Parodic Precision: The Wanderings of John Lawson

In November 1871, just as Captain John Moresby was leaving Sydney for the southeast coast of New Guinea on the surveying expedition of HMS Basilisk, another captain, John Lawson, had “formed the resolution of exploring the interior of New Guinea, a country that had a great charm for me …” (Lawson 1875a, 1). On 24 June 1872, he landed near the village of Houtree, on the south coast of New Guinea, where he enlisted the services of two Papuans to augment his motley crew of two Australian aborigines and a Lascar (the generic colonial term for ship’s crew in the Indian Ocean).[27] With a flourish of precision, the party departed:

Having completed my arrangements, I started for the interior at four o’clock on the morning of the 10th of July, taking a north-west direction. The village of Houtree, my starting point, is situated on the Torres Strait, and my observations place it in longitude 143°17’8” E., and latitude 9°8’18”S (1875a, 12).

Lawson’s adventures in the interior of New Guinea during the following eight months demonstrated all of the qualities required of an explorer by Huxley, “coolness, judgment, [and] perseverance” amongst them. His achievements, as documented in his 1875 account, Wanderings in the Interior of New Guinea, were unparallelled.

Lawson had walked across the island at its widest point, from Houtree to within twenty or thirty miles of the north coast, before turning back and retracing his steps – a route traced diligently, if somewhat vaguely, in an elegant fold-out “sketch map” (a small portion of which is shown in figure 8.2). In the course of this expedition, during which three of his five assistants met hideous deaths, Lawson had ascended the world’s highest mountain, Mt Hercules, stopping just short of the snow-covered summit in order to return to his base camp within the same day. Armed with a rifle and a modicum of navigational equipment, he traversed and mapped a series of vast savannah plains teeming with wildlife, the mighty Lake Alexandrina and the wide and sluggish Gladstone and Royal rivers. Contacts with Papuan inhabitants of the interior were sporadic but increasingly violent, and Lawson and his team were forced to subsist on the abundant game: catching more than a hundred fish in just two hours, bringing down nineteen ducks with two shots and, once his rifle was lost, knocking down three dozen quail with a stick.

While he was disarmingly modest about his physical prowess, Lawson evidently derived great pride from his naturalist discoveries. New species abounded, including a giant striped tiger, the Moolah, one of which he was able to kill and skin, various new birds of paradise and ducks, a bison-like ox, human-like apes, spiders, beetles, fish and the tallest tree in the world. Where the species were already known, he found them in profusion: herds of thousands of deer and buffalo, three hundred and fourteen crocodiles spotted in an hour, and a colony of birds in twenty thousand nests. If his account of the ascent of Mt Hercules appeared abbreviated and casual, Lawson was positively prolix on the finer detail of his specimens, devoting five pages to the description of a new trapdoor spider. “I have no wish to weary the peruser of this little book with monotonous descriptions,” he declared, before launching into the particulars of three more unknown butterflies (Lawson 1875a, 58–9). So much of what surrounded him was new to science that Lawson ultimately tired of the seemingly endless tasks of description and nomenclature; encountering “a few ostriches or emus,” he added that “the reader is left at liberty to call them which he pleases” (240).

Figure 8.1 Map of Papua or New Guinea

Figure 8.1 Map of Papua or New Guinea

Source: Trégance, Louis. 1892 [1876] Adventures in New Guinea: The Narrative of Louis Trégance, a French Sailor, Nine Years in Captivity among the Orangwŏks, a Tribe in the Interior of New Guinea, ed. Rev. Henry Crocker. Facing p.128

Figure 8.2 Detail from “Sketch Map of a Journey across the Island of Papua by J.A. Lawson”

Figure 8.2 Detail from “Sketch Map of a Journey across the Island of Papua by J.A. Lawson”

Source: John A. Lawson. 1875a Wanderings in the Interior of New Guinea. London: Chapman & Hall.

