In their classic study of melancholy Torok and Abraham(1994) argue that melancholy is occasioned not by the loss of an object of love, but by the secret this loss entails. In this essay I return to this understanding of melancholy to shed light on the secret harbouring in Rosa Praed’s revelations of a massacre. In Praed’s famous account of the Hornet Bank massacre (1885/1902) and its aftermath — the slaughtering of the Yiman people — we find the father standing as the ‘signpost’ of his own encryption. Circulating through the daughter’s testimony he is both overly present and secreted. I suggest here that the secret of Praed’s memoir is not simply the father as perpetrator but that the text itself, — its authority, its testimonial, and its melancholy — encrypts the father as its secret love.

A curious anecdote drawn from Praed’s notebooks and enthusiastically reproduced by her early biographer Colin Roderick (1948) enables us to approach the psychic disturbance caused by the father’s encryption. Roderick narrates that while out walking on Cap Martin in the Riviera in 1911, Praed’s partner, Nancy Harwood, heard a strange sound emanating from a hole in a rock: “Oooo…Ai…Ee…ee. Netch…aka……hoom…tof…Netch…a ka..hoo…..oom……tof!”(Roderick, 1948, pp 181-7). Harwood returned to Praed and together they consulted their metaphysical guides, the spirit beings K. and P. Deploying Harwood as his medium, K tells them that Harwood has heard the language of a nature-being, a small bright red man who lives in a cavern under the sea. He is one of the early pre-human deities almost driven to extinction by humanity’s advance along the coast and the strange sounds that she has heard is the primitive language of those of his kind. They learn from K. that this language has “its roots in nature-sounds. … The speech of primal peoples [was] open-flowing – vowel sound waves with harsh breaks of a few guttural throaty notes, the meaning conveyed by inflexion and mode of repetition much as the frogs contrive to tell each other a good deal by ringing the changes on four notes” (p. 181). Harwood and Praed return to the source of the sound and make contact with the being this time through the aid of K., who translates the nature-being’s primitive language while simultaneously providing an exposition on its meaning from his superior spiritual vantage point. Both the translation and its exposition issue from the mouth of Harwood.

The nature-being — K. translates — is furious with humans for driving him from his ancestral coastal home and he dreads contact with them because their presence means the extinction of his race. From his position of deus ex machina, K. explains that the nature-being is insufficiently evolved to understand the laws of evolution: “It all seems cruel unless you can look at things in the large part as a great scheme – the destruction of one form, making place for another. To him this is hell. He is suffering acutely. He can’t see beyond.” K. in contrast, can. Perhaps, he explains, “it may be the way he will evolve and learn. Yes, they could become human under certain conditions”(p.186)

In subsequent conversations Praed is able to establish a rapport with the nature-being — despite his fear and loathing of humans — by explaining her past affinity with the blacks. “I told him how I had lived in the bush and known the blacks and how the whites had come and driven out the blacks, and how sorry I had been for them … He said, ‘You are not black? You kill…eat up…like the rest?’ I said no…that I felt with the blacks and cared for them.” (p. 186) In another conversation the nature-man enacts submission. He has no sign for goodbye … “the only sign of salutation he knows is one of submission.”(p.183) But Praed records: “I put out my hand and he touched it in an uncouth sort of way and said two words “Goboro, Gobshee’ and we went away.”(p.181)

