Title: Henry Lawson Among Maoris

Author: William H. Pearson

Publication details: Reed Publishing (NZ) Ltd, 1968, Wellington

Digital publication kindly authorised by: Paul Millar

Part of: New Zealand Texts Collection

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Henry Lawson Among Maoris



It should not of course have been surprising to find racism in Lawson. Even in the 'real' name he gives to August—Sarah Moses instead of Mary Jacob (or as he called her Jacobs) there is sardonic amusement that Polynesians should adopt Jewish names, which he held in contempt, as is shown in this passage from a story published three years before Lawson arrived at Mangamaunu:

There was a jeweller on board, of course, and his name was Moses or Cohen. If it wasn't it should have been—or Isaacs. His Christian name was probably Benjamin. We called him Jacobs.1

Lawson's hostility to Chinese is well known. One of its factors was his belief, as a child, that his brother Peter had been paid for with money from his money-box, bought from a 'Chinaman'.2

We weren't found under cabbages when I was a child. We were bought from Chinese hawkers-not the vegetable variety, but those who went round with boxes of drapery, fancy goods, cotton, needles, tape, &c, slung to the ends of their poles. I hated and dreaded the sight of a Chinese hawker, for I firmly believed that he hawked babies under the top shelves of his boxes.3

The hostility appears early in his verse. In 'The Cambaroora Star' (1891) he celebrates an editor who incited miners to evict 'the Chinkies … the Chows' from the diggings.4 In 'A Word page 2to Texas Jack' (1890) he boasts of Australian proficiency in 'hoistin' out the Chow', which he values equally with 'stickin' up for labour's rights'.5 In 'After the War' (1896) a soldier who had been a member of a Sydney 'push' recalls an incident when he was 'held up by the traps for stoushin' a bleedin' Chow' only as an occasion of loyalty from fellow-members of the gang, a loyalty he repays in battle.6

As well known is Lawson's yellow peril jingoism. In 1896 when 'After the War' appeared Australia had never had a foreign war. Yet in 'The Star of Australasia', which was originally part of the same poem as 'After the War', an enemy invader is predicted.7 If the invader is unnamed in this poem and in two other poems published in 1904,8 he is clearly identified in later volumes as the coloured races. In The Elder Son (1905) Russia, involved in war with Japan, is seen as 'the vanguard/Of the West against the East'9 and the war itself as

… the first round of the struggle of the East against the West

Of the fearful war of races….10

In 'The Good Samaritan' Lawson anticipates the time

When colour rules and whites are slaves

And savages again.11

In 1899, though he had opposed Australian participation in the Boer War, he farewelled the Australian contingent with a sardonic warning against Africans:

If you come across any niggers, learn to sleep calmly, notwithstanding a fact that a big, greasy buck nigger (a perfect stranger to you) is more than likely to crawl in, without knocking, through a slit in the tent, any minute during the small hours, rip out your innards with a nasty knife, and leave without explaining.12

In 1899 he praised solitary self-reliant adventurers who 'rule' 'unconquered tribes' by the 'lone hand and revolver', administrators in colonial outposts:

Thin brown men in pyjamas-
The thin brown wiry men!-
The helmet and revolver
That lie beside the pen.13

page 3

In 1902, writing of his journey to England, he said, quoting Kipling's 'The White Man's Burden' (1899): 'At Aden and Colombo and Port Natal I got an idea of how England manages her niggers-not half "silent, sullen peoples" by the wayand why the Empire is great'.14

In his later verse the fear of Asia justifies terror as an instrument of domestic policy in Australia:

And in some form or other, we shall have to use the knout,
If we wish to build a nation-else we'll have to do without,
And be wretched slaves and exiles, homeless in the Southern Sea,
When an Asiatic nation hath 'rough hewn' our destiny.15

His fear of Asian domination includes a horror at miscegenation of European women and coloured men:

I see the brown and yellow rule
The Southern lands and southern waves,
White children in the heathen school,
And black and white together slaves;
I see the colour-line so drawn
(I see it plain and speak I must),
That our brown masters of the dawn,
Might, aye, have fair girls for their lusts.16

It is only too easy to exhibit such statements and it would be hardly worth doing if Lawson's attitudes were not complicated by contradictions and it is these I wish to explore: the contradictions implicit in a man who expressed strong racial prejudices who nevertheless was attracted to the prospect of living among Maoris and was 'disillusioned'.

