Sunday, November 17, 2013

they strayed inland, in some of our numerous excursions

A Narrative of the Expedition to Botany Bay by Watkin Tench (1789)

A Complete Account of the Settlement at Port Jackson by Watkin Tench (1793)

Watkin Tench sailed in the First Fleet with Arthur Phillip but he does not write about "order and useful arrangement, arising gradually out of tumult and confusion" in the settlement; he describes a group of characters making progress at different speeds in the direction of more or less the same objective, or not personally and individually the same objective but one that they are all bound to by the presence of the country that they inhabit.

They all want to go on living, some of them by farming, some of them by stealing, some of them by escaping: there is the convict who stole a boat and sailed away into oblivion, never seen again, and there is a set of cows that left as well, and were never seen again, no sign of them, no sign that any convict or indigene had killed or eaten them, no trace, no hoofprint, a band of lost cows gone forever and immortal. No doubt they wanted to live too. In pursuit of this aim they allowed the continent to swallow them. They have haunted us ever since (not only Australians but potentially the entire reading world); they are there in Tench, they are there in The Voyage of Governor Phillip, they are a literary and historical presence, their exterior presences or physical spirits having been transferred into books and never into the slaughterhouse or, if you believe the evidence, into a human mouth, or the mouth of any animal.

But into the maw of books, which will never finish eating them.

In my former narrative I have particularly noticed the sudden disappearance of the cattle, which we had brought with us into the country. Not a trace of them has ever since been observed. Their fate is a riddle, so difficult of solution that I shall not attempt it. Surely had they strayed inland, in some of our numerous excursions, marks of them must have been found. It is equally impossible to believe that either the convicts or natives killed and ate them, without some sign of detection ensuing

The nation should be haunted by a terrible symbol of cows, and there should be a cow statue or cow monument. The lawn that grows over parliament in the garden city capital is waiting for its ghosts. The static cattle -- the Dororthy Wordsworth cattle, "which accident stamped a character upon places, else unrememberable," the Beckett cattle -- have walked off.

"We have finished being your message to the landscape or the landscape's message to you: we're away," they said. Then there are Ernestine Hill's dried cattle around the dead waterhole in her travel records; there is Clancy in Banjo Paterson, gone droving "and we don't know where he are." "As the stock are slowly stringing, Clancy rides behind them singing,"

They have become everyday life, "the measure of all things" (Guy Debord) and the buttress of the extraordinary.

The writers that Stockdale excerpted in Governor Phillip liked to stay at the level of an observation or a fact, and record the plumage of the parrot without recording also their own personal encounter with a parrot (or Stockdale cuts out the story and yet I don't think so for their tones are so military and so scientific) but Tench has his own natural authorial motion, which is a vibration between anecdote and fact.

Proceeded to the settlement called the Ponds, a name which I suppose it derived from several ponds of water which are near the farms. Here reside the fourteen following settlers. [list of settlers] The Prospect Hill terms of settlement extend to this place. My private remarks were not many. Some spots which I passed over I thought desirable, particularly Ramsay's farm; and he deserves a good spot, for he is a civil, sober, industrious man. Besides his corn land, he has a well laid out little garden, in which I found him and his wife busily at work. He praised her industry to me; and said he did not doubt of succeeding. It is not often seen that sailors make good farmers; but this man I think bids fair to contradict the observation.

So all his facts spread out around an "I" who is involved in fact-generation, who measures the facts, who inserts himself into the facts, I spoke to him and he confirmed it ..., or on my observation or I saw or I went or I measured. "The natives around Port Jackson are in person rather more diminutive and slighter made, especially about the thighs and legs, than the Europeans. It is doubtful whether their society contained a person of six feet high. The tallest I ever measured, reached five feet eleven inches, and men of his height were rarely seen."

He is an agent of population, like the cows, who have multiplied themselves by roaming out. He is in the beetles -- he will live in the beetles -- he will abide in them -- he will plant his I -- with instruments -- with rum --

The hardiness of some of the insects deserves to be mentioned. A beetle was immersed in proof spirits for four hours, and when taken out crawled away almost immediately. It was a second time immersed, and continued in a glass of rum for a day and a night, at the expiration of which period it still showed symptoms of life. Perhaps, however, what I from ignorance deem wonderful is common.

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