Australia: The Land Where Time Began

A biography of the Australian continent 

William Blandowski                                                                                                                                                                             

Also known as Johan Wilhelm Theodor Ludwig von Blandowski, Wilhelm Blandowski, Wilhelm von Blandowski, William von Blandowski. William Blandowski lived in Australia between September 1849 and March 1859. His contributions to natural history and his illustrations of Aboriginal life he recorded on his expeditions were largely ignored for a time as a result of what has been called his difficult personality. One cause of problems was his descriptions of some species he collected and named after various prominent people, describing one as a slimy fish that lives on the mud. Other scientists took offence, believing he was describing the person he named the fish after, as well as the fish.

This book provides a glimpse of Aboriginal life about 60 years after the start European colonisation, and before their culture was studied systematically. Their culture was already changing as a result of the presence of white settlers over increasing areas of their country, the tribes nearest the main settlements would probably have been losing their cultural identity at an increasing rate. By the time attempts were made to record their culture much had already been lost, much of the information gathered from the settled areas would have depended on the memories of those among the Aboriginal People who were old enough to remember life before they were dispossessed. In more recent times it depended on memories of stories from childhood of the 'old days', as remembered by the old people telling the stories, often from stories they had been told, not of their own experiences. Not the best way to gather information on a rapidly vanishing culture.

His illustrated encyclopaedia, with its visual account of the natural history, and daily life of Aboriginal people he witnessed on his travels, was published in 1862 in Gleiwitz, now Gliwice, Poland. He called it Austalien in 142 Phorographischen Abbildungen nach zehnjarigen Erfahrungen - Australia in 142 photographic illustrations from 10 years experience. The photographic illustrations referred to in the name refers to the process of reproduction of the drawings.

The sketches that became the basis for the illustrations in the encyclopaedia were made during explorations along the Murray River and Guichen Bay, the first of which was from February-May 1850, along the Murray to Lake Bonnie, near Barmera, then down along the river to Encounter Bay. His next trip, in January 1851 took him down the Murray to Wellington and Goolwa, then to the southeast along the Coorong as far as Robe and Guichen Bay (Darragh, 2009), then on to Mount Gambier (Allen, 2010).

According to Allen (2010) the most remarkable aspect of the book is that the Aboriginal story is told through illustrations. The book is in the form of a visual narrative, from descriptions of the bush in Australia to all aspects of Aboriginal life through to mortuary rituals. The animals and plants he portrayed in the book are depicted, mostly, in their association with the Aboriginal people, in a way that Allen describes as a 'humanised natural history'. Blandowski said of the changes that had taken place between 1850, when he first travelled along the Murray, and 1862, when he published his book::

'...if you compare the state of Australia now with what it was only a single lifespan ago...There are burgeoning cities with steadily growing populations and productivity where Aboriginal People once had their endless hunting grounds, where they staged their festivities with games and dancing, fought and settled sometimes bloody tribal and personal battles. Now only the melancholy old recall those former times and mourn their loss ... another lifespan and only a few will be left...'(Blandowski, Australia, postscript, in Allen, 2010, p. 11).

Many illustrations are based on scenes he witnessed on his expeditions on the Murray River in 1856-7. The illustrations depicting hunting methods provide a glimpse of one aspect of Aboriginal life that is not normally found elsewhere, the people having been moved away from their traditional country where the hunting took place. These, and the illustrations of many aspects of Aboriginal domestic life, give a more complete picture of the Aboriginal People, one that was not known to many at the time, a situation that was not helped by Blandowski's work no being published in English.

Mutzel's compositions were based on field sketches by Kreft. The montages he produced allows many domestic activities to be depicted in a single illustration, and according to Allen (2010), these provide insight into daily life in Aboriginal camps, activities that would have been occurring all over the continent, though with different detail in different parts of the country. In one illustration, the removal of bark from a river gum, the depiction matches the written description given by Kreft in his published account of 1866 (Allen, 2010). Allen suggests that the illustrations 'provide insight into the ordinariness of Aboriginal life, a quality that connects us with Aboriginal people. This is most apparent in the small details, such as girls hugging each other (illustration 29), boys playing football (illustration 41) of 2 boys with a dog (illustration 68)'.

