The Aboriginal Mother

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The Aboriginal Mother 
by Eliza Hamilton Dunlop
First published in The Australian
Subject(s) Myall Creek massacre
Rhyme scheme abcb
Publication date13 December 1838 (1838-12-13)

"The Aboriginal Mother" is a poem written by Eliza Hamilton Dunlop, which expresses her lament over the Myall Creek massacre, a mass murder of at least twenty-eight Aboriginal Australians. [1] It was published initially in The Australian on 13 December 1838, several days after seven men were found guilty of the incident but a few days before they were hanged to death. The poem is told in first-person as a mother, whose older child and husband died in the massacre, tries to quiet her baby. It was published in a variety of newspapers and books and after being set to music by Isaac Nathan, it was performed at a concert. The poem was mostly praised by newspapers, but was criticized considerably by the Sydney Herald .

Eliza Hamilton Dunlop was an Irish–Australian poet and songwriter, known for composing the poem "The Aboriginal Mother" among others. She was born in County Armagh, Ireland, and was raised by her grandmother and a guardian after her father travelled to India and her mother died. Later she travelled to India to visit her father and discovered that she had two Indian half-sisters. Her writing career began in Ireland while she was still a child. After moving to Australia, her works were published in newspapers there, some set to music by Isaac Nathan after he arrived in Australia in 1841.

Myall Creek massacre

The Myall Creek massacre at Myall Creek near the Gwydir River, in the central New South Wales district of Namoi, involved the brutal killing of at least twenty-eight unarmed Indigenous Australians by eleven colonists on 10 June 1838 at the Myall Creek near Bingara, Murchison County, in northern New South Wales. After two trials, seven of the eleven colonists were found guilty of murder and hanged.

<i>The Australian</i> (1824 newspaper) defunct weekly newspaper in Australia

The Australian was an English language newspaper published in Sydney, New South Wales, Australia.


Background and publication

Eliza Hamilton Dunlop moved to New South Wales, Australia in 1838, arriving on 25 February. [2] The Myall Creek Massacre occurred on 10 June 1838, a few months after her arrival. During the incident, at least 28 Aboriginal Australians were murdered by 11 people; [3] several Aboriginal children were decapitated and a three-year-old boy was killed. On 5 December, seven men were found guilty for the crime after a trial; the other four men who were involved with the incident were accused of the massacre but found innocent. On 18 December, the seven men found guilty of the incident were sentenced to death, executed by hanging. [2] [4]

New South Wales State of Australia

New South Wales is a state on the east coast of Australia. It borders Queensland to the north, Victoria to the south, and South Australia to the west. Its coast borders the Tasman Sea to the east. The Australian Capital Territory is an enclave within the state. New South Wales' state capital is Sydney, which is also Australia's most populous city. In September 2018, the population of New South Wales was over 8 million, making it Australia's most populous state. Just under two-thirds of the state's population, 5.1 million, live in the Greater Sydney area. Inhabitants of New South Wales are referred to as New South Welshmen.

Dunlop's poem was first published in The Australian on 13 December 1838, about a week after the seven men were found guilty, but several days before they were hanged. [2] [5] Afterwards, it appeared in a number of other publications, including The Australasian Chronicle (16 October 1841), [6] The Sydney Monitor and Commercial Advertiser (27 October 1841), [7] The Aboriginal Mother and Other Poems (1981), The Penguin Book of Australian Ballads (1993), The Oxford Book of Australian Women's Verse (1995), Australian Verse: An Oxford Anthology (1998), An Anthology of Australian Poetry to 1920 (2007), The Puncher & Wattmann Anthology of Australian Poetry (2009), Macquarie PEN Anthology of Australian Literature (2009), and The Penguin Anthology of Australian Poetry (2009). [8] Also, in 1891, a poem "Aboriginal Mother’s Lament" was published in The Daily Examiner . Although the title of the poem was slightly different and the author claimed to be J. C. Laycock, the text of the two poems were almost exactly the same, only having a few minor differences. [9] [10] In addition to these publications, a series of poems by Dunlop called "Songs of an Exile," which contained "The Aboriginal Mother" as its fourth poem, appeared in The Australian in 1838, [11] and 1840. [2] [8] [12]

<i>The Australasian Chronicle</i> newspaper in Sydney, NSW, Australia, active 1839 - 1846

The Australasian Chronicle was a twice-weekly Catholic newspaper published in Sydney, New South Wales, Australia. It was published in a broadsheet format. It was also published as The Morning Chronicle, The Chronicle and The Sydney Chronicle.

