The living pre-history of the OT Line: Gillen’s Modest Record


p2543 Jones Gillen cover 375Gillen’s Modest Record edited by Philip Jones was launched in Alice Springs on 21 July by historian and author R.G (DICK) KIMBER at Red Kangaroo Books. The following is a slightly edited version of Mr Kimber’s speech; his health has become frail and it was read on the occasion by Dr Margaret Friedel.
Mr Kimber began by especially welcoming those descendants of “Arunta” and other First Australians who assisted Francis Gillen so much in his understandings, as well as the ancestors of those people from time immemorial and their descendants into the future. He also also especially thanked all descendants of the Gillen family, and any other descendants of the people of 1875-1902, recalling that a century afterwards old “Arunta” people still referred to the era with respect as “Gillen Time.”
“Gillen’s Modest Record” was originally written “to give his wife some idea of his day by day activities”, as his grandson Dr. Robert Gillen stated.* That it was never meant for other than her is confirmed by Gillen’s friend and daily companion Baldwin Spencer in his private journal of 16th June 1901 (unpublished), so we are all fortunate to have the opportunity to read it today. Philip takes the title of this book from Gillen’s original title for his account: “Camp Jottings. A modest record of our doings, day by day.”
Philip’s Introduction allows us to understand the main characters. First in significance was Francis (Frank) Gillen who, during his decades of service at the remote Overland Telegraph Stations, Charlotte Waters and Alice Springs, had become accepted by the “Arunta” as though an initiated man. It was he who had translated their word Alcheringa as meaning “Dream-time”. And it was he who had encouraged his friend, the brilliant zoologist Professor Baldwin Spencer, from the moment they first met in 1894, to become so interested in the “Arunta” people. As a result they became world famous anthropologists, and the “Arunta” the best-known people, after the publication of “ The Native Tribes of Central Australia” in 1899.
Gillen had another long-time friend, Police Trooper Chance, accept the roles as driver of the supply wagon and general camp assistant. And, equally in importance to success, he had two Southern “Arunta” men who joined them at Charlotte Waters, Parunda and Erlikyalikya. They were likely to have known him for twenty-five years, and their tasks were as translators, trackers of the horses and general helpers.
Gillen had left his loving and long-suffering wife, Amelia, (who had spent the first eight busily happy years of their married life [1892-1899] in Alice Springs), and his much-loved children, in the town of Moonta in SA, to go on the anthropological expedition, journeying by horse-and-buggy. It was to make use of the remote telegraph stations as bases for contact with local area Aborigines from Oodnadatta to Powell Creek, before branching off to Borroloola on the north coast of Australia. As might be expected, Amelia knew the country and many of the people mentioned.
What struck me first about reading the journal was the ease with which Gillen gives the sense of the living pre-history of the O.T. Line by his easy use of Aboriginal place-names, often linked to mythological tracks, all along the way. This is complemented by his knowledge of the recent histories of pioneers, many of whom were met during their travels.
His humour is also apparent throughout the journal. He commences at their first camp with an improbable exaggeration, “Strange to say no mosquitoes, presume the flies have eaten them all up.” (p5)  At Camp 2 there are “flies! flies! flies! nothing but flies” (p 6), and by Camp 13 they truly dominate:
“Up just before daylight but not before the flies. I think of Job & wish that he stood on the banks of this Central Australian river in the month of April & in a good season…. boil plagues any ordinary man might put up with, but flies as they are here would drive a saint to profanity. Three or four hundred million of them camped on our buggies last night, straining the springs to their utmost capacity, & when I awoke & shouted the usual morning greeting: ‘How is your liver?’ to Spencer they charged upon me with a howl of joy that woke old Chance, deaf as he is.” (pp 37-38)
He deals similarly with mosquitoes and the land itself where, after various descriptions of the impact of the drought conditions then prevailing, he concludes that a particular area was  “so utterly destitute of grass” that it “ would take about 100 square miles of such county to graze a jew lizard [Bearded Dragon].” (p 113)
At their first major stop, Charlotte Waters, Spencer introduced the ‘Kinematograph’, with which he and Gillen made the first-ever ethnographic films of ceremonies in mainland Australia. They also made records of corroboree songs to accompany the films, the first time that such an innovation had been tried in the world.
