rhine Towers — loosely based on the Hunter Valley — after the party has left Sydney, but before their descent into the wilderness proper. It is often cited as an example of the novel’s gothic splendours, but it also features a sequence of vertiginous spatial distortion that recalls Conrad:
Presently the path, which had reached a razorback, bristling with burnt stumps, wound suddenly, violently, through a crop of shiny, black rocks, and plunged down. The saddle shot forward over the horse’s withers. The sober gelding propped on his four legs, before himself starting down. All was, indeed, headed downward. The world was slanted that way, a herd of goats clinging to it …
The horse had faith that paths do lead somewhere, and did follow, but the country itself was legendary. Birds plunged songless through the leaves in heavy flight. Dark birds, mostly. It was strange that such soft things could explode the silence, but they did, most vehemently, by their mere passage through it.
Voss was jubilant as brass. Cymbals clapped drunkenly. Now he had forgotten words, but sang his jubilation in a cracked bass, that would not have disgraced temples, because dedicated to God.
Yes. GOTT. He had remembered. He had sung it. It rang out shatteringly, like a trumpet
Even the depths lead upward to that throne, meandered his inspired thoughts. He straightened his shoulders, lying back along the croup of the crazily descending horse. It had become quite clear from the man’s face that he had accepted his own divinity … Almost at once, Voss realized that he was righting himself upon the saddle because it was no longer necessary to lean back. They had come to the bottom, and there was a woman looking at him.
The passage draws parodically on the literature of the sublime and the vision splendid associated with the romantic explorer; it also resonates with the climactic descent in Banjo Patterson’s The Man from Snowy River (1890). The Kantian ascension is rendered as a suicidal plummet averted only by the instincts of the explorer’s unfortunate horse. White’s characteristically liberal use of free-indirect discourse juxtaposes Voss’ immense self-absorption with the abrupt presence of Mrs. Judd to what can only be described as comic effect.
White’s treatment of the idea of a national sentiment is no more reverent. This is epitomised by the scene in which a commemorative statue of Voss is unveiled in the domain twenty years after the expedition and ‘hung with garlands of rarest newspaper prose. They would write about him in history books. The wrinkles of his solid, bronze trousers could afford to ignore the passage of time.’ Given White’s loyalty to the communion of enlightened outsiders, which receives its most complete treatment in Riders in the Chariot (1961), a case could be made for Voss having a more authentic legacy in the small circle of eccentrics gathered around Laura Trevelyan in the novel’s closing scenes. But the prose with which Laura delivers her injunction is dull, public and overdetermined, like Colonel Hebden’s fatuous descriptions of Voss as a god and a canonized saint at the ceremony.
In contrast, the chapters detailing the fate of the party, now split between Voss and Judd, are examples of White’s high-modernist impressionism at its sharpest, ranging back and forth across different timescales with the dying men and those sent to find them. Voss has his head removed by his Indigenous tracker Jackie, whom he had regarded, in his fantasies of supremacy, as his ‘footstool’, but at that point he may have already died of hunger and thirst:
The boy stood for a moment beneath the morning star. The whole air was trembling on his skin. As for the head-thing, it knocked against a few stones, and lay like any melon. How much was left of the man it no longer represented? His dreams fled into the air, his blood ran out upon the dry earth, which drank it up immediately. Whether dreams breed, or the earth responds to a pint of blood, the instant of death does not tell.
Frank Le Mesurier, the poet who is compelled by his leader’s madness as an aesthetic phenomenon, takes his own life in despair and Judd’s party die abject deaths of sun and deprivation, with the exception of their convict leader, who survives but becomes crazed. This section of the novel is an exquisite portrait of death and decline. Its desert mysticisms are better read as the meandering of decaying minds than glimpses of revelation. The damascene moment of clarity and confession which precedes Voss’ death is only a revelation of ordinary materiality. The apparently telepathic communion of Voss and Laura has no transcendent status; it is a romance of dream and delusion.
The blunt nihilism of Voss’ fate is nonetheless attended by a number of spiritualising gestures from Laura and Judd, but they are comparatively feeble, almost formalities. Vrasidas Karalis reports that Manoly Lascaris, Patrick White’s partner of 49 years, remarked that the author sometimes struggled to accept the consequences of his own discoveries. The novel’s ambitions are contiguous with its protagonist’s; rather than spiritually or artistically justifying settlement, Voss dramatises its own failure to do so. Like its author, and the explorer literature it draws upon, it is composed of contradictory tendencies, which incline more towards disintegration than transcendence. In that sole sense, White’s explorer is an authentic prophet of settlement.
‘There is no “real” Australia waiting to be uncovered,’ writes Richard White. Narratives of national identity should be examined on the basis of whose interests they serve. Hurley traces the spectral politics of the explorer through a number of contradictory afterlives, including German romanticism, eugenicicist Darwinism, Fascism, Communism, and somewhat gesturally, Indigenous cosmology.
Hurley argues that Leichhardt remains an inexhaustibly productive ghost, and concludes with a vision of a potentially infinite series of reinvented explorers of different politics and nations, an international republic of multicultural Leichhardts. The breadth of Hurley’s analysis is impressive, and his authority as a Germanist allows him to ironize the nationalist icons of settler mythology with particular effectiveness, but I suspect this final emphasis is too optimistic, and wonder whether the spectre of the explorer is in fact infinitely plastic, or if it merely continues to be exhumed by a series of repeating questions which serve the interests of displaced whiteness on the Australian continent.
