Ion Idriess


Ion Idriess (1889-1979) was, with Frank Clune (1893-1971), the foremost of a number of author/journalists, Ernestine Hill was another, who reinforced Australian Bush archetypes with their easy-to-read story-telling.

According to a website maintained by fans (who call Idriess by his nickname, Jack):

From his first attempt in 1927 to his final book published in 1969, Jack published 53 books…

Jack sold more than three million books when his target audience (Australia’s population) was less than seven million and this record must also be set in the context of the Great Depression. In the 1930’s, when Australia was in the depths of depression, people still bought his books by the million.

Of the 53 several were novels but, according to The Oxford Companion to Australian Literature, “in the main he wrote basically factual stories, imaginatively re-created, with the invented conversations that are a feature also of the works of Frank Clune.” (for a Bibliography see Wikipedia). Quite a number were about, or included accounts of, Aborigines. The Introduction to Gems from Ion Idriess (1949), a book intended for schools, says of Idriess who in his twenties was in Queensland prospecting:

[On Cape York Peninsula] he made contact with aboriginal life by becoming a prospecting mate of two half-caste brothers. These men were the leaders of a tribe of aborigines. The three wandered with the tribe for months at a time.

From [his] relatively primitive mainland brothers, Idriess learned many strange things. He became acquainted with age-old aboriginal customs and beliefs that have adorned the tales he has set in the land that was once theirs.

The Introduction goes on to say, “His is no cultivated style. He possesses a natural talent that springs from his own Australia: he is an instrument through which the genius of the country speaks, for it has become a part of his mind.” Further, he brings vigour to Australian writing. “In this he resembles Walter Scott, who first led the English man in the street to read poetry.” The Introduction is by the ubiquitous Colin Roderick (ADB Whispering Gums).

Following on from Lisa at ANZLL’s recent Indigenous Writers’ Week I thought it might be a good time to review a writer who was, in his day, influential in forming attitudes amongst urban readers the great majority of whom spent their lives then as they do now, remote from Aboriginal contact. My brothers have (and my father had) extensive collections of Ion Idriess, so I have to hand:

Nemarluk: King of the Wilds (1947)

Gems From Ion Idriess (1949)

The Red Chief: A Mighty Aboriginal Warrior (1953)

Gems consists of 34 excerpts, of about 5 pages each, from longer works. I don’t remember seeing it during my schooling in Victoria and the inside cover is stamped Broken Hill High (the Class is listed as I or 1 BP) so it may have been a set text in NSW in the 1950s. There are a couple of stories from the book Lasseter’s Last Ride (Lasseter was an explorer who claimed to have discovered a fabulous reef of gold in the NT at the turn of the century but who lost his life in 1931 in remote desert on the WA border while attempting to re-find it). One describes an emu hunt:

The warriors rushed in, striking with their wommeras, leaping aside from those flail-like legs, striking at that dodging head which struck viciously back. Lasseter danced with the others. Here was meat, plenty of meat!

In another, Idriess describes a Kaditcha man laying a curse. Arthur Upfield tells similar stories – it seems to be an Indigenous story that white authors ascribe to quite widespread groups – of a man wearing shoes “of emu feathers clotted together with blood” who cannot be tracked and whose power comes from the spirits of the dead. In this story Lasseter is ceremoniously presented with a long, intricately carved spear by a group of tribesmen. But when it is shown in Alice Springs, Lasseter’s party is told, “This stick is one of the sandhills gods. You people might best understand my meaning when I use the word ‘god’. It bears the record, the life history of a tribe from the time that tribe began.”  The stick has been stolen and the curse on the stealer transferred to Lasseter. ‘“He will never come back,” said the man, and was gone.’

Another story deals with Aboriginal burial platforms, but it is obvious the overall purpose of Gems is to inculcate students with good, Bush values.

Nemarluk is the name of a tribal leader on the rugged coast south-west of Darwin, between the Daly and Victoria Rivers. He was “chief of the Cahn-mah, King of the Wilds …  six feet two inches tall, broad chested with a springy quickness of body … a magnificent young savage”, leading his chosen men:

Light of heart the Red Band walked on. Nature’s children these, primitive sons of primitive men. This the land they loved, the life they loved. … These and their tribesmen in Australia’s last few isolated places are the last of the Stone Age men.

And let’s not forget Marboo, “Nemarluk’s young wife, the happiest, proudest little woman in all the Wild Lands.” The landscape is also a ‘character’ as it is in many outback stories. In this case the mangrove swamps, and the canoes gliding through them, evoke de Heer’s 2006 movie, Ten Canoes, set further east, in Arnhem Land.