In this anecdote, made all the more curious by the folie à deux that structures it, we see a succession of fantasmatic translations that enable Harwood to construct a stage for Praed to ritually enact her innocence. Imagine the scenario: the two women crouched over a hole in a rock while Praed, notebook in hand, transcribes the macaronic word play that issues from Harwood’s mouth — a stage-mouth — literally stuffed with words and characters, into which Praed enters to perform those oft-rehearsed lines: “I love the Blacks.” But like Freud’s borrowed kettle which was never borrowed, was returned unbroken, and was already broken when it was borrowed, Harwood’s and Praed’s play serves only to establish a crime(Freud uses the joke of the borrowed kettle in The Interpretation of Dreams to illustrate the logic of dreams. He recounts a joke in which a neighbour defends himself from the accusation of having damaged a borrowed kettle by claiming firstly that it was given back unbroken, secondly that the kettle had a hole in it when it was broken, and finally that he had never borrowed it. Freud points out that anyone of these lines of defense would have been accepted as valid but taken together they establish a crime. See Freud, 1976,pp.197-201) The red man is a pre-human being bound by the laws of evolution to extinction. Praed has always defended him from extinction but the only way he can learn to become human is by becoming extinct. Or to translate this into Praed’s romantic parlance: unlovable thing you had to die, I didn’t kill you I only loved you, but now you’re dead you might become someone finally worthy of my love.

Here we can see Praed the apologist par excellence; posing as the friend and champion of ‘the Blacks’ in a performance which gives voice to the logical and inevitable necessity of their extinction. In giving Praed the lead-in lines she needs for this ritualistic re-enactment of innocence, Harwood personifies the negations and camouflages that Praed deploys in her fictional and autobiographical works.

For those unfamiliar with Praed and her history, let me recap briefly( See McKay, 2004 a/2004 b): Praed’s family were early colonisers in southern central Queensland, purchasing Hawkwood station in 1854 on the Auburn River about 300 miles north of Brisbane. Following the murder in 1857 of eleven whites in an incident known as the Hornet Bank Massacre, Praed’s father played a leading role in mobilising a vigilante group called the Browns, who together with the native police and two surviving sons of the family killed at Hornet Bank, engaged in a sequence of savage reprisals which succeeded in permanently dispersing the Yiman people from their land. While estimates of the numbers killed in these reprisals differ, Gordon Reid’s conservative estimate is that at least 200 people were killed in the aftermath of Hornet Bank( Reid, 1982, p.139). Many memoirs speak of mounds of bones, still visible as late as the 1940s. Cornelius Moynihan’s in The Feast of the Bunya: An Aboriginal Ballad Gordon & Gotch (1901) includes reference to Hornet Bank and the following reprisals “Piled high those skulls and thigh bones, /Once scattered far around /Form no”w a ghastly pyramid, /Anandah’s hideous mound; /But after forty summers, /Bowed down with weight of years, /The arch fiend, Tukiarka /At the great feast appears”.

In her memoirs My Australian Girlhood and Australian Life; Black and White, Praed presents herself (falsely) as an eyewitness of both an early rehearsal of the Hornet Bank Massacre and the consequent reprisals. In these memoirs she constructs an idealised version of herself as defender of the blacks while sustaining an intensely antipathetic account of murderous cannibals exterminated by necessity. For many decades Praed’s identification of herself as the defender and champion of blacks was received uncritically by Australian literary scholars. In My Australian Girlhood she writes: “who cares now about the joys and sorrow, rights and wrongs of savages who cumber the earth no more! There has been no one to write the Black’s epic; not many have said words in their defence, and this is but a poor little plea that I lay down for my old friends”(Praed,p 73) — thus initiating her self-idealisation. Praed on Praed became the definitive word on her own rapport to these events, her father’s obfuscated role in them, and the killings themselves. But as Gordon Reid writes in A Nest of Hornets, a historical account of the Hornet Bank Massacre, Praed is ‘responsible for more inaccurate statements about Hornet Bank than any other author”( Reid, p.157).

