Jack McLaren – My Crowded Solitude (1926)
Having run away to the tropics to live the life of a Wanderer, Jack McLaren sought adventure wherever it might be found. But, after some time, his wanderlust subsided and he took up an opportunity to establish a coconut plantation in an area of Cape York virtually unknown to all but the indigenous peoples. In a manner very reminiscent of Robinson Crusoe, My Crowded Solitude sees McLaren reflecting on his ‘eight years lonely residence among the most backward race of people in the whole of the tropical South Pacific, which is a place where backward people abound’ (p. 1).
At one point, when his quarterly shipment of provisions had arrived and the Aboriginal tribe he claimed mastery over went walkabout, McLaren was completely without human contact for over three months. He gives colourful descriptions of that time, the friendships he made with the local birds, lizards and spiders, his fear of insanity and his ache for humans.
But most of the book centres on his relationships with the Aboriginal tribe and gives a fascinating journey into the colonial mindset. McLarlen’s aspiration is to both tame the land and tame the people. As rows of palms replace the wild growth, he boasts, ‘From a black man’s jungle I have made a white man’s garden’ (p. 24), disregarding order that exists in both the forest and in Aboriginal society. However, he is aware of the irony that he, who had fled his civilised existence for the wild life, should come to embody civilisation and order, that is, whiteness. It is with some degree of reluctance that he accepts the white man’s burden to take on the role of master.
While he has admiration for the native’s bush skills, he is ultimately dismissive of them. He is continually frustrated by their ‘savagery’: their ineptitude with tools, work ethic, failure to conform to hierarchical social order, and, above all, moral backwardness. He writes,
They didn’t know there were such things as virtues. They didn’t know there were such things as vices. An act was just an act – neither virtuous nor vicious. To them there was no distinction between original sin and original good.
For, as members of perhaps the oldest living race of people in the world, they were ten thousand years beyond the times. They had not reached the stage of ethical and moral distinctions. While the rest of the world strode forward to the age of steel, they had remained far back in the age of stone.
They were the People Who Stood Still. (p. 57)
What McLaren fails to recognise is that the men of the times, those civilisations of steel, were at the moment in the throes of the Great War, in which some seventeen million people were killed. What knowledge of good and evil is this that leads men to put on uniforms, climb into bombers and commit violence on a far greater scale?
McLaren does, however, acknowledge some of the more noxious effects of colonialism. In order to secure their labour, he had given the natives flour and tobacco. As time went by they came to depend on his supplies for their survival. Being in one place, game grew scarce and their hunting skills were diminished, but the freedom to move to new locations had been lost. McLaren writes,
All of which caused me to speculate whether, in being responsible for the implanting of those desires and needs, I was not guilty of a social wrong. There may have been something altruistic in raising a people a little from the depths of a great primitiveness. There was definitely something immoral in destroying their peace of mind. (pp. 115-6)
One wonders how much stronger these feelings would have been had McLaren brought alcohol and opium to his crowded solitude. After these reflections, McLaren shows a more passive desire to see the natives adopt white customs. He disregards the efforts of a visiting missionary and feels more disconcerted than pleased when he meets Billy Number Five – an Aboriginal man more thoroughly assimilated into European culture.
The book provides an intriguing reflection on man’s inclination towards travel. It was only for this short time that McLaren was content to be a ‘Settled and Respectable Person’. Likewise, the Aboriginal people had an overwhelming urge to go walkabout. There is something sensible about being fixed to one place, but the soul is restless for new places. When McLaren feels this at the end of eight years, he returns to his old wandering life. In some ways it seems he had been immune to change all that time. In contrast, he left behind a people whose lives were profoundly irreversibly reshaped.
My Crowded Solitude is a great read and, I think, a really important one for all Australians.