The Prince of the Red Desert

WARNING: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are warned that the following blog post may contain images and names of deceased persons.

Roebourne, 13 August 1889

Mr. Alex. Edgar has arrived in town. While in Condon he received a letter from Mr. Alexander McPhee saying that he had caught a white native about 260 miles inland from Condon, and adding that he wanted to arrive in Condon by mail day.

Unable to arrive in Condon in time, Alexander McPhee (with the Aboriginal man in tow) instead sent a telegram addressed to Mr Edgar in Roebourne which provided additional information about the man. Described as having albinism, the man was considered to be as “white as any white man” and sported light brown hair and sandy whiskers.

Several days later the Acting Government Resident at Roebourne, Mr R. C. Hare, sent a telegram to the Colonial Secretary.

capture

For three months no more news was heard. Then, on 24 October 1889, the story was once again picked up and reported as if it was new. A more detailed description was printed and the man was said to have white hair, a white beard and white skin. His eyes were grey, he stood at five foot six inches tall and had quite a number of scars on his head and body. He also had the “usual tatoo marks“. Typical of the Victorian era and their fascination for people who were different, they ended the description with…

…he is a novelty if not a freak of nature.

Alexander McPhee was noted to be heading to Perth sometime in the future and it was stated that he would be bringing the Aboriginal man with him.

On 26 December 1889, Alexander McPhee, the Aboriginal man and two other Aboriginal men boarded the S.S. Franklin in Cossack bound for Fremantle. The journey south along the coast of Western Australia took several days and included stops in Ashburton, Carnarvon and Geraldton. On 31 December 1889 at approximately 7pm, the ‘Franklin’ reached its destination.

Three days later it became apparent that Mr McPhee’s decision to come to Perth was for the sole purpose of exhibiting the Aboriginal man to the public.

Exhibition of the Albino Jongon, at the Mechanics’ Institute, Perth, January 4, from 10a.m. till 1p.m. and from 8p.m. till 10p.m.

mechanics-institute
The Mechanics’ Institute in 1894. Courtesy of the State Library of Western Australia.

It is in these notices however that we first learn that the man previously referred to in newspaper reports as simply ‘Aboriginal Albino’ was actually named Jun Gun (often spelt in a variety of ways but more often spelt in this manner).

Advertising was placed in the papers which called people to come and see “the wonder of the nort[h]” for the admission cost of one shilling.

the-west-aust-4-january-1890

Newspaper reporters who attended the exhibition followed up with articles detailing their observations. Most stated that he differed greatly to the “ordinary albino” and then went on to describe him:

Jungun, as the native is called, has none of these peculiarities, but differs from the ordinary aboriginal chiefly in the colour of his skin and hair. The former is of a light brown tinged with red, or what may be called a copper colour. His hair is a very pale brown tinged with flaxen. The irides of his eyes are hazel brown, and there is a slight brownish appearance about the pupils.

Described as being about 27 years old, he was dressed in white pants, was wearing a headdress of feathers and wore a piece of kangaroo bone through his nose.

Many people visited the Mechanics’ Institute both in the morning and evening for the purpose of seeing Jun Gun. During the evening show, he and his two companions sung several of their tribal songs but preferred to do so whilst behind a curtain.

Throughout the exhibition it was noted that Jun Gun was not shy or uncomfortable and Mr McPhee stated that, “He had always found him very tractable in his disposition, and of an even quiet, temper.” How McPhee managed to convince Jun Gun to leave his tribal lands is never touched upon. But, not only had he convinced him to travel to Perth, he had also convinced him to travel to the east coast of Australia.passenger-list

The exhibition of Jun Gun in Perth ran from 4 January until 8 January. Four days later, on 12 January 1890, Alex McPhee, Jun Gun and the two Aboriginal men boarded the S.S. Albany in Fremantle bound for Melbourne. Mr McPhee was recorded as a saloon passenger while “three natives” were recorded in  steerage (right).

On 24 January, Jun Gun arrived in Victoria. The Argus was the first newspaper to pick up the story and stated “The discovery and bringing of Jungun within the confines of civilisation reads very much like a romance.” They also provided background information about how McPhee arranged and was allowed to travel to Melbourne for the exhibition.

To do this he had to give up his employment and pay a deposit of £10 for each native to the Aboriginal Board for their return.

