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The inaugural Prime Minister's Literary Award (Non-Fiction) has been won by Philip Jones for his book Ochre and Rust: Artefacts and encounters on Australian frontiers (Wakefield Press, 2007).

[ Update 6/10/08 And the book has now also won the Chief Minister's NT History Book award against some fine competitors, including the author and Anna Kenny (Muslim cameleers), Darrell Lewis (Murranji track), Alec Kruger's autobiography, and Amanda Nettlebeck and Robert Foster on murderous Constable Wilshire].

The book is a pleasurable mingling of history and reconstructed ethnographic fragments, presented as a series of stories about encounters between Aborigines and non-Aborigines from 1788 to the early twentieth century. Each chapter is a reflection on an artefact in the collection of the South Australian Museum. These are the stories that are shrunk into a single line caption in a museum display. The stories are about the people involved - the maker, the collector, their friends, associates and relations - bringing in the history of the artefact and the wider context in which it was collected, and what this may say about the relations between Aborigines and non-Aborigines.

It's a very rich book, in the many ideas and reflections arising from the stories, in illustrations and maps, and in the juxtapositions of ideas and images.

For linguists, one revealing juxtaposition is that of the collection of things and the collection of words. Several of the collectors also recorded word-lists - there's a discussion in the first chapter ('Master Blackburn's whip') of David Blackburn's transcription of William Dawes' vocabulary of the language of Sydney cove. The engagement of the Aborigines with the invaders is shown by the records of words not only for traditional things (boo-mer-ut the Scimitar), but also for new things (muskets, glass, compass) [1].

Chapter four, 'Spearing Bennett', turns on string bags collected by William Webster Hoare and a manuscript titled 'Vocabulary of the Woolner District dialect, Adelaide River, N.T.' transcribed by Hoare from an 1869 work by his friend John William Ogilvie Bennett. Bennett, a surveyor, collected words for old and new things in the Wuna language, and recorded and located place-names along the Adelaide River, and the heart of the story is why a man so interested in learning more about Aborigines should then be killed by them. But in the course of it, Jones draws attention to Hoare's transcription errors and to the absence of a map and key for the place-names which were carried over in the posthumously published Bennett material. Important for anyone working on Wuna.

Chapter six 'Unearthing the toas' describes the strange painted wooden objects produced by the Diyari and collected at Killalpaninna mission by the missionary J. G. Reuther. As part of unearthing what they were made for, Jones explores Reuther's definition of the word toa in the vast Diyari dictionary [2]. In doing this he also notes the way in which collections of vocabularies and grammars, and documentations of symbol systems can act as a measure of the attempts of Aboriginals and Europeans to understand each other better.

Jones' thesis is that the frontier was fluid - Aborigines and non-Aborigines watched each other, exchanged artefacts, tried to talk with each other, exchanged information about languages. The attempts to accommodate each other led to the creation of new artefacts. Talking with each other led to language change, from adopting new words to adopting new ways of talking. Observations on the languages of contact abound in the book - from the missionary George Taplin's remark in 1860 about his mission on Lake Alexandrina that 'the different tribes whose languages are different now communicate in English' (quoted by Jones p.56), to the many quotations in pidgin English from Aborigines, to the value placed by some Aborigines on learning to read and write English.

Missionaries such as George Taplin and J. G. Reuther weren't alone in realising the necessity of learning Aboriginal languages. Here's the South Australian Surveyor General and explorer George Goyder on how the danger and uncertainty of relations between Aborigines and non-Aborigines would continue "Until the object and motives of the whites can be clearly explained in their own language, and the natives be satisfactorily convinced of the futility and impolicy of opposition" (quoted by Jones p.164) (Hey-ho the N.T. intervention oh!)

Obliquely, indirectly, the book's a contribution to the historians' culture wars, allowing the weaknesses in both sides to emerge through the stories, rather than through direct authorial comment. So, the last chapter, 'That special property', shows the South Australian Government in 1905 gazetting an ochre mine as an Aboriginal reserve because of representations made by a senior Kuyani man, Harry Bailes, two pastoralists, and a country doctor. No comment is needed on how this contrasts with accounts of the frontier which portray Aborigines only as helpless victims, and Governments and pastoralists only as uncaring aggressors.

But, on the other hand, in 'Spearing Bennett', Jones notes that Bennett recorded words for 'country' and mapped localities associated with chiefs, and comments that this suggests that the notion of country interested Bennett. Ordinary common sense is involved in working out what interpretation we can place on the presence or absence of words in a recorder's word-list. Jones doesn't say, and doesn't need to say, that Keith Windschuttle lacked this ordinary common sense, when he made the extraordinary claim that the Tasmanian Aborigines lacked the concept of land as property because he (Windschuttle) couldn't find a word meaning 'land' in the vocabularies of the Tasmanian languages (see Henry Reynolds' discussion).

The stories flow and are a delight to read, precisely because Jones chooses sparingly as to when to engage with what others have said, or written, about the same material. What's primary for Jones is what is said in the primary sources, and what he infers from that. For the language side, this means presenting the original spellings of sources, but rarely including the modern spellings for names of words or of languages - satisfying the inner philologist, but not the inner phonologist. What we linguists need to do is to spread more widely the reasons for using agreed-on spellings, as well as the spellings themselves. AIATSIS is taking a step in this direction with the proposed dissemination of lists of Aboriginal language names through the AUSTLANG project.

[1] A look at Jaky Troy's compilation of old sources, The Sydney Language (The Author, Canberra 1993), indicates that several of the quoted words (the boomerang word as boo-mer-rit) come from a notebook bundled together with two notebooks compiled by William Dawes. On the basis of handwriting Troy argues that this notebook was written by David Collins, Arthur Phillip and John Hunter (Jakelin Troy. 1992. 'The Sydney Language Notebooks and responses to language contact in early colonial NSW', Australian Journal of Linguistics 12, 145-170).

[2] Picky meta-note: I wanted to link to the AIATSIS catalogue for this, since AIATSIS's predecessor AIAS published the translation in microfiche. Sadly, doing so results in .html gobbledy-gook; they don't have permalinks. But there is an old finding aid here.

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