The Daily Examiner is a daily newspaper serving Grafton, New South Wales, Australia. The newspaper is owned by APN News & Media. At various times the newspaper was known as The Clarence and Richmond Examiner and New England Advertiser (1859–1889) and Clarence and Richmond Examiner (1889–1915).

The poem

"The Aboriginal Mother" was written to express Dunlop's sorrow over the massacre and expresses sympathy for the Aboriginals of Australia. It is written from the view of a mother who managed to survive the massacre, but whose husband and older child were killed in it. Throughout the poem, she expresses her grief over how she was not able to prevent her husband's death and is trying to quiet down her younger child, a baby. Dunlop's poem took an "immediate, visceral, political, and poetic" approach, [4] addressing the problem of Aboriginals suffering. This style was not what other people and newspapers thought of the massacre. A violent passage in the Sydney Herald told people that if Aboriginal Australians, referred to as the "filthy, brutal cannibals of New Holland" and "ferocious savages", [13] attempt to destroy property or kill someone, "do to them as you would do to any white robbers or murderers — SHOOT THEM DEAD". [4] [13] A passage in The Sydney Monitor and Commercial Advertiser showed a conversation between a "country gentleman" and a "town gentleman", which took place directly after the hanging of the seven murderers. It ended with the country gentleman saying "we are poisoning the Blacks; which is much safer; and serve them right too!" [14]

New Holland (Australia) historical name for the island continent of Australia

New Holland is a historical European name for mainland Australia. The name was first applied to Australia in 1644 by the Dutch seafarer Abel Tasman. The name came to be applied to the whole "Southern land" or Terra Australis, though the coastline of the continent had still not been fully explored; but after the British settlement in Sydney in 1788 the territory to the east of the continent claimed by Britain was named New South Wales, leaving the western part as New Holland. New Holland continued to be used semi-officially and in popular usage as the name for the whole continent until at least the mid-1850s.

Dunlop also had another copy of the poem which she kept to herself. This version is "even more revealing", showing the discovery of the dead bodies of the children killed during the event as well as more details about the trials in court. In addition, it shows how a woman and a baby were able to escape and how two other children tried to escape but failed. [4]

The poem is nine stanzas long, with each stanza having eight lines, making a total of 72 lines. The poem follows an ABCB rhyme scheme throughout. The first stanza is composed of the following: [9]

A rhyme scheme is the pattern of rhymes at the end of each line of a poem or song. It is usually referred to by using letters to indicate which lines rhyme; lines designated with the same letter all rhyme with each other.

Oh! hush thee — hush my baby,
I may not tend thee yet.
Our forest home is distant far,
And midnight’s star is set.
Now, hush thee — or the pale-faced men
Will hear thy piercing wail,
And what would then thy mother’s tears
Or feeble strength avail!


The poem has been recounted by scholars as relating to the poems "Indian Woman's Death Song," written by Felicia Hemans in 1828, "The Cherokee Mother," written by Lydia Sigourney in 1831, and other works of the time period described as "crying mother" poems. [2] After the poem was published again in 1841, it was criticized significantly by the Sydney Herald . [15] This caused Dunlop to write a letter to the Sydney Herald's editor, arguing on behalf of the poem and explaining why her views were correct. [16] [17]

After the poem was performed as a song by Rosetta Nathan, it received more press coverage. It was complimented by The Australasian Chronicle, praising the way it was performed. [18] An article in The Australian complimented the way it was sung and the "peculiar degree of pathos", but also mentioned that the performance may have been affected by an absence of confidence. [19] The performance was also covered by the Sydney Gazette , which wrote a substantial article about it with significant praise, saying that "We were in spite of ourselves affected even to tears, and most of our neighbours from a similar state, were prevented observing our weakness." The reviewer of the Sydney Gazette article believed that the song would be popular and frequently performed in concerts, but was also concerned about what people outside of Australia would think of the song and thought that the song contained "misplaced emotions". [4] [20]

Elizabeth Webby later described the poem as "a radical treatment of Aboriginal subjectivity", stating that it was written so that readers would react intensely towards the poem after reading it. [4]


