These stories may contain descriptions of childhood trauma and abuse. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website may contain images, voices or names of people who may have passed away. If you need help, you can find contact details for some relevant services on our support page.

Significant colonial Australia poet, Eliza Hamilton Dunlop (1796-1880), was in kinship care as a child. Eliza Hamilton was born in County Armagh in Ireland. Her mother died soon after Eliza was born, and her barrister father, Solomon, left that same year to take up a post at the Supreme Court in Calcutta, India. Eliza, therefore, was raised by her paternal grandmother while her two older brothers traveled to India with their father.

It was not until 1820, and during a trip to India to visit her family (her father died while she was en route), that Eliza found out she also had “two Anglo-Indian half-sisters whom her brothers did not acknowledge” (Johnston, 2018, p. 229).

According to biographer Anna Johnston, Eliza Hamilton

…had an indulged childhood back in County Armagh, with access to her father’s library and study…This access to education and a precocious intellect underpinned her literary ambitions and capacity for linguistic study” (2018, p. 229).

By the time she was in her teens, Eliza Hamilton Dunlop was already a published poet.

At sixteen years of age, Eliza married astronomer and poet, James Sylvius Law, and the couple had two children. Ten years later (Law was dead by then), she married bookseller David Dunlop (1794-1863) and the couple had five children in Coleraine, Northern Ireland.

Eliza and David Dunlop migrated with four of their children to Australia in 1838. David Dunlop was first appointed that year as Police Magistrate at Penrith and later as Police Magistrate and Protector of Aborigines (sic) at Wollombi in the Hunter Valley, a position he held until 1847. (The stone house Dunlop had built, Mulla Villa, has been converted into accommodation for tourists).

Eliza Hamilton Dunlop’s lament, ‘The Aboriginal Mother’—published in The Australian on 13 December 1838—was provoked by her outrage at the Myall Creek massacre; on 10 June 1838, around twenty-eight (the total death toll was never established) Wirrayaraay people were slaughtered at Myall Creek Station in NSW. Seven men were publicly hanged for the massacre on 18 December 1838.

Unsurprisingly, there was more anger at the execution of British citizens than there was at the slaughter of Wirrayaraay people. Even so, Dunlop was astonished at the backlash, the “barrage of criticism [which] condemned her poem’s content, ideology, and form” (Johnstone, 2018, p. 230).

Undeterred, Dunlop continued to publish poetry and collaborated with composer Isaac Nathan to set some of her poems, including ‘The Aboriginal Mother,’ to music.

With her husband posted at Wollombi, Dunlop became an activist on behalf of Aboriginal people. She learned their languages, transcribed their songs—her ‘Wollombi wordlist’ provides an indication of “cross-cultural intimacy and exchange” (Johnstone, 2018, p. 230)—and gathered considerable evidence of the humanity and cultural production of Aboriginal people.

Eliza Hamilton Dunlop lived for seventeen years after the death of David in 1863. She is buried in an Anglican cemetery at Wollombi.

References:

“Eliza Hamilton Dunlop (55 works by) (birth name: Eliza Hamilton) (a.k.a. Eliza Law; E.H.Dunlop.” AusLit Database, 2011. https://www.austlit.edu.au/austlit/page/A31624

Gunson, Neil. “Dunlop, Eliza Hamilton (1796-1880).” Australian Dictionary of Biography, vol. 1 (1966). https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/dunlop-eliza-hamilton-2007

Hansord, Kate. “A Forgotten Colonial Woman Poet.” Tinean, 6 November 2015. https://tintean.org.au/2015/11/06/a-forgotten-colonial-woman-poet/

Johnston, Anna. “Mrs Milson’s Wordlist: Eliza Hamilton Dunlop and the Intimacy of Linguist Work.” Violence in the Settler Colony: Economies of Dispossession around the Pacific Rim, Penelope Edmonds & Amanda Nettelbeck (editors), Palgrave Macmillan, 2018. Available here.

Image available here.