Val Donovan

Explorer’s journals provide a fascinating insight into two peoples of different cultures becoming acquainted with each other. Although the primary motive for the explorers was curiosity about the geographical and geological landscape, they became very curious about the Aboriginal people who occupied this land. In turn, their journals reflect just how curious the Traditional Owners were about the strangers who were entering their country. This mutual curiosity led to invaluable knowledge not only of the physical landscape, but about the people they were meeting for the first time.

Making connections

The first white people that inland Aboriginals had ever seen were inland explorers who ventured north in the 1840s to what is now Queensland. The explorers were curious to know if the landscape was useful for settlement, and they hoped to rely on the knowledge of local Aboriginals to show them where the rivers were and to ask what they called their rivers and mountains. The explorers knew the Aboriginal people were there. Thomas Mitchell’s journal entry for 9 March 1845 showed that his expedition party ‘had followed the well-beaten paths of the natives during the whole of this day’s ride, and most anxious my guides and I to see them; but they avoided us’. Mitchell later commented on the astonishment of the Aboriginal people near the Balonne River when they first saw him mount his horse and ride away towards the mountains. Imagine their curiosity, as they had never seen either a white man, who was almost totally covered with clothing, or a horse before. When Ludwig Leichhardt frightened an old woman and a child on an Aboriginal pathway in north Queensland, the woman seized the child and ran off into the bush. The feeling of curiosity about each other was mutual. Leichhardt put this into words in his journal in 1845 when he wrote of the old woman: ‘What could she think but that we were some of those imaginary beings?’

Could we but have understood each other

The various Aboriginal groups reacted differently to the presence of explorers. Some came to the camp, as did a group of fourteen accompanied by Youranigh, Mitchell’s Aboriginal guide, ‘who, all curiosity, passed the night at our camp...’. Many though were more timid; it was reported that ‘the natives were seen first looking at us, and then running off’. On 3 May, three from an Aboriginal camp came to Mitchell’s tents and he recorded:

One stood amongst the carts and tents, apparently quite absorbed in observation. Intense curiosity in these men had evidently overcome all their fears of such strangers.

While the Aboriginal man was showing his curiosity about the strange happenings in his country, Mitchell in turn, in his journal entry, reflected his own curiosity about this group of people:

They were entirely naked... With steady fixed looks, eyes wide open, and serious intelligent countenances, what passed in their minds was not disguised, as is usual with savages. On the contrary, there was a manly openness of countenance, and a look of good sense about them, which would have gained all my confidence, could we but have understood each other... Yuranigh [sic] plied them with all my questions, but to little purpose; for although he could understand their language, he complained that they did not answer him in it, but repeated, like parrots, whatever he said to them... They had never seen white man before, and behaved as properly as it was possible for men in their situation to do.

It is interesting to contemplate what was happening here. Were the Aboriginal men purposely not answering Mitchell’s questions, as they possibly understood what the guide, who was from nearby country, was saying? It was also interesting that Mitchell, even though he had called them ‘savages’ was judging the Aboriginal men by white man’s standards in saying that they ‘behaved as properly as it was possible’.

Leichhardt was also curious about the Aboriginal languages, which he had difficulty in understanding. As the explorer entered a new group’s country the language changed. On approaching Port Essington towards the end of his exploratory journey Leichhardt recorded, on 27 November 1845, that the people who were camped at a pool near them:

...continually used the words “Perikot, Nōkot, Mankiterre, Lumbo Lumbo, Nana Nana Nana,” all of which we did not understand till after our arrival at Port Essington, where we learned that they meant “Very good, no good, Malays very far.” Their intonation was extremely melodious...

On this occasion Leichhardt found out the meaning of the words, but many conflicts arose due to lack of understanding. On many occasions explorers waved a green branch as a token of peace while approaching the Aboriginal people, but did the Aboriginals understand what this meant?

Desire for knowledge

It became apparent to the explorers that the Aboriginal people wished to learn from these new experiences. When in the north Leichhardt reported that males of every age flocked around them:

They observed with curious eye, everything we did... Our eating, drinking, dress, skin, combing...everything...was earnestly discussed...

William Hodgkinson had the same experience when some of his men were sinking a well to procure water: ‘The progress of the sinking was most attentively watched by three blacks, who clearly evinced their interest in the subject by signs...’.

Curiosity recorded in an Aboriginal journal

Explorers were not the only ones taking notes of people they had not encountered before, but the notes by Aboriginal people were not in a written journal. Instead they were in the form of drawings on cave walls or escarpments. Robert Logan Jack, the Government Geologist, came upon these drawings in the Palmer goldfield. He thought some drawings were not more than twenty-five years old. This would suggest that the human figure with an unmistakeable hat on its head was possibly observed by the Aboriginal artist about the time that the Palmer goldfields became active in the early 1870s.

There were some explorers, such as the infamous Burke and Wills, who did not rely on local Aboriginal knowledge and their expeditions ended in failure. The journals of the above explorers reflect a mutual curiosity which led to a lot of interaction between the groups. The Aboriginals usually assisted, sharing their knowledge of the landscape, while gaining knowledge about the white men.

References and Further reading (Note)

Val Donovan, The reality of a dark history: from contact and conflict to cultural recognition, Brisbane, Arts Queensland, 2008 (2002)

References and Further reading (Note)

Val Donovan and Colleen Wall (eds), Making connections: a journey along the Central Australian Aboriginal trading routes, Brisbane, Arts Queensland, 2004

References and Further reading (Note)

T.L. Mitchell, Journal of an expedition into the interior of tropical Australia, in search of a route to the Gulf of Carpentaria, New York: Longmans, 1848 (1969)

References and Further reading (Note)

Ludwig Leichhardt, Journal of an overland expedition in Australia from Moreton Bay to Port Essington, a distance of upwards of 3000 miles, during the years, 1844-1845, London,  T & W Boone, 1847; Adelaide, Library Board of South Australia, 1964

References and Further reading (Note)

W.O. Hodgkinson, ‘Diary of the north-western expedition’ appended to ‘North-west explorations’, 24 January 1877, Votes and proceedings of the Legislative Assembly, 1877, vol 3

References and Further reading (Note)

Robert L Jack, ‘On Aboriginal cave-drawings on the Palmer Goldfield’ [Read before the Royal Society of Queensland, December 14, 1895], The proceedings of the Royal Society of Queensland, Brisbane, Warwick & Sapsford, vol XI, 1895

References and Further reading (Note)

Sarah Murgatroyd, The dig tree: the story of Burke and Wills, Melbourne, Text Publishing, 2002