HARD COUN­TRY

Knut Dahl’s sci­en­tific and per­sonal ex­plo­ration of fron­tier Aus­tralia was an odyssey of joy and tor­ment, writes Ni­co­las Roth­well

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

On June 5, 1894, fresh from a year of big-game hunt­ing in Africa, the young, lit­er­ary-minded Nor­we­gian zo­ol­o­gist Knut Dahl landed at the set­tle­ment of Port Dar­win, found lodg­ings at the North Aus­tralian Hotel and, that same evening, set off to in­dulge in his favourite ac­tiv­ity: shoot­ing spec­i­mens of rare wildlife and record­ing the ex­pe­ri­ence in lush prose.

“Birds, new and unknown to me, were to be seen flit­ting softly and qui­etly. Some slate-blue and white birds were sit­ting in some high tree­tops. Now and again they would cir­cle around, some­what af­ter the fashion of swal­lows, and then again perch in the trees, twit­ter­ing softly. I stalked and shot one. It dropped stone dead to the black­ened earth, a spot of red blood like a gem on its white breast.”

So, with a bang, the first of many, be­gins In Savage Aus­tralia, the most ex­or­bi­tant of the rich crop of Euro­pean sci­en­tific mem­oirs of north Aus­tralia writ­ten in late colo­nial times.

Dahl was just 23 when he reached the Top End, ac­com­pa­nied by his faith­ful, not to say in­dis­pens­able, taxi­der­mist friend In­ger Holm. He stayed in the bush for al­most two years, ex­plor­ing the sa­vanna forests, the stone coun­try of west Arn­hem Land, the Vic­to­ria River dis­trict and the pin­dan scrub be­hind Roe­buck Bay. Wild scrapes, tall tales, near dis­as­ters, new dis­cov­er­ies — all these fig­ure in the nar­ra­tive he pub­lished soon af­ter his re­turn to Oslo and the set­tled sci­en­tific life.

Three decades later, by then a world au­thor­ity on the study of salmon, Dahl trans­lated his own book into a flow­ing, vivid English: it is at once a record of the fron­tier, a love song to the land­scape and a sci­en­tific trea­sure hunt.

The colo­nial so­ci­ety he found in place in Port Dar­win had un­usual fea­tures. In theory at least, the lit­tle town­ship was a proud em­pire out­post, a key node in the globe-span­ning tele­graphic com­mu­ni­ca­tion line. In re­al­ity it was a back­wa­ter, sleepy, un­healthy and de­cay­ing. A push to de­velop mines in the hin­ter­land had pe­tered out, the cat­tle trade was fail­ing, Chi­nese mi­grants ran the lo­cal busi­nesses and formed the great ma­jor­ity of the pop­u­la­tion. The Euro­pean part of town was small and very placid and quiet. The few busi­ness peo­ple and of­fi­cials in the ser­vice of the gov­ern­ment were ap­par­ently in no hurry over their du­ties and adopted the cool and in­do­lent habits pe­cu­liar to the ma­jor­ity of white men in trop­i­cal towns. Chi­na­town, on the other hand, was a wel­ter of life and ac­tiv­ity. The very air smelt of busi­ness.

Down the track, the in­te­rior was still largely un­touched by the in­comer’s hand. Vast eu­ca­lypt forests stretched away, “only straight white stems in a lim­it­less vista, a canopy of scanty leaves over­head, and a burn­ing sun”. Dahl roamed through the ranges and the river val­leys of the in­land, choos­ing the Je­suit mis­sion by the Daly River as his chief base camp. He be­friended the mis­sion­ar­ies, chief among them the re­doubtable, re­volver-wield­ing Fa­ther Donald McKil­lop. The lo­cal Abo­rig­i­nal groups and their cus­toms fas­ci­nated him. He moved through their coun­try and took them as his guides.

It was a hinge time in the strug­gle for the north: Dahl had ar­rived just af­ter the clos­ing of the fron­tier and the end of a bit­ter, un­de­clared In Savage Aus­tralia By Knut Dahl Hes­pe­rian Press, 332pp, $96 (HB) con­flict. In the in­ter­val be­tween the epoch of the early ex­plo­ration jour­nals and the first ethno­gra­phies of 20th cen­tury an­thro­po­log­i­cal in­ves­ti­ga­tors, rec­ol­lec­tions of the far north are fairly sparse. As far as his­to­ri­ans sift­ing the records can make out, dur­ing the early 1890s Abo­rig­i­nal groups in the East Kim­ber­ley, the sa­vanna coun­try and Arn­hem Land all de­cided, very likely in some loosely co-or­di­nated fashion, to aban­don their cam­paign of re­sis­tance against the set­tlers and pas­toral­ists mov­ing into the coun­try. An un­spo­ken deal of sorts was struck, a com­pact reached: the tribal lead­ers came into the cat­tle sta­tions with their families and took up work in re­turn for the right to re­main on their land.

