I picked up this book by Rebe Tayor in the library because I was intrigued by its subtitle:  “A search for Human Antiquity”.  On reading I discovered it was the story of a Quaker, Ernest Westlake.

Ernest was a passionate, even obsessive, collector of stones which he believed had been used as tools by ancient peoples.  He collected stones in France and Spain, and was particularly interested in the people who preceded the Palaeolithic or Old Stone Age.  The tools of the Palaeolithic age have obviously been made, but there are older stones which appear to have been used.  Did they come about by mere chance, or were they modified by people?

Hearing that the Tasmanian Aborigines were the most primitive people of recent times (in 1908, when Westlake decided to travel to Tasmania, they were regarded as extinct), Westlake decided to go and collect tools from that country for comparison.  He collected tons of stones, which he brought back to England.  He intended to compare them with the tons of stones he had collected from Europe, and to write up his findings.  He never did this, the First World War intervening.  Various other academics looked at his stones after his death, but they do not seem to have come to any important conclusions.  Some archaeologists thought it was useless to seek for information about ancient Europeans by studying a completely different culture.  Others complained that he did not collect the best tools, but collected too randomly.

If his stone collecting was not particularly useful, why is Westlake worth writing about?  It is because he also collected stories.  He began by interviewing Europeans who had seen Aboriginal people making tools, incidentally collecting information about the frontier wars.  Then he heard about the descendants of Fanny Smith, probably the last surviving full-blood Tasmanian Aboriginal woman.  (She claimed to be of full Aboriginal descent, but many Europeans doubted this.  The reason seems to be that they thought all Aboriginal women were ugly, and Fanny Smith was quite a handsome woman!)  Later he went to Cape Barren Island to interview the descendants of Aboriginal women and sealers.  He went to ask about the use of stone tools, but whatever bits of information he received he wrote down.  His notes are some of the earliest records of how the Tasmanians lived.

It is clear that the survivors were unwilling to share cultural information with an outsider.  However, as Westlake was not a threatening person, and as he wanted nothing from them apart from information about stone tools, they told him somewhat more than they were willing to tell others.  It was clear that the Aboriginal mothers had passed on language and culture, and that the children had been taken “on country”.  They recalled making fire and catching fish – activities which some claimed the Tasmanian Aborigines were not capable of.  They talked about the native plants which they ate, of making rope and baskets.  They spoke of the importance of the stars, and how they were used to tell the change of seasons.  They also spoke of the use of ochre.

The author seems to have regarded Westlake as a lapsed Quaker, as he had been influenced by the evangelical revival, believed in evolution, had a passing interest in spiritualism, and looked for God in nature.  But to me he is quintessentially a modern Quaker!  He lived adventurously and simply – partly because he was not very good with money!  He was a life-long pacifist.  He sent his children to a Quaker school, although he worried about them having to sit for long periods in silence.  His hatred of injustice is seen in this letter to his children, written from Melbourne:

As I came out … from the Victoria Coffee Palace … the Town Hall was full of people singing ‘tell me the old old story of Jesus and his love’; – but … the words coming from such a quarter jarred on me.  The only text I cared to hear expounded was ‘ Hast thou killed and hast also taken possession!’  So I withdrew noticing by the way that the foundation stone of the Hall had been ‘laid by the Mayor William Cain Esq’ (stones sometimes speak the truth).

And after talking to the family of Fanny Smith, Westlake decided that the Tasmanian Aborigines were Quakers!

”I seem to have discovered what was missed by those excellent Friends, Backhouse and Walker in their reports on the Tas Blacks, ie that the Blacks were themselves Quakers, in that they sought for the guidance of the Spirit, and lived more or less in the light of it.  Certain it is that Mrs Smith, who had come under Christian influence, was a Quakeress of excellent quality.”

On returning to England at the outbreak of World War 1, Westlake and his son became unhappy with the scouting movement which they found very militaristic, and decided to form a pacifist substitute.  This was known by the wonderful name of The Order of Woodcraft Chivalry.  It was open to boys and girls as well as adults.  Westlake was supported by the Quakers, though the Pagan aspects of the Order alarmed some of them!  For example, at the first children’s camp of the Order they celebrated the Feast of Lammas, the pagan festival of the harvest.  “Dressed in cloaks the colours of the seasons, seventy members lit their ceremonial fire.  Westlake led the opening invocation, calling for “beauty of the inward soul”.  He had decided upon a new name for himself, “Jack-in-the-Green, after the traditional English May Day figure who represented new life and spring.”  After Westlake gave up leadership of the Order it was taken over by Henry Byngham, described as “an enthusiastic naturist”.  This led to the removal of many children from the organisation!

Apart from telling the story of Westlake, the book touches on other aspects of the sad history of Tasmania’s original people, and pays credit to their survivors.

I had never heard of this quirky Quaker, and think that others might enjoy making his acquaintance.

Rae Litting, New South Wales Regional Meeting

Into the Heart of Tasmania, by Rebe Taylor, Published by Melbourne University Press, 2017.  204 pp, ISBN 9780522867961

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