In July 1845, the Geelong Advertiser announced the ‘WONDERFUL DISCOVERY OF A NEW ANIMAL’. Colonists had been hearing about bunyips from the Aborigines for nearly 30 years – the first account of a water monster seems to date from 1819, when the explorer Hamilton Hume found some bones at Lake Bathurst, but the Geelong discovery was the first to appear in print:
‘On the bone being shown to an intelligent black, he at once recognised it as belonging to the “Bunyip,” which he declared he had seen. On being requested to make a drawing of it, he did so without hesitation. … One declared that he knew where the whole of the bones of one animal were to be found; another stated that his mother was killed by one of them, at the Barwon Lakes, within a few miles of Geelong, and that another woman was killed on the very spot where the punt crosses the Barwon, at South Geelong. The most direct evidence of all was that of Mumbowran, who showed several deep wounds on his breast made by the claws of the animal…
They say that the reason why no white man has ever yet seen it, is because it is amphibious, and does not come on land except on extremely hot days when it basks on the bank; but on the slightest noise or whisper they roll gently over into the water, scarcely creating a ripple…
The Bunyip, then, is represented as uniting the characteristics of a bird and an alligator. It has a head resembling an emu, with a long bill, at the extremity of which is a transverse projection on each side, with serrated edges, like the bone of a stingray. Its body and legs partake of the nature of the alligator. The hind legs are remarkably thick and strong, and the fore legs are much longer, but still of great strength. The extremities are furnished with long claws, but the blacks say its usual method of killing its prey is by hugging it to death. When in the water it swims like a frog, and when on shore it walks on its hind legs with its head erect, in which position it measures twelve or thirteen feet in height…’
News spread quickly, with papers in Sydney, Melbourne and Hobart all copying the story. A year later, in 1846, the Australian Museum in Sydney displayed a skull found on the Murrumbidgee. Eventually scientists decided that it was part of a deformed foal foetus, but for days people queued to see the ‘bunyip’ skull.
'So-called bunyip skull', The Tasmanian Journal of Natural Science, January 1847
In Europe during the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the fossilised bones of unknown animals often turned up when canals were being dug, and later during railway construction. The puzzle was how to explain them. Clearly animals no longer existed. Whether they had evolved into new species, or been drowned in the Flood, was a matter of opinion, but most 19th century thinkers were less preoccupied with Biblical literalism than creationists are today.
There was a general feeling that anything was possible zoologically in Australia. Joseph Banks marvelled at kangaroos, and the platypus caused a sensation when stuffed ones arrived in England. In 1836, Charles Darwin visited Australia on the Beagle, and heard about a collection of fossils that had been discovered at the Wellington Caves by the explorer Sir Thomas Mitchell in 1831. Mitchell took the bones back to London, where Richard Owen examined them at the Natural History Museum. Using comparative anatomy, he described them as giant versions of the kangaroo (Thylacoleo) and wombat (Diprotodon). Not surprisingly, Darwin was interested in the gradual evolution of the megafauna into their modern counterparts.
But where did the bunyip fit in? Was it, too, an example of the megafauna of earlier times, or something else entirely? There was no obvious reason to dismiss the bunyip as fantasy, when much of the country still remained unknown, and an ‘intelligent black’ had described them in such detail.
New reports of bunyips kept coming in. In January 1847, the Sydney Morning Herald reported that Aborigines reported ‘THE BUNYIP, or KINE PRATIE’ on the Hunter and the Murrumbidgee, still with a head like an emu, but now with a ‘long and flowing mane – feeding on crayfish… and occasionally on a stray blackfellow’, and another bunyip was seen in the Logan River near Brisbane in 1850.
Meanwhile, bunyips entered popular culture. ‘Bunyip’ was the name of a racehorse, then a newspaper, and eventually a town in Victoria. No real bunyips turned up, alas, but by the early 1850s, the word was applied generally to describe something monstrous.
This was a time of rapid change. The gold rushes brought in new wealth and new immigrants. At the same time, the British government decided it was time for the colonies to govern themselves. New South Wales, Victoria, Tasmania and South Australia already had Legislative Councils with some elected members. Now they were to draw up constitutions, which would be ratified by the Parliament in Westminster.
The NSW Legislative Council was dominated by (relatively) old money, generally the sons of early settlers who had done well from early land grants. They drafted a constitution modelled on the Westminster Parliament, with an upper house, like the House of Lords, based on a hereditary peerage. And guess who these new colonial lords would be?
The public and press erupted. On the gold fields, the Bathurst Free Press and Mining Journal described the rule of ‘my Lord Buckjumper or the Marquis of Bunyip’ and the radical journalist Dan Deniehy gave a speech deriding the idea of a ‘bunyip aristocracy’ as something absurd and monstrous, and ridiculing the pretensions of the men who put up the idea. James Macarthur, he suggested, would become the Earl of Camden, with a coat of arms emblazoned with a rum keg, while William Wentworth, like William the Conqueror, was really William the Bastard.
The idea of a hereditary peerage died of mockery, but the term stuck. It was one of PM Paul Keating’s (many) terms of abuse, and in Keating: the Musical, he describes the opposition leader John Hewson as ‘Mr Mediocrity for the bunyip aristocracy’.
Bunyip sightings continued into the 20th century. There have been various theories – a seal or a prehistoric turtle – or, perhaps, an Aboriginal joke on the settlers. The Aboriginal artist Lin Onus painted bunyips, and said:
‘It is not possible to grow up in any Koori community without knowing about Bunyips. I tend not to see them as the evil menacing creature that some non-Aboriginal literature suggests, but rather as slightly timid—preferring to keep out of humans’ way. Whilst generally rather shy, they are not averse to a good feed of human once in a while (I understand the ears are a particular delicacy) if someone is so foolish as to go swimming in dark or murky water or in the turbulent river holes where you may be dragged under and trapped.’ (5 March 1987)
Definitely an Aboriginal joke, I think, as well as a useful way of keeping children from playing in dangerous waterholes. Perhaps we should bring them back.
Bunyips Exhibition, National Library of Australia