Lawson’s ethnography of the Papuans is a study in the terms of amateur observation of the period. Physically, his Papuans bore little resemblance to the Papuans of Earl or Wallace, being “repulsive-looking men, having coarse and ugly features, exceedingly short, squat bodies, black matted and dirty hair, and a little monkeyish manner” (Lawson 1875a, 5). With “skin of a tanned, yellowish hue” (11), Lawson’s Papuans had never seen a “Blackman” before (209). Curious “to learn something about Papuan law,” Lawson offered ethnographic sketches of Houtree Village, describing Papuan morality and customs (“the men showing great regard for their wives and children, and treating the aged with reverence and respect”) on the basis of interviews with Chief Kilee.[28] As prescribed by ethnographic convention, Houtree lives were traced from birth through to death, via marriage (“they feast and get fuddled for a week or ten days”) (276); a long excursion on Papuan polygamy leads to pointed remarks about the nefarious influence of contact with the Dutch (69–70).[29] Through regular trade with Malay and Chinese vessels, the Papuans at Houtree and further inland had become entirely familiar with long Dutch smoking-pipes and armed themselves with brass six-pounder cannon, horse pistols, pikes and curved swords. The principal foodstuffs and commercial products all appear to have been Asian or American in derivation, including yam, maize, rice, spice trees, mango, tamarind, lime, peach, teak, roasted monkey and herds of cattle bearing “a great resemblance to the yak.” The debt of Lawson’s Papuans to Asia was most evident in their speech:

But one language appears to be spoken on the island, and of that, many of the words are, without doubt, derived from the Malay, Hindoostanee, Chinese, and other tongues. It is easily learned, or, at least I found no difficulty in mastering it … (1875a, 277–8).

Lawson’s tale was published by Chapman & Hall of London, and sales of the book were obviously sufficiently strong to enable Lawson to publish two further volumes of his travels (neither related to New Guinea) (Bradley 1876; Lawson 1880). Good sales are not always reflected in the reviews, however, and the book met with uproar in the press, attracting unfavourable comment in the Times and the Geographical Magazine, and in magazines such as the Athenæum, many of which cast doubt on its veracity. Alfred Russel Wallace himself undertook the review for Nature, in order to counter some more favourable responses which had appeared to accept some of Lawson’s claims, as “a duty to inform our readers that it is wholly fictitious. It is not even a clever fiction” (1875, 83). Most reviewers appear to have been divided between outrage and mild amusement:

None of these animals have been met with hitherto in New Guinea by other travellers, who were content with tree-kangaroos and wild pigs, neither of which Captain Lawson has been fortunate enough to observe there (Geographical Magazine 1875).

In a letter to the Athenæum, the Alpine Club waxed sceptical about the precise details of Lawson’s ascent of Mt Hercules, calculating his rate of ascent as three or four times faster than the best climbers of Mont Blanc (Barlow 1875). The more pedantic reviewers observed unaccountable fluctuations in the strength of Lawson’s arsenal and supply of fortifying spirits, and queried his credentials as a captain.[30] Yet the literary critic, Henry James, writing in the Nation, captured well the ambivalence experienced by many reviewers for whom there remained some slight chance that this was at least a partially true account of travel:

There was a certain vagueness about some of the author’s statements, and many of his stories bordered closely upon the marvellous; but his manner of narration seemed most plausible, he gave, first and last, a good deal of detail, his work was published by a most respectable house (Messrs. Chapman & Hall), and, above all, the things he had seen and done were so curious that, if they were not true, the more was the pity (James 1984 [1875], 1136).

Unexpectedly, Lawson took his critics head on, engaging in a lengthy correspondence with the Athenæum after its publication of a derisory review which demonstrated that the coordinates, carefully recorded by Lawson for the village of Houtree, actually placed it well out to sea: “[T]he gentleman who wrote this article knows nothing whatever about New Guinea, except such information as he has gleaned from text-books and gazetteers of doubtful accuracy” (Lawson 1875b, 585), to which the Athenæum retorted that “our knowledge of New Guinea has … been derived … from a study of the original writings of travellers who have actually visited the island” (Athenæum 1875, 586). Lawson countered with the assertion that Captain Moresby, as the only other possible source of recent first-hand information on New Guinea, was most likely the origin of the Athenæum’s intelligence; and, as a parting shot added: “[L]et a traveller explore and describe what he will, there are always wiseacres at home who know more than he does” (Lawson 1875b, 622).