According to Buchan (2005) European Australians thought that because there didn't appear to be any form of government among Aboriginal Peoples it meant they had no society, as occurs in all civilisations. He quotes an opinion from colonial Australia by David Collins who reported a statement by Mathew Flinders '... the native depends on his fiz-gig or spear for support, depends on his single arm, and requiring not the aid of society is indifferent about it, but prowls along, a gloomy, unsettled and unsocial being.'

The illustrations in Blandowski's book gives lie to this belief, that was apparently widely held, and no doubt still held by some, of the type held by Flinders. According to Allen (2010), the terms that translates as a tribe of brothers, a kindred, or a clan, is used by Blandowski in the postscript of his book.

A number of aspects of Aboriginal society rarely mentioned elsewhere, and possibly not widely known of, such as the playing of games and competitive sport in Aboriginal Australia pre-contact and for some time after, at least with regard to the areas visited by Blandowski. These are depicted in illustrations 41, 97-9, 103-5. This provides a view of Aboriginal society that fits with more recent accounts, that was apparently unknown to most in colonial Australia. If the extent of it had been known at the time there might have been some opposition, at least from 'outsiders', to the way the Aboriginal People were treated.

Allen refers to Blandowski's visual sense as is related in Blandowski's report of a case of a mother-in-law avoidance being observed. 'A mother-in-law being descried approaching, a number of lubras formed a circle around the young man, and he himself covered his face with his hands; - this while it screened the old lady from his sight, served as a warning to her not to approach, as she must never be informed by a third party of the presence of her son-in-law' (Blandowski, 1855).

By the time of Blandowski's travels along the Murray aboriginal society had already been changing for some time. Their toolkit had changed, now including firearms, iron-tipped spears and fishhooks. In 1866 Kreft wrote that many ancient cultural and social practices were still followed according to the traditions of the people. They retained their custom of sharing, and followed the taboos on names and foods, and fights still broke out over broken marriage contracts and freedom to camp on the frontages of rivers and lakes. According the Kreft the Aboriginals tried to maintain a hybrid economy (Altman, 2001).

Kreft witnessed an initiation ceremony in March 1857, as the Murray expedition approached Mondellimin (Kreft, 1866). According to Kreft, the young men taking part, in what was said to be an 'attenuated' ceremony, said the only reason they cooperated was because they needed to be initiated before they could marry, not because they believed in the old traditions.

Blandowski believed there were only minor difference in ceremonies across the continent. He therefore based his illustration of one such ceremony that had been observed at Farm Cove, Sydney, 60 years earlier. The account of the ceremony was taken from 'an account of the English colony of New South Wales (1798) by David Collins'. The illustrations were based on, and acknowledged, engravings by Thomas Watling (1798, plates 1-8., c.f. Australia illustrations 85-93, 125. 'This ceremony is known about because of the recall of Sir Maria Collins' (Caption 94).


33. A drawing by G. Mutzel, based on sketches and written descriptions by Kreft and Blandowski. Water collecting in the Desert. 'Along the Darling River and in the area north west of it towards the Cooper and Victoria rivers, grow two types of small plants - Panicum and Portulacea - with lots of black seeds similar to our poppy plants. The women collect great amounts of these seeds in the skins of smaller kangaroo species for the winter - the only known case of Aboriginal People preparing for the coming months - in the foreground a woman is grinding these seeds into a pulp; behind her another woman is cleaning the seeds in a small trough by blowing on them. These seeds have become known as 'Nardu', the food Burke & Wills were eating in their last days but which, because of its low nutritional value failed to save them from dying of starvation. On the left, there are different kinds of fishing spears and a very dangerous throwing weapon which can be thrown for a short distance through the enemy's chest.'

