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Aboriginal Australia by Jack Davis

“Aboriginal Australia”, also known by its first line “To the Others” appears in Noongar playwright and poet Jack Davis’ poetry collection Jagardoo: Poems from Aboriginal Australia. This poem is about the atrocities of European colonizers on the Aboriginal Australians. The former clad with military power sacked the peaceful lives of the indigenous people and denied them their birthright, their land, and their freedom. Those who came in their way were either eliminated or oppressed. In this poem, Davis details a number of brutish events occurring in Australia, starting from the settlement of colonizers till the day of writing this poem in the 20th century.

  • Read the full text of “Aboriginal Australia” here in the analysis section.
Analysis of Aboriginal Australia by Jack Davis


Summary

John Davis’s poem “Aboriginal Australia” begins with a reference to the cunningness of colonizers. They crept in showing off their brotherly facade and eliminated the indigenous people one by one. It was a stratagem devised to fend off the enemies from their profitable venture. Throughout this piece, Davis alludes to several events such as denial of “Yirrakalas’ plea”, the massacre at Lake George hills, brutal killings of Warrarra men, and the Murray tribe. The list does not end here. Afterward, the poet details the episodes of tortures in order to hint at how dissenting voices were subdued. Finally, Davis criticizes the colonizers’ justification of ruthless killings and says that the real story of Aboriginal Australians is written in the pages of history.

Structure & Form

The poem “Aboriginal Australia” is written from the perspective of a first-person speaker who represents the aboriginals as a whole. It is composed in the form of a protest poem. Here an agitated subject expresses his concerns in a  straightforward manner. Besides, the poem contains a regular meter. Davis wrote this piece using the alternative ABAB rhyme scheme. If the first line is separated from the body of the text, it can clearly be grouped into eight quatrains in respect to the rhyme scheme. Davis uses the end-stopped stanza form in order to end each unit. Alongside that, the poem is mostly composed of the iambic meter without a specific metrical pattern.

Poetic Devices

In “Aboriginal Australia”, readers can find the following poetic devices.

  • Irony: Davis uses this device throughout the poem in order to comment on the brutalities of the European colonizers. For example, it occurs in “You once smiled a friendly smile/ Said we were kin to one another”. Here, the poet criticizes the colonizers’ crafty mindset.
  • Metaphor: It occurs in the line “Then you swamped my way gladness”. Here, the poet compares the way of being happy to a path that is inundated by the rulers. The term “swamped” is used to signify the destruction of aboriginals’ happiness. This device is also used in “thin stick bikes of people”.
  • Alliteration: It occurs in “we were”, “Snapped shut”, “kith and kind”, “murdered me”, etc.
  • Allusion: Davis alludes to the Yirrkala bark petitions in the line “At Yirrakalas’ plea denied.”. He also alludes to the massacre at Lake George Hills in the 1820s.
  • Epigram: The last two lines of the poem contain this device. Here, the poet says that the real story can be found in the metaphorical crucifixion of the indigenous people.


Line-by-Line Analysis & Explanation

Lines 1-5

To the Others

You once smiled a friendly smile,

Said we were kin to one another,

Thus with guile for a short while

Became to me a brother.

Jack Davis’ poem “Aboriginal Australia” records the brutal events that occurred with the indigenous people of Australia in the past. The poet takes readers back to the time when the European colonizers first stepped into their land. In the very first line, the poet hints at the concept of “otherness” propagated by the colonizers.

Before placing their feet, one thing was clear in their mind that the aboriginal people were not one of them. To get access to their resources, they had to devise a strategy. So, they started establishing relationships with the aboriginals with their fake, friendly smile.

They said they were related to one another. Using this stratagem, they established a brotherly relationship with the speaker. He simply accepted their friendly gesture without any sign of doubt. But, he or his fellow countrymen did not know what was waiting ahead.

Lines 6-9

Then you swamped my way of gladness,

Took my children from my side,

Snapped shut the law book, oh my sadness

At Yirrakalas’ plea denied.

In these lines, Davis describes what their crafty brotherhood caused to the aboriginal people. After understanding their simplicity, they showed their real face. According to the speaker, the colonizers swamped their lives with oppression and suffering. It hampered their naive course of life.

One by one, the rulers took their children away. They snapped shut their traditional law books. Not only that, they even destroyed their cultural values. In the following line, the poet alludes to Yirrkala bark petitions of 1963. The colonial government took land from the aboriginal Yolngu people. It made them submit two bark petitions in the parliament. However, their plea was denied. In this way, the poet hints at how the lands of aboriginals were sacked by the colonizers. They did not even bother to hear their concern.

Lines 10-13

So, I remember Lake George hills,

The thin stick bones of people.

Sudden death, and greed that kills,

That gave you church and steeple.

In the following lines, the poetic persona remembers the massacre at the Lake George hills in the 1820s. A “very large” massacre of indigenous people is said to have occurred at that place. The speaker visualizes the stick-like bones of people at other places. It is the greed of the colonizers that killed the indigenous people. They killed those who refused to give in. After killing them, the colonial forces sacked their resources. With these resources, they built churches and steeples on their land. Their religious institutions were actually built on the bones of innocent men.

