A u s t r a l i a n    H u m a n i t i e s
R e v i e w



Paradox on the Queensland Frontier:
Platypus, lungfish and other vagaries
of nineteenth-century science

Part two

Libby Robin

© all rights reserved

To facilitate downloading,
this paper has been divided
into parts one & two

II Scientific and settlement frontiers in tension
There are two points to this story: the first is the contingency of scientific discovery. Calwell was seeking Ceratodus when confronted with the solution for the platypus puzzle. The fact that both questions interested the Cambridge embryological school made an opportunistic leap possible, but the coincidence was not really predictable. Caldwell was almost an accidental scientist, empowered and burdened by a large purse and high expectations. When Caldwell returned to Britain in 1887 with a Sydney-born wife, he maintained his Fellowship at Caius College Cambridge only nominally for a couple of years. He published very little and made his way as a successful Scottish paper-manufacturer in the family firm. It was left to others to undertake the anatomical work on his huge collections.

Richard Semon in 1891, realising that Caldwell had barely begun the task, decided to make his own trip. By contrast, the German analysed all his specimens and published several important scientific papers as well as his popular book.44 But he too had great difficulties finding Ceratodus roe, because the part of the river he had chosen lacked the weed where the spawn is found. Semon's published work focused on the monotremes and marsupials, because he had successfully collected developmental series for these. There is no evidence that he observed the stages of growth in the living lungfish that Caldwell did when he bred and displayed a young lungfish to the Royal Society of New South Wales in December 1884. Neither man wrote about lungfish, the reason for the Burnett River destination.

The second story relates to the emergence of an opportunistic local Aboriginal science industry that underpinned the success of both Caldwell and Semon. Aboriginal collectors assisted many other scientific travellers including George Bennett around Yass and the Norwegian, Carl Lumholtz in Coomooboolaroo further west in Queensland, but on nothing like the scale required by both Caldwell and Semon. The demand for embryological series (collections with representatives of all stages of the growing animal) meant absolute carnage. For example, in a single season Caldwell's team collected 1300-1400 echidnas 'from which a fairly complete series of stages was obtained'.45 Such a vast exercise demanded a whole economy. Caldwell's second season required one hundred and fifty Aborigines working flat out for two months: 'A skilful black, when he was hungry, generally brought in one female Echidna together with several males, every day… The blacks were paid half-a-crown for every female, but the price of flour, tea and sugar, which I sold to them, rose with the supply of Echidna. The half-crowns were, therefore, always just enough to buy food to keep the lazy blacks hungry'.46

Semon tried to set up a base close to Gayndah, like Caldwell, but moved further upstream to a place outside Mundubbera, to get away from the pressures of the town. By contrast to Caldwell, Semon determined to pay his Aboriginal collectors fairly in cash at the end of each week:

All this brought about a very lively competition during the first week. I received material in such abundance that I had difficulty in finishing its preparation during the day, in dissecting the animals brought to me, conserving their organs, eggs and young, and preparing them for a more thorough examination which was to take place in Europe…On settling my accounts on Saturday the 12th September, I found that every black had to receive a considerable sum… and I began to consider whether my means would suffice if things went on in this style.47
They didn't. 'Never again in the whole of my campaign did I attain the good results of the first week'.48 Semon had reckoned without the opportunism of the frontier settlers. Mrs Corry, in that same week, set up an illegal operation to sell the cashed-up Aboriginal collectors booze. Despite the fact that she told Semon she was 'very sorry and promised never to do it again', he felt 'ethically obliged' to prohibit intemperance 'at the cost of my own success, for I should certainly have been more prosperous had I kept to my first system of payment'.49

Semon's 'fear of getting involved in serious difficulties' and unwillingness to risk the 'peaceable' temperament of his Aboriginal team members, drove his decision to settle accounts at the end of the season. This was hardly humane concern for Aboriginal people, but rather a wish to protect the good name of science, to keep science on the civil side of the frontier. There is no doubt that both Caldwell and Semon were well aware that the quality of their science depended on the quality of their relations with the local Aboriginal communities. George Bennett, too, whose relations with his collectors in New South Wales were generally cordial by his own account, was conscious that 'good Aborigines' corresponded with good science. Bennett wrote in frustration to Richard Owen about the success of Caldwell, the young professional, in solving in a few months the mystery to which he had devoted half his life. 'I had only two lazy aborigines', Bennett complained 'and Caldwell succeeds …encamped on the banks of the river …with the aid of a large number of aborigines. It is certainly the only way to insure success'.50 Bennett himself was not to blame for coming up with the 'wrong answer', only his 'lazy' Aboriginals.