For example against the last verse quotation and the celebration of the 'thin brown men in pyjamas' one could place these stanzas:

I'm sick of the sight of the Single White in the islands far away,
Who is jabbed with a poisoned spear by night, and who pots the tribe next day,
A club-man dead to the world he knew, and long by his love forgot-
And the innocent swim with the Lithe Brown Limbs, and—the rest of the Thomas Rot.
page 4 He's mostly a thin brown man in drill and specs (for his sight is dim),
And a score of niggers to work his will, and Ah Soon to cook for him,
With the steamer in sight (and a drunken white) and the rest of the world within hail,
A wife—or the pick of the native girls—and his fairly regular mail.17

If in this passage (directed against a cliché of a sub-genre of popular fiction) the 'single white' is without heroism the attitude to the indigenes is not the more favourable. In another passage, where he wrote that Western Australian station owners had to treat their Chinese cooks courteously out of fear for the safety of their wives left alone all day with the cook and his carving-knife, it is his unionist antipathy to owners that makes him appear to side with the Chinese, and there has been no adjustment of prejudice.18

Yet there are poems in which Lawson declares for racial equality: in the same volume as he sees himself upholding standards 'in spite of all Asia'19 he writes this:

The world is full of kindness-
But not the white alone;
The heathen in his blindness
Bows down to wood and stone;
But all men are his brothers,
In spite of all the "Powers",
And the things he does for others
Shew whiter souls than ours.20
And though he may be brown or black,
Or wrong man there or right man,
The man that's honest to his mates
They call that man a 'white man'!21

If this is posture it is no more so than most of Lawson's other verse. And while it is true that there is an implicit sense of racial superiority in the use of 'white' to mean 'honourable, fair-dealing', a usage common to British and American frontiersmen in several parts of the world in the nineteenth century, nevertheless there is in these poems a recognition of the common dignity of all peoples. There is a similar mixture of sympathy and preconception in two short stories. In one there is a sympathetic portrait of a 'small, slight-featured negro', page 5probably a West Indian, who had lost his wife, and his two boys with 'small well-featured dark faces', who had a 'dark little soul'.22 In another a Chinese is a subject of sympathy: 'His Chinese mother died-perhaps of a Chinese woman's broken heart-shortly after the death of his father.'23 In each case there is the suggestion of a qualitative difference in a soul for being 'dark' and in a woman's broken heart for being Chinese. It is noticeable that sympathy comes more readily when the character is the victim of bereavement, is seen in a comparatively powerless situation.

Denton Prout cites 'Ah Soon' as unusually 'genial' towards a Chinese.24 It is a story of kindness to one Chinese repaid by another. Yet its tone is patronising in that Lawson is conscious of favouring Ah See, who repaid the kindness.

I don't know whether a story about a Chinaman would be popular or acceptable here and now; and, for the matter of that, I don't care. I am anti-Chinese as far as Australia is concerned; in fact I am all for a White Australia. But one may dislike, or even hate, a nation without hating or disliking an individual of the nation. One may be on friendly terms; even pals in a way. I had a good deal of experience with the Chinese in the old years, and I never knew or heard of a Chinaman who neglected to pay his debts, who did a dishonest action, or who forgot a kindness to him or his, or was not charitable when he had the opportunity.25

Such a defence might have been necessary in the racist Lone Hand, but the defence is in terms of the values of an Australian code. And it is clear that such friendship, as Lawson sees it, is tentative and precarious: 'one may be on friendly terms; even pals in a way'. And the last sentence implies that the Chinese is obliged to work his passage for the goodwill of white Australians.

In the fourth article of a series in the Albany Observer in 1890, though Lawson rhetorically foresees trade unionism as a new religion that will include all, 'the black, the white', he makes it plain that it will exclude Chinese.

