Over at my other gig I’ve been working on/editing an upcoming story by Stacey Roberts on Aboriginal domestic service as represented in early Australian women’s fiction (it’s out now – here). This inevitably includes a large section on Mrs Gunn’s The Little Black Princess (1905), the story of Bett-Bett, an 8 year old Aboriginal girl Mrs Gunn takes in as a servant companion during the year her husband was managing Elsey Station on the Roper River, 400 km south of Darwin.
Mrs Gunn is better known for her account of that year, We of the Never Never (1907). And it was only today, reading contemporary reviews of The Little Black Princess, in which Mrs Gunn appears to be unknown, that I realised they were published in that order. And before I go on, let me reiterate from Stacey’s essay:
Gunn’s self-titled role of the “Little Missus” in these plucky novels of settler courage was only made possible by the violent theft of the lands of the Manarayi and Yanman peoples of the Roper River.
Mrs Gunn’s books – memoirs really – are generally accounted as the first sympathetic accounts of Aboriginal life to be directed at the general public. We’ll pass over for the time being that that “sympathetic” involves great dollops of paternalism. What surprises me, brought up in totally white, 1950s white picket fence Victoria, is how much of what was ‘general knowledge’ about Aboriginal life, was derived directly from these two books.
My intention today is not to write a review of The Little Black Princess, though I must one day force myself to re-read and review We of the Never Never for my ‘50 Books you must Read‘ project, but to go over some of the material around it. Let us start with a newspaper review:
Mrs. Jeannie Gunn, who inhabits, or did inhabit, a homestead somewhere up in the Northern Territory, has written, in “The Little Black Princess” (Melville and Mullen), absolutely the most charming book about our aborigines that has yet been published. We have had statistics about them, and learned persons, such as Mr Gillon and Mr. Baldwin Spencer, have described to us what their manner of life has been and is. We have had some of their legends translated for us sympathetically by Mrs. Langloh Parker and others, but we never have had till now the aborigine as he is presented familiarly to us….
Mrs. Gunn came across the Princess by accident, and it is at least to her credit that her eye of faith pierced through the no-clothing of the eight-year-old aristocrat and found that there was good stuff in her. Decadent race the aborigines doubtless are, but there is no want of bright specimens here and there.
The Princess had but one possession, outside the glories of her lineage, and that was a dog called Sue. “All nigger dogs,” remarks the author, “are ugly, but Sue was the ugliest of them all. She looked very much like a flattened out plum-pudding on legs, with ears like a young calf, and a cat’s tail.” Sue, in a word, was not beautiful, and in that respect she suited her eight-year-old mistress. Nothing on earth could make people of our race regard any aboriginal as absolutely beautiful, though, judged by their own canons, there have been dusky Helens fit to put nations at enmity in Australia.
But we may well be persuaded by Mrs. Gunn’s delightful book that the aborigines – some aborigines – are pleasant folk to have around. You can’t teach them anything. Sometimes they won’t hear, and sometimes you speedily find out that they have not the necessary apparatus for thinking as white people think. The theories of religion entertained by the most advanced amongst them are confused, and hardly warrant the high expectations entertained in some quarters of the feasibility of Christianising the remnants of the Australian tribes.
All this comes in for incidental illustration in Mrs. Gunn’s book. We can heartily commend it as an interesting book in itself, and as a sympathetic study of an original character.Sydney Morning Herald, Sat. 09 Dec. 1905
I don’t see any point in filling the quote with “[sic]s”. This is how we thought and wrote a century ago, and it probably fairly represents my starting point as a child half a century later, in Victorian rural communities from which all traces of the original inhabitants had been removed to reservations – Condah and Framlingham, of which I was entirely unaware though I lived nearby at different times, and more particularly Lake Tyers, way out in the state’s east.
The other reviews I located were not as vile. The best of them, which ends: “Even the omniscient Mr. Andrew Lang might learn much new information from it upon the subject of the race which is said to represent the earliest strivings of the human mind towards the great ideals of Law and Truth.” appeared originally in the Daily Telegraph, though Trove has it in the Clarence and Richmond Examiner Sat 13 Jan 1906. And no, I don’t know who Lang is (I found one mention of him collecting Aboriginal stories in conjunction with Mrs Langloh Parker).
At the end of The Little Black Princess, Bett-Bett returns to her people. In fact Mrs Gunn’s husband died; she returned to Melbourne (where apparently she was friends with Ada Cambridge); and the girl Bett-Bett was based on, Dolly Bonson, was sent away into service in Darwin and never returned home. She does get more mentions in the papers. Firstly:
Readers of Mrs. Aeneas Gunn’s book, “The Little Black Princess” will be interested to learn that the little black princess herself was recently the guest of Mrs. Gunn at Hawthorn, Victoria…
Bett-Bett has developed from the “little bush nigger girl,” who boasted her “plenty savvy Engliss missus,” into an intelligent, comely child, with a wonderful command of the English tonguevarious, May 1907
Then, in 1937 Mrs Gunn writes up Dolly’s life to date, as a servant in Darwin (though doesn’t name her as Wikipedia erroneously states), in a story headed “Life Story of Famous Piccaninny”, Sydney Morning Herald, Thu 4 Feb 1937.
Finally, we have “My Great Grandmother, Bett-Bett the Little Black Princess” which appears to be by Alan Holman, in 2014. Here we discover that the first time Dolly revealed publicly she was Bett-Bett was to her church in 1969; and we learn a bit more about her departure from Roper River:
[Mrs Gunn leaving] brought her into contact with her white father, Mr Cummings, for the first time. They became great friends, although the relationship was legally and culturally prohibited.
Dolly was caught between two worlds. Her own culture wouldn’t accept her whiteness and the white community refused to accept her Aboriginal heritage. Dolly soon became a liability to her constantly travelling father, so she was reluctantly sent to a boarding house in Darwin. For the next decade, apart from some short moments of relative happiness, life was tough.
In 1918 she met and married Joe Bonson and they had five children together.
Dolly Bonson, aged 95, died in March, 1988.
I have noted before, particularly in relation to accounts of Aboriginal massacres where police were encouraged to bring back no prisoners, that Australian newspapers were far more open in their racism than the novelists I generally rely on. You can see that demonstrated here, and I can only imagine stories continued to be told that way because it suited the beliefs of the wider Australian population.
Jeannie Gunn, The Little Black Princess: A True Tale of Life in the Never-Never Land, first pub. 1905 (Project Gutenberg)