Literary Imaginings of the Bunya

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McKay, Belinda
Buckridge, Pat
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Anna Haebich


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The bunya tree played an important role in Aboriginal culture, with large gatherings accompanying the triennial harvesting of its nut. European imaginings of the bunya were strongly influenced by the conviction that cannibalism was widely practised at the bunya feasts as no animals could be killed at this time, and that this also led to frontier massacres: in the Moreton Bay region, the bunya thus acted as a lightning rod for colonial anxiety. A range of colonial associations and meanings for the bunya - gloomy, primitive, Gothic, sublime - which could conveniently be termed 'Romantic' developed from its link with the terror, guilt and fear experience on the frontier, especially through the novels of Rosa Praed. Developing concurrently with that tradition is another, which might be thought of as a 'Classical' tradition, in which the bunya is invested with a more rational, civilised and (in the eighteenth century sense) 'benevolent' set of values. Other writers use inherited meanings of the bunya as a symbol of continuity and conjunction between European and Aborigines in Queensland, providing a way of expressing optimism and benevolence in relation to the 'vanishing race'. The dual tradition of the bunya in Queensland literature - its Romantic and Classical representations - highlights the complexity of Australian cultural history, exemplifying especially the disruption of 'metropolitan' cultural chronologies which can be particularly characteristic of a colonial culture. Equally, the duality may raise a doubt about the utility of such well-worn conceptual antinomies as Romantic and Classical; but there do seem to be some real and interesting differences between the two representations, such that the bunya evoked on the one hand the anxious frisson of terror in face of the savage and the primitive, while on the other hand it stood for the possibility of rational and moral solutions to the legacy of frontier violence, and of a future harmonious convergence between black and white in a process of widening civility. In both ways, the bunya performed a surprisingly important historical role in structuring, through literature, white people's perceptions of their relationship to Aboriginal culture and history in Queensland.

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Queensland Review

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© 2002 University of Queensland Press. The attached file is reproduced here in accordance with the copyright policy of the publisher. Please refer to the journal's website for access to the definitive, published version.

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