Panga: a Barkindji draughtsman on the Paroo in the 1870s

In late 2013, in its Latest Acquisitions catalogue no. 381, Berkelouw Books offered for sale a 19th century bibliographical curiosity: a scrapbook of pencil sketches, with some associated photographs, manuscript letters and other documents. Formerly in the collection of retired pastoralist Frederic Bonney, the album had descended from Bonney's sister in Staffordshire, England to more distant relatives in Sydney. The Misses Maclellan appear to have sold it to the eccentric zoologist Charles Melbourne Ward for his Gallery of Natural History and Native Art at Medlow Bath in the Blue Mountains, whence it was acquired by Leo Berkelouw. After passing through the hands of a couple of dealers, it was eventually purchased by the National Museum of Australia in 2015.

What makes this scruffy scrapbook extraordinary can be found in the inscription on the title page: ‘Sketches / by an Aboriginal youth named “Panga” / living at Momba near the River Darling N. S. Wales / Self taught – Age about 17 years / 1881 / these sketches were made mostly between 1875 – 79.’

Bonney, author of that inscription and compiler of the scrapbook, was one of the 11 children of Thomas Bonney, Anglican clergyman and headmaster of Rugeley Grammar School. During the 1860s and 1870s Frederic and his elder brother Edward leased various parcels of land in western New South Wales which eventually combined as 'Momba' station, a vast pastoral estate extending some 120 kilometres north along the Paroo River from its confluence with the Darling at present-day Wilcannia. The two men’s uncle, Charles Bonney, M.L.C., had been one of the first ‘overlanders’, droving stock from New South Wales to the Port Phillip District and South Australia in the late 1830s. Charles visited England in 1858, and it was in all likelihood his apparent financial success and strong local business connections that prompted Edward to venture to the colonies in 1859, where he took up several stock runs in the Darling-Paroo district. Frederic followed in 1865, and over the next 15 years the Bonney brothers consolidated their holdings into a property of almost 85,000 sq. km., described by The Maitland Mercury and Hunter River General Advertiser as ‘one of the finest in the Australias.’[i]

However, it is not as a successful pastoralist that Frederic Bonney finds his lasting memorial, but as one of those all-too-rare Europeans on the colonial frontier with an evident sympathy for Aboriginal people. He wrote: ‘An unfavourable opinion prevails regarding these poor people which results possibly from a prejudice created against them on account of their unprepossessing physiognomy and from an erroneous idea of their moral qualities … It may astonish those who are given to consider the aborigines of Australia as a race scarcely human to be informed that their general intelligence, common sense and shrewdness, are quite equal if not superior to that of the poorest classes in Great Britain and they are naturally honest, truthful and kind hearted. Their manner is remarkably courteous and to little children they are very kind. Affectionate and faithful to chosen companions, also showing exceeding respect to aged persons and willingly attending to their wants.’[ii]

 

Bonney’s substantial collections of photographs (some by the itinerant photographer Charles Pickering[iii], but the majority his own, amateur efforts) document quite clearly his sympathetic interest in the local Barkindji people. This extensive and impressive archive has been published twice in recent years, initially for local community consumption in Robert Lindsay's The Bonney Photographs, and again in a more widely-released anthology co-edited with Jeannette Hope: The People of the Paroo River.[iv]

Some of the photographs simply record the appearance of the ‘Momba’ property, its buildings and products. Other images feature both group portraits and close-ups of individuals, including figures in traditional dress and body decoration. One remarkable pair shows some three dozen men, women and children formally posed in two rows, one standing and one seated. The positions and attitudes of the subjects are almost exactly identical across the two images, but in one they carry traditional weapons and wear hair string headbands and pubic aprons, while in the other they sport moleskins and waistcoats, dresses and blankets; one man is smoking a pipe.

Two substantial groups of these photographs are held in public institutions: the Mitchell Library holds Bonney’s own collection of notes, notebooks, correspondence, newspaper cuttings and printed material, as well as more than a dozen photographs.[v] The National Library of Australia holds 29 Bonney photographs, contained within an extensive album formerly owned by Bonney’s Staffordshire neighbour and friend Dr John Kerr Butter. Further, singular Bonney photographic images are also held in the Woore family collection at the Mitchell and in the State Library of Victoria.[vi]

