‘We live on the world like an island. Who can say he has seen every ship that sails on the sea?’
It may be difficult for people to conceive of Australia as possessing, or ever having had possessed, colonial territory. The nation has always been something of the ultimate colony. Its usefulness to the British Empire was always expedient, owing to its use as a particularly effective labour camp until the end of transportation in the 1860’s. Even the Swan River Colony was a matter of expediency; only established for the purpose of claiming the western half of the country, a function it performs to this day. It is easy to forget the multitude of French voyages to the country during and after British hegemony, and if you have ever found yourself in a place with a French name, you will have found yourself standing in a source of great anxiety for the colonial administration.
By the time the Victorian gold rush had ended, so had transportation – which was roughly when Australia’s economic usefulness far outweighed its status as an oubliette for the Crown. But the ludicrous turn of historical circumstances persists. The idea of a colony (itself made up of several colonial administrative centers for half its history) somehow conferring authority over another part of the world seems absurd.
And yet, in Papua New Guinea, this is exactly what happened. Australia took over the administration of British New Guinea in 1902, an early notch in the belt of the new Federation. Little more than an enclave in the south east of the island, it was colonized in the late 19th century, on the impulse of the then Queensland Premier, Thomas McIlwraith, who proclaimed his annexation in the name of the British Government. Seventy years and one Japanese occupation later, the island finally claimed its independence, and the Australian record all but forgot about the colonial project on the island. The absurdity of this historical episode underpins a searing, difficult, and ultimately astonishing novel called Visitants.
During the war in the Pacific, the great naval battles, with all their raging intensity, were fought in a manner unheard of in history until that point – their outcomes were primarily determined by the performance of carrier based aircraft. Pearl Harbour, that most fateful day in the history of the world, was just such a display of naval air power. As were the battles of Coral Sea and Midway, which, while bloody and intense, turned the tide of the new Pacific War away from Japanese favour and cleared a path to victory.
One of the more interesting side effects of relying so heavily on aircraft at sea was the constant destruction of said aircraft. Since total catastrophic explosions were rare, a pilot would usually try to bring a plane down safely in shallow water, and this meant straying close to the islands of the Pacific – many of which were not uninhabited, and now strewn with visions of, and the wrecks resulting from, the war in the air. It is now that the western impact on Melanesian societies becomes more pronounced than it ever had been, save perhaps the attempted introduction of Christianity centuries earlier.
To reckon with all that they were seeing of Western society, local belief adapted to accommodate great change, and so began what we know as ‘Cargo Cults’. These splintered, disparate religions were based on the belief that the vast quantity of goods and physical objects westerners possessed was a result of good favour with the gods. But far be it for me to explain the phenomenon in a rigorous or anthropological manner. All one really needs to know is that such things existed, make perfect sense in context, and were not necessarily a veneration of Western society. It was much more of a curiosity, a change of outlook to better suit the reality of the modern world they were starting to encounter.
Aircraft in particular factored into these belief systems, and locals would build runways in anticipation of their arrival. In the novel, a downed Spitfire forms an object of worship near a circle of rocks. As does an old French ceremonial sword, boxes of bullets, and so on. Cargo cults largely evaporated as their societies had more contact with Westerners, and are no longer really part of the fabric of life. Some prominent examples still exist, however – including the notable John Frum cult, which is worth reading about for its strange point of difference if nothing else.
Whatever interpretive issues exist around the idea of these cults, and I would certainly hesitate to say anything concrete (not lest because I don’t trust the work of mid century anthropologists to be free of certain assumptions), it is still important in reckoning with the way colonialism is presented in the novel. Although the story is much more of a tableaux of interactions than a series of events, the belief that a spacecraft has visited the island is a point of particular resonance with the locals; and one which eventually fuels the frenzied suicide of a patrol officer, Alistair Cawdor.
For an Australian novel, whose treatment of home typically borders on reverential, Australia is presented as something of a foreign country in Visitants. The closest thing we have to western society is the main government area, away from the island, which even then is a mere town in an archipelago some distance from anywhere. The action takes place in and around MacDonnell’s plantation on Kailuana island. He is an older man, happily ostracized in the jungle, who takes in the patrol officer Cawdor, and Dalwood, his cadet, who have been posted to the Osiwa sub-district. For them, Australia is a distant place. For Cawdor in particular, it is a place that we know he will never return to. By speaking so little of Australia, we are enmeshed in a totally different landscape; one where the world turns on the axis of its people, and their beliefs and superstitions, above all else.
Randolph Stow, the hitherto unmentioned author of the novel, in 1959 worked both as an anthropologist’s assistant and a patrol officer in the region – and his is experiences formed the basis for this work. He himself had to be sent home from his duty, owing to an adverse reaction there, a fact that should not surprise anyone who has read the book. He had been successful in his earlier attempts, but his later life was notable for the ire he drew from the literary community. Visitants was a later novel, far removed from the successful and beloved work of his youth. Had he continued in his original vein, it is possible he would be remembered better. As it stands, he is a little like a ghost, and I must thank Text Publishing for putting so much of his work into the spotlight.