There matters might have rested but for the intervention of Captain Moresby himself, freshly returned from his surveying expeditions on HMS Basilisk along the southeast coast of New Guinea and busily preparing his own account of adventures for publication. In a lengthy letter to the Athenæum (subsequently reprinted as an appendix to his own sober narrative of exploration, Discoveries and Surveys in New Guinea and the D’Entrecasteaux Islands, 1876) Moresby laboured, point by point and page by page, through the least plausible of Lawson’s claims, while grounding his own observations upon the “truth” of his presence in New Guinea during exactly the period that Lawson claimed to have been there: “Proas do not exist in Torres Strait … No tame fowl were seen by us in New Guinea … Rice is unknown amongst the Papuans, and no trace of monkeys was ever seen by us,” etc. (Moresby 1875).

Moresby and the other indignant letter writers to the Athenæum had fallen, like a herd of his mythical Papuan bison, into Lawson’s trap, and he pilloried his critics mercilessly:

My ascent of Mount Hercules has, also, provoked something more than mere astonishment in the minds of the delicate city gentlemen and podgy professors who are in the habit of ascending Mont Blanc, with the aid of sherry and sandwiches, and half-a-dozen greasy, garlic-fed guides, and then devoting a quarto volume to an account of their exploits (Lawson 1875b, 585).

Lawson openly mocked Moresby’s solemnly stated objections to his claims, objections that were frequently buttressed by Moresby insisting that he “never saw” the animal species or ethnographic details contained in Lawson’s account:

A due sense of modesty should have kept [Captain Moresby] silent, especially as he is not a qualified judge as to what is or what is not to be found in the interior of New Guinea … “We never saw,” “we never saw”; when Capt. Moresby does see, he will be deeply mortified to think he is numbered amongst those who have tried to throw discredit upon my narrative (1875b, 787).

In a turn of satirical bravura, Lawson then queried whether Moresby was even the author of his own letter: “Surely the letter in the Athenæum bearing Capt. Moresby’s name cannot be a forgery; if so, I am wasting my powder” (787).

At the height of this storm of controversy, Captain Lawson achieved perhaps his finest moment, when he had a paper read for him before a meeting of the Anthropological Society on 22 June 1875, with Colonel A. Lane Fox, the President, in the chair. Sadly, his paper, “The Papuans of New Guinea,” was not reproduced in the society’s journal. Perhaps more tellingly, no vote of thanks was offered to its author (Anthropological Society 1876, 322; Athenæum 1875, 858). Challenged by the editor of the Athenæum to appear with the skin of his Moolah tiger, Captain Lawson finally fell silent.

Lawson’s principal rhetorical strategy harnessed the obsessive descriptive detail commonly associated with naturalist explorers but couched it in the modest, bluff language of plain-speaking gentleman amateurism. Lengthy parodies of naturalist narratives are present throughout Lawson’s account, but parodic precision need not always entail verbose description. Just as effective are the passages of ennui – of short, terse entries for those days unmarked by events of any note: “Dec 4. Passing over exactly the same kind of country as yesterday. Still less forest” (Lawson 1875a, 249).[31] Restraint itself becomes a marker of truth.

Similarly, Lawson’s map (figure 8.2) is both minutely detailed and restrained in its observance of the voyager’s line of sight. Rivers are crossed, though their sources and subsequent outflows are not known, and villages glimpsed in the distance, though they remain unvisited and unnamed. The extent of the map is limited to the scope of his route – no claims are made for New Guinea beyond the reach of Lawson’s eye and his surveying equipment (in contrast with Trégance’s all-seeing map). A similar contrast is evident in the illustrations for the two volumes. Trégance is shown being wrecked at sea, captured by the Orangwŏks, and tried before a toga-clad jury of Orangwŏk chiefs. Lawson restricts the illustration of his text to just the map and a delicate watercolour sketch of Mt Hercules, reproduced as the frontispiece to his book (figure 8.3) – the immediacy of the sketch and the presumed agency of the author lending further weight to the claim of his presence in the interior.

