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Kangaroos – The 100 Days Project: Day 37 [64]

Henry Lawson, Hunting Parties,

    Marsupial Destruction Acts

Photo: Andras Berkes-Brandl

It’s not a new thing, this deep and strange national ambivalence toward kangaroos. In fact it’s almost as old as white/invader settlement. These creatures so evidently and infuriatingly at home in a place where we feel so alien. Kill them = take revenge on the alienation….

In Henry Lawson’s great short story, ‘The Drover’s Wife’, as the woman in question settles her children to sleep on the table in the kitchen of her two-room slab-and-bark hut before commencing her all-night watch for the snake that has come in from the wood-pile, her son Tommy, struggling to stay awake, asks

Mother! Do you think they’ll ever extricate the (adjective) kangaroo?

On Lawson’s part – if not, perhaps, on Tommy’s – it’s a purposeful malapropism. Tommy, presumably, means ‘exterminate’. Lawson, on the other hand, seems to gesture, quite deliberately, to the manner in which the kangaroo has found itself caught up in the tangled web of the disoriented western mind.

‘The Drover’s Wife’ was first published in The Bulletin in 1892, and reflects the troubled nature of Australian rural life at the time (drought, the 1890-93 depression, the shearers’ strike, etc.). It would be quite understandable if one caught, in the kangaroo’s appearance at this particular point of the story, a glimpse of the scapegoat.

In 1877 the government of Queensland passed a Marsupial Destruction Act, offering, amongst other things, bounties on the scalps of the marsupials and other animals it covered. Various incarnations of this act held sway in the state until 1930 when it was replaced by the re-spun Grazing Districts Improvements Act. In the years between, over twenty-seven million kangaroos, wallaroos, wallabies, pademelons, bandicoots, dingoes and foxes were officially recorded killed. In 1879 the government of New South Wales put forward a Marsupial Destruction Bill. This failed to pass (!) but in 1880 was re-spun and accepted as The Pastures and Stock Protection Act. In two of Australia’s most kangaroo-populous states, their slaughter was thus enshrined in legislation. The will of the people.

By this time, and for several decades to follow, the shooting of kangaroos for sport was almost a national pastime. As early as 1861, in his Bush Wanderings of a Naturalist, H.W. Wheelright records huge hunting parties held just outside Melbourne:

At present, the kangaroos appear to be regarded as nuisances in the bush, and every means is used to exterminate the race: they are snared, shot, and run down with hounds, just for the sake of killing them, and the carcasses left to rot in the forest


Such hunting parties were held throughout the country, and involved all levels of society. But we are now in the territory of the kangaroo battues. I’ll save them for another post.

Henry Lawson was born in the Grenfell goldfields at the height of the gold-rush in that area. Grenfell is approximately two hundred kilometres south-west of the town of Hill End, near Bathurst, one of the other epicentres of the same goldrush. I don’t have a photograph of a kangaroo on the old Grenfell goldfields, but I do have, courtesy of Andras Berkes-Brandl, a few of kangaroos at Hill End and have used one above: an old boy in an abandoned vegetable garden. The gold prospectors are long, long gone, though some parts of their legacy – a landscape, for example, riddled by abandoned mineshafts – still remain. By my calculation there are now more kangaroos at Hill End, amongst the empty houses, than there are people (80 people in 2017). For once a number I don’t mind at all.

Henry Lawson, c. 1902

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