There’s a star man, waiting in the sky …

(Note – Contains images of First Peoples who have passed away.)


First – imagine Sir Joseph Banks in 1770,  having sailed along the edge of the continent, writing in his Journal, how the interior of this continent must be uninhabited. As the Endeavour sailed away from the coast of the continent, towards New Guinea, he concluded that the the lack of cultivation this country meant the interior must be uninhabited.

“The Sea has I beleive been universally found to be the cheif source of supplys to Indians ignorant of the arts of cultivation “ (Banks Journal 1770).

Banks never returned to this country.  As President of the Royal Society for several decades, as a patron with much influence, he served a key role as an expert authority on New South Wales. This role he play to such an extent he has been dubbed the Father of Australia.

After returning from the Endeavour voyage:

“… Banks was actively involved in almost every aspect of Pacific exploration and early Australian colonial life….

He had a role in choosing the governors of the settlement in New South Wales, founded in January 1788 with the arrival of the First Fleet. It was Banks who later recommended Bligh to succeed Philip Gidley King as the fourth Governor of New South Wales, Bligh’s governorship ending in deposition during the Rum Rebellion in 1808. Banks corresponded with the first four Governors of New South Wales who, while they reported officially to the Secretary of State for the Colonies, also reported privately and therefore more intimately and openly to Banks.

Practically anyone who wanted to travel to New South Wales, in almost any capacity, consulted Sir Joseph Banks. He was the one constant throughout the first 30 years of white settlement in Australia, through changes of ministers, government and policy.” Source  –State Library NSW accessed 28 March 2017

But, as we shall now see, when it came to the realities of life in this country, the Father of Australia was all at sea.


Second – cut to Central Australia towards the end of the 1800s. In 1984, the Horn Expedition is making its way on camels into the heart of the country. They are not the first Europeans to push into these parts – but they are different in that they are a scientific expedition. Part of the scientific aspects of the expedition includes learning more about First Peoples. It is during this expedition that Frank Gillen learns a little about a curious sky-being – an Emu-footed sky being.

“… Gillen … reported that among the Aranda of his acquaintance “the sky is said to be inhabited by three persons – a gigantic man with an immense foot shaped like that of the emu, a woman, and a child who never develops beyond childhood”. Since Gillen did no work among the Western Aranda, it seems as though the Eastern Aranda group of Alice Springs had a belief similar to that found among the Kukatja.” (TGH Strehlow 1964 ‘Personal Monototemism in a Polytotemic Community’ page 725).

TGH provides the reference for Gillen – Report on the Work of the Horn Scientific Expedition, Pt. IV, p. 183.

However the Lutheran missionaries at Hermannsburg may have first encountered this Being as the searched for evidence of their own God in Western Arrarnta cosmology. As Missionaries they were not in Arrarrnta country in Central Australia to learn about First Peoples cosmologies in order to take those ideas back to Europe.

A fuller account of a Western Arrarnta (aka Aranda or Arrernte or Arunta) narrative was collected and published by the German Lutheran Missionary Carl Strehlow who lived at the Hermannsburg mission at Ntaria.

He published his account (along with a great deal more) in ‘Die Aranda- und Loritja-Stamme in Zentral-Australien’ – several volumes from 1907 to 1920. His major work has not been published in English (although some translations exist).

Unlike many other Arrarnta traditions, which are part of senior men’s business, this tradition is reported to be open to men, women and children. I acknowledge Western Arrarnta intellectual property in this matter, and note  it has been in the public domain for many years.


(Page from Carl Strehlow’s German original, showing his indigenous mentors – Anna Kenny ‘The Aranda’s Pepa’ (2013:29-30 citing SRC 6196) gives their names as Loatjira, Pmala (Tmala), (Moses) Tjalkabata, Talku. My screenshot from online version available from

An English translation of Carl Strehlow, probably by Charles Chewings, appeared in the works of anthropologists Spencer and Gillen:

EPSON161.jpgSir Baldwin Spencer and  F.J. Gillen 1927 ‘The Arunta ; A study of a stone age people.’ Volume 2 Page 593

See also

T.G.H Strehlow, one of Australia’s most important anthropologists, was the son of Carl Strehlow. He grew up speaking Arrarnta and had extensive in-depth contact with senior Western Arrarnta lawmen.

I first read about the Emu-footed Being who lives in the sky, with his dog-footed wives, in TGH Strehlow’s 1964 article ‘Personal Monototemism in a Polytotemic Community’ back in the 1970s.

There, he wrote:

“The Western Aranda believed the sky to be inhabited by an emu-footed Great Father (kŋaritja), who was also the Eternal Youth (altjira nditja). This Great Father had dog-footed wives, and many sons and daughters – all the males being emu-footed and all the females dog-footed. They lived on fruits and vegetable foods in an eternally green land, unaffected by droughts, through which the Milky Way flowed like a broad river, and the stars were their campfires. In this green land there were only trees, fruits, flowers and birds; no game animals existed, and no meat was eaten. All of these sky dwellers were as ageless as the stars themselves, and death could not enter their home: the reddish-skinned emu-footed Great Father of the sky, whose blonde hair shone “like a spider web in the evening sunlight”, looked as young as his own sons, and all the women who lived above the stars had the grace and full-bosomed beauty of young girls.” (Personal Monototemism … 1964:725)

TGH Strehlow did not share his father’s view about the use of the word “God” in translating this narrative. The Lutheran missionaries were in Arrarnta country to teach about their version of the high Indo-European God. They  were intent on finding a means of translating their belief system into Arrarnta language and concepts.