Visitants is not an easy novel to categorize. Each character acts as a narrator, receiving a page or two at a time to tell a part of a chronological whole. It takes some getting used to, and it makes the events of the novel quite difficult to comprehend. This is something that I even found in Tourmaline, another of his later works, even though it was written with a much more traditional omniscient narrator. The events do not seem to be of particular concern to Stow, who is much more interested in what people, whether specific or not, and landscapes, whether identifiable or not, are doing to one another. What they are doing to the mind, to the skin, to the smiles – even to the way the eyes move in the skull. Reading it, one can feel the sweat, the quickly-ruined clothes, the taste of whiskey.
Ultimately, one feels the confusion most keenly. It seems to be the one thing that the novel is most interested in doing to its reader – encouraging them to give up concentrating, and start listening. The world lives when we start to ignoring the frictions of people and factions and start to see what it looks like, feels like, is to be a part of. Salt water lapping at the sides of the Igau, their government boat; or the canopy brushing past the faces, or the way the ground feels beneath the feet. We get the sense, always, that as we slip into this world, in between the cracks of allegiances and the (scant) body politic, we are following Cawdor into his eventual fate, much like the colonial government itself, of being rendered invisible to the world. A fate which, it must be said, we can sense from the start; as we see a trivial young man of drink and sweat languidly suppressing the poet and the philosopher that seems to be thrashing beneath him, just under the skin. The commissioner offers this elegy in his sad final report –
‘I can guess what impression you in Samarai must have of Alistair. I only ask you to consider that it could have happened to you.’
One feels that simply by being visited this world is compromised, and the scattered waste of that intrusion is everywhere. It is in the white men (the locals call them DimDims, and do not hold back their opinion), it is in the alien spacecraft, it is in the war itself. The only thread with any hope of tying the disparate strands back together is Benoni, the heir to the chieftain of Kailuana, Dipapa; and who struggles with himself, but ultimately comes to power a dignified and excellent leader. He seems to refuse to cede his thinking or his actions, unlike the local women of MacDonnell’s house, who don’t really seem to have much of a choice. Benoni seems to admire Cawdor, the only white man who seems able to influence any sort of effect amongst the locals, but he becomes far too unstable after he contracts – and does not properly treat – the malaria which leads to his downfall.
Cawdor is surely the version of Randolph Stow that didn’t make it home from his post, something that he must have feared would happen. The job of patrol officer seems loosely defined, and the novel does not make it easier to figure at what it entailed. Wandering through the jungle from a damp, perpetually hot house, one can only wonder, no matter their actual job description, what they must have actually been feeling. One is reminded of Conrad, several decades removed. The cruelty of Leopold’s Belgian Congo is replaced by the far more oblique, difficult and meandering colonial administration. A new country, presiding over not quite a country, with its officials and the locals stuck in the middle of an indefinable political state would lead anyone to think that, once they had entered the jungle, they had entered limbo; and how on earth anyone thought they would be getting out with their sanity intact is anyone’s guess.
Cawdor does not make it out alive, and the only people that do are the ones who have reckoned with their station – who almost possess a brusque disregard for the reality of the life around them. Their existence is underpinned by their own sense of things, and in that way they are able to survive where Cawdor could not. His second, Dalwood, is almost infuriatingly confident about the world; he might as easily be doing his job in the Hunter Valley, quite oblivious of the vast galaxy of enmeshed life that is so burdensome for Cawdor. One feels that he would return home, have a drink in the pub, and mention that he had once been to New Guinea, and not played a part in occupying it.
Why anyone thought that the colonial impulse was the right one to follow is baffling to the modern sensibility, but not baffling to history. Territory meant more in the past, when production and resources were treated more covetously and strategic thinking had to account for physical obstacles, like the boundaries between nations. And, being that the nation was English at heart, and so very white for so very long, it makes sense that the feelings would persist. Much like the Germans who missed the Scramble for Africa and occupied part of the island, we carved out our little niche, handed down to us by the generosity of the Imperium, accepted with open arms. Forty years after its dissolution, it might as well never have happened; and, much like all that has fallen through the cracks of Australian history, needs only to be resurrected by perspective.
We arrive, we swirl in the ecosystem of life, and try to make of our situation the best that we can. Above all, we disappear; and I like to think that, somewhere in my memory, the residents of this novel might still be living, Benoni in his great stewardship, and Cawdor in the cavern of all time, wandering through the halls of a vast and beautiful existence, far away from the visitors with whom he came, who have forgotten about him and everyone else.
Stow chose to preface the novel with a line from The Tempest –
‘Be not afeard, the isle is full of noises…’
Of which I didn’t think much, until I remembered that it is Caliban who speaks the line, the beast who first help rule by his mother Sycorax, then imprisoned by Prospero, until he is finally freed from his shackles in an act of begrudging necessity, and let be in peace.
BLADE RUNNER 2049 – LIFE, DESPITE ITSELF
A vision of the future, bleak as anything committed to screen. An essential masterpiece.
THE NEWS IS LIMITED
In certain Australian cities, you can only buy a Murdoch paper. That is a problem.