Reading the literary criticism on Praed one can track an almost wilful refusal to submit the text and its lode of riven meanings to even cursory literary analysis. The feints and negations that Praed uses to argue her case about the necessity of extermination are in fact not hard to identify. It doesn’t require the skills of deconstruction or psychoanalysis — the most elementary awareness of rhetoric would suffice. Indeed without knowing anything about Praed or her history it would be hard to miss the strange affective distortions of My Australian Girlhood in which lurid and carnivalesque descriptions of Aborigines killing both whites and each other contrast with colourless accounts compressed into small affect-less paragraphs of whites killing blacks. These paragraphs are strangely redolent of those affect-less accounts of Ukrainian atrocities in Demidenko-Darrville’s The Hand that signed the Paper (Demidenko-Darville, 1995). But in lieu of attention to the traumatic content of the text, its affective discordances, and its rhetorical negations, we find numerous readings which champion Praed according to the reactionary or progressive agenda of various scholars. Colin Roderick, writing in 1948 was clearly at ease with Praed’s race views; his biography of her begins with an account of her dashing race proud father. While Dale Spender writing in 1982 was evidently too intent on championing her as an early feminist prototype to pay close scrutiny to her text (1985) Between these two extreme cases of mis-reading, there is a plethora of works in which literary scholars fail to read the text of a daughter defensively inscribing the trauma of her father’s role in a mass killing. It’s only very recently that scholars like Belinda McKay have attempted to redress this by positioning Praed’s memoirs unequivocally as “serving ultimately to exculpate the white colonists by demonstrating that they pitted civilisation against savagery.”( McKay,2004, p. 56)

My concern in this essay is not to trace this history of mis-reading, although such a history would track the role literary scholarship has played in the making and reproducing of an encrypted culture. Rather, what I want to do here, with the stage-play of K., P., and the little red-man in mind, is to return to My Australian Girlhood to see what light a sharply focused psychoanalytic lens might shed on the traumatic kernel of the text. I say sharply focused because while psychoanalysis has been trenchantly resisted in Australian scholarship it nevertheless has provided a soft-focused backdrop for much scholarly musing on white Australia’s relation to its repressed history.

In literary and cultural discourse there have been repeated attempts to analyse Australian cultural pathology qua its repressed past through recourse in particular, to Freud’s theory of melancholy. One of the most interesting recent examples of this is Ross Gibson’s Seven Versions of an Australian Badland (2002) in which Gibson links the production of a space, Brigalow country (the highway and land that runs between Rockhampton and Mackay), the stories that have been generated about this country as a “Badland”, and melancholy — as a cultural trait.

Gibson’s starting point is the anecdotes and stories that give this particular tract of land the status of haunted land. He suggests that these stories act as a form of containment anchoring subjects in space and delimiting the space into habitable forms. Such stories enact a kind of encryption, congregating around land formations in order to create a space that will entomb the uninhabitable aspects of the culture. Drawing on the writing of Margarete and Alexander Mitscherlich (1975) Gibson suggests there is a pervasive melancholy in “post-traumatic societies” such as Australia in which the past is sealed in stories that signpost but do not allow a negotiation of the violence of the past. Gibson links this melancholic state with an infantile narcissism in which an immature ego (or society) has failed to negotiate a social world that doesn’t mirror their needs and urges. Thus he understands mourning as the process of negotiating the loss of the narcissistic fantasy that melancholy sustains.

Gibson’s thesis avoids a common confusion in Australian scholarship in which melancholy is linked with a failure to mourn the repressed deeds of the past. We find a representation of this understanding of melancholy in Kate Grenville’s The Secret River(2005) in which the essentially good Will Thornhill participates in a bloody dispersal of Aborigines, after which he suffers a melancholic malaise. His incapacity to talk about what he has done erects a space of silence between himself and his wife: “whatever the shadow was that lived with them; it did not belong to just him, but to her as well: it was a space they both inhabited. But it seemed there was no way to speak into that silent place.(p.325)” Will is haunted by an in-erasable emptiness, haunted by the absence of the figures he has eradicated from the land around him.

