Familiarising the Strange


Historian Robert Kenny wrote his multiple prize-winning book The Lamb Enters the Dreaming: Nathanael Pepper and the Ruptured World while living on a ridge overlooking the Campaspe Valley, in west-central Victoria. From this vantage point, in the winter of 1836, an observer would have witnessed the slow procession of a caravan of surveyors or "explorers" — white men dressed in red shirts, Aboriginal guides and interpreters, horses and bullocks.

About half way through his complex, beautiful book Kenny imagines these red shirts before him, briefly, as portents of the invasion to come: a string of red warning lights; a line of blood. In real life, in the present, Kenny sees a cow and a kangaroo. They are familiar forms, but he pauses — and suddenly the familiar is rendered strange.

Kenny then asks his reader to imagine. Imagine the impact of this sight of lumbering, hoofed beasts — in some cases bearing humans on their backs, or pulling carts — upon people not only used to very different, and far smaller, animals, but whose world-view integrated animals as relations. What were these monstrous beings, and what could their appearance possibly mean?

There are many examples of early contact between Aboriginal groups and Europeans in which white humans were regarded as strange but explicable. That is, they were placed in the current order, perhaps as visiting spirits of the deceased. Kenny cites a well-known Victorian example: the convict William Buckley, whose experience Craig Robertson fictionalised in his 1980 novel Buckley’s Hope.

Buckley escaped in 1803 from a settlement on the present-day Mornington Peninsula, which was abandoned soon after. Wathaurong people expressed grief and joy when they came across Buckley, welcoming him as a recently departed countryman and fully absorbing him into their kinship system and everyday lives. Indigenous writer Tony Birch interprets Buckley as the first asylum seeker; his work pointedly contrasts Wathaurong responses to, and expectations of, strangers with those of the contemporary Australian state.

Coming to terms with European animals involved a different process altogether, the profound complexities of which Kenny goes on to explore. This is typical of the many arresting, exciting and thought-provoking re-readings of the colonial encounter offered up by Kenny.

Kenny employs a kind of inspired empiricism. The Lamb Enters the Dreaming is a scholarly work, and Kenny has done extensive time in the global archive of missionary and colonial ventures, drawing together written sources from Germany, London and the local colonial press. He joins public, organisational and official accounts with the intimate record — letters, jottings, notes, diaries — to great effect. But the historical material makes sense, indeed comes to life, only as we join Kenny again and again and imagine.

The Lamb Enters the Dreaming turns on the experience of a Wotjobaluk man, whose baptismal name was Nathanael Pepper. Kenny tracks Pepper’s conversion to Christianity, and his spiritual and earthly journey, which included his determined quest to follow "the Good Shepherd" in the midst of violent upheavals to the Wotjobaluk way of living, believing and being.

"In the garden of Gethsemane", writes Kenny, "Jesus sweated blood in his agony". This was the night before his crucifixion. In 1860, Pepper went down to the Wimmera River and wept with joy. Pepper had been taught about Jesus’s suffering on Sunday. "Monday had been a sleepless night", says Kenny. The excited Moravian missionary Friedrich Spieseke, recorded that Pepper "had thought how our Saviour prayed in the garden till his sweat came out as blood — and that for me".

For Kenny, imagining is the key to understanding the past as real life. Kenny’s own world-view is one in which humans have the capacity to connect with other, different humans — to understand them, be moved and transformed by them. He invites readers to make an empathetic leap; the strange can be rendered familiar, Kenny believes.

Blood held sacral import for Aboriginal societies; it was and is used in ceremonies and rites. Was it the sweated blood that prompted Pepper to exclaim, when he heard the story of the Agony for the first time: "What was that? Tell me again"?

Kenny takes us deeper and deeper into Pepper’s experience. His conversion is taken seriously: it was profoundly, intelligently and authentically experienced, says Kenny. Pepper was not duped, he set out on his own path, and endured loneliness, frustration and pain along the way.

Kenny also takes missionaries seriously, and personalises an important period in history: as the 19th century closed, ideas about race, humanity and hierarchy hardened in the wake of another conversion — to Social Darwinism. Optimism, sustained by faith, gave way to pessimism. Oppressive social policies soon followed.

This book is impressive for many reasons — as a piece of writing; as a quest to probe and better understand this particular story, this little bit of history; for bringing anthropological insights to bear on the archival record; for situating Australian events in an international context; and, as well as all that, for managing to tell the story about telling the story without boring the reader.

But I too had a reason to pause.

Kenny begins in the ruins of the Ebenezer Mission, where the Wotjobaluk gathered from the late 1850s, amid much debate between old and young, men and women, about how best to respond to the crisis they found themselves in. He gets little from the fragments of building remains and the cracked headstones that lie at the old Ebenezer site.

Kenny comments briefly that the church’s roof had just been replaced. The church was built in 1875, some time after Pepper became a convert and then an evangelist. Kenny says that at the time of his visit "the local people were renovating the church".

Local people? Aboriginal people — Wotjobaluk people.

I know just a little bit about all this after having worked as a research assistant for historical archaeologist Jane Lydon who is also writing a book about the Ebenezer experience. I visited the Ebenezer site some years ago with Lydon. The headstones were mostly for Europeans, they bore German names and the dates of tragically short lives. Were they lonely, I wondered, standing there with my notebook in the midst of the wheat paddocks, bringing up and burying their children here, far away from everything familiar? Mixed feelings seem to surround the church and mission site. So much was lost. But many families trace their ancestry, their story, back to this place.

Kenny is wonderfully attuned to silences and gaps, filling some, and leaving some open, reminding us that the past, and perhaps, after all, the Other, lies beyond reach. And Kenny is intent on dealing with real people and deep feelings. His book is a huge achievement, but I am disturbed by his silence about the present, about a community of real Aboriginal people, based today in Horsham and Dimboola, who continue to care about Ebenezer and the old church and to invest it with particular significance in the "postcolonial" present.

Robert Kenny’s The Lamb Enters the Dreaming: Nathanael Pepper and the Ruptured World (2007) is published by Scribe.

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