The native seeds of Augusta

‘MUCH TO MY surprise in Dec last I received a particularly choice box of seeds, and your polite note, requesting a return of the Native seeds of Augusta,’ wrote Georgiana Molloy on 21 March 1837, in her first letter to Captain James Mangles, an amateur botanist in London. Molloy had emigrated from England to south-west Western Australia with her husband John Molloy, arriving in 1830. Her phrase refers to the exchange of seeds – both English and Australian – which was to become the foundation of her relationship with Mangles. Yet her inclusion of the adjective ‘native’ to describe these seeds signals a problematic relationship with the flora and with the Noongar people who helped to collect the seeds for her.

Molloy, born in Carlisle in England in 1805, was devout in her Presbyterian beliefs and prone to proselytising. She was accustomed to a life of leisure and numbered botany among her interests. Her husband had fought against Napoleon, but after becoming a captain in 1824 and finding further promotion elusive, he proposed to Georgiana in 1829 and the couple set sail for the Swan River Colony. Upon their arrival, however, the Molloys found the settlement process in chaos. Together with a handful of other emigrants, they elected to sail south to the new town of Augusta, the third British outpost in the colony regally named after the sixth son of King George III, the monarch who lost Britain’s North American colonies. A few days after they landed, the heavily pregnant Georgiana gave birth to their first child, a girl. Over the course of ten days, the baby became progressively unwell, then died.

Molloy’s nauseating stress and sense of being out of place in an environment made me empathise with her in that tent on the shores of Augusta, her first child dying in her arms. She was in the driving rain, beyond which were the strange cries of birds and a landscape of towering trees that she described to her sister Elizabeth Besley in 1832 as ‘the unbounded limits of thickly clothed dark green forests where nothing can be described to feast the imagination’. Not only was the land surrounding her inexpressible, but so was her grief. Of her child’s death, she wrote three years later to her friend Helen Story, who had also lost a child, ‘I truly sympathise with you, for language refuses to utter what I experienced when mine died in my arms in this dreary land.’ Adding to her inarticulation was her faltering faith, as she continued in the letter, ‘I have not made the use of those afflictions God designed… I thought I might have had one little bright object left me to solace all the hardships and privations I endured and have still to go through. It was wicked and I am not now thoroughly at peace.’ As historian Pat Jalland noted in Australian Ways of Death (Oxford University Press, 2002), a wavering belief was not uncommon in the colonies, where isolation, hardship and a dearth of clergymen and congregations could encourage a move towards secularism. Through James Mangles, however, Molloy found a new language and a new faith: that of the flora of the South West.

SEVEN YEARS AFTER her arrival, during which time she bore another three children, Molloy’s son fell into a well and drowned. Just prior to this event, Molloy had received her first letter from Mangles asking her to collect botanical specimens and seeds. James Mangles entered the Royal Navy in 1800 at fourteen and became a captain fifteen years later. Shortly thereafter, he left the navy to travel and in 1831 sailed to Perth to stay with his cousin Ellen Stirling, wife of the colony’s founding governor Sir James Stirling. Through her, he made the acquaintance of several people in the colony, including Molloy, and asked them to collect specimens and seeds. Mangles, who owned a gracious, two-storeyed terrace in Regent’s Park in London, had connections with the Loddiges family in Hackney, one of the most notable traders in exotic flora in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries; Joseph Paxton, the gardener at Chatsworth and designer of the Crystal Palace for the 1851 Great Exhibition; and John Lindley, the first professor of botany at University College London, all of whom were caught up in the rage for collecting Australian flora. Part of their excitement stemmed from the flourishing interest in botany and scientific exploration prompted by the Enlightenment. Another aspect was its association with prestige, particularly as plants were renamed to honour particular figures (for example, there are around 170 species of banksia, named for Joseph Banks, who collected the first specimen on Captain James Cook’s voyage).

On 28 January 1838, Molloy began her second letter to Mangles. In her first she had complained of a lack of time to collect seeds, for ‘as all my former pursuits have necessarily been thrown aside (by the peremptory demands of my personal attention to my children and domestic drudgery) I fear it will be long ere I can make an adequate return in Australian productions.’ However, in this second missive, she wrote: ‘Since my dear Boy’s death I have, up to the present time, daily employed myself in your service.’ Mangles’ request had encouraged her to go into the bush to take her mind from her grief.