We find this same idea of melancholy in Ken Gelder and Rachael Weaver’s recent anthology of Australian colonial Gothic fiction (2007). Gelder and Weaver incorporate Clark’s “weird melancholy”( 1969) into a sub-set of the Gothic figured in terms of the return of the repressed. In this reading the colonial trope of weird melancholy is subsumed as an instance of a larger Gothic genre in which the landscape reveals its bones literally: “as graves are dug up, sacred burial grounds are uncovered, murder victims are returned from the dead, secrets are revealed and past horrors are experienced all over again.”(Clark, 1969, p.9)

In Praed’s My Australian Girlhood however, we don’t find hidden bones, and I think this is generally true of colonial literature where the dead are often unashamedly on display; in many accounts it is evident that white men left them rotting above ground. One of the uncanny things about reading colonial literature, in fact, is how un-secret the dead are. In giving this literal content to the repressed secrets of the past, such reading and writing assume a primary morality, in which melancholy is the end result of an essentially moral agent or collectivity, troubled by unspoken and yet easily identifiable wrong-doing.

Moving between the clinic and the culture is always an act of translation, and as Walter Benjamin writes, all acts of translation involve betrayal. But what strikes me about this particular act of betrayal, in which melancholy is the subjective residue of an unmourned and repressed past, is that it sustains an initial encryption — if we are to understand encryption psycho-analytically as the preservation of a secret. In deploying melancholy as a kind of generalised hold-all term for a cultural trait arising from a repressed past, we lose the core psycho-analytical insight of melancholy as pertaining not to repression, but to an encrypted and secret subject. In losing this psycho-analytic insight we lose the political perspicacity that a psycho-analytic lens can bring to our reading of melancholy, and to its politics of cultural pathology and misremembering. I would suggest in the very formulation of Australia as suffering melancholy from its troubled past, what is sustained is the pervasive ideal of Australia as a good and moral nation.

In making Ordinary People, a documentary on Pauline Hanson’s One Nation party, I undertook a number of interviews in Queensland with people who participated both in the removal of Aboriginal children from their families and in the running of the missions which held these children. One of the things that is striking about these interviews is that guilt is markedly absent, as is any affective registering of the pain and suffering caused by these practices. Antipathy is far more common as are the kinds of discursive camouflages and negations that one finds in Praed’s texts.

This is not to suggest that Praed is not a troubled subject. Praed was clearly profoundly disturbed by her childhood at Hawkwood. Her biographer Patricia Clarke describes a besieged child hood spent in a fortified slab hut: “Rifles protruded through slots cut in the walls, ready to protect the inhabitants from Aboriginal attack. When the rifles were withdrawn pieces of iron dropped over the holes on the inside so that spears could not enter the hut. Terror was close to the surface (Clarke, p. 14).” For the rest of her life Praed was subject to recurrent nightmares of fleeing through forests hunted by blacks and by phantasmagoric visions in which she merges her own memories with those of her fathers.(See Clarke , Ch.1 for further details).

In fact, far from being an eye witness account of the reprisals, her memoirs are literally drawn from her fathers memoirs. As Clarke writes “after she began treatment with morphine during long periods of ill health, her memories merged with her father’s stories to become intense visions (p. 19).” In a ‘drugged half doze’ there would come to her ‘the lifting of a curtain, and with it the most curious sense of a dual personality’(Praed, p. 57). It is in this state, as Clarke suggests, she became a participant in her father’s stories. When for example she describes the stench of bodies lying rotten amongst the slaughtered bullocks, she has merged her father’s experience with her own. The question we might pose of this text then, is not whether Praed is the defender of the slaughtered Yiman or an apologist for her father’s crime, but rather who is the author of this text? What secret is harboured in the mixed and conflicting voices of its authorship? And why, over fifty years later, when Praed revisits this trauma in a delusional encounter with a “nature-being” do we find her partner in folly providing a theatre in which to splinter Praed into separable and distinct characters: the sub-human primitive being, the all-seeing and omniscient judge and defender of an extinction, and the good and moral Rosa?