In addition to his photographic documentation of Aboriginal people and lifeways, during his time in New South Wales Bonney also assembled an extensive collection of native artefacts: spears, boomerangs, clubs, axes, baskets and the like. A photograph of the interior of his English home, Colton House, shows these items in 19th century 'trophy' display;[vii] some of them are most likely those now held by the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology at the University of Cambridge. The MAA holds over 50 artefacts, mostly weapons – 20 boomerangs, 13 axe-heads, four spears and three clubs – but also individual domestic or ritual objects: a yam spade, grinding stone, ‘weet-weet’ (a child’s playing stick), nose bone, three bullroarers and a stone for initiation tooth-evulsion.[viii]

Most significantly, from the time of his first arrival in the district Bonney had made notes on Barkindji culture - from word lists and place names to more detailed accounts of myth and ceremony. This research miscellany was arranged and edited as a paper presented to the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland in 1883, which document remains the primary written source on the traditional culture of the people of the Paroo. The other pioneering ethnologist of the Barkindji was Simpson Newland (curiously, also the son of a clergyman and also from Staffordshire), who, with his brother-in-law Henry Field, ran ‘Mana’, ‘Warlo’ and ‘Talyealye’ stations on the upper Darling and Paroo. Newland’s ‘The Parkengees, or, Aboriginal tribes on the Darling River’ was read before the South Australian Branch of the Royal Geographical Society of Australasia in 1887; a more rambling, anecdotal paper, ‘Some Aboriginals I have known’, was published in 1895. A little later still, the enthusiastic surveyor and amateur anthropologist R.H. Mathews conducted fieldwork in northern New South Wales, recording (inter alia) aspects of Barkindji social organization, belief systems, ceremony and language.[ix]

 

The Bonney scrapbook at the NMA represents a further dimension of his evident ethnographic enthusiasm; its 117 individual drawings introduce a previously unknown figure into the canon of Indigenous art of the colonial period.[x]

 

Bonney's manuscript notes record that 'A youth named Panga, who was not the brightest at his work, had a rare talent for drawing which he developed by sketching with a piece of charcoal on a piece of bark or scratching with a nail on a tin pot. He received no assistance from Europeans - in fact had no opportunity of doing so until quite recently, when I found sketches about the camp which showed so much talent I gave him pencil and paper and I have most of the sketches he made. At that time he was probably 17 to 18 years old - he lived under my charge for 15 years. He was taught to write a little by an overseer, Mr William Sutton.'[xi] 

 

'Panga' apparently (and rather delightfully) translates from the language Bonney called Weyneubulckoo as 'kangaroo in snug camp on cold morning.' The boy was also known to settlers as 'Jimmy Panga.' He features in a number of the Bonney photographs, initially in a group shot with relatives, then as a smiling portrait subject, and eventually as an artist, captured in the act of drawing. Tim Bonyhady has suggested[xii] that this may well be one of the earliest known photographs of an artist at work in Australia, being roughly contemporaneous with William Freeman’s posed photograph of Montagu Scott drawing Henry Parkes, and predating Rodney Cherry's famous image of Arthur Streeton on the beach at Sirius Cove by some 15 years.[xiii]

 

Sadly (if not altogether unexpectedly), very little is known of Panga's life after the years with Bonney. The NMA scrapbook contains a letter he wrote after his employer's return to Britain in 1881, expressing the 'hope you been gettem along another one country first rat,' (transcribed and translated in Bonney's hand as 'Hope you have got to the other country (England) first rate') and which enclosed '2 fellow photograph mine thinketh that fellow belong to mine very good.' ('Two photographs. I think mine very good.') Ten years later, a brief newspaper report stated that 'At the [Wilcannia] police court ... James Lee was charged with assaulting an aboriginal named Panga at Momba, and inflicting a wound on the scalp with a bottle of beer. He was sentenced to three months' hard labour, and for supplying aboriginals with liquor he was fined £3 and costs.'[xiv] Intriguingly, a photograph in the present album implies a continuing relationship between Panga and his old boss: inscribed 'received with letter Nov. 25th 1892,' it shows a mature, confident, bearded Panga, together with his wife Maggie (possibly Maggie Campbell). Finally, 'Jimmy Panga, 50 years, Aboriginal' is recorded as having died in 1913 on William Taylor’s 'Salisbury Downs', and been buried in the station cemetery.[xv]

 