There is also a major difference in the T G H Strehlow account since it states that no game animals existed and no meat was eaten.

This Emu-Footed Sky Being may or may not eat meat. He and his family may eat the vegetable foods latjia/yelka, collected by this wives, and other fruits which that grow abundantly in all seasons.

TGH Strehlow explicitly cover this question about whether or not game was hunted in the realm of the Emu-footed sky being in his  major work ‘Songs of Central Australia’. He says the lawmen who instructed him were emphatic that no meat was eaten.

So, we have a puzzle since the narrative recorded by his father, Carl Strehlow, not only states that Iliinka (Emu-footed Being) hunted but also notes the method he employed – the age old method of waiting by a waterhole and letting the game come to the hunter. This is a particularly sound method in Central Australia, where surface water can be very scarce for several months of the year. This seems a strange addition to include if it is incorrect.

We have no means of resolving this contradiction between the two versions.

But the point i need to make here is this – not only did Western Arrarnta people creatively fashion an image of a marvelous eternal  Being in the Sky – a Being which had little (if any) involvement in their daily affairs – but we can ponder whether or not he (and his celestial family) were omnivorous or – if not vegan – at least vegetarian. We have come a long way from 1770.

Cut back to Sir Joseph Banks in 1770 sitting in the cabin on the Endeavour and ‘being at liberty’ to conclude that the interior of the continent was uninhabited since any people living there would need cultivation to be able to survive.

Not only has he completely misjudged the means by which people – in the core of the continent – can survive very well in some of the most extreme country but he also cannot imagine that those people – living well much of the time (even in droughts) over a very long time (as now dated by science) – have also creatively fashioned a complex belief cosmological system which includes an eternal Being residing, with his family, in the most distant part of the sky.

It is well worth taking a moment to reflect on the difference between the creative imaginations of Banks, sailing along the very edge of the continent, and Arrarnta people, sitting by their campfires at the heart of the continent and looking at the eternal campfires, overhead.

Sir Joseph Banks evidence to 1785 Convict Committee

Here is a transcript of the evidence of Sir Joseph Banks to the 1785 United Kingdom “Convict Committee” seeking a new location to send convicted citizens after the loss of the colonies in North America.

The British authorities were interested in South-West  Africa as New Holland/New South Wales etc was so far away by ship. But the reports about their location in South-West Africa were unfavourable so … with the prisons and the Hulks on the Thames overflowing – a social crisis –  the British government made a decision in Cabinet to send convicts to Botany Bay.

I only have five pages of this transcript, which was part of a book of facsimile documents involved in the decision to establish a penal colony in ‘New South Wales’. I did not record the name of the book and cannot find details online. Excellent reading for the serious scholar – really takes you back (as it were) to those times. (I will keep trying to locate the source document.)

While Sir Joseph Banks evidence is little hard to decipher it is legible. The format consists of questions and reply.

Note that Banks is talking about the area around Botany Bay and the southern part of the East Coast.


Banks – a New World fantasy

The European invention of a “New World” opened up a space for all manner of fantasy structures.

By way of context –

I have just read ‘The Invention of Nature – The Adventures of Alexander von Humboldt – The Lost Hero of Science’ by Andrea Wulf.  She documents the role of the new thinking of naturalists like Humboldt and the influence on politically active revolutionaries such as Simon Bolivar. Revolution and the overthrow of old regimes was in the air.

The newly emerging elite of  European Gentlemen – such as von Humboldt – play a key role in crafting a new cosmology. Humboldt could use his own financial resources for an expedition to South America circa 1800. He went on to be one of the most famous naturalists in Europe.

The new forms of representation they crafted – a myth of Nature – embedded new forms of privilege (reserved for European men of reason) at the expense and exclusion of pre-existing forms of representation of the original ‘New World’  peoples.

Part of Humboldt’s social world included contacts with Sir Joseph Banks, President of the Royal Society based in London.  Banks, immensely wealthy, had previously been part of the famous voyage of the Endeavour, under then Lt James Cook. Circa 1770.

As President of the Royal Society until his death in 1820 Banks exerted tremendous influence at the then cutting edge of new understanding. Banks occupies a key place in a system of patronage. What he thinks is significant – Banks is the authority. (See, for example,  Chapter One “Joseph Banks in Paradise” in ‘The Age of Wonder. How the Romantic Generations Discovered the Beauty & Terror of Science’ Richard Holmes. Folio Society MMXV)


The focus of attention here is what Banks recorded in his Journal on that Endeavour voyage. Having sailed along the Eastern Coast of ‘New Holland’ – and having limited contact with First Peoples – he sets down his thoughts as the Endeavour leaves this coast and sails on to New Guinea.

