My crowded solitude by Jack McLaren
Melbourne: Sun Books, 1967 (first published 1926)
I came upon this book in a batch of books belonging to one person: in fact this particular batch of books belonging to one person contained two copies of this book (different editions), which piqued my interest. That, and the fact that it was a Sun Book - with their history of publishing lost Australian texts - led me to read it.
This book is the story of Jack McLaren's eight years spent in Cape York establishing a coconut plantation. He found the location himself after some exploration, and landed in 1911 to begin work. The book contains some anecdotes of life in the jungle, but mostly deals with McLaren's relationship with the local Aboriginal tribe, on whose land he created his plantation. The tribe was mostly untouched by white men until McLaren's arrival, apart from occasional dealings with pearlers and other ships.
McLaren's relationship with the tribe goes through ups and downs. It takes him a while to understand the native way of life, and his attempts to get them to work after the manner of Europeans are doomed to failure. The first year he spends on the plantation has him adapting to the Aborigines, and they to him. When in the dry season they move down the coast, he is left alone for fourteen weeks, in which time he realises what it truly means to be lonely. When the tribe comes back not only is McLaren glad to see them, the Aboriginals are happy to be back within reach of white man's flour and tobacco. After that first year, never again does the whole tribe move - as McLaren writes "It did not occur to me that the natives were happier as they were. It did not occur to me that the creating in them of needs and desires hitherto utterly foreign would also create in them the necessity for satisfying those needs and desires, to the consequent destruction of the more or less complacent ease of their existence."
The book not only goes into the politics of McLaren's relationship with the tribe, but also describes some of their customs and beliefs: McLaren was aware enough that many of the explanations he was given for such activities were hiding the real reasons or meanings to the actions, but he was astute enough not to pry further.
McLaren was an inveterate wanderer before he "settled down" on his plantation, and while at first visits from fellow whites were few, he eventually became an object of interest and various anthropologists, ornithologists, missionaries and adventurers came to stay with him for shorter or longer periods. As knowledge of his position became more known, he started to get correspondence from all around the World.
Eventually McLaren's wanderlust got the better of him and he sold up and left, but not before gathering enough material to provide us with this little gem of pioneering days in Queensland.
Cheers for now, from
A View Over the Bell