But what of the works themselves? Perhaps not surprisingly, many of Panga's drawings are straightforward visual records of day-to-day life on a 19th century pastoral station. Notably, more than two dozen of the little sheets feature horses and riders, testifying both to Edward Bonney's racehorse-breeding interests and to Panga's work as a stockman. Despite a certain stylization, these sketches show the same intimate understanding of equine anatomy and movement as the drawings of another 19th century Aboriginal stockman-sketcher, Charlie Flannigan.[xvi] There are portraits of Frederic Bonney (in his familiar pith helmet) and of the Bonneys' overseer R.E. Guise, as well as other European station workers, a white woman seated in an armchair and a pigtailed Chinaman. There are also numerous images of buildings, bullocks and wagons, of men butchering meat and cutting fence-posts, and several pages present disconnected scatterings of everyday objects: knives, saddles and hammers, boots and belts and buttons, even a Jew's harp. In an interesting parallel to Bonney’s naked-clothed/savage-civilized pairing, this taxonomy of whitefella material culture is matched by another folio on which Panga enumerates the traditional Barkindji toolkit: boomerangs, clubs, hatchets, spears, shields, baskets, possum-skin seed bags and so forth.

 

Some of the more unusual and intriguing sketches show such things as men playing football (both soccer and the proto-AFL Aboriginal game locally called opinnia), 'step dancing in a public house', a blackfella being crushed by an old man kangaroo and another being rushed by a bullock, even an optimistic image of frontier colonial justice, inscribed by Bonney: 'Policeman with / two prisoners / 1 blackfellow / 1 white man’ - as well as a curious cypher with the letters of Panga's name arranged to form a human profile bust.

 

However, the primary interest of the scrapbook lies in those sketches which describe traditional Barkindji culture. A number of landscape sketches present the local environment in a meandering, Aboriginal perspective, somewhere between plan and elevation, between the style of the 1850s Lake Tyrell Bark and the visions of late 20th century First Nations artists such as Ginger Riley Munduwalawala or Gertie Huddlestone.[xvii] The arabesque curves of river and hills irresistibly evoke the linear patterns which are inscribed on 19th century weapons from western New South Wales, and which persist in contemporary local cultural expression.[xviii]

 

There are various images of local wildlife: kangaroos and wallabies; emus, brolgas and swans; snakes and a goanna. Importantly, Panga also records the appearance of fellow-tribespeople; several wear possum skin cloaks, and some may possibly be identifiable by reference to Bonney's photographs. Some works illustrate specific aspects of traditional life: a picture of a native holding a duck-catching net illustrates a hunting technique carefully described by Simpson Newland;[xix] in another, a man standing before a bark humpy receives a message-stick (curiously, delivered by what looks to be a white man). There is an image of 'a youth during ceremony of initiation,' and one curious scene, 'Questioning the corpse before burial' illustrates a kind of magical coronial inquest ritual, similar to those recorded elsewhere in Australia, both earlier and later, and fully described in Bonney's ethnographic paper.[xx]

 

What is in many ways the highlight of the collection is a series of ten images of corroboree, in which individual figures and co-ordinated lines of dancers are described with great precision in terms of pose and choreography, in the detail of body decoration (again, closely comparable with that shown in Bonney's photographs), in the ritual garb of hair string loin cloths and conical hats and in the objects held by the dancers: dance paddles (purpurru), string crosses and bunches of green leaves.

 

It must be admitted that the style and technique of Panga's drawings is certainly naïve, sometimes mannered, occasionally even crude. It is true that in his oeuvre we do not find the serious ceremonial authority of Beruk (William Barak), nor the wit and graphic grace of Yackaduna (Tommy McCrae). Nevertheless, taken collectively, Panga's work must be regarded as a unique and valuable record of life on the Paroo in the 1870s as drawn from the perspective of an Indigenous station hand possessed of traditional knowledge, experience and memories.

 

This album presents us with a hitherto unknown Aboriginal vision and voice, one which combines knowledge of the old world and curiosity about the new, a generous, expansive humanity and a kind of obsessive, even autistic graphophilia. The very fact of its survival and re-emergence after more than a century must be cause for art-historical celebration.

 

 

Dr David Hansen

Associate Professor, Centre for Art History and Art Theory, School of Art and Design

Australian National University

 

Acknowledgements:

 

This paper is a revised and extended version of a paper initially presented at the National Museum of Australia symposium Aboriginal Artists of the Nineteenth Century: a celebration in 2014. As well as thanking Prof. Tim Bonyhady and Dr Matt Trinca for the invitation to participate in that conference, Leo Berkelouw, Jonathan Dickson, Michael Graham-Stewart and Geoffrey Smith for initial research support, and Rachel Hand for guiding me through the Bonney material at the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Cambridge in 2018, I would take this opportunity to acknowledge the pioneering research and model of art-historical excellence provided by the late Andrew Sayers.

 

However, this is above all a Barkindji story, and I am especially grateful to Paul Collis, Kevin Knight and Badger Bates for their warm and generous permission and encouragement to publish details of Panga’s life and work.



