Review Blog

Jun 23 2020

The Kangaroo Islanders by W.A. Cawthorne, edited by Rick Hosking

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Wakefield Press, 2020. ISBN: 9781862546554.
(Senior secondary - Adult) Highly recommended. Cawthorne's original story, written in the mid-1850s, although a fictional account of the murder of Captain George Meredith serialised for a Melbourne magazine, is based on real people and events in the early 1800's. It thus provides fascinating insight into the lives of early settlers on Kangaroo Island, rugged Robinson Crusoe types, carving out an existence dealing in seal and wallaby skins, living rough and free, and collecting extra bounty from shipwrecks lured too near their coast. With multiple 'wives', they were men who stole Aboriginal women in so-called Sabine raids of the mainland and kept them in a relationship of slavery, dependent on the women's hunting and foraging abilities. Practices such as thigh and ear slashing kept the women submissive; however there are examples of a certain respect and admiration for some individuals such as Black Bet, and Cawthorne even writes how much more valuable such a talented wife would be over some civilised lady of polite society who could only be a hindrance in such an environment.
One chapter reveals the bounty of Indigenous food enjoyed by the Islanders, baked wild dog, goanna in wallaby fat, ant eggs, heart of the grass tree, and witchetty grubs. The garments of the men become indistinguishable from those of the women, with skins and furs slung around their bodies. Past readers of this tale must have been fascinated by all these exotic details, and they are even more valuable now, providing us with a historic record of a much forgotten past.
This publication of Cawthorne's story is much enhanced by the extensive notes and explanations by researcher and editor Rick Hosking. The subtleties of the text are revealed to us, lost meanings revived, so we too can appreciate what was probably the first Aboriginal joke in print, among many other insights. Hosking's essay 'Beyond the pale' provides historical context and an in depth analysis of the complexities of the relationships revealed in the story that could fuel many an interesting discussion for students of Australia's colonial history.
The book also includes a selection of watercolours by Cawthorne, now held in the State Library of NSW, providing an enduring archive of scenes of Aboriginal life.
All in all, this book preserves a valuable historical record and a reminder of a past that Australia as a nation seems too ready to gloss over and forget. Thanks is due to Wakefield Press for their commitment to publication of outstanding South Australian research.
Helen Eddy

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