Aboriginal readers are advised that this review includes the names of deceased persons.
Karenlee Thompson suggested this title for the forthcoming Indigenous Literature Week here at ANZ LitLovers – and I’m so glad she did. It’s a captivating novel and a poignant counterpart to my recent reading of Lyndall Ryan’s The Tasmanian Aborigines: A History since 1803 (see my review).
Colin Johnson aka Mudrooroo is a controversial figure in the history of indigenous literature. His novel, Wild Cat Falling (A&R Classics) is said by some to be the first novel by an author ‘of Aboriginal blood’ in Australia. However he is not mentioned in the Macquarie PEN Anthology of Aboriginal Literature – which one might perhaps expect to include an excerpt from a novel of such apparent significance. However, he is listed on the AustLit database BlackWords. Why the discrepancy? Well, if you check out the author’s Wikipedia page, you can soon see why: his Aboriginality is a contested issue.
Well, as I said elsewhere, I’m not getting into the complex politics of Aboriginal identity: if an author identifies him/herself as indigenous, that’s good enough for me. What is more problematic is that the novel tells the story of Trugernanna and the ‘last male of Bruny Island’ (p207), and the cover blurb refers to ‘the last native Tasmanians‘ implying that Tasmanian Aborigines are extinct. They are not, as shown by Dr Ryan’s authoritative research in The Tasmanian Aborigines: A History since 1803 which also explains how the false belief arose and how Tasmanian activists have had to mount a long campaign to have their Aboriginality acknowledged.
But as it happens, Mudrooroo’s title prefigures that endurance into the 21st century. Doctor Wooreddy’s Prescription for Enduring the Ending of the World is a remarkable book on any terms, and if it were to be reissued as an Australian classic with a clarifying introduction, any doubts about its author or intimations of successful genocide could be confronted. I think it would be a pity to let this book slide into obscurity because it is an elegy for a lost way of life and a snapshot of the dilemmas of the period. It makes an empathetic companion to The Tasmanian Aborigines: A History since 1803.
The novel begins with the central character, Wooreddy, a small boy on Bruny Island off Tasmania’s south eastern coast. The island is separated from the Tasmanian mainland by the D’Entrecasteaux Channel and Wooreddy has learned to avoid all contact with this body of water because the sea and all its mysteries are women’s business. When he stumbles onto something slimy from the sea at the same time as the arrival of white ‘ghosts’ coming across the sea, he interprets this omen as an intimation of the end of the world. And he turns out to be right, because it is the end of his world, and the world of his people.
The last step had brought his toe against something slimy, something eerily cold and not of this earth – and worse, it was spiky and wriggled. It was alive! He began to tremble violently. Ria Warrawah wrapped him in a transparent mist. He was lost! His hands shut out the world as his mind desperately searched through remembered snatches of half-understood conversations in an effort to find a potent protection spell. He tried a string of words. As the last one left his lips, there came a strange moaning from the sea, then gruff voices speaking in strange tongues which were followed by a sharp crack that made the water heave and lap at his feet. By magic his eyes clicked open to focus in a fixed stare on what had come from the sea. It was an omen, an omen, he knew – but what came from the ocean was evil, and so it was an evil omen. (p3)
At risk from sealers and whalers on the one hand, and settlers fanning out across the pastureland on the other, Wooreddy and his people are all too soon confronted by the dilemmas of survival. Robinson, the ambitious humanist who disastrously tried to save the remnant Tasmanian Aborigines, enters the story, searching the bush for surviving communities to bring them under government ‘protection’. A paternalist, his mission is to ‘civilise’ the Aborigines and Christianize them while at the same time providing a ‘safe haven’ to save them from extermination. With hindsight, we wonder why any of the Tasmanian Aborigines surrendered to him, but Mudrooroo shows how desperation, fear and sheer exhaustion combined with false hopes to make it happen.
Wooreddy represents resignation while Ummurah represents resistance, but both end in death anyway. It is what happens to the women which hints at some form of survival: Trugernanna chooses surrender and watches her people die all around her in exile at Wybalenna, but her sister Lowernunhe survives abduction by sealers and has a child by the ‘ghost’ she lives with, George Robbins. She repudiates government attempts to ‘rescue’ her because despite the rape which began the relationship she believes she is better off where she is, maintaining some aspects of her customary life and in good health. She has a future of sorts, and it is improving as Robbins ages because he’s too old now to ‘hinder’ her (p142). When they are briefly reunited, Trugernanna craves the freedom her Islander sister has, but feels she could not leave the others who live under Robinson’s dubious protection.
Mudrooroo shows very early in the book that each death means the inevitable death of ancient culture and ceremonies too: when the Elder, Mangana dies, he is buried according to white custom, and Wooreddy as the only surviving male of the community organises the overnight removal of the body to the other side of the island where it can be ‘cremated in the proper way’ (p57). Even so, compromises must be made because rigor mortis has already set in and the pyre has to be made in an unorthodox way. Wooreddy reminds himself that ‘the times themselves were unorthodox‘. As a young man then, he knows that when his time comes there will be no one left from his community who knows how to perform these ceremonies in the proper way.