Of course, we all know that there is one great flaw in the theory of universal brotherhood. It is where the Chinaman comes in….The Chinese nation is an unnatural and as far as we know, an unprecedented growth on the history of the world, and in all schemes for the furtherance of the page 6universal brotherhood we must leave the Chinaman out of the question altogether; or at least until we understand him better….

For my part I think a time will come eventually when the Chinaman will have to be either killed or cured-probably the former-but it would be advisable for the world to wait further (Chinese) developments before taking decisive action in the matter.26

Universal brotherhood might eventually be possible for a human race, winnowed by natural selection of those peoples ineligible for it:

There will be no difficulty in including the progressive "Jap" in the scheme, and the American negro is already a man and brother. The American Indian, the African and South Sea savage, and the aboriginals of Australia will soon in the course of civilization become extinct, and so relieve the preachers of universal brotherhood of all anxiety on their account.27

Attempts have been made to demonstrate Lawson's freedom from intolerance, but some of the attempts themselves carry racist assumptions. John Le Gay Brereton for example cites Lawson's remark about his friend Jack Moses (whose name he gave to Sarah in 'A Daughter of Maoriland'): 'My best friend was a Yid'.28 Jim Gordon says Lawson accepted Chinese hospitality, drinking cups of strong black tea at a laundryman's29 and in 'A Double Buggy at Lahey's Creek' there is a kindly Chinese storekeeper who is a better exponent of the bush code than some of the native-born,30 but it is clear that Lawson is unable to forget the ethnic origin of a non-white. Fr Michael Tansey told this story:

On one occasion Henry was unsteadily lighting his pipe, and a Chinese fruiterer, standing by, held a match in his cupped hands for him. 'Ah', said Henry, looking up at him with soft, beaming eyes, 'The light of Asia'.31

And of Ah See, Lawson's narrator said: 'I always called him Asia to his face'.32

Yet without abandoning any of these sentiments, Lawson could adopt a literary pose logically incompatible with them:

I'm wearied of the formal lands of parson and of priest,
page 7 Of dollars and of fashions, and I'm drifting towards the East;
I'm tired of cant and cackle, and of sordid jobbery-
The mystery of the East hath cast its glamour over me.33

Lawson's attitude to aboriginal Australians ranges from hostility to kindly patronage. Both are present in his earliest memories of them:

[At New Pipeclay] First reccollection connected with the last tribe of blacks round there-kindly reccollection.34

I used to go to Grannie's and get coffee. I liked coffee. One day she told me that the blacks had come and drank up all the coffee and I didn't like the blacks after that.35

There is a sort of wounded proprietorial pride in his complaint that the geography book used at Eurunderee School described the Aboriginals as 'amongst the lowest and most degraded to be found on the surface of the earth'.36 It is possibly the same pride that moves him to assure Texas Jack that Aboriginals can be as formidable antagonists as American Indians,37 and there is a tone of grudging admiration for Aboriginal dexterity with spear and boomerang. But in another place he refuses to allow the Aboriginal credit for even these skills:

The blackfellow is a fraud. A white man can learn to throw the boomerang as well as an aborigine-even better. A blackfellow is not to be depended on with regard to direction, distance or weather. A blackfellow once offered to take us to a better water than that at which we were camping. He said it was only half-a-mile. We rolled up our swags and followed him and his gin five miles through the scrub to a mud-hole with a dead bullock in it. Also, he said that it would rain that night; and it didn't rain there for six months. Moreover, he threw a boomerang at a rabbit and lamed one of his dogs-of which he had about 150.38

There is a peculiar ambiguity in the lines, in a poem on drovers in the outback, in which black-trackers are employed to exterminate Aborigines. The poem was written at Mangamaunu in September 1897; Lawson's manuscript reads:

No, you needn't fear the blacks on the Never Never tracks-
For the myal in his freedom's an uncommon sight to see.
page 8 Oh we do not live for trifles*-and the trackers sneak their rifles;-
And go strolling in the gloaming while the sergeant's yarning free;-
Round the myalls creep the trackers-theres a sound like firing crackers—
And-the blacks are getting scarcer in the Dry Countree. (Goes an unprotected maiden 'cross the clearing carrion laden-
Oh they ride 'em down on horseback in the Dry Countree) 39