"The Aboriginal Mother" was set to music by Isaac Nathan, an English composer. Although Nathan ended up putting a number of lyrics written by Dunlop to music, "The Aboriginal Mother" was the first. The song was first performed publicly by Rosetta Nathan, Isaac's daughter, in October 1841, [19] during a performance titled "Nathan's Grand Concert." [4] [18] The music was published in Sydney in 1842. [21] The lyrics in the song are different than the original poem in many ways, particularly in the last stanza. [22]

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  1. "Myall Creek massacre". National Museum of Australia.
  2. 1 2 3 4 5 Rudy, Jason R. (15 December 2017). Imagined Homelands: British Poetry in the Colonies (illustrated ed.). JHU Press. pp. 62–63. ISBN   1421423928 . Retrieved 22 November 2018.
  3. "Myall Creek massacre". National Museum of Australia. Retrieved 10 February 2019.
  4. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 Lyndon, Jane & Ryan, Lyndall (1 June 2018). "Chapter 4: 'The Aboriginal Mother'". Remembering the Myall Creek Massacre. NewSouth. ISBN   174224419X . Retrieved 22 November 2018.
  5. Dunlop, Eliza Hamilton (13 December 1838). "Original Poetry: The Aboriginal Mother". The Australian . p. 4. Retrieved 5 January 2019 via National Library of Australia.
  6. "Select Poetry:The Aboriginal Mother". Australasian Chronicle . 16 October 1841. p. 2. Retrieved 5 January 2019 via National Library of Australia.
  7. "The Aboriginal Mother". The Sydney Monitor and Commercial Advertiser . 27 October 1841. p. 2. Retrieved 5 January 2019 via National Library of Australia.
  8. 1 2 "The Aboriginal Mother by Eliza Hamilton Dunlop". AustLit. Retrieved 22 November 2018.
  9. 1 2 "The Aboriginal Mother [poem by Eliza Hamilton Dunlop, 13 December 1838]". The Institute of Australian Culture. Archived from the original on 20 August 2017. Retrieved 27 November 2018.
  10. Laycock, J. C. (14 February 1891). "Aboriginal Mother's Lament". Clarence And Richmond Examiner . p. 2. Retrieved 27 November 2018 via National Library of Australia.
  11. "Original Poetry: Songs of an Exile (No 1) The dream". The Australian. 8 November 1838. p. 3. Retrieved 5 January 2019 via National Library of Australia.
  12. "Original Poetry: Songs of an Exile Lights of the Past". The Australian. 5 November 1840. p. 4. Retrieved 5 January 2019 via National Library of Australia.
  13. 1 2 "Sworn to no Master, of no Sect am I". The Sydney Herald . 14 November 1838. p. 2. Retrieved 5 January 2019 via National Library of Australia.
  14. "Native Blacks. Protectors of the Native Blacks, the late Murder, and Execution of the Culprits". The Sydney Monitor and Commercial Adviser. 24 December 1838. Retrieved 4 February 2019.
  15. "The Aboriginal Mother". The Sydney Herald. 15 October 1841. p. 2. Retrieved 5 January 2019 via National Library of Australia.
  16. Spinder, Dale (1988). Writing a New World: Two Centuries of Australian Women Writers. Spinifex Press. pp. 61–62. ISBN   0863581722 . Retrieved 22 November 2018.
  17. "The Aboriginal Mother". The Sydney Herald. 29 November 1841. p. 2. Retrieved 5 January 2019 via National Library of Australia.
  18. 1 2 "Nathan's Grand Concert". Australasian Chronicle. 28 October 1841. p. 2. Retrieved 5 January 2019 via National Library of Australia.
  19. 1 2 "Concert". The Australian. 30 October 1841. p. 2. Retrieved 5 January 2019 via National Library of Australia.
  20. "Mr. Nathan's Concert". The Sydney Gazette . 30 October 1841. p. 2. Retrieved 5 January 2019 via National Library of Australia.
  21. Dunlop, Eliza Hamilton; Nathan, Isaac (1842), The Aboriginal Mother, Sydney, New South Wales, retrieved 24 November 2018
  22. "The Aboriginal Mother [song by Eliza Hamilton Dunlop, 15 October 1841]". The Institute of Australian Culture. Archived from the original on 3 February 2017. Retrieved 27 November 2018.