For Molloy, collecting for Mangles ripened into an obsession, replacing her former mania for religion. Her correspondence is peppered with accounts of her devotion to her botanical project. In a letter from June 1840, she wrote, ‘scarcely a day passes I am not thinking what I can do or how in any way I could promote your cause’. Earlier that year, on 31 January 1840, she gushed, ‘I never met with anyone who so perfectly called forth and could sympathise with me in my prevailing passion for Flowers.’ Despite the overwrought tone of her letters, Molloy’s reverence was not only for Mangles, but also for herself. Her gratitude was apparent in her letter of 25 January 1838, in which she thanked him ‘for being the cause of my more immediate acquaintance with the nature and varieties of those plants that we exchanged for the productions of our own country…but, for your request, I should never have bestowed on the flowers of this wilderness any other idea than that of passing admiration.’

Molloy, although she had enough training in botany to know how to collect, dry and mount specimens and their seeds, did not have a scientific understanding of botany, because it was impossible for women to participate in institutions that taught botanical science. As Ann Shteir notes in Cultivating Women, Cultivating Science (John Hopkins University Press, 1996), women were not permitted to join the Royal Society or Linnean Society (the world’s oldest biological society), attend their meetings or be published in their journals. Women were also rarely educated in Latin, which was needed to read the names by which plants were classified using the Linnaean system, as laid out by Carl Linnaeus in his Systema Naturae of 1735.

Despite this lack of formal training, Molloy was skilled and attentive enough to her craft to earn the praise of the men to whom Mangles distributed her specimens. Joseph Paxton, on reading copies of her letters made by Mangles, commented in June 1839 that, ‘They have been written by one who is devoted to the promotion of Botanical interest in this Country and zealously able to fulfil the task of collecting Seeds.’ Molloy eventually became confident enough at her work to declare to Mangles in an undated letter of June 1840, ‘when I sally forth either on foot or Horseback, I feel quite elastic in mind and Step; I feel I am quite at my own work, the real cause that enticed me out to Swan River.’

SEARCHING FOR BOOKS for an English assignment in the library of the University of California, Berkeley, where I was an undergraduate student, I was struck by the title of a work written by William J. Lines, An All Consuming Passion (University of California Press, 1996), which I found in the stacks. Its grainy cover of shadowy red leaves and the story within of that nineteenth century English woman, Georgiana Molloy, captivated me. Her letters, I recognised, were those of a person who delighted in language. In an epistle of 14 March 1840, for example, Molloy described the petals of a flower as of ‘a downy white feathery appearance, and emit a most delicious perfume, resembling the bitter almond, and like all human or rather mortal delicacies, how quick these lovely flowers fall from the stalk on being collected’. I recognised Molloy as an example of one of those women who, although never published because of their gender, were still writers. I kept the book in mind and returned it to the library.

The next year, as an honours student at Wollongong University, I found another biography of Molloy, Portrait With Background (Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 1955) by Alexandra Hasluck, which contained further extracts of her letters. The sensual tone of her writing to Captain Mangles struck me as being quite different to her harried correspondence with family back in England. I showed them to my supervisor. ‘Look,’ I said, ‘she’s flirting with him!’ I subsequently penned a thesis on Molloy’s literary seduction of Mangles, positing that she needed Mangles to keep writing to her so that she could continue collecting, for botany had become her vocation.

By the end of that year, I still couldn’t get Molloy out of my head. Being a fiction writer and a scholar, I began to weave Molloy’s poetic responses to her environment into a novel. In order to carry out research for the work I needed to travel west and October 2001 saw me on a train trip from coast to coast across Australia. Ansett Airlines had just collapsed and I couldn’t afford the skyrocketing prices for airfares. Thus it was a three-day journey across the Nullabor to Perth, sitting upright all the way.

I specifically wanted to learn about the flora of south-west WA to find an Australian version of the European language of flowers. This language, which became so prevalent it was given a scientific term, ‘floriography’, initially existed in the Orient. It was brought to the attention of Europeans through the letters of Lady Wortley Montague, in which she reported a means of communicating through objects and flowers. A few years later, Charlotte de La Tour published Le langage des fleurs (Garnier Freres, 1858), which is generally accepted as instigating the language of flowers. Each flower had a symbolic meaning attached to it and the recipient, after observing the position of flowers in a bunch and looking up their meanings, deduced what their sender was saying.

Molloy was no stranger to the language of flowers. Writing to Mangles on 31 January 1840, to thank him for some gifts, she commented, ‘The beautifully executed illustrations of the “Greenhouse” the Language, and Sentiment of Flowers I could look at repeatedly with unwearied pleasure.’ It is likely that Mangles had sent her Flora’s Lexicon: An Interpretation of the Language and Sentiment of Flowers (Hooker and Claxton, 1839).

