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Thursday, 30 May 2013

Not your usual colonial poet

Yes, another hint about what I am up to, though it also serves to mark National Reconciliation Week.

I am in pursuit, this week, of a mysterious Hugo.  He (or she, but I will use "he" hereafter) burst into print twice in Sydney in 1831, and I have reproduced his first poem below.  It is curious: in the first of the two poems, he uses an archaic spelling of waratah, he is clearly familiar with the plants of the area, and he shows a strong empathy with the Aborigines. These were not common characteristics in colonial Sydney in 1831.

Hugo's second poem suggests that he was quite religious, but I can't think of anybody in that era who fits the bill. I think 'Hugo' was a currency lad (or lass), but what happened to him or her?

The poem was first published as "Original Poetry" in The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser, Saturday 16 July 1831, 4.

The Gin
"Where spreads the sloping shaded turf
By Coodge's* smooth and sandy bay,
And roars the ever-ceaseless surf,
I've built my gunya for to-day.

"The gum-tree with its glitt'ring leaves
Is sparkling in the sunny light,
And round my leafy home it weaves
Its dancing shade with flow'rets bright.
A waratah ('warretaw'), Telopea speciosissima.
This is quite a large shot: click on it to enlarge it.

"And beauteous things around are spread;
The burwan*, with its graceful bend
And cone of nuts, and o'er my head
The flowering vines their fragrance lend.

"The grass-tree, too, is waving there,
The fern-tree sweeping o'er the stream,
The fan-palm, curious as rare.
And warretaws* with crimson beam.

"Around them all the glecinæ*
Its dainty tendrils careless winds,
Gemming their green with blossoms gay,
One common flower each bush-shrub finds.

"Fresh water, too, is tumbling o'er
The shell-strewn rocks into the sea;
'Midst them I seek the hidden store,
To heap the rich repast for thee.

"But where is Bian?—where is he?
My husband comes not to my meal:
Why does he not the white man flee,
Nor let their god his senses steal?

"Lingers he yet in Sydney streets?
Accursed race! to you we owe,
No more the heart contented beats.
But droops with sickness, pain, and woe.

"Oh ! for the days my mother tells,
Ere yet the white man knew our land;
When silent all our hills and dells,
The game was at the huntsman's hand.

"Then roamed we o'er the sunny hill,
Or sought the gully's grassy way,
With ease our frugal nets could fill
From forest, plain, or glen, or bay.

"Where sported once the kangaroo,
Their uncouth cattle trend the soil,
Or corn-crops spring, and quick renew,
Beneath the foolish white man's toil.

"On sunny spots, by coast and creek,
Near the fresh stream we sat us down ;
Now fenced, and shelterless, and bleak,
They're haunted by the white man's frown.'

She climbed the rock—she gazed afar—
The sun behind those mountains blue
Had sunk; faint gleamed the Western star,
And in the East a rainbow hue

Was mingling with the darkling sea;
When gradual rose the zodiac light,
And over rock, and stream, and tree,
Spread out its chastened radiance bright.

So calm, so soft, so sweet a ray,
It lingers on the horizon's shore;
The echo of the brighter day,
That bless'd the world on hour before.

But sudden fades the beam that shone,
And lit the earth like fairy spell;
Whilst in the East, the sky's deep tone
Proclaims the daylight's last farewell.

"Fast comes the night, and Bian yet
Returns not to his leafy bed;
My hair is with the night-dew wet
Sleep comes not to this aching bead.

"The screeching cockatoo's at rest;
From yonder flat the curlew's wail
Comes mournful to this sorrowing breast,
And keenly blows the Southern gale.

"Avaunt ye from our merry land!
'Ye that so boast our souls to save,
Yet treat us with such niggard hand:
We have no hope but in the grave."

Thus sung Toongulla's wretched child,
As o'er her sleeping babe she hung.
Mourning her doom, to lead a wild
And cheerless life the rocks among.

Their health destroyed—their sense depraved
The game, their food, for ever gone;
Let me invoke religion's aid
To shield them from this double storm

Of physical and moral ill;
We owe them all that we possess
The forest, plain, the glen, the hill,
Were theirs;—to slight is to oppress.


The following terms, asterisked above may need some translation. I am a passable botanist, but glecinæ had me beaten for quite a while.

Coodge: Coogee
burwan: burrawang
warretaw: waratah
glecinæ: probably  Glycine sp., a member of the Fabaceae

This poem represents early instances of several words like gin, gunya and waratah, but as I have a strong interest in such things  I have since found an even earlier case of waratah from 1804. Oddly, there seems to have been no other mention of the plant until 1826, when the modern spelling first appeared. By 1831, Hugo was out-of-date.

I continue to wonder who Hugo was, but I am working on it.


  1. I was wondering if that glecinae could be glycinae, as in Phalaenoides glycinae? and the tendrils belong to a moth? Bit of a stretch, and I'm guessing a vine moth may not yet have been introduced at time of composition. Then I looked in Bank's journal and he mentions Glycine speciosa Mscr. in his list of species noticed in NSW (Sept 4, 1770).

  2. There are indeed species of Glycine found around Sydney: G. clandestina, G. microphylla and G. tabacina. They are in the pea family, and I have never knowingly seen them, nor have I ever heard of them before. That started me thinking: Hugo is clearly literate, and unlikely to make spelling errors, so my brief dalliance with Gleichenia (a fern that, by an odd coincidence, I am currently trying to grow from spores at the North Head Sanctuary) also went west. Of course, errors by typesetters working from written originals can never be ruled out: one of the earliest references to the barbecue (then written barbycu) appeared in print as barbyon.