As was the case in Perth, advertisements were soon printed in the paper announcing the opening for 1 February 1890 but, unlike Perth (where he was displayed in the Mechanics’ Institute) Jun Gun was to be displayed in Kreitmayer’s Waxworks and Museum which was located on Bourke Street in Melbourne.

kreitmayer
Kreitmayer’s Waxworks & Museum (centre – with the flag). Courtesy of State Library Victoria.

Jun Gun’s appearance soon became a source of debate among Victorians as to whether he did have albinism or if he was the progeny of a relationship between an Aboriginal person and a European person. In an extremely cringe-worthy article, The Argus began by asking the question “What is it?” and then went on to say:

With a curious and pathetic interest one asks that question when looking at “Jun-Gun,” the Australian albino, at the Bourke-street Waxworks. What is it? this thing brought in from the wilderness, which yet remains to Australia; this queer white flower from the black garden?

At first suggesting that a Doctor look over Jun Gun closely in an effort to ascertain his origin, the writer then touched upon the subject of the lost explorers from Ludwig Leichhardt’s expedition and raised the question as to whether Jun Gun’s appearance was due to him being the offspring of one of these lost men. Leichhardt was a German man and this theory was further enhanced in the 1930s when it was stated that the word ‘Jung’ in German means young. There was much speculation that Jun Gun’s name may have been bestowed upon him by Leichhardt.

Unwilling to fully commit to this theory however, the writer then turned to thoughts of prenatal influence.

the-argus

In a nutshell, the story of Elsie Venner (written by Oliver Wendell Holmes), was a fictional book in which a woman was bitten by a rattlesnake while pregnant. The woman eventually died but her baby survived; a daughter who was said to have snake-like characteristics developed because of the snake bite which occurred whilst she was in the womb.

Alexander McPhee was quick to respond and wrote a letter to The Argus on the same day that the article went to print. His letter was printed in the next day’s paper. While he refuted the claims with regards to Jun Gun having European ancestry (his tribe was said to have never seen a European man before McPhee came along) he also provided additional information in relation to the stories he’d heard from the Indigenous people which may have related to Leichhardt. Fuelled by the claims in the letter, talk soon turned to Leichhardt and the possibility of finding new traces of the lost explorers. A meeting was held and Mr McPhee was invited to attend. The group came to the conclusion that a new expedition should be established to investigate the rumours about Leichhardt. They invited McPhee to lead the party but he refused.

Unfortunately, however, that gentleman’s business arrangements will not permit of his leaving Victoria just now unless he is compensated for loss of time, and nothing definite can be done until this financial difficulty is overcome.

Jun Gun continued to be a popular exhibit at the Waxworks and entertained the crowds by singing his tribal songs and making fire using a stick. While in Melbourne, he visited J.W. Lindt’s studio and had his photograph taken. If you wish to view the photograph on the National Library of Australia’s website, please click here.

The newspapers continued to ask the question as to whether or not he had albinism and to add credence to the claim that he did, Mr Kreitmayer (the owner of the Waxworks) invited several medical professionals and other leading men to examine Jun Gun and provide their opinion. Unable to completely explain his appearance, they rested on calling him a “freak of nature.

the-waxworks

Jun Gun was on display at the Waxworks throughout most of February 1890 and, towards the end of the month, The Australasian (a pictorial newspaper) printed an article as well as an image of him.

jungun

By mid-March the exhibition in Melbourne  began to wind down and his last appearance was announced. On 25 March 1890, Mr McPhee, Jun Gun and the two Aboriginal men wereoverland reported to be travelling overland from Melbourne to Sydney (right).

He was exhibited first in Solomon’s Royal Museum in Sydney and by the middle of April was reported to be heading to Newcastle for exhibition at 53 Hunter Street. William Freeman, the Business Manager, placed an ad in the Newcastle newcastleMorning Herald and Miners’ Advocate (left).

From Newcastle the party travelled back to Victoria and, in early May, The Ballarat Star announced that Jun Gun would be exhibited in Ballarat at the Mechanics’ Institute. The public could view him for the cost of sixpence.

It is elsewhere advertised that the aboriginal albino Jun Gun will be exhibited in Ballarat on Saturday next. This extraordinary individual was annexed by Mr McPhee in the back country of Western Australia, and his appearance in Melbourne caused no little curiosity and speculation.

