Empty Bottles

“Empty Bottles” is a long-winded poem on the drunkards’ middens of the Northern Territory, written in 1893 by William Aaron Millikan, my mother’s father’s father. When I first read his poem a few years ago, I was not enamoured of it’s form. It must be some kind of poetic convention of his day, I thought, and set about rewriting it to make it flow better! Rather presumptuous, but my attempts were not an improvement, so I put it aside.

Just tonight, I came across the poem The Raven written in 1849 by American poet Edgar Allan Poe, with it’s “nevermore” refrain. Aha! The form that great-granddad ripped off!  OK. Time to share William’s poem, warts and all.

“Empty Bottles” is a glimpse into a white man’s wowser perspective at the end of the 19th century in a remote part of Australia where Aborigines worked on their confiscated lands for no pay, no thanks and no rights, and Chinese immigrant workers (“John”) were resented by the drunkard white population because they were hard-working, reliable, entrepreneurial and generally good citizens.

Australia’s white colonial history is ugly, and so is its ongoing legacy. The poem was first published in the Northern Territory Times and Gazette in 1893, and reprinted in The Sydney Bulletin* with this comment:

“Whoever Millikan is, he has a fine eye for a point and a moral, and the Bulletin wants to hear from him again. Since [his poem] was written, a shipload of these “Empty Bottles” have been brought away from the Northern Territory, viz., 72,000 dozen.”

“Empty Bottles”  by William Aaron Millikan

Bottles everywhere, just teeming, lying all about, and seeming
To be ever, ever dreaming of the days that are no more!
And I camped each night, a rover, as I trod the country over,
Hardly finding room to lay me for them, as I sought the shore,
Each day finding, as I sought Australia’s farthest northern shore.
Empty bottles on before.

On the burning plains they’re scattered, and where miners rocks have shattered;
On stations, and away inland, beside the deep artesian bore;
From whence we too often borrow ghastly tales of trials and sorrow.
Trials of those who know no morrow, who ended life in blood and gore,
But how came their life, so precious, to shudder out in blood and gore?
Contents of bottle — nothing more.

‘Neath the darksome jungle’s shutter, where the wood-doves flirt and flutter.
Where Dame Nature pours profusion of bounties from her goodly store —
There I saw them, vigils keeping, shining backs forever peeping
From the grass where I beheld them, veritable ghosts of yore;
And a voice behind me whispered: “From the festive days of yore
Empty bottles — nothing more.”

Again upon my journey starting, with the feeling on me darting,
On my heart already smarting, smarting to its inmost core-
That N.T., so vainly vaunted, had its gruesome tales of haunted,
Of haunted spots, reminders of the dead and old forgotten lore;
And what could solve the mystery of these spots, this old forgotten lore?
Empty bottles — nothing more.

So the cue thus found I followed, as I trod o’er ground all hallowed
To enrich Chinese who wallowed where white men had heretofore
Worked the mines with proper methods, but had sunk before the slipshods.
“What could be the cause?” I shouted, “Tell me, tell me. I implore?”
And the voice beside me echoed: “Tell me, tell me, I implore? —
Bottles, bottles! — nothing more.”

Days had come in olden Southport, when the bottles gave great mouth sport;
And their drinkers daily stretched out, stretched them out upon the floor.
Those were days of constant chances — which now come like firefly glances.
At what work then did they labor, daily labor by the score,
Those fine miners, at what labor did they labor by the score;
Emptying bottles — nothing more.

Then those scenes of sad disaster followed ever, faster, faster —
Idle men, dishonest master, neglected mines of priceless store —
Blots these on our history’s pages, which will shock the modern sages,
And the men in coming ages who may read our records o’er—
When they find just what has happened as they read our records o’er —
Through the bottles — nothing more.

So N.T. began to languish. Then there came that flood of anguish —
Chinese from the ports of China surging up upon the shore;
And with methods old and tardy, they — the steady, sober, hardy —
Won the white man’s gold and country, ever, ever, more and more;
And our thanks for this is owing, for this ever more and more —
To the bottles — nothing more.

Should it ever be so fated that white men, by “John” disrated,
Should become all isolated from N.T.’s extensive shore.
And to wipe us from existence “John” maintained with great persistence,
This has always been a China — he read it in his books of yore —
What will show we had a being, and disprove those lying books of yore?
Empty bottles! Nothing more.

William Aaron Millikan was born in 1863 in South Australia. After marrying Ada Jane Thomas in 1891, they briefly lived in the Northern Territory from 1891 to 1895. William was a Methodist minister and a tee-totaller, never touching a drop of alcohol himself. Family lore says that some members of his Aboriginal congregation adopted the surname Millikan (presumably for the purpose of filling out government forms). I look forward to meeting some of my “Millikan cousins” in the Northern Territory one day.

The first of William and Ada Jane’s children was born in Darwin before they moved on to work in remote country churches around SA. They continued to have children… eight of them, each one in a different town. [My grandfather, Alan Hamilton Millikan, was the 4th, born in 1903 in Angaston, SA.]

Alas, the empty bottle custom continues… littering beaches and ancient shell middens (along with plastic rubbish). William’s great-great-grand-daughter, (my niece) Annabelle, enjoys collecting smooth glass pebbles off the beaches of the Mornington peninsula. She doesn’t touch the white or brown glass. Pale blue and green ones – nothing more.

*The Bulletin was founded in 1880. The original content of The Bulletin consisted of a mix of political comment, sensationalised news, and Australian literature.  In the early years, The Bulletin played a significant role in the encouragement and circulation of nationalist sentiments that remained influential far into the next century. In 1886, editor James Edmond changed The Bulletins nationalist banner from “Australia for Australians” to “Australia for the White Man. As The Bulletin evolved, it became known as a platform for young and aspiring writers to showcase their short stories and poems to large audiences. By 1890, it was the focal point of an emerging literary nationalism known as the “Bulletin School”, and a number of its contributors, often called bush poets, have become giants of Australian literature.

About anne norman

musician, shakuhachi player, author, poet, tea lover...
This entry was posted in Environmental essays and poems, family, poems, poets & writers I admire and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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