In recent months I’ve been working on an extended piece dealing with Anthony Trollope’s deeply affective response to the Australian environment. Trollope visited the Antipodes twice. Once between 1871 and 1872, when he based himself in Australia, but also travelled to New Zealand. He returned in 1875 for a shorter trip, when he mostly remained in New South Wales.
Trollope’s son Frederic had settled in Australia as a young man having, as his father expressed it, ‘resolved on a colonial career when he found that boys who did not grow up so fast as he did got above him at school’. Fred was not a very successful farmer, at least partly because of his attempts to transpose European agricultural methods onto the southern hemisphere terrain. Anthony Trollope was, nevertheless, fascinated by the settlement of Australia, channelling his experiences into works like the novella Harry Heathcote of Gangoil (1874) and his novel, John Caldigate (1879).
Like many other Victorian writers Trollope was fascinated by the fortunes to be made in the southern hemisphere. Yet, unusually, he also felt that settlement in the empire should be a long-term commitment—that men should not simply plunder the colonies only to return home with their riches, but rather they should commit to their new home in a whole-hearted and respectful manner. The most extensive account of Trollope’s time in the antipodes appears in his two-volume work, Australia and New Zealand (1873), in which he charted the ecological vandalism that European settlers inflicted upon the landscape. He weighed in on controversial issues like the ring-barking of trees (of which he disapproved) and he also wrote a damning indictment of the wholesale damage caused by gold prospectors.
Trollope was, for the most part, intrigued by the strangeness of life on the other side of the world, but his appreciation for its fauna was somewhat inconsistent. Moving from a description of some of the world’s deadliest snakes (of which he remarks, ‘I do not think much of Australian snakes’, he rather perplexingly comments, ‘Australia is altogether deficient in sensational wild beasts’. While Trollope’s knowledge of Australian fauna is undoubtedly patchy, he astutely captures its endangerment at the hands of European settlers. Although at home in Britain he was a keen hunter, Trollope approaches most Australian wildlife with respect and curiosity. He also reveals deeper insights into precarious ecological and anthropological balances in the Antipodes when he ostensibly writes of proliferating animals. Commenting of the possum,
The opossum, –‘up a gum tree’, where he is always to be found, –seems to be the most persevering aboriginal inhabitant of the country. He does not recede before civilization, but addicts himself to young cabbages, and is a nuisance. As the blacks die out there is no one to eat him, and he is prolific. He sleeps soundly, and is very easy to kill with a dog… But there is no fun in killing him, for he neither fights nor runs away.
For Trollope, the possum is hardy and adaptable, able to change his diet to accommodate non-native plants, like cabbages, and to adjust to the differences of settler life. The possum is, however, curiously vulnerable because of the trust he places in humans. Thus, Trollope’s sense of an Australian eco-system is, accordingly, unable to accommodate compassion for the land’s traditional custodians, expressing approval only of those with what he sees as the vigour to change.
Trollope’s attitude towards dingoes, the wild dogs whom he describes as ‘the squatter’s direct enemy’, is remarkably similar to his position on indigenous Australians. He regards the dingo as a pest and describes, in graphic and shocking detail, some of the attempts made to obliterate the dogs, who posed (and continue to pose) a threat to livestock and hence to livelihoods, too:
The squatter attempts to rid himself of the dingo by poison, and consequently strychnine is as common in a squatter’s house as castor oil in a nursery. On many large runs carts are continually being taken round with baits to be set on the paths of the dingo. In smaller establishments the squatter or his head man goes about with strychnine in his pocket and lumps of meat tied up in a handkerchief. Hence it comes to pass that the use of a shepherd’s dog is impossible, unless he be muzzled. But the dingo likes lamb better than bait, and the squatters sometimes are broken-hearted.