In Ballarat, unlike what was seen at the other exhibitions, Jun Gun and the two Aboriginal men displayed their prowess with the spear and boomerang. They also demonstrated their defence skills using a shield; batting away cricket balls, boomerangs and sticks which were thrown at them from a distance of 30 yards (approximately 27 metres). Disturbingly, the objects being thrown had such force behind them that the newspaper noted that several boomerangs had been broken.

spear

After the exhibition the aboriginals, who were in full war costume, wearing only trunks, and having their breasts and arms painted, were taken round the Oval, to give the spectators a view of them at close quarters.

It was to be Jun Gun’s last exhibition.

After this date (May 1890) he no longer appeared in the papers unless it was in association with McPhee, Leichhardt and the new expedition.

the-times

Eight months later, on 6 January 1891, The Argus printed a letter (part of which is below) received from McPhee which was dated 8 December 1890.

Sir,- Thinking that many of your readers will be interested in my return trip with Jun Gun to his country, I forward you an account of it. I arrived in Roebourne (the centre of the north-west district of this colony) about the middle of July, and started for a small station about 250 miles along the coast east of Roebourne called Yinadong, whence I started inland with Jun Gun, Timothy, and four horses. We travelled in an easterly direction over rough spinifex country for 150 miles, the only permanent water being a patch of mound springs which extend along a salt marsh for 20 miles. We met natives who knew Jun Gun, and he was so overjoyed at meeting his friends again that he wanted to leave me at once and walk to his country, so I let him go. I offered him flour and tobacco, but he refused them, saying he would rather live with the others on rats and lizards. He took off all his clothes, and got a spear from his mates, and started off with them in high spirits.

Jun Gun, it would seem, after about five months of being on display, had finally returned home.

McPhee continued with his letter stating that he’d met another Aboriginal man who looked similar to Jun Gun and then further mentioned he’d spoken to an older man who said that “when he was a boy he heard of a party of whites and horses dying a long way inland.” Once again a lost party (perhaps Leichhardt’s) was hinted at by McPhee.

Contradicting this letter, another website, The Batavia Legacy, writes that Jun Gun died in 1892 in Healesville, Victoria. Given the fact that the place of death is quite specific I deemed it worthy of follow up. I’ve left a comment on the blog but as at this post’s publishing date, it has not been approved nor responded to.

Their source for this statement however may have originated from a newspaper article printed in The West Australian in 1934. It adds the following extra detail (albeit slight) with regards to Jun Gun’s time in Victoria and adds weight to the aforementioned website’s claim.

He and his full-blooded compatriots, when not on exhibition, were taken up to one of the aboriginal reserves near Healsville (Victoria).

Jun Gun was not mentioned for several years until January 1893 when Western Australian newspapers picked up on a story printed in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper (USA) in which he was referred to by the American writer as “The Prince of the Red Desert“.

This article, by comparison to the others, went into a huge amount of detail relating to Jun Gun; providing descriptions of his appearance, his story, his tribe, language, how McPhee found him and even attempting to write the words of a tribal song he was singing whilst in Melbourne. While the accuracy with respect to the Indigenous language (reported as being ‘Naugamont’) has not been ascertained, the article itself provides a fascinating firsthand account of Jun Gun according to the writer’s observations. It is well worth a read.

His squatting, gold-bronzed figure was flanked on both sides by a woolly headed, coal-black native of his own tribe. The three were making the tabbee, the strange music of the irghilly, beating its two blades together rhythmically, rocking too and fro on their haunches, ankles crossed, and singing a low rolling hum in chromatics…

The American further organised a ‘transformation’ while he was at Lindt’s photographic studio and arranged for Jun Gun to be dressed up in a dark blue suit accessorised with a hat and cane. Finding him to be unrecognisable in the clothing, the writer stated, “His bearing was unassuming and precisely what is meant in the best use of the word aristocratic.

Having read through various newspaper articles and records relating to Jun Gun I find myself pondering the question, what was McPhee’s intention? Was he hoping to attract fame and fortune off the back of Jun Gun’s differing looks? Was he hoping that Jun Gun’s appearance would raise questions and ultimately result in a