Figure 8.3 “Mount Hercules”

Figure 8.3 “Mount Hercules”

Source: John A. Lawson. 1875a Wanderings in the Interior of New Guinea. London: Chapman & Hall, frontispiece.

Finally, like his map, Lawson’s achievements, while admirable in their ambition, proved to be modest (and thus equally admirable) in their execution: Mt Hercules remained unclimbed and New Guinea uncrossed.

The question of Captain Lawson’s identity has engaged bibliophiles, librarians and scholars ever since (see MacFarlane 1951; Romilly 1893, 189–90; Souter 1963, 11; Stone 1960; Tudor 1961a, 1961b, 1961c). Although several candidates have been proposed, including William Edington Armit (1848–1901), a policeman in Queensland, later employed in British New Guinea, and Robert Henry Armit (1844–?), a lieutenant in the Royal Navy with experience as an assistant surveyor in Australian waters and later Honorary Secretary of the New Guinea Colonising Association, the case is far from closed.[32] Later private – and previously unknown – correspondence by Lawson (still writing in character) includes the heavily qualified confession that:

a great part of the book is a correct description of the island of New Guinea and was at the time derived from an original source. In fact it is a work of fiction drawn largely from nature; and I say that many of my assertions remain to be disproved (Lawson 1895).

Lawson’s “original source” is not identified, but his account is strikingly devoid of reference to or evidence of any familiarity with the few texts that might have provided him with more credible ecological or ethnographic material. The narratives of the natural scientists exploring New Guinea during the early to mid-1870s would have been available to him only as reports to newspapers and letters to journals, but a glance through Earl’s (1853) ethnography of the Papuans or Wallace’s Malay Archipelago might have spared Lawson some of the criticism from his reviewers.

This seemingly fatal poverty of sources is more than compensated for by the precision of his parody, and the confidence with which Lawson met his detractors in the press reflects the sureness of his style. Indeed, the ecological and ethnographic blunders appear almost deliberate, as part of his satirical stand on the privilege of presence in an interior to which no one else – Captain Moresby included – could claim access. Lawson’s parodic precision was rendered still more effective by occasional evidence for sober restraint interspersed with passages of wild excess in which familiar elements of a global exotic were knowingly transposed to New Guinea in breach of naturalist expectation.[33] Such niceties mattered little to Lawson, whoever he (or she) might have been, but they mattered greatly to real explorers such as Captain Moresby, who suffered the final indignity of having his own hard-won discoveries belittled by the Admiralty’s Hydrographer:

“Discoveries, Captain Moresby!” he replied; “I was not aware that you had made any. I suppose New Guinea was discovered before you went there. We have work like yours coming in every day.”… Thus my hopes vanished; the word ‘discovery’ was henceforth officially eliminated by the Admiralty (Moresby 1913, 306).

Lawson could take possession of interior New Guinea, sculpting its topography as he pleased and stocking it with whatever he fancied, secure in the knowledge that no standards of proof could dispossess him entirely. As David Glen observes, Lawson’s New Guinea imaginary was “watertight in the way he effaced other texts and unified a disparate scene of writing” (2000, 27).

