I read this book for the Classics Challenge, which I am attempting to do as an ‘all Australian’ challenge. My Crowded Solitude is Jack McLaren’s recount of his experiences establishing a coconut plantation on Cape York Peninsula in the early 20th century. My copy comes courtesy of Project Gutenberg Australia for the book appears to be long out of print. I couldn’t even find an image of it online.
Born in 1884, McLaren was an adventurer. As a teenager he ran away from school to become a swaggie, and then took to the sea. Then, according to the Australian Dictionary of Biography,
McLaren in 1902-11 … worked as a miner, mule-driver and rabbit-poisoner. He searched for pearl-shell out from Thursday Island, for bêche-de-mer and tortoise shell on the Barrier Reef, and for sandalwood on Cape York. In Malaya, the Solomon Islands and Fiji he worked as an overseer, and sometimes a labour-recruiter, on coconut plantations. He visited Java and the Ellice Islands, and was shipwrecked in the Gulf of Papua. In New Guinea he ran trade stores, prospected, transported copper overland to Port Moresby, and hunted birds of paradise…
On 6 October 1911, tired of wandering, McLaren landed at Simpson’s Bay on the west coast of Cape York. Alone except for the tribe of Aborigines whom he paid to work for him, he built a house and established a coconut plantation. 
Throughout these wanderings he wrote, and became a full-time writer in 1911. The ADB is scornful about his fiction, and a bit dismissive about his autobiographies except for My Crowded Solitude.
This work offers sensitive observations on the small fauna inhabiting McLaren’s retreat, and anecdotes and insights about his rare visitors, and especially about his Aboriginal companions. McLaren observes the tribe from the platform of European civilization, and derives humour and occasionally satire from contrasting expectations and values. This theme is constant in his writings, all of which reflect the journeys between civilization and the wild which prevailed in his life and gave it its particular quality. 
The racism of this ‘platform of European civilization’ is obvious from his first words:
On a mighty blaze on a mighty tree are cut two initials and a date. The initials are mine; the date is when I began eight years’ lonely residence among the most backward people in the whole of the tropical South Pacific, which is a place where backward peoples abound. (p9)
This attitude also extends to his view of the environment as something to be tamed and exploited, for he eagerly takes up the suggestion that there was something odd about the Australian coastline:
The beaches were edged instead by jungle and open forest and tall indigenous grasses. He’d seen them often enough–he’d been much up and down that coast–and every time it had somehow seemed strange. As you went along you kept looking ahead for the green of clustered palms, for sight of tall boles all bent with the wind. It didn’t seem right that there shouldn’t be any, for you were sailing all the while a land washed by the waters of the Coral Sea and fanned by trade-winds and inhabited by natives–a land with all the features of a true part of the tropical Pacific, except the most outstanding. (Chapter 1)
He expects that the local Aborigines will be ‘a pretty wild and savage crowd’ and ‘difficult to teach’. Nevertheless, it is on Turtlehead Island that he is forced to learn from the Aborigines when the ship fails to return on time and his rations fail, and he comes to admire the ‘astonishing bushcraft’ of these people. (Chapter 1) His initial impressions give way to something more complex, affection and respect, and he writes so disarmingly that it is easy to forget that he, a mere hundred years ago, was recording the taking of their ancestral lands. This was happening within living memory….
I knew I had a copy of this book somewhere! I could remember it clearly: a skinny paperback with a black and white cover and a raggedy sort of graphic. I thought I had scoured the house (in which all but the bathroom and laundry books lurk) but I had not checked the ‘novels’ bookcase properly because there it was, hiding between Alistair MacLeod and Shena Mackay. (My father built this ‘novels’ bookcase for me many years ago, just the right size for Penguin paperbacks. Now novels are no longer this convenient size and of course the bookcase filled up long ago so novels have claimed territory elsewhere as well. )
Anyway, the discovery of the book brought a revelation. Neatly inscribed inside in my adolescent hand is my name and my membership of ‘Leaving Blue’. I had read this book forty years ago as a schoolgirl, presumably because it was on the reading list. What chance that such a book might be on a contemporary reading list? None at all, I imagine, because My Crowded Solitude  records the collision of European and Aboriginal culture in the early 20th century and not from an indigenous point-of-view. Although McLaren writes with some affection and respect for his Aboriginal companions, I suspect that today’s Aborigines would have strong feelings about a book such as this being required reading for students…
Yet McLaren makes it clear from the outset, that whatever his expectations were, life on Cape York took him on a journey of self-discovery and a reappraisal – albeit a limited one - of his notions about race. His previous experiences as a ‘vagabond’ involved management and supervision of ‘natives’ – who did all the work. ‘I was a White Man among a multitude of black men, and therefore a Master and a Superior Person’. (p26) His discovery that he lacked the competence to complete basic tasks led to ‘taking stock of myself and capabilities, to consequent humiliation and chastening of spirit, for I had so long been regarded as a Superior Person that I had come to believe that I really was one. (p27) His description of the gulf between his idea of work and that of the Aborigines is comical, but also perceptive, for writing in hindsight he realises just exactly what his ambitions involved:
There were, in fact, no means by which I could persuade them into sudden acceptance of a daily routine of toil: and at last I saw that my only chance lay in gradually accustoming them to it.