The anthropologist Deborah Bird Rose has written of what she calls the ‘violent unmaking’ of dingoes in Australia’s Northern Territory today, charting the ways in which they continue to be poisoned and treated as vermin. According to Rose, the dingo pits itself against the pastoralist, who destroys the dogs in order to assert or display dominance (See Deborah Bird Rose, Wild Dog Dreaming, 93). Far from being a companion species like his domesticated European counterpart, the dingo opposes himself to imported ideas of the pastoral, feeding on sheep instead of herding them; actively resisting the idea that the countryside can be parceled up and fenced in. The dingo is, for both Trollope and Rose, what Raymond Williams would term a counter-pastoralist—albeit a particularly feral one—who pits himself against Europeanized farming practices and ideas of property ownership. Ignoring the boundaries imposed upon the landscape by settlers, the dingo continues to treat the land as a source of ‘innate bounty’. Indeed, as Australian sheep stocks grew after 1850, so the number of dingoes trebled. The dingo is a living, plundering reminder of just how incompatible imported ideas of land ownership are with the vast and wild Australian terrain.
Towards the end of his travelogue, Trollope offers an account of a dingo hunt, which is, for him, ‘great sport’. His depiction reveals how a privileged sector of settler society sought to contain—and possibly also to redefine—the dingo by treating him as they would an English fox. There are distinctions, as he explains, noting that while a fox who is shaken from a bag declines to run, the dingo is much more obliging. For the most part, Trollope focuses on the hunters themselves, recounting how they crash into fences that are too high, lose their mounts and generally prove to be unequal to the differences involved in riding to hounds in the bush. Trollope is so weary by the time he and his fellow huntsmen and women catch up with the dog that he declares, ‘I cared little what it was’. This particular dingo is taken alive, having been pursued for two miles, although what happens to him next is not reported. Most dingoes who were caught up in hunts were killed as vermin and newspapers contain numerous accounts of the stalking of dingoes, sometimes as a bloodsport and sometimes in response to the theft of sheep.
While on the one hand a replication of an English country pursuit that is for some an important tradition dating back to the sixteenth century, on the other the Australian version of the hunt is something more. Hunting in England is about the pursuit of an individual fox, with no sense that these enemies of the farmer might ever be eradicated through this highly ritualized chase. The hunting of dingoes, however, was part of a much more widespread and systematic process of extermination that hinged on the labeling of the wild dog as a pest. The hunt might thus be regarded as an attempt to express mastery, albeit one that fails, according to Trollope’s descriptions of fallen riders and general calamity. The transposition of this aspect of English rural life to the bush is far from seamless and fails to account for the many differences between the countryside at ‘home’ and the much more rugged Australian terrain. In many ways, Trollope’s dingo hunt highlights the numerous challenges that the land threw in the faces of migrants, challenges that were exacerbated by such willful attempts to impose aspects of the pastoral onto a resistant environment.
Trollope allows some of the ideas that sanctioned and legitimated the dingo hunt to permeate his contribution to the debate surrounding invasive species. Once more invoking the idea of the ‘pest’, he remarks that, ‘the rabbit has become so great a plague in Victoria and parts of Tasmania that squatters in some localities are spending thousands with the hope of exterminating them’. He notes that one farmer claims to have spent more than fifteen thousand pounds in attempting to eliminate rabbits from his property, an aim which modern-day land managers know to be futile. Yet while on the one hand he registers the nuisance posed by the rabbit, on the other he voices an admiration for its ability to proliferate in new climes. Trollope writes of imported European animals ‘thrusting out the aboriginal creatures of this country’, noting with approval that ‘The emus are nearly gone. The kangaroos are departing to make way for the sheep’. He continues to celebrate the ‘numerous’ sparrows, also asserting that the ‘busier bee from Europe’ has quickly displaced his Australian counterpart, in terms of sheer numbers, but also production of honey. When read alongside Trollope’s dismissive comments regarding indigenous Australians, remarks of this kind become inflected with contemporary notions of natural selection and racial vigour. While today’s ecologists are perturbed by introduced species, for Trollope the fact that they were able to thrive in the Antipodes became a legitimation of the colonial venture and an implicit assertion of mastery. European creatures were stronger and more spirited than their Oceanian counterparts and were therefore, just like white settlers, able to displace those who had occupied the land for millennia.
This entry is a compressed account of an article, ‘”So Wild and Beautiful a World Around Him”: Trollope and Antipodean Ecology’, which will be published in 2015.
Posted by Grace Moore