[i] ‘Colonial Markets’, The Maitland Mercury and Hunter River General Advertiser, Maitland, 3 April 1875, p. 7

[ii] Frederic Bonney, notes, Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales, Sydney (MLMSS 259)

[iii] Pickering (c. 1825-1908) was largely Sydney-based, and is perhaps best known for his portrait of bushrangers Frank Gardiner and John Gilbert, and for a folio of views of Sydney commissioned by the New South Wales government for the 1871 London International Exhibition. He was also an amateur carver in stone and wood; soon after his arrival in Sydney he sculpted the celebrated ‘Manly kangaroo.’

[iv] Robert Lindsay, Frederic Bonney’s Photographs, Dubbo: Western Readers, 1983; Jeanette Hope and Robert Lindsay, The People of the Paroo River: Frederic Bonney’s Photographs, Sydney: Department of Environment, Climate Change and Water NSW, 2010. Bonney images are also discussed (and one reproduced) in Jane Lydon, Calling the shots: Aboriginal photographies, Canberra: Aboriginal Studies Press, 2014

[v] Sadly, these pictures are all that remain of the more substantial collection reproduced in Lindsay’s first publication; the bulk of the photographs ‘disappeared’ from the Library some time in the 1980s

[vi] In the Mitchell Library, Bonney’s manuscripts are catalogued at MLMSS 259; his 13 photographs at PXA 562, and the Woore picture at PXB 680. The ‘Butter Album’ is NLA Album 1026. The State Library of Victoria picture is in the Duncan Scott McGregor Collection, H92.244/7

[vii] Colton History Society, Staffordshire, U.K., Parrpic 90

[viii] Some of these artefacts were presented to the Museum by Frederic’s brother, the geologist and divine Prof. Rev. Thomas Bonney, others by his nephew and namesake Maj. Frederic George Bonney Wetherall

[ix] Frederic Bonney, 'On Some Customs of the Aborigines of the River Darling, New South Wales', Journal of the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, vol. 13, 1883, pp. 122-137; Bonney also had an offprint of the paper published (London: Harrison and Sons, 1883). Simpson Newland, ‘The Parkengees, or, Aboriginal tribes on the Darling River’, Proceedings of the Royal Geographical Society of Australasia (South Australian Branch), Sessions 1886-7 and 1887-8, vol. 2, pp. 20-33; ‘Some Aboriginals I have known’, Proceedings of the Royal Geographical Society of Australasia (South Australian Branch), Session 1894-5, pp. 1-15. For Mathews, see Martin Thomas, The many worlds of R.H. Mathews, Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 2012

[x] The definitive work on this subject remains Andrew Sayers, Aboriginal artists of the nineteenth century, Melbourne: Oxford University Press in association with the National Gallery of Australia, 1994

[xi] Frederic Bonney, notes, Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales, Sydney, (MLMSS 259, pp. 170 - 171)

[xii] pers. comm., 2014

[xiii] Freeman Brothers (William Freeman), Montagu Scott drawing Henry Parkes c. 1878, Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales; Rodney Cherry, Arthur Streeton at Curlew Camp 1891, reproduced in Sydney Ure Smith (ed.), The Art of Arthur Streeton Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1919, p. 9

[xiv] 'Country News', The Sydney Morning Herald, 15 December 1891, p. 6

[xv] New South Wales Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages (Deaths, Tibooburra - DC 4489 / 1913)

[xvi] Flannigan made 41 double-sided drawings while imprisoned in Fanny Bay gaol, Darwin, awaiting execution for the murder of ‘Greenhide’ Samuel Croker on ‘Auvergne’ station in September 1892. They are preserved in an album in the archives of the South Australian Museum, Adelaide (AA 263/1)

[xvii] Unknown artist (Wergaia/Boorong?), The Lake Tyrell Bark (Landscape with hunting and ceremonial scenes and settler homestead), incised eucalyptus bark, 86 x 56 cm., Museum of Victoria. See also Ginger Riley Mundawalawala, Mara country, 1992, synthetic polymer paint on canvas, 244 x 244 cm., National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne; Gertie Huddlestone, We all share water, 2001, synthetic polymer paint on canvas, 120 x 169 cm., National Gallery of Australia, Canberra

[xviii] See Lorraine Gibson, ‘“We don’t do dots – ours is lines”: asserting Barkindji style’, Oceania, vol. 78 no. 3 (November 2008), pp. 280-298

[xix] Newland, op. cit., pp. 22-23

[xx] Bonney, 'On some customs ...', op. cit., pp. 12-13