In Cryptic Mourning and Secret Love, Torok and Abraham argue for an understanding of melancholy as involving a secret formed in connection with the trauma of a lost love situation. They understand the secret not as hidden in the sense of repressed but rather as entombed, and consigned to an internal silence. In their understanding of melancholy there is a psychic splitting in which two people are living side by side knowing nothing of each other; one with contact with the world, the other having no contact with it whatsoever. This is the illness of melancholy or incorporation, involving the removal of an unbearable reality and its confinement in an inaccessible region of the psyche. They argue that the loss of melancholy is not the loss of the love object but the secret this loss occasions. The melancholic subject houses the beloved object in secret, the self-deluding itself into believing that no loss has occurred. They call this cryptonomy or concealment in language and suggest that patients suffering from a secret identification with a departed love object invent particular forms of obfuscation in speech to obscure the secret’s existence (Abraham 7Rook, p. 103).

My Australian Girlhood is a profoundly melancholic text in which we can decipher a secret self; an encrypted self that is never represented in the text and yet it buckles and twists its language in the way of melancholic speech. Praed’s sudden stylistic shifts in which the affective tonality of the writing neutralises its meaning are characteristically melancholic. As Kristeva argues in Black Sun, melancholic language avoids sentimentality because meaning itself in melancholy has run dry (1989). Melancholy, she argues, can hide in the tone of the voice. She writes of a “flattening of affect, and of non-recoverable elisions”( Kristeva, 1989, p. 540 — all discernible in Praed’s truncated descriptions of the reprisals.

Coinciding with this stripped-down language however, are melodramatic passages almost nonsensical in the non-sequiturs they sustain. Here we find an exemplary instance of the weird melancholy identified by Marcus Clarke as the trope that begins a national school of poetry( 1969) Praed concocts a landscape dripping with blood, a hoary and convulsed bush which is ” a witch’s forest” of “rotting limbs and twisted skeletons.” “From a red ironbark”, she writes ” the gum drops and oozes like congealed blood” … “Was there ever anything more ghoulish than these hag-like white limbs” … “the limbs of trees hanging like dead arms … gums [that] stretch out their twisted arms”(Praed, Ch.1).

We could give these passages their most literal interpretation and see in this forest of rotting bodies a Gothic account of a land haunted by the butchered dead but for one strange almost nonsensical note.”My Australian girlhood”, Praed writes, “taught me to love Nature, and to find in the old Nurse ever my best friend”( 1902, p.1). What mirror is Praed flashing here when she calls this hoary rotting hag-scape her nurse, her best friend? They are curious words in a text overflowing with fraught and over-determined meanings but one cannot fail to hear the question posed by the child Rosa: If this bush is my nurse, my mother, my best friend then who is my mother’s mate? Who is the husband of this rotting body that surrounds me?

My Australian Girlhood is a narrative preoccupied in sustaining the romance of the father. He is one of the squatters of those times “a brave and reckless band. Quick to love, and quick to hate, full of pluck and endurance, dauntless before danger, iron in physique and nerve, and ready for any dare-devil feat.”( Praed, 1902, p.7) “He was a squatter in “the days of the patriarchs. Men travelled with their flocks and herds, and, like Abraham and Lot, fought the tribes for land and water.”( p. 8) He [was] ” I can assure you, a very handsome man”( p. 41)

In his history of Hornet Bank Gordon Reid introduces some levity into Praed’s idealised account of her father, citing Rachel Henning who in 1863 wrote of him: “I suppose it does not require any great talent to be Postmaster General. I hope not, for such a goose I have seldom seen. He talked incessantly and all his conversations consisted of pointless stories of which he himself was the hero( Reid, p. 154).”

In both Praed’s memoirs and subsequent critical writing, Murray Prior evades critical scrutiny while his daughter speaks in his words her testimony as witness and champion of the massacred Yiman people. He circulates textually, imbued with idealised moral traits. He is moral, dashing, romantic, the postmaster general, the successful politician. And as Reid notes, he survived Hornet Bank to become a pillar of Queensland politics and society.

