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