37. A drawing by G. Mutzel. Australians catching fish at night on the Murray River. This scene is similar to one, 'Night Fishing on the lakes in Gippsland' that was in the book published by Haydon (1846). 'The fisherman puts wet clay on the canoe, lights a small fire on it, and with a torch in one hand and the spear in the other standing in the canoe floating downstream, he waits for the large fish weighing approx. 80 pounds that the Europeans call carp.'

38. Composite by William v. Blandowski, based on a sketch by Blandowski. Aboriginal People at the coast fishing while the tide is out. 'They wait for hours without turning a hair, holding a spear ready to attack their victims. Area around St Kilda near Melbourne.'

40. Composition drawn by G Mutzel, based on sketches by Kreft and Blandowski, and written accounts. Fishing. ''In April the Murray River bursts its banks as the snow in the high alpine mountains melts. This is when the good season for the Aboriginal People starts. The small side arms of the river are closed off with sticks, leaving just a small hole in which to place the net. This net cannot be seen at night. Towards morning it is usually filled with fish. When they have a big catch a mature woman eagerly swings a piece of wood on a string above her head which makes a buzzing sound still audible at great distance. The Aboriginal People believe that with the help of the sound they can hinder the devil from taking their fish; more likely is it that it is an invitation for distant friends to come and eat fish. In the background one can see the camp, the 300 feet high, white jagged chalk banks indicate the lower reaches of the Murray River. The vegetation consists of Eucalyptus populifolia, which at this time, produces the edible, Psylla which provides the Aboriginal People with adequate sugar. It tastes similar to manna.'

41. Domestic occupation of the summer season on the lower Murray River. Composition by G. Mutzel, based on sketches and written accounts of Kreft and/or Blandowski. The scene is of men and women chewing bulrush roots for fibre to make nets. A woman is making twine by rubbing fibre on her thigh. There are also men making and using the long nets. There are men bringing fish to the camp, silver perch and eel-tailed catfish. Boys are seen playing a ball game, marn grook.

'The Aboriginal People living at the confluence of the Murray and Darling Rivers live mostly on fishing and bird catching, using almost unbelievingly large nets. - In the foreground on the right is a group of men knitting nets: behind them is a family returning home laden with fish. On the left a family is eating a root dish called "Vangall" (Typha), next to them is a woman making string for nets out of the fibres of the root. - A group of children is playing with a ball; the ball is made out of Typha roots; it is not thrown or hit with a bat but is kicked up in the air with the foot. Aim of the game: never let the ball touch the ground. In the background a fishing net is being laid out to dry.'

A number of the illustrations depict the hunting of various animals, different hunting techniques being employed for each.

51. Emu Hunt, Composition by Mutzel, based on sketches by Kreft and/or Blandowski. It depicts brush or nets being used to drive the emus towards the hunters.

'The emu, the Australian ostrich, is watched by the Aboriginal People at places were it looks for water, and they observe where it came from and where it goes. They then enclose this spot with large, strong nets or surround the favourite spots of this animal with brushwood fences. The hunters wait singly or in groups in a hideout for two to three days, until the emu comes looking for water, then they jump out with their dogs and kill the animal one way or another.'

In other places they used different methods for hunting emus, better suited to the different situation.

52. Composition by Mutzel, based on sketches by Kreft and/or Blandowski.

'In the clay area where Eucalyptus marginata grows in quantity, the Aboriginal People have developed a clever method for catching emus. They clasp branches in front of them and sneak up on the birds until close enough to spear them.'

Sources & Further reading

  1. Allen, H. ed., 2010, Australia: William Blandowski's Illustrated Encyclopedia of Aboriginal Australia, Aboriginal Studies Press.


Author: M. H. Monroe
Last updated: 30/09/2011

Journey Back Through Time
Experience Australia
Aboriginal Australia
National Parks
Photo Galleries
Site Map
                                                                                           Author: M.H.Monroe  Email:     Sources & Further reading