Late in 1889, or early 1890, an unusual exhibit greeted visitors to Ludwig Maximilian Kreitmeyer’s infamous ‘Waxworks’ and music hall at 202-204 Bourke Street, Melbourne.
The Argus, Melbourne’s major newspaper, reported as follows on Feb 4 1890:
What is it? With a curious and pathetic interest one asks that question when looking at “Jun-Gun,” the Australian albino […] this thing brought in from the wilderness yet remains to Australia, this queer white flower from the black garden?
A “queer white flower” indeed, Jungun was discovered by a Western Australian pastoralist named Alexander McPhee. Having caught wind of rumours concerning an aboriginal ‘white man’ which cropped up among local aboriginals living upon his station, in April 1889 McPhee set out to test the truth of the matter. Eventually, after following these rumours more than three hundred miles inland, he encountered an albino aboriginal named Jungun, who was evidently their subject and origin. Living among a constellation of aboriginal groups numbering some six-hundred in total, McPhee was enamoured of Jungun’s “golden hair and fair skin.” Sensing economic advantage lurking within Jungun’s exotic features, he removed the man, along with two “coal black” members of the tribe to Perth, and thence to Melbourne and Sydney.
In Melbourne, much of the speculation focussed on Jungun’s potential origin as the offspring of a white man, even though both Jungun and his companions insisted that McPhee, their discoverer, was the first white man they had ever encountered. Still, this revelation had little impact. An anonymous author writing for The Argus deftly explained away this genetic cul-de-sac via the possibility of atavism:
Can any hope be born any theory be started, from this Jun-Gun? Though it may be sure that he was not begotten of any white man, may it not be possible that some ghastly tragedy in which a white man met his death may have exercised a pre-natal influence on him? May we not imagine some young black woman, to whom the white stranger had become dear, wedded unwoo’d in black-fellow fashion, and horribly shocked during her pregnancy by the white man’s tragic end? […] is it possible that we have a “relic” here, and on exhibition at the Waxworks at a shilling a head?
Much of the speculation concerning Jungun’s origins revolved around the fate of the lost exploration party of Ludwig Leichardt, whose party disappeared somewhere along the Condamine River, well to the east of Jungun’s homeland, some forty years earlier. According to ribald newspaper speculation, the name Jungun itself supposedly derived from a corruption of a German word (Junge– meaning boy or youth) which somehow had its origins among members of Leichardt’s party. This speculation concerning Jungun’s origin (I use the term loosely) in Leichardt’s party was dismissed out of hand by an American observer, who remarked that it was a “peculiar and romantic speculation” of the Australians.
And certainly, this was a unique time for Australia. The Federation debates were looming, independence from the UK was being considered, and now strange examples of Australians of mixed race were emerging from the desert interior. A series of peculiar anxieties were evidently in play here. Was Jungun, as an offspring of Leichhardt’s party harbinger of a united future for a untied Australia? A mere atavistic curiousity of the past? Or, through the fearsome confluence of white skin and initiation scars, tangible evidence of an inevitable descent into savagery should Australia reject its British past and embrace its local legacies?
“By Jove, it’s a white man!”
Jungun would experience an interesting reception history, in which many of these questions would be repeatedly addressed.
Perhaps the most prominent example was in furnishing the inspiration for the Australian novelist Ernest Favenc’s The Secret of the Australian Desert (1895), which told the story of the aftermath of Leichardt’s expedition. In this work, a follow up party of explorers, sent many years after Leichhardt’s disappearance, chanced upon a “depraved, bloodthirsty cannibalistic tribe of savages” in the Australian hinterland, called the Warlattas (I can’t help but notice the prominence of ‘war’ here). This novel was a vehicle for Favenc’s distinct anxieties about Australia and its future. He believed that any European interaction with Aboriginal people would only lead to the destruction and corruption of the white race, and as such those with dark skin from the interior were to be shunned as much as the Yellow Peril of the exterior.
The Warlattas were in essence Favenc’s vehicle for this theory, for, as become quickly clear to their discoverers, the Warlattas were in fact led by, and product of, the depraved imagination and influence of a fallen white man. Observing a cannibalistic orgy (“what manner of meat is that?” one explorer demanded histrionically), they are treated to the ceremonial entrance of a peculiar figure:
Then […] others appeared, supporting between them a striking and venerable figure, an old, old man, with snow-white hair and beard […] Almost as dark as the savages around, painted like them with a hideous red smear on the forehead and a white triangle on the breast, the experienced whites yet felt sure that before them they saw one of their own race.
The story of savagery and atavism was intended by Favenc as a warning to his fellow white Australians about what might happen should they mingle too long, or too thoroughly, with the aboriginal population. Favenc’s conclusion was that the Warlatta’s were once a peaceful aboriginal people, but had been corrupted by the influence of the white man. It would be wisest, his novel seemed to counsel, if the white man simply steered clear of aboriginals for everyone’s sake…
Following his death in 1892 at Healesville, Victoria, Jungun was, like many sideshow and waxworks attractions of his day, promptly forgotten. In the mid 1930s, however, he would briefly return to prominence in a short-lived newspaper debate in Western Australia, concerning his nature and origin. Part of this ongoing debate had much to do with Jungun’s possible albinoid status: for while many agreed that traces of the albino could be seen “particularly around the eyes”, others disagreed entirely, and stuck by their guns that Jungun was in fact the result of the influence of European blood. In Western Australia, however, a more promising matrix for Jungun’s European descent was found, in the persons of Wouter Looes and Jan Pelgrom de Bye, the two Batavia maroons. Indeed, one author, ‘Nor-West’, declared that McPhee’s initial mission to find Jungun was inspired by rumour of offspring of these two men, or indeed subsequent Dutch shipwrecked:
No doubt […] he hoped to find in this white man, if he did really exist, some link with the long lost Leichhardt; or, failing that, some reverted descendant of one of the few white men lost on theNorth-West coast, perhaps even a strain dating back to those two who were marooned by Pelsart after the tragic wreckof the Batavia on the Abrolhos.
As the recollections of Alexander McPhee’s sister attest, McPhee himself harboured no such aims in exhibiting Jungun. He knew, however, that he had a curiosity on his hands, one which played on the anxieties of the time, and which could command at least a shilling a head for the many visitors willing to pay. He even attempted to bring Jungun to New Zealand, but was refused the necessary permits by the Board of Protection for Aborigines in Western Australia. The tales weaved about Jungun, from his descent from Leichardt’s party to the Batavia mutineers, reflects broader concerns about race and place in Australia, more than his own commercial intentions. McPhee himself ultimately died of meningitis in a military hospital in Heliopolis after serving with the Tenth Light Horse Brigade at Gallipoli.
The story of Jungun, the shining ‘Prince of the Red Desert’, could evidently mean many things to many people.