There is almost an intriguing suggestion here that where the scientific and settler frontiers coincide, the quality of the European observer is second in importance to the quality of Aboriginal assistance. This contradicts Kathleen Dugan's contention that 'the system of colonial science left scientists unable to collect biological information from the people best qualified to provide it'.51 The system veritably depended upon such people. The problem was the credibility of the brokers of the information, the settler naturalists. European science before Caldwell disbelieved Aboriginal and settler Australian voices alike. Settler Australian naturalists were deeply discomfited to find that their observations were worth no more than an Aboriginal's. The fact that Caldwell fresh from Cambridge with his well-paid Aboriginal team established the 'right answer' without assistance from colonial scientists added to settler anxiety. This anxiety is manifest in the strategy of blaming Aboriginal assistants for wrong answers. Settler naturalists wanted to be with civilisation, on the side of empire and new knowledge, not with the colony, in error, and degenerating.

The telegram that closed a frontier
Not all settler scientists shared Bennett's angst. Liversidge, the Chemistry professor who had aligned himself with the 'right answer' by mediating the famous telegram's successful transmission to Canada, immediately seized on its value in attracting the attention of British science to Australia. In a letter published in the Sydney papers on 16 September 1884, and reproduced soon after in England and other colonial papers Liversidge wrote:
During the past fortnight we have received several telegrams from London, respecting the late meeting of the British Association, at Montreal, and in some of them references are made to suggestions that a future meeting be held in Australia.
As far as one can judge, the idea seems to have been thrown out when Professor Moselle, FRS, announced Mr Caldwell's discovery of the oviparous nature of the platypus and Australian porcupine. The news seems to have created or rather reawakened interest in the peculiarities of Australian Natural History, and on the spur of the moment some of the more enthusiastic members appear to have proposed that a subsequent meeting of the British Association should be held in Australia.

The text of this letter was also reproduced in the
Proceedings of the first meeting of the Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), held in Sydney in 1888. It was the first salvo in Liversidge's energetic campaign to bring the British Association to Australia, a campaign that was finally successful some thirty years later.52 Perhaps the telegram's most immediate contribution was to draw evolutionist Walter Baldwin Spencer to Australia. Spencer, whilst in Britain in 1884, wrote the note in Nature about the significance of Caldwell's work. Three years later he took up the Chair in Biology at the University of Melbourne.53 Liversidge and Spencer both went on to be very significant in scientific affairs in Australia, especially the AAAS. But they also moved Australian science to focus on other things. The platypus frontier had closed.

Libby Robin is a Research Fellow in the Centre for Resource and Environmental Studies at the Australian National University, Canberra. She is author ofDefending the Little Desert: The Rise of Ecological Consciousness in Australia(Melbourne University Press, 1998) and co-editor ofEcology and Empire: Environmental History of Settler Societies (Keele University Press, 1997). She is currently completing a history of ornithology in Australia, entitledThe Flight of the Emu (forthcoming 2001). Libby's PhD is in History and Philosophy of Science, and she has worked as a Curator in the National Museum of Australia as well as in various universities. The National Museum of Australia, due to open in Canberra in March 2001, will include material about platypuses and their social history.

View images relating to this essay.

Footnotes for Part Two
44 Semon's studies are published in F. Romer (ed.) Monotremate und Marsupialia, Jena: Gustav Fischer 1894.The National Library of Australia copy is the one from the library of the SS Discovery of the Antarctic Expedition of 1901-4. The adventures of Semon thus went far south with other adventurers.
45 Caldwell, 'Embryology of Monotremata and Marsupialia', p. 466
46 Ibid,p. 466
47 Semon, In the Australian Bush, pp. 46-7
48 Ibid.p. 56
49 Loc cit.
50 Bennett to Owen 1888, quoted in Gruber, 'Does the Platypus lay Eggs?' p. 51.
51 Dugan, 'The Zoological Exploration of the Australian Region', p. 92.
52 Appendix to President's Address, Proceedings AAAS, Sydney, 1888, p. 15. The BAAS came to Australia finally in 1914.
53'Walter Baldwin Spencer, 'The eggs of monotremes'. Nature, 31, 1884, pp 132-5; See also Mulvaney and Calaby, 'So Much that is New', esp. pp.143-5.

Return to part one of this essay.

Also in Australian Humanities Reviewsee:


Please feel free to contribute to this discourse.



 e m u s e  c u r r e n t  g o o d  o i l    a r c h i v e


© Australian Humanities Review all rights reserved.

http://www.australianhumanitiesreview.org/copyright.html for copyright notice.