Peter the Piccaninny [poem by Henry Kendall]

[Editor: This poem by Henry Kendall was published in Songs from the Mountains (1880).]

Peter the Piccaninny.

He has a name which can’t be brought
Within the sphere of metre;
But, as he’s Peter by report,
I’ll trot him out as Peter.

I call him mine; but don’t suppose
That I’m his dad, O reader!
My wife has got a Norman nose —
She reads the tales of Ouida.

I never loved a nigger belle —
My tastes are too aesthetic!
The perfume from a gin is — well,
A rather strong emetic.

But, seeing that my theme is Pete,
This verse will be the neater
If I keep on the proper beat,
And stick throughout to Peter.

We picked him up, the Lord knows where!
At noon we came across him
Asleep beside a hunk of bear —
His paunch was bulged with ’possum.

(Last stanza will not bear, I own,
A pressure analytic;
But bard whose weight is fourteen stone,
Is apt to thump the critic.)

We asked the kid to give his name:
He didn’t seem too willing —
The darkey played the darkey’s game —
We tipped him with a shilling!

We tipped him with a shining bob —
No Tommy Dodd, believe us.
We didn’t “tumble” to his job —
Ah, why did Pete deceive us!

I, being, as I’ve said, a bard,
Resolved at once to foster
This mite whose length was just a yard —
This portable impostor!

“This babe” — I spoke in Wordsworth’s tone —
(See Wordsworth’s “Lucy”, neighbour)
“I’ll make a darling of my own;
And he’ll repay my labour.

“He’ll grow as gentle as a fawn —
As quiet as the blossoms
That beautify a land of lawn —
He’ll eat no more opossums.

“The child I to myself will take
In a paternal manner;
And ah! he will not swallow snake
In future, or ‘goanna.’

“Will you reside with me, my dear?”
I asked in accents mellow —
The nigger grinned from ear to ear,
And said, “All right, old fellow!”

And so my Pete was taken home —
My pretty piccaninny!
And, not to speak of soap or comb,
His cleansing cost a guinea.

“But hang expenses!” I exclaimed,
“I’ll give him education:
A ‘nig’ is better when he’s tamed,
Perhaps, than a Caucasian.

“Ethnologists are in the wrong
About our sable brothers;
And I intend to stop the song
Of Pickering and others.”

Alas, I didn’t do it though!
Old Pickering’s conclusions
Were to the point, as issues show,
And mine were mere delusions.

My inky pet was clothed and fed
For months exceeding forty;
But to the end, it must be said,
His ways were very naughty.

When told about the Land of Morn
Above this world of Mammon,
He’d shout, with an emphatic scorn,
“Ah, gammon, gammon, gammon!”

He never lingered, like the bard,
To sniff at rose expanding.
“Me like,” he said, “em cattle-yard —
Fine smell — de smell of branding!”

The soul of man, I tried to show,
Went up beyond our vision.
“You ebber see dat fellow go?”
He asked in sheer derision.

In short, it soon occurred to me
This kid of six or seven,
Who wouldn’t learn his A B C,
Was hardly ripe for heaven.

He never lost his appetite —
He bigger grew, and bigger;
And proved, with every inch of height,
A nigger is a nigger.

And, looking from this moment back,
I have a strong persuasion
That, after all, a finished black
Is not the “clean” — Caucasian.

Dear Peter from my threshold went,
One morning in the body:
He “dropped” me, to oblige a gent —
A gent with spear and waddy!

He shelved me for a boomerang —
We never had a quarrel;
And, if a moral here doth hang,
Why let it hang — the moral!

My mournful tale its course has run —
My Pete, when last I spied him,
Was eating ’possum underdone:
He had his gin beside him.



Source:
Henry Kendall, Songs from the Mountains, Sydney: William Maddock, 1880, pages 104-110

Editor’s notes:
A B C = the alphabet, especially regarding the learning of the alphabet (as used in the expression “learn the ABCs”); also: the basics of reading and writing, or the basic elements of any field or subject

bear = in an Australian context: a “native bear”, a koala, also known as a “koala bear”

bob = a shilling (equivalent to twelve pence); after the decimalisation of the Australian currency in 1966, the monetary equivalent of a shilling was ten cents; the phrase “a couple of bob” could specifically refer to two shillings (and, later on, to twenty cents), but it was generally a common reference to a small amount of money, as in “can you lend me a couple of bob?”

gammon = misleading, deceptive, or nonsensical talk, humbug (can also refer to a cured or smoked ham)

gin = an Aboriginal woman

Mammon = riches, money; greed for money; money or wealth as a false object of worship (as in the phrase “to worship at the feet of Mammon”, or similar); wealth as an evil influence; Mammon was also personified as a devil, or demon, of wealth and greed

nig = an abbreviation of the word “nigger” (a black person; someone of black African racial background; in an historical Australian context, most likely used to refer to an Australian Aborigine)

nigger = a black person; someone of black African racial background; in an historical Australian context, most likely used to refer to an Australian Aborigine

opossum = a “possum”, a tree-dwelling marsupial species native to Australia; opossums are actually those animals of the Didelphimorphia order of marsupials (which are colloquially known as “possums”), whilst the term “possums” technically refers to those animals of the suborder Phalangeriformes, of the Diprotodontia order of marsupials; however, the two are often confused as being the same animal; the confusion arises from when Joseph Banks (the botanist with Captain Cook’s expedition) thought the Australian marsupial was an opossum, as it looked similar to the American opossum

own = confess; admit or affirm that something is true

piccaninny = a black child

Pickering = Charles Pickering (1805-1878), American naturalist, author of The Races of Man: And Their Geographical Distribution (1848)

’possum = an opossum or “possum”, a tree-dwelling marsupial species native to Australia; opossums are actually those animals of the Didelphimorphia order of marsupials (which are colloquially known as “possums”), whilst the term “possums” technically refers to those animals of the suborder Phalangeriformes, of the Diprotodontia order of marsupials; however, the two are often confused as being the same animal; the confusion arises from when Joseph Banks (the botanist with Captain Cook’s expedition) thought the Australian marsupial was an opossum, as it looked similar to the American opossum

sable = a colour that is black, dark, or gloomy (“sables” was an archaic term for garments worn for mourning; “sable” in heraldry refers to black); arising from the colour of dark sable fur, as taken from a sable (a furry mammal, Martes zibellina, which is primarily found in Russia and northern East Asia, and noted for its fur which has traditionally been used for clothing); in the context of the Australian Aborigines or African Negroes, a reference to their skin colour as being black

waddy = (plural “waddies”) (also known as a “nulla nulla”) a wooden club used by Australian Aborigines

Old spelling in the original text:
doth (does)

Vernacular spelling in the original text:
dat (that)
de (the)
ebber (ever)
em (them)

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