Much of the 220 pp is taken up with informative and picturesque descriptions of day to day Indigenous life but the main story is that Nemarluk’s group ambush and murder the crew of a ‘Jap’ fishing boat come into shore for water. The police hear of this and with their fierce ‘black-tracker’ Bul Bul set out in pursuit. Nemarluk evades them for months, rampaging across the lands in classic outlaw fashion. “This was their country; they would fight against the white man’s law.” This is not a bad story and the action is well described, but of course Nemarluk and all his warriors, in their home country, are no match for a couple of white policemen and their few Black assistants and eventually they are all locked up in Darwin’s famous Fanny Bay Jail. Nemarluk escapes and makes his way home but he no longer has fighting men to support him and after a series of adventures he is recaptured.

The Red Chief, according to Idriess’s Preface is the story of an earlier Aboriginal leader, told by Bungaree, the last remaining Gunnedah (NSW) man, in the late 1800s, written down and passed on many years later to Idriess.  Red Kangaroo (the ‘Red Chief’) by a series of adventures consolidates the tribes of the Liverpool Plains and becomes their paramount leader. Here he gains himself a couple of brides:

Red Kangaroo, cautiously following, grew hotly eager to lay his hands upon these two attractive girls, as desirable as any he had ever seen. And soon they would be at his mercy… gripping his nulla, he stepped towards the nearer girl … Lifting his club, he brought it smartly down with just the right force upon that thick mop of hair.

He treats the second girl likewise and secures them in a cave, where he tells them:

“I am a warrior of the Gunn-e-darr… Learn that I am a good warrior, as you are going to be good wives!”

Let me finish with two points. Firstly, even allowing that he was well meaning and had first hand information, Idriess’s Aborigines reflect nineteenth century stereotypes which might equally have been applied to ‘Red Indians’ (native Americans) or South Sea warriors; and secondly, following on from Resident Judge’s reference* to Graeme Davison at the recent AHA conference, whether the writers of the ‘Australian Legend’ are from the Bush or from the City, the consumption of such writing by mainly urban Australians was the product of their great thirst for stories which reflected their view of themselves as laconic, independent, resourceful inheritors of an Outback culture. And yes that culture was male-centric and probably the readership was and is too. (Apparently Idriess still sells).


*Resident Judge blogged each of the four days of the recent 2016 Australian Historical Association conference. Graeme Davison’s essay Sydney and the Bush: An Urban Context for the Australian Legend was mentioned in passing on 6 July and piqued my interest.

16 thoughts on “Ion Idriess

    • I’m up the bush myself doing the manly culture thing, so my replies might be patchy. And yes it’s a culture that needs challenging, and has often been used to support militarism. Critics in the past have pointed to the supply of this material, I just wanted to point out there was also considerable demand.


      • I knew Stephenson had cropped up recently in connection with one of the writers we had covered. Looking back, that was Xavier Herbert. I didn’t get the impression Idriess was political and he published with A&R, not Stephenson’s Endeavour Press.


    • Lisa, it took me longer than I expected to get home. Do you think that’s true of McDonald’s work – that he is questioning the Bush myths that underlie Australian culture? I have always thought of him as reinforcing them. It’s a long time since I read (and watched) 1915, which is the only McDonald I own. Perhaps I should read some more.


      • (Apologies for my late reply too, I have been in Qld, very busy indeed on Aged Parent Duty, and *wry smile* with a lot to preoccupy my at the moment).
        I certainly think it’s true of When Colts Ran. He’s an author who really knows that bush world, and I think in his younger days was entranced by it…I read his account of working as a bush cook (Shearer’s Hotel) and was struck by how he was both at home in that world and yet not of it.


      • Good luck with APD. I’ve been doing a bit myself, though son, and brothers who live nearer have been doing most of it. I’ll follow up on Roger Macdonald, always happy to have my preconceptions overturned


  1. I read The Red Chief early last year and found it a wonderful eye-opening account of the Gunn-e-dah before they were overrun (wiped out) by white settlers. I accepted at face value the fact that Idriess did not write the book – that it was narrated by Bungaree as you have mentioned in your post. I don’t know whether it is accepted as such by Aboriginal people in general or by academics. Do you know wadholloway?


    • Well firstly I don’t know if the Bungaree story was real, and in fact I made the opposite assumption, and I used to know some Gunnedah people, so they’re not all gone. I’ll be home on Monday and I’ll see if I can give you better answer.


      • In the preface, Idriess claims that the Gunnedah tribe is “extinct” and that Bungaree was the “last full-blood aboriginal of the tribe”. If you knew Gunnedah people then that can hardly be true. It now makes me question how much else should be questioned. Love to hear your thoughts when you get time…


      • Sharkell, thankyou for spurring me on, it really did not occur to me that Red Chief might be factual, after all, there are plenty of novels taking the form of mock biographies. BUT the local council endorses your view of things so what can I say.
        I still think the Bungaree element must be invented – the historical Bungaree (1775? – 1830) was from the coast and was associated with Gov Macquarrie and Matthew Flinders, and there are places named after him in at least 4 states.
        As it happens I have to go back to work, but if you find out any more let us know.


  2. For some reason the description of these books reminded me of the manly-man antics in the Barsoom series by Edgar Rice Burroughs. I love them, but they were macho, unrealistic, and covered the different races the way only science fiction can: with aliens.


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