p2543 Jones & Kimber 430He is not free from the prejudices of the era, as his generalised comments about Aborigines as “Niggers”, and the names he gives to some of them, indicate. However, there is the saving grace of his recognition of each person as a unique individual. Indeed in my view he is as close as any Australian has been to Chaucer: to paraphrase him, every person is “the best of his or her kind”. Illustrative are his descriptions, each of which begins with a sketch, of two senior men previously unknown to him.
Left: Philip Jones speaking at the launch, with Dick Kimber and Margaret Friedel. 
The first character is introduced as, “ the gentleman, Ilpalyurkna.” He is then described as “a totem head man of the Unmatjira —. He is at present a much valued member of our staff, & quite a walking encyclopedia of the lore of his tribe.” (p160)
The second is an unnamed senior man, a “benevolent savage”, who is “one of our prime favourites, a grand old chap whose cranium is a great storehouse of Warramunga lore.” (p 224)
His love of words and languages is evident throughout, and his accounts of each day’s events are more crafted than I had recognised at a first reading. The anecdotes are never precisely the same each day and normally appear at either the start or end of the main day’s record of activities. This must have permitted his wife to read the more enjoyable bits and omit reading the anthropological records if she wanted to. It also later allowed Gillen to extract the main record of each day and rewrite it for Spencer.
These anthropological records were often copious, indicating his ability to focus and his remarkable memory, and they are always well written. They include the first ever account of anyone but Aborigines following a mythological route, giving the details of the country along which a great snake had travelled.
The many photographs are excellent and, when they depict Aboriginal people, inevitably show very fit people.
All of the pages are enhanced by Philip’s use of footnotes, which illuminate rather than distract.
Philip acknowledges the assistance of many other people, including researchers such as Valmai Hankel, and financial supporters. He has, by his editing, created out of Gillen’s modest record, a masterpiece of Australian and World literature.
I will leave you all as I suspect Frank Gillen would have appreciated: “A friend of mine once swallowed a tadpole when taking a drink from a claypan, he rode 15 miles to consult me & vowed that the tad. was still alive and active. I prescribed some rum, the activity of the beast increased. I suggested more rum, the prescription was promptly accepted, the tad. appeared to become ecstatic & went through a series of handsprings somersaults & other gymnastic exercises. My friend begged me to save him. I administered more rum, in a quarter of an hour the tad. with a final bound appeared to expire in the throes of delirium, and my friend slept peacefully until teatime when he awoke, complaining of his head, but there was no more tadpole.” (2017: 41).
I commend this book to you and I am proud to launch it for Philip today.
Gillen, R.S. (1968). Gillen’s Diary. The Camp Jottings of F.J. Gillen on the Spencer and Gillen Expedition across Australia 1901-1902. Libraries Board of South Australia, Adelaide.
Gillen’s Modest Record; His journal of the Spencer-Gillen anthropological expedition across Australia, 1901-02
Jones, P. ed. (2017). The Friends of the State Library of South Australia, Adelaide
Apart from his Introduction and footnotes to the text, Dr Jones has written an Afterword, provided two Appendixes, one on “Front matter & endpapers for the four notebooks”, the other a “Digest of ceremonies, traditions, associated sites and totems, listed by language group, as documented by Gillen”; a bibliography; and six indexes, one general, and five additional, under the headings “Aboriginal ceremonies”, “Material culture”, “Names”, “Place-names and site”s, “Botanical and zoological terms”.
Young pranksters trigger art landmark: ERWIN CHLANDA reports Dr Jones on the Yuendumu Doors and the recent etching suite they have inspired, on show at The Residency.


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