Wallace may have dismissed his account as poor fiction but Lawson’s parody achieved something altogether more interesting by identifying the rhetorical strategy of precision and the vocabulary of field naturalist explorers as the critical narrative devices conferring authority, not just on documents or their authors but on what Gillian Beer describes as the entire “international gentlemanly community of enquirers” (1996, 323). Membership of this community was critical to the intellectual legitimation or registration of one’s discoveries: Paul du Chaillu’s 1861 narrative of exploration in interior Africa had previously been subjected to intense scrutiny and scepticism, particularly in the pages of the Athenæum, as his “class, educational background, and race quickly became key issues in the debate over the scientific worth” of his book (McCook 1996, 179).[34] The acceptance of new discoveries thus hinged upon the successful incorporation of their discoverers within the scientific community, and of their narratives of discovery within a canonical archive (Pratt 1992, 204; Withers 2004). Securing an audience at one of London’s learned societies was amongst the very highest of honours to which colonial explorers could aspire; Lawson claimed later that he had also received personal speaking invitations from Sir John Lubbock of the Royal Society, as well as from the Royal Geographical Society and Zoological Society (Lawson 1895, 1–2).

That Lawson’s outrageous claims were even briefly entertained by these societies would appear to confirm his most inspired insight, which was that the truth-claiming narrative strategies of actual explorers and their own appeals to a privilege or rhetoric of presence could be turned against them. The intense competition and exclusivity that characterised learned metropolitan society, and the gathering professionalism and boundary maintenance of the natural sciences were the game in Lawson’s sights, and his aim proved as true in London as it had been in interior New Guinea. Climbing mountains, documenting native customs, discovering vast lakes, collecting new butterflies and fighting off natives with equal ease, Lawson aligned each of the classic avenues of colonial advancement and subjected them collectively to the satire of his modest wandering in New Guinea’s interior.




[27] Companionship on both fictional and factual adventures to New Guinea deserves a study of its own. Of Lawson’s companions, only two survive. D’Albertis (emulating Lawson?) would later hire an even more exotic blend of assistants for his voyages up the Fly River; tragically, most of them would prove as expendable as Lawson’s crew.

[28] Chief Kilee becomes “Kilu” on Lawson’s return, symptomatic of the author’s casual disregard for individual Papuans and for his readers alike (Lawson 1875a, 7, 11, 272).

[29] The Dutch are not kindly treated by Lawson, who described them as the “oppressors” of Papuans (1875a, 267).

[30] Sydney Morning Herald 1875, Times 1875. The reviewer for the Edinburgh Review enjoyed himself immensely: “The Captain’s double-barrelled rifle must have produced others on the journey, for we only hear of one when they started, and yet it and three others had been lost and still two remained” (Edinburgh Review 1875, 517); “With Captain Lawson to see a mountain is to ascend it, and perhaps he would add to ascend a mountain is to see it” (512); “It is clear that as Captain Webb is among swimmers so is Captain Lawson, of whom we know not whether he be a land or sea captain, among climbers” (515), adding later, when Lawson lashes one of his companions, that his choice of “ultima ratio, a rope’s end … makes us think that he must be a sea-captain” (516). A search of the Navy and Army List for 1875 has produced no Captain Lawson, on either sea or land (Stone 1960, 38).

[31] Compare Conrad: “Day after day, with the stamp and shuffle of sixty pair of bare feet behind me … Camp, cook, sleep, strike camp, march” (1973 [1902], 28).

[32] Krauth (1983, 39–46) has assembled the most detailed case for R.H. Armit as the true identity of Captain Lawson, largely on the basis of stylistic similarities and Armit’s uncritical reference to Lawson at a time when his New Guinea Colonising Association was seeking to promote New Guinea as a destination for British settlers. An additional piece of evidence, not documented by Krauth, is the very close correspondence between Lawson’s frontispiece illustration of Mount Hercules (figure 9.4) and Armit’s (1875) frontispiece engraving of Mount Egmont in New Zealand.

[33] As Lawson later commented on the reaction to his book: “The indignation of the naturalist portion of the Society was unbounded because I had made horned animals to exist eastward of Celebes; which would, it seems, upset all their preconceived ideas of ‘geographical distribution’. That, of course, one could not expect them to tolerate” (1895, 7).

[34] Lawson’s adoption of the title of Captain was an obvious claim to the credibility conferred by status, and the Sydney Morning Herald review (1875) of Lawson’s book opened with a lengthy diatribe against the abuse by authors of military commissions as “certificates of trustworthiness and responsibility.”