The decisive issue here is Leichhardt’s productiveness or otherwise for Indigenous politics and writing. Hurley adduces Leichhardt’s presence in Pemulwuy Weeatunga’s novel The Vanishing (2015), where the explorer departs from the destructive ways of the European ‘ghosts’ and is initiated into the Dreaming. Further, while the history of Australian exploration is undoubtedly the history of invasion, the writing of those explorers is now cited in native title cases, and informs the revelatory arguments Bruce Pascoe makes about the agriculture of Indigenous society in Dark Emu (2014). To that extent the exploratory archive is today partly a decolonial resource. The question is whether the explorer’s productive doubleness arises in some way from its content, as an expression of the profound influence of new places and cultures or is merely a fissure symptomatic of the divergent uses to which it has been put.
The exile and the refugee are explorers of a particular kind. In the coda to a discussion of the tensions in the linguistic history of settlement John Frow examines ‘Corroboree’ drawn by the Yorta Yorta artist Tommy McRae in the 1880s. It shows the escaped convict William Buckley, who was given shelter by the Wathaurong people of the Kulin nations, and lived among them for 32 years. The drawing shows a formal dance of initiated men, in which Buckley seems to be included to an extent, his stance mirrors those of the dancers, and although otherwise dressed like them, he wears a sailor’s hat. Buckley’s belonging, writes Frow, is that of a stranger,
someone marked by difference of colour and dress and by the space of isolation in which he stands. Yet his outcast status in the white world has gained him acceptance in this world; he is at once a member of it and slightly to one side of it, perhaps even – as the flags and the sailor’s hat seem to indicate – poised between the two.
Frow reads this drawing as a ‘counterfactual’ image of a settlement without violence, as it could have been imagined by its Indigenous participants. McRae’s drawing diverges starkly from its white counterparts, of which Sydney’s coat of arms, a shield bearing a ship upheld by a sailor and an Indigenous man above the euphemism ‘I take but I surrender’, seems the most obvious. Some versions of the explorer serve as intermediaries and diplomats, and articulate utopian prophecies, crossing limits of race and axiom as they do those of space. In most explorer narratives those utopian moments end bloodily however, and as it stands, the counterfactual explorer must be judged by the actions of the historical one.
On my return from Moreton Bay I found that the subject of an overland expedition to open land on the north coast [ … ] the appropriation of a sum of money to the [ … ] broken mountainous country [ … ] inspired with the desire of attempting it [ … ] privation of flour, tea, and [… ] the conception of it madness on my part [… ] devotion to science, or by an unreasonable craving for fame [… ] intention of committing suicide [ … ] settled the question; the horses ran [… ] shaft was broken [… ] I was compelled [ … ] flies were a much greater nuisance; [… ] corners of our eyes, to the lips, to the ears, and even to the sores on our [… ] morning, with cumuli [ … ] basaltic ridges approached the creek, and damn that music; among them [ … ] accuracy with which Brown as well as Charley were able to recognize localities [ … ] impressions on their retina seem to be naturally more intense than on that of the European; and [ … ] bullocks were still extremely foot-sore, it was [ … ] ducks and pelicans, resembling islands of white lilies [ … ] Casuarinas and Callistemon [ …] some Blackfellows in the distance, who immediately withdrew as we [ … ] inclined to trust to their information about the river’s source. They threw some yam-roots over [ … ] coldness of the night [ … ] of the natives, and the remnants of many a hut lay scattered round two large flooded gum [ … ] smoke of the natives fires was seen in [ … ] until the strange apparition passed [ … ] formed a wreath, of pale silver-colour [ … ] the stream of life had stopped, and he was numbered with the dead [ … ] to interrupt the monotony of life by marked days, on which we indulge in recollections of the past, or in meditations on the future [ … ] my mind, with all the fantastic associations of [ … ] a boy afraid of [ … ] dreaming that they reached the sea [ … ] supposed me dead or [ … ] prayer of thankfulness [… ] the wanderer on his [ … ] the last of our salt at [ … ] the starry heaven [… ] which we call home sickness [… ] their being habitations of the living [ … ] rags of our sugar bags [ … ] if preserved, they will be a lasting testimonial of [ … ] of a native glided like a ghost into our camp. John, who saw him first [ … ] to be alone [ … ] scant provision [ … ]was numbered with the dead [ … ] of hunger and thirst long before [ … ] if I did not help myself Providence [ … ] mostly in the moonlight [ … ] being starved, I felt [ … ] fall down oblivious for some time, being in a chronic state of burning [ … ] agony only to exist [ … ] echo could only answer [ … ] ivory moonlight I plodded on, desolate indeed, but all undaunted, on this lone [ … ] and at the dawn of day [ … ] troubled my sight [ … ] left my home and the lake of [ … ] take this cup [ … ] one further syllable of plight [ … ] that noble creed ego [ … ] desert is a tightrope of days [ … ] and I is the meaning of the earth, tomorrow an [ … ]Ulysses’ death [ … ] must shoulder his oar departing himself daily to arrive every [ … ] devour the horizon of limit & leave tracked number [ … ] new heaven and [ … ] whence that winnowing-fan, and what creature drags it hither
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