There are two possible defences of this passage. First that since it is Aboriginal killing Aboriginal, Lawson is absolved; he is recording a truth without comment. But the we of the third line clearly involves at least the drovers as approving the slaughter. The second possible defence is that Lawson's tone is one of black irony, recording a truth of which he disapproves. But the tone of the poem is celebration of the heroism and hardship of the life of the drovers. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that there is a wry satisfaction in the extermination. Yet in a poem written seven years before this, Lawson praises a tracker who pretends to lose the track when he is seeking a man who had once saved his life.

But, ah! there beat a white man's heart
Beneath his old, black wrinkled hide.40

The difference is that in this case an Aboriginal's behaviour coincides with part of the bushman's code of honour.

If it was the destiny of the Aborigines, as was commonly assumed at the time, to die out, at least once Lawson sentimentalised it. Jim Gordon recalled that on Lawson's outback trip in 1892, he saw for the first time, at Goombalie between Bourke and Hungerford, Aborigines in a 'half-wild state', living on game and fish. Lawson visited their camp and said 'almost hysterically': 'They're a dying race, Jim and they know it-I can read it in their eyes. I was suckled on a black breast'.41 Gordon did not believe the last statement and it reminds one of Lawson's false claim to gipsy ancestry, which according to his brother Peter's wife scandalised his mother.42 But P. J. Cowan recalled him saying: 'An abo. takes me back page 9to the old days. I suckled [sic] a black breast when I was a baby'.43 It is possibly true. Lawson was ill as a baby and his mother was too ill to feed him; he was taken for a while by his grandmother Harriet Albury; some nurse would have been needed and it might have been an Aboriginal.44 In two stories it is a mark of favour in partly acculturated Aboriginal women that they have acted as midwife or nurse to European babies. The drover's wife is helped in childbirth by Black Mary, and the bush publican gives as his reason for being 'allers soft on the blacks', whom he otherwise sees as wheedling and whining and contemptibly dispossessed, the fact that he had been suckled by an Aboriginal nurse.45

In his series of Western Australian reminiscences 'The Golden Nineties' Lawson recalls an Aboriginal 'tribe' of King George Sound who sometimes arrayed themselves in traditional clothing, adornment, and implements; his explanation is that they wanted to frighten new-chums and tourists, and in this situation (where their attitudes to newcomers seem to coincide with his) he sides, with the Aborigines against the visitors, but in the main he sees them as cadging, shrewd, ridiculous in their dignities, and calls them by names like 'Old Sally' and 'Dirty Dick' and (this, one infers, is even more ridiculous) 'Mrs Williams'. The head man he calls 'King Billy': 'the lowest and most degraded, most cheerful, humor ous, and by me at least, and least of his subjects, most kindlythought-of monarchs'.46 In justification of his indulgence he says that when he was living in a lonely bush hut, 'King Billy' had brought him letters and newspapers from ten miles away.47

P. J. Cowan recalls a weekend with Lawson, taking with him at Lawson's request an educated Aboriginal called Douglas Grant: 'Henry Lawson always had a soft spot for the blacks'.48 The degree of acculturation must have helped. Grant was a draughtsman and a returned soldier; he had been adopted by a Scot whose name he took.49 They spent much of the evening sharing war stories.

Norman Lindsay tells an amusing story; in Lawson's actions he sees an 'outburst of nostalgic lyricism'. One might perhaps more aptly describe the performance in a number of ways but in none of them could one speak of dignity or equality in the relationship:

page 10

I have one last visual memory of Lawson to record, and it is a pleasing one. I came on it in George Street, and it presented him in the company of a very old Abo and his lubra. Henry was indulging in an extravagant display of affection for them, shaking hands with them, patting them, giving them largesse from his pocket, and standing off to admire them, only to dart back and repeat the performance. He was also trying to talk with them, bending his ear to catch what words they may have uttered. I doubt he got much of those; the Abos would not know that only loud sounds could penetrate Henry's defective ear-drums. They appeared to be rather bewildered by his ardent benevolence. He could not have enough of them. When he left them, it was only to turn in his tracks and dart back for another performance of handshaking and patting.50