Mudrooroo revisits this tragic premonition in the last chapter as Wooreddy reads in the ‘Flinders Island Weekly Chronicle‘, a plea for the Christian God to rescue them from inevitable death:
He stared down at the black marks and his eyes went right through them to the twenty-nine people that had recently died, leaving the sick behind to suffer and to recover listlessly. Death was the central fact of their lives – the steady placing of bodies into the cold ground in the Christian way. No more smoke to waft a spirit warmly on its way as in the olden days. He knew the new rituals just as he knew the old, not from the lips of the old, but from attending funeral after funeral after funeral – twenty-nine of them stretching back to more deaths. Softly he chanted the words of the burial service as he imagined himself dead and being put into a hole. (p145)
Their nemesis Robinson is shown to be a complex character. Nicknamed Ballawine (red ochre) because of his red hair, but called ‘Fader‘ (Father) to his face because he likes it, he is well-meaning but has an inflated view of his understanding of the multiplicity of languages and customs across Tasmania. Ambitious to improve his own social standing (and prospects for a government pension) he invents his own job: Conciliator, Commandant and Protector of Aborigines. Supremely confident in the superiority of his own religion, he literally tramples across sacred sites and imposes bans on ceremony. His pompous paternalism is backed up with all the vigour of a Victorian Paterfamilias: his punishments include deprivation of food and liberty. Worst of all, his inherent racism makes him judge Lowernunhe’s child as an immoral hybrid: whatever his plans to ‘civilise ‘ his charges might mean, they do not include mixed marriages. The contradictions in this position are shown when the Islander Munro confronts him:
‘Oh go to Hell,’ Constable Munro said suddenly. ‘That child is a happy little bugger, and his mother and father are happy too. No trouble between them at all. It’s sorts like you that have harmed the race. We live on these islands in our own way, then you come along to hound, not only us, but these poor women who have taken refuge with us. If they are held against their will, let them say so. Here is one of them, ask her! Do you think that she will elect to go to that hell-hole you call a station to die there in a few days?’
Robinson looked at Lowernunhe and softened his expression and voice. ‘Leave these evil men,’ he murmured, ‘leave them and come to my establishment where you will learn to be happy.’
‘I will never go there. That place you call Wybalenna Blackfellow’s Home is Meracklenna, The Home of Death, and I will not go there. (p144)
But Robinson is also shown to be devastated by the stories he hears from cocksure witnesses to massacres and atrocities; he is aghast at the death rates on Wybalenna and frantically lobbies the Governor for redress. He struggles with his own physical attraction to Trugernanna and successfully represses it, and he is never happier than when he is out on his expeditions, glorying in the beauty of the wilderness and enjoying the physical challenge of the rugged landscape. As Lyndall Ryan also shows in her history of this period, Robinson was a flawed man whose legacy was the destruction of the Aborigines he ‘rescued’. But within his limitations, which were many, his motivations were good and he was the first ethnographer of the hapless indigenous people of our island State.
Mudrooroo’s achievement in this book is to humanise the names and faces of Aboriginal leaders of this period, especially the women. Dray, the sole survivor of the South West nation, adjusting her customs and language in a new grouping with Ummarah, chiding the men for making fun of a serious situation. Walyer, grimly insisting that Ummarah should acknowledge that retreating into mountain areas long unused because there’s never been much food there, will have the same end result as surrender. He’ll be tracked to the hideout and killed, she says, and leaving your country isn’t defending it. Trugernanna, initially young, sexy and confident, finally trapped into listlessness and despair, unable to rejoin her sister in freedom, doomed to be fossilised for over a century as a symbolic ‘last of her race‘.
Despite its grim subject matter, the story is not oppressive to read. The Aborigines take opportunities to outsmart Robinson, and they mimic him mercilessly. Behind his back, there is joy and laughter when they are together, and their last defiant ceremony of the bird clan is a strong assertion that this culture lives on all the same, through story.
The cover picture is ‘Morning Star Ceremony’ by Terry Yumbulul.
To sign up as a participant in the 2012 Indigenous Literature Week in the first week of July, please click the link.
Author: Mudrooroo a.k.a. Colin Johnson
Title: Doctor Wooreddy’s Prescription for Enduring the Ending of the World
Publisher: Hyland House Melbourne, 2007, first published 1983
Source: Stonnington Library via inter-library loan
Availability: Difficult. Fishpond has Doctor Wooreddy’s Prescription for Enduring the Ending of the World listed but unavailable. However by following their links to the publisher, and then doing a Google search, I found that Hyland House, a long-established indie publisher in Melbourne, is still thriving, mainly publishing books about the natural environment, self-sufficiency, cookery and pets. But they also publish an Aboriginal culture list – and Doctor Wooreddy is still listed in their catalogue. However the ordering process is a bit laborious because they don’t sell online. My advice would be to order it from Fishpond and let them do the messing about, or try AbeBooks, Brotherhood Books or the library. (You may need to search under the author’s various names to find it).