For a time the task appalled me. Never, I thought, would I succeed in teaching regular habits to these nomadic creatures of impulse. I was attempting the impossible. I was attempting to alter and fashion to my liking the characters and habits of a people whose characters and habits were as different from mine as the many thousand years between our periods could possibly make them….
It did not occur to me that the natives were happier as they were. It did not occur to me that the creating in them of needs and desires hitherto utterly foreign would also create in them the necessity for satisfying those needs and desires, to the consequent destruction of the more or less complacent ease of their existence.
Nor did it occur to me there was anything incongruous in the fact that I who had for so long been a wandering idler should set such a store on industriousness. (pp40-41).
Some of the language used here sounds offensive to modern ears. ‘These nomadic creatures of impulse’ and the use of the term ‘natives’ made me hesitate as I typed them, and more than anything else, I find myself wincing at his assumption that the choices and decisions were his to make, not theirs, and that they lacked flexibility and adaptability. Indeed, the Aborigines’ tolerance of this interloper is remarkable under the circumstances – for his tree-felling is interfering with their hunting grounds. Nevertheless, this is a man, writing in 1926, who recognises his hubris, at least in part, and I find myself liking him for that.
By Chapter 3 he has learned that they had a systematized, regulated and intimate knowledge of the bush, and he respects it.
These Cape York people all knew all there was to know of their surroundings – a circumstance due to the fact that being nomads who lived on what they could catch or find there was need to know where these things could be found., and be informed of their edible or non-edible qualities. … For each department of animate and inanimate nature they had a system of nomenclature as comprehensively complete as any trained scientist could have devised; and they knew the relationship of the various departments, and the significance of the relationships one to the other. And all this they carried in their heads, they having no means of writing whatever, and so indelibly was it impressed upon them that any one of them, even the children, could at any time deliver an impromptu and most enlightening dissertation regarding, say a weed plucked haphazard, telling of its flowering and seeding times, its habitats and habits, of its preference for one kind of soild and aversion from another kinds of soil, with the reasons for this preference and aversion, and so on through a multitude of details, all told with a simple matter-of-factness tinged with wonder that I should need to be told these things at all. I think they thought me a most ignorant person.
Indeed one man asked me how it was I knew so little of these things; and I told him that what to him were the simplest facts of life were to us matters for investigation by learned men. Whereupon he looked at me for a time as though doubting that such a state of affairs could really be, and a length remarked that he had not thought that among whites it was the fashion for the many to be ignorant and only the few to be wise, and opined decisively that there must be something wrong with the constitution and government of my tribe. (p44-5)
This respect, however, is followed by what seems today to be appalling judgement. In the same chapter McLaren bemoans their ‘non-morality and revolting practices’ (by which he means sexual mores, the violence meted out to women and dogs, their burial ceremonials and some of their initiation customs); he celebrates their ‘abundant virtues’ (respect for age and wisdom, truthfulness and courage, and their solicitude for the sick or injured). But then – without any apparent consciousness that he could not possibly know the Aborigines’ moral code nor that there were aspects of their spiritual beliefs that were secret, he concludes that
‘They did these things without quite any idea of displaying a virtue. They didn’t know there were such things as virtues. An act was just an act – neither virtuous nor vicious. To them there was no distinction between original sin and original good.
For, as members of perhaps the oldest living race of people in the world, they were ten thousand years behind the times. They had not reached the stage of ethical and moral distinctions. While the rest of the world strode forward to the age of steel, they had remained far back in the age of stone.