Much about this pe­riod re­mains ob­scure: Dahl’s tes­ti­mony is il­lu­mi­nat­ing. There was still ex­treme ten­sion. Peace, or a kind of truce, was only grad­u­ally be­ing for­malised, and only in piece­meal fashion. No one in the bush felt en­tirely safe. Euro­peans mis­trusted the Abo­rig­i­nal men who worked along­side them; Abo­rig­i­nal groups viewed the Euro­peans in the land­scape both as a new re­source to be ex­ploited and a curse, an all-lev­el­ling, des­e­crat­ing plague.

A sci­en­tific out­sider such as Dahl was free to move be­tween these two realms. He could probe the in­tri­ca­cies of in­dige­nous tra­di­tion and be­lief, and won­der at the emo­tions alive in the se­nior men he came to know, and seek the sources of their su­per­sti­tion and their fears. What was their psy­chol­ogy? What ex­actly were the “devils” his com­pan­ions so dreaded? These un­seen forces could be gi­ant croc­o­diles, or tiger­like flesh-eat­ing mon­sters, or they could take the form of a dwarfish man with large glow­ing eyes like an owl’s. Day­time was care­free for Dahl’s com­pan­ions. The night, though, was a time of ter­ror, when men and their families sat fear­fully, their senses highly strung: “A moan­ing in the for­est be­comes the sough of evil spir­its pass­ing over, the fire­flies be­come glow­ing eyes, ev­ery un­usual sound of the night is trans­formed into the steps and whistling voices of devils, prowl­ing round the camp.”

The ac­count of tra­di­tional life set down in Dahl’s pages is com­plex and mul­ti­plicit. He In Savage Aus­tralia shares the late 19th-cen­tury view of Abo­rig­i­nal peo­ple as a group doomed to pass away, to be su­per­seded and swept aside, dec­i­mated by dis­ease and the on­rush of Western man. He also ad­mires them: how per­fectly they are adapted to their en­vi­rons, how freely they live, car­ing noth­ing for per­ma­nence, har­vest­ing what they need and noth­ing more. They are man as nat­u­ral force, slen­der, strong, even beau­ti­ful.

These views were not shared by the pas­toral pi­o­neers he came across. Dur­ing his trip down the Vic­to­ria River he camped at a “pretty mis­er­able” sheep sta­tion, run by three English­men, a Brazil­ian and a Swede, to­gether with “a cou­ple of Port Dar­win blacks with their women”. This was al­most cer­tainly the fa­mous Brad­shaw Sta­tion, jewel of the Bon­a­parte Gulf coun­try. It had just been flooded and half-wrecked: the har­vested wool clip lay strewn about high in the trees for some dis­tance around.

Dahl and his party camped in the bush with the sta­tion hands. The cus­tom­ary gin bot­tle was pro­duced: “Tongues were loos­ened and tales came trick­ling out, tales of a kind not usu­ally told by sober bush­men; the fights which had been fought, and which were still be­ing fought, be­tween black and white men in these vast forests.”

The mood was sim­i­lar at Kather­ine, on the river cross­ing, where the lo­cal po­lice of­fi­cer told Dahl of dark, dis­turb­ing episodes. There had also been clashes that same dry sea­son on Melville Is­land, just north of Dar­win, and in the wilds of Arn­hem Land. Women were al­most al­ways at the heart of these con­flicts. A bush­man in northern Aus­tralia with­out a black woman was a very rare ex­cep­tion, as Dahl makes plain. He is much more candid than most Aus­tralian au­thors of the time, and even de­scribes an oc­ca­sion when he in­ter­vened to stop a white man rap­ing a girl of 10 or 11.

Ill-treat­ment of Abo­rig­i­nal work­ers armed white set­tlers was com­mon: The blacks were of­ten greatly wronged. I have seen them beaten, kicked, and beaten again, for of­ten quite triv­ial of­fences. No sen­si­ble man would pun­ish even a dog in the vi­cious way I have seen the na­tives pun­ished by bush­men. by

Nor­we­gian zo­ol­o­gist and ex­plorer Knut Dahl, above, in a pic­ture from

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