Lines 14-17

I cry again for Warrarra men,

Gone from kith and kind,

And I wondered when I would find a pen

To probe your freckled mind.

The speaker cries for the “Warrarra men” who were killed and gone from their kith and kin. Here, the poet uses the term “kind” in order to rhyme with “mind”. In this section, Davis talks about the Warrwa people of Western Australia. Colonizers killed them as they tried to defend their land.

After thinking about all those brutal events, the speaker wondered when he would be able to write. He wished to probe in the freckled mind of the oppressors. The phrase “freckled mind” is a metaphor for their villainous mind. Davis’ persona wants to investigate the mindset of those who did not think twice before killing several weak men.

Lines 18-21

I mourned again for the Murray tribe,

Gone too without a trace.

I thought of the soldier’s diatribe,

The smile on the governor’s face.

In these lines, the speaker mourns for the Murray tribe. The Murray people lived near the river by the same name. In the 1830s, several of them died in the Mount Dispersion massacre. They too had gone without a trace like the Warrarra men and indigenous people living around the Lake George hills.

In the following lines, the speaker thinks about the bitterness of the soldiers toward them. For the government, the soldiers were the instrument of killing. They approved all the inhumane acts with a bit of a grin on their face. Davis criticizes the cruel, devilish nature of the colonizers in these lines.

Lines 22-25

You murdered me with rope, with gun

The massacre of my enclave,

You buried me deep on McLarty’s run

Flung into a common grave.

The poet refers to the torturous episodes from the perspective of the Aboriginal Australian community in this section. He describes how they were killed with rope or by bullets. In the next line, he metaphorically refers to the killing of aboriginal people by the phrase “massacre of my enclave”. The term “enclave” is a reference to the speaker’s motherland.

Davis’s persona further says that they buried him deep on McLarty’s run alongside others. It means the speaker of this poem is none other than one who died in the massacre. In this poem, he speaks up against the atrocities of the European colonizers.

Lines 26-29

You propped me up with Christ, red tape,

Tobacco, grog and fears,

Then disease and lordly rape

Through the brutish years.

Davies uses a Christian alluding in the 26th line. He alludes to the crucifixion of Christ and says that his persona was propped up on the cross. His mouth was kept shut using red tapes. The color “red” symbolizes the colonial rulers. They forced him to take tobacco and grog (an alcoholic drink). Their torture did not stop here.

The indigenous people of Australia suffered from various diseases but the rulers refused to help them. By the term “lordly rape”, the poet hints at how the colonizers abused their women. It is also a reference to death and destruction in Australia during the colonial era. Davis refers to the colonial period as “brutish years”. There is a pun in the usage of the word “brutish”. It is an implicit reference to the term “British”.

Lines 30-33

Now you primly say you’re justified,

And sing of a nation’s glory,

But I think of a people crucified –

The real Australian story.

In the last lines of “Aboriginal Australia”, the poet satirizes the mindset of the colonizers. Disregarding their crimes, they tried to prove their acts as just and fit. They sang the glory of their nation by the resources they ransacked from the speaker’s country. In the last two lines, the poet says that no matter what they said to prove their innocence, the real story of Aboriginal Australia was all about the ruthless killings of its people. In this way, Davis not only points out the torturous episodes of the colonial era but also ironically comments on the colonizers’ cruel mindset.

Historical Context

The poem “Aboriginal Australia” was first published in John Davis’s second book of poetry Jagardoo: Poems from Aboriginal Australia. It was published in 1978. John Davis was a Noongar playwright and poet from Australia. He is regarded as the Aboriginal Poet Laureate of the 20the century for his contribution to aboriginal poetry. His poems revolve around the Aboriginal experience after the settlement of the Europeans. Davis’ works concern the themes of Aboriginality and Aboriginalism. In this poem, readers can find an aboriginal speaker detailing the atrocities of the colonial era. His voice represents all those who were oppressed and brutally suppressed.

Questions & Answers

What is the poem “Aboriginal Australia” by Jack Davis about?

Jack Davis’s “Aboriginal Australia” is about the colonial atrocities in Australia. The poet describes how the colonizers at first settled in their land and how they started ransacking their resources. He also records several brutal events concerning the massacre of indigenous people.

Why did Jack Davis write “Aboriginal Australia”?

Jack Davis wrote this poem of protest in order to throw light on the devilish and brutish mindset of the colonizers. He records the killing of several indigenous people and highlights the way the colonizers treated them.

What is the theme of “Aboriginal Australia”?

This poem taps on themes of aboriginality, colonial atrocities, and the suffering of indigenous Australians.

Who is the speaker of the poem?

The speaker of this poem is an aboriginal Australian who died in a massacre during colonial rule. He represents the poet Jack Davis as well.

What aboriginal tribe did Jack Davis identify with?

Jack Davis identified himself with the Western Australian Nyoongah or Noongar tribe.


External Resources


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