They were the People Who Stood Still’. (p57)
Well, no, this book isn’t ever going to make it back onto the school curriculum…He is patronising about a ‘savage’ ‘being as fond of his wife as ever a savage can be fond of his wife’ , has only the most superficial understanding of the complex kinship systems of the tribe, and no respect for their sophisticated technology of tools and crafts.
To its credit, My Crowded Solitude testifies to violence against girls and women by Europeans. Mary Brown, the old woman who becomes his house-servant, had ‘been stolen from the camp by a pearler needing a house-help for his half-caste wife in his Thursday Island home’. (p59) When she ‘was growed-up a little bit he made me his wife’, (the underlining is mine, because I think we know what this means). This ‘elevation’ provokes jealousy and violence from the other wife, so Mary fled to the mission where she was forced to take the name they gave her, and used as a skivvy in the name of the Lord until she sneaked onto a cutter and made her way home. But he also records an Aboriginal father abandoning his child, which he ‘purchases’ for Mary, realising that she asks him to do this because she herself has nothing with which to buy him. This, after years of Mary working for him, is obviously because he does not pay her any wages. As an amusement he names the boy Fitzherbert and only Mary Brown – who has naive ambitions for this child to live as a white man – is offended by the way this name is truncated. There is similar humour about Billy Number Five (his overseer) and the taking of his name too.
In an episode reminiscent of John Batman’s ‘purchase’ of Melbourne, McLaren records the rebellion against his possession of their ‘Place of Many Big Trees’ and his subsequent ‘purchase’ of it:
At midday when I awoke I hailed the natives as I idled about the camp; and when they came – suspiciously, haltingly – I made parley with them, telling them they were right in saying I had no right to their land, though the Government man at Thursday Island had told me the land was mine and given me a paper, stamped with a great red seal to that effect. It wasn’t the Government man’s land to give, I told them. They were the real owners, and the best thing I could do was buy the land from them. What did they think of that as a way out of the difficulty.
They thought it a very fine way out indeed, and at my invitation the chiefs followed me into the storeroom to receive payment at once, the amount of which they left entirely to me, but suggested two pounds of tobacco as a fair thing. (p114)
It seems like a breath-taking act of perfidy now, to recognise their ownership and trade for it in such a paltry way. Yet McLaren writes of this treachery with such innocence it is obvious that it never enters his head that this might be immoral. He worries himself about the impact of introducing European ways to these indigenous people., writing that ‘there may have been something altruistic in raising a people from the depths of a great primitiveness. There was definitely something immoral in destroying their peace of mind. (p116) He recognises the irony that he who enjoyed a wanderlust should be the one to transform the freedom of their traditional nomadic lifestyle into the life of a labourer bound to a single place. Yet the ‘platform of European civilization’ blinds him entirely to the ruthless appropriation of their land, and he does not see the irony of his eventual offer to give them some of his cleared land to take up agriculture. It also never occurs to him that paying them for their labour with flour and tobacco is exploitation of the meanest kind…
Actually, I think this is a book that could repay study by school students. I think they could learn a lot about the way in which the dispossession of Australia’s indigenous people took place, and in the hands of a skilled teacher, would come to see the complexity of this clash of civilizations, which took place such a short time ago. Deconstructing McLaren’s flawed perceptions seems like a very worthwhile thing to do, especially since it is not so very long ago that (on the 1966 bookblurb) it was hailed as a great Australian classic, and the Times Literary Supplement described it as ‘that rarity among books of travel which can be enjoyed as art.’
1] http://adbonline.anu.edu.au/biogs/A100315b.htm It is interesting to note that the ADB says here that McLaren paid the Aborigines to work for him, implying wages rather than rations.
 My Crowded Solitude by Jack McLaren, Sun Books, Melbourne, 1966 (first published 1926)
PS Feb 28th 2011
I have just discovered that the ‘tatty paperback’ I referred to above has an interesting history of its own. It qualifies as a ‘rare’ book and I should have been treating it with more care. Sun Books was an innovative publishing venture pioneering an independent Australian paperback imprint, set up by Geoffrey Dutton, Max Harris and Brian Stonier in 1965; it was part of the tide of change in the Sixties and went on to become the paperback imprint for Macmillan. To read more about this interesting piece of Australian publishing history and to see bookcovers from the imprint, see the Exhibition Catalogue from the Monash University Library.