This journey of texts about flowers and botany from England to Australia mirrored the situation whereby Molloy sent specimens to Mangles on the opposite side of the world and waited for him to give her their Latin names by post. She was insistent in her requests for names, beginning with her letter dated 25 January 1838, enclosed with her first collection, in which she asked that he would ‘oblige me by sending me the names of the different flowers.’

By eradicating the names given to plants by Noongar people and replacing them with new names using the Linnaean system, British colonists and naturalists claimed the country for their own. The effect of this was a dislocation, as Antiguan author Jamaica Kincaid writes in My Garden (Book) (Farrer, Straus and Giroux, 1999): ‘This naming of things is so crucial to possession – a spiritual padlock with the key thrown irretrievably away – that it is a murder, an erasing.’ Yet Molloy’s lack of education in Latin, and the long wait for the names of plants to arrive in the post, meant that she was receptive to some of the Noongar names for plants. On describing a particular tree, she wrote to Mangles on 14 March 1840, ‘The native name is Danja, and I rather think it will turn out to be a Hakea.’ Molloy’s attempt at classification was not quite correct, however. As Ian Abbott writes in his paper ‘Aboriginal Names for Plant Species in South-Western Australia’ (Forest Department of Western Australia Technical Paper No. 5, 1983), the plant to which she refers is Xylomelum occidentale or, in keeping with the European habit of giving common names to plants according to their similarity to European specimens, the woody pear.

Molloy’s receptivity to the original names for Australian plants was mirrored in her largely amicable exchanges with local Noongar people, who helped with her collecting. Once, while she was ill, she was surprised ‘to receive a nosegay from a Native who was aware of my floral passion’ (June 1840). When she was recovering from this illness, she rode out with her husband and a Noongar guide. They needed to cross a creek, but it was too high, as she wrote to Mangles later that year:

…you would have smiled to see me urging on my horse in the middle of the River, & the Native Calgood, calling out Laddy Molloa! ‘Mocho too much.’ ‘Mocho too much.’ We returned on Calgood’s promising to find a more fordable part which never occurred however he did not lose our purpose, as I saw that no time must be lost in collecting specimens.

In using a guide – one who was obviously kind and dedicated – Molloy followed the practice adopted by early explorers and professional plant hunters. These guides, as Philip Clarke writes in Aboriginal Plant Collectors (Rosenberg, 2008), were essential members of expeditions into unmapped regions, acting as trackers and collectors.

Despite the Noongar people’s helpfulness, violence against them steadily increased. John Molloy was responsible for leading an attack, while the neighbouring Bussell brothers executed many more. Georgiana Molloy, while not directly involved in this physical violence (although on one occasion she frightened Noongars from her house by showing them a pistol), remained implicated in colonialism through renaming the flora of the South West, another step in erasing their culture.

IF THE ERADICATION of a language can contribute to a culture’s erosion, so too can the restoration of that language establish a sense of identity and solidarity. The emotional response of Noongar people to the Wirlomin Noongar Language and Stories Project indicates how important language and stories are for creating both presence and continuity. In light of this, it’s heartening to see Kings Park in Perth hosting Indigenous Heritage Tours to disseminate information about Aboriginal botanical and cultural knowledge.

What is it that draws a researcher to particular subjects? Elizabeth Birmingham suggests in Beyond the Archives (Southern Illinois University Press, 2008) that: ‘The researcher’s sixth sense isn’t the ability to see the dead but our potential to help the dead, who do not know they are dead, finish their stories, and we do this in the moment in which we realise that their stories our ours.’ Molloy, who died at thirty-seven from puerperal fever after the birth of her seventh child, never received formal recognition for the plants she collected. Meanwhile, Mangles, her beneficiary, had what was to become the floral emblem of Western Australia, Anigozanthos manglesii, named after him by David Don, professor of botany at King’s College, London. It is in this context – that of a woman writer overlooked by history – that I have researched and found inspiration in Molloy’s story. In 2007, A Curious Intimacy, my novel planted with the seeds of Molloy’s life, was published by Penguin. Georgiana Molloy’s efflorescence had contributed to my own.


 Note: Molloy’s letters to Mangles are held at the Battye Library, State Library of Western Australia, ACC 479A. Her diaries and letters to family and friends are also held at the Battye Library, ACC 501A.


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