In his story most sympathetic to Aborigines Lawson adopts the viewpoint of a child. A child does not have to answer to common opinion and by this means Lawson is free to express greater sympathy. 'Black Joe' is based on a boyhood visit of Lawson's to his aunt and uncle, Gertrude and Job Falconer, at Lahey's Creek near Cobbora.51 The model for Black Joe was an Aboriginal boy of the same age as Lawson, who was raised by the Falconers and later became a police black-tracker.52 In this story, if Black Joe is lazy, occasionally cheeky, if he is a liar and always getting the teller into trouble, his faults are excused and the teller admires him. Yet one wonders if the regard is facilitated because in the story Joe dies, whether the sympathy for Joe's father is not connected with the fact that he is 'the last of his tribe'53 and further with the fact that Joe's parents are complaisant towards European institutions. Joe's father Jimmie is 'a gentle, good-humoured, easygoing old fellow with a pleasant smile', and Lawson adds that this is true of 'most old blackfellows in civilization'. Joe's mother Mary is 'the cleanest gin in the district', respected by squatters' wives; she believes in Christian baptism and weddings, and is keen that her children should receive a European education. The republican Lawson, as he had done with 'King Billy', follows the practice, common among contemporary frontier settlers, of conferring royal title on both parents.

The same characters, or their components, are used in 'The Drover's Wife', which according to Lawson's sister Gertrude O'Connor originated in the same visit to the Falconers at page 11Lahey's Creek.54 Black Mary is still 'the "whitest" gin in all the land' and King Jimmy is cheerful and helpful.55 But a trick that was excusable, even admirable, in 'Black Joe', setting up a wood-heap that is hollow inside, is in 'The Drover's Wife' an inexcusable deception and an unwitting persecution of the drover's wife, even if the perpetrator is 'the last of his tribe and a King'.

The most revealing juxtaposition is that of 'A Bush Undertaker', where an eccentric bush hermit rifles an Aboriginal grave and carries the bones away in a bag, and then finding the corpse of a European mate, exerts himself to give it a decent burial.56 There would be powerful irony if the emphases were balanced, but in fact they are not and the irony of the situation seems even to have escaped the author's notice. The most memorable impression of the story is the bush undertaker's pathetic and dignified attempt to provide a fitting ritual for the burial of his mate; by this time the bag of Aboriginal's bones has been forgotten and the undertaker's purpose in digging them up is neither explained nor hinted at. The artistic function of the incident seems to be to point to the conclusion that the bush is 'the nurse and tutor of eccentric minds, the home of the weird'. It makes little difference that, according to Gertrude O'Connor, the undertaker is based oil Lawson's grandfather Henry Albury who dug up human remains and kept a skeleton under his bed for safety.57

Sympathetic, in a disdainful way, is the story of Billy, instructed to destroy pests, who mistakes a Chinese for a strange animal and shoots him. Though Lawson himself had said, thirteen years earlier, that Aborigines 'do not always talk the gibberish with which they are credited by story writers',58 Billy explains his mistake: 'Tail like it yarramin [horse]. Talk it like a plurry cockatoo. Bin killit sheep, mine think it'.

And the narrator continues: 'I suppose they buried the Chow-and the boss carefully gave Billy an elementary lesson on the Races of Man before another blew out of China'.59

The Aboriginal is excused and almost admired for his overzealousness in a European cause.

Some consistency, I think, can be found in the apparent contradictions in Lawson's attitudes to coloured people, in that he never departs from his bushman's system of values. Chinese are generally hated but an occasional individual who page 12behaves in terms of the bushman's code can be accepted as an honorary white. Unacculturated Aborigines are pests, but the partly acculturated individual, if he has been helpful to a bushman, can be indulged and even loved. The one or two assertions of a universal brotherhood comprehending all colours can be dismissed as high-minded posture.