Banks had some knowledge of the West Coast of the continent from the earlier account of William Dampier (Visited coast in 1688 & 1699). Dampier provided a picture of First Peoples as ‘the miserable people in the world’. Such Eurocentric views play an important role in the emerging fantasy structures about ‘Australia’.

From Banks Journal (his spellings) after 1770 August 29:

“This immense tract of Land, the largest known which does not bear the name of a continent, as it is considerably larger than all of Europe, is thinly inhabited even to admiration, at least that part of it that we saw: we never but once saw so many as thirty Indians together and that was a family, Men women and children, assembled upon a rock to see the ship pass by…”

“We saw indeed only the sea coast: what the immense tract of inland countrey may produce is to us totally unknown: we may have the liberty to conjecture however that they are totally uninhabited.”

He goes on to provide his reasons:

“The Sea has i beleive been universally found to be the cheif source of supplys to Indians ignorant of the arts of cultivation: the wild produce of the Land alone seems scarce able to support them in all seasons, at least I do not remember to have read on any inland nation who did not cultivate the ground more or less, even the North Americans who were so well versed in hunting sowd their Maize. But should a people live inland who supported themselves by cultivation these inhabitants of the sea coast must certainly have learn’d to imitate them in some degree at least, otherwise their reason must be supposd to hold a rank little superior to that of monkies.”

I am quoting from page 312 of the 2006  Echo Library edition “The Endeavour Journal of Sir Joseph Banks”. There is an online version of his Journal at 

The dangers of sailing along the Great Barrier Reef make for compelling reading. See also his accounts of other indigenous peoples (e.g. Tahiti, Aotearoa/New Zealand). Note that Polynesian peoples were ‘cultivators’ and thus closer to European ways of life.

In terms of the imaginary relative positions between Banks and this country’s First Peoples, Banks had written that “… their manner of life, but one degree removed from Brutes …” (page 306). Banks believes he (and all he represents) has a superior position.

The British way of life of the late 18th century underwent similar social stresses as those which lead to Revolution in France. They had also lost the American colonies – which had served as a means of dealing with social problems. Needing a place “off site and out-of-sight’  to send its convicted citizens, the British authorities conducted inquiries. Banks was consulted – as Captain Cook was no longer alive Banks was the expert . Botany Bay in ‘New South Wales’ was deemed to be a suitable location for a penal colony and the First Fleet arrived in 1788. A copy of part of Banks evidence has now been added to this ozstudies blog.

We, of course, now well know that Banks was profoundly mistaken in his views about First Peoples and the interior of this country.  First Peoples lived successfully in the most remote – and difficult –  places in this country from time immemorial.

Bruce Pascoe, among others, has documented the extent of what can be  considered as forms of cultivation which are to be found across large parts of this continent. (“Dark emu”). I will upload some more detail on this later. Better still, as a self-learning exercise find an ebook version of ‘Dark Emu’ and read.

Rather, the contrast with Banks which needs to be brought out here comes from the creative imaginations of Arrarnta First Peoples who occupy the very heart of the country in Central Australia.

One of their key narratives – as recorded by the Lutheran Missionary Carl Strehlow at Hermannsburg in Central Australia – provides vivid contrast to the workings of the imagination of Sir Joseph Banks. And we will turn to that next.

(Note – in the first posting of this item i said Banks repeated his views about the inland being unihabited when he gave evidence to the Convict Committee. I cannot find an explicit statement from Banks on this topic in his evidence, which is much more nuanced than in his original Journal entry.)

Ozstudies Popup – Ed. No.1 – Comparing fantasy structures in Oz

By Way of Intro.

Our home planet seems to have an endless capacity to accommodate all manner of fantasy structures. These exist in our imaginations as surely as there is an atmosphere. To that extent they are real, even though they are as tangible as rainbows.

We are all dreamers – we  live out our lives in terms of these fantasy structures.

The creations of our imaginations are both wonderful and dreadful things. Wonderful in what we can create, and often dreadful in terms of the acts of folly into which they may lead us.

Since fantasy structures frame our experience it is often extremely difficult to turn our direct attention to them.

In this short course i will begin by comparing and contrasting some aspects of the fantasy structures of this country’s First Peoples and some of those of Anglo-Australia. The former is well-earthed and the latter a comparative new-comer. Both have remarkable qualities.

I am not sure where this will lead, but i do have a beginning and am intent in setting out. I doubt if there can be a final destination. So when it ceases to be interesting, i will stop.

I do not know if others will join me in this Pop-Up Ed opportunity. We will have to see how it shapes up as we go along.

In my next post i will start with a quote from the Englishman once dubbed “The Father of Australia” – Sir Joseph Banks – and show just how mistaken he was by looking at a non-secret Arrarnta myth-narrative collected by Carl Strehlow.

Bruce (Japaljari)  Reyburn

22 March 2017