Years later however, crouched over a hole in a cliff-face at Cap Riviera, his daughter is still struggling to find a way to divulge the secret of the encrypted father. “I love the blacks” says the voice of the little girl, while the omniscient spirit K., takes it upon himself to explain their inevitable demise. Who, we might ask, is K? The translator, spokesperson, judge, and superior God pronouncing the inevitability of the extinction of the little red man? We can see here an exemplification of the classic psycho-analytic formula for melancholy as a “failed translation”.

Resurrecting the encrypted father in the voice of K. reveals the political obfuscation entailed in understanding melancholy as an affective residue that registers the failure of a community to mourn its secret past. In Praed’s memoir, the lost object of the text is clearly not the slaughtered Yiman people, nor is its textual melancholy the signpost of their unmourned deaths. In this example we can see that in understanding melancholy as a failure to mourn the indigenous dead, the secret father remains encrypted, and a community of critics perpetuates the narcissistic illusion of a moral community troubled by an immoral past.




N. Abraham, and M. Torok( 1994). The Shell and the Kernel: renewals of psychoanalysis. Edited and translated by Nicholas T. R (Chicago: University of Chicago Press)

Rosa Campbell-Praed (1902), My Australian Girlhood (London: T. Fisher Unwin, London);See also (1885) Australian Life; Black and White (London: Chapman and Hall)

Marcus Clarke (1969). “Preface to Gordon’s Poems” in The Writer in Australia: A Collection of Literary documents 1856-1964, ed. John Barnes ( Melbourne: Oxford University Press, Melbourne)

H. Demidenko-Darville (1995) The Hand that Signed the Paper (Allen and Unwin, Sydney, 1995)

S.Freud (1976)The Interpretation of Dreams, Volume Four, Pelican Freud Library, trans. and ed. James Strachey (London: Penguin Books), pp.197-201

Ken Gelder and Rachel Weaver (2007) An Anthology of Australian Colonial Gothic Fiction (Melbourne;Melbourne University Publishing)

Ross Gibson (2002).Seven Versions of an Australian Badland ( St. Lucia: University of Queensland Press)

Kate Grenville (2005).The Secret River ( Melbourne: Text Publishing)

Julia Kristeva (1989).Black Sun; Depression and Melancholia, trans. Leon S. Roudiez (New York: Columbia university press)

Belinda McKay (2004) “Writing from the Contact Zone: Fiction by Early Queensland Women”, Hecate, vol. 30. No. 2, pp.53-70 (a.)

Belinda McKay (2004). “A lovely land…by shadows dark untainted’?: whiteness and early Queensland women’s writing” in Whitening Race ed. Aileen Moreton-Robinson, (Canberra: Aboriginal Studies Press) (b)

Cornelius Moynihan (1901).The Feast of the Bunya: An Aboriginal Ballad (Gordon & Gotch)

G. Reid (1982). A Nest of Hornets; The Massacre of the Fraser Family at Hornet Bank Station, Central Queensland, 157, and related events (Oxford University Press, Melbourne), p. 139

C.Roderick (1948). In Immortal Bondage (Sydney: Angus and Robertson)

D.Spender ( 1985 ).”Rosa Praed: Original Australian writer” in A Bright and Fiery troop: Australian Women Writers of the Nineteenth Century, ed. Debra Adelaide (Ringwood: Penguin)

Alexander and Margarete Mitscherlich (1975).The Inability to Mourn (London: Tavistock)

J. Rutherford ( ) Ordinary People, (A Film Australia special Interest project), documentary film, 52 minutes. Written and Directed by Jennifer Rutherford, produced by Martha Ansara and Jennifer Rutherford, produced in association with Film Australia, the Australian Film Commission and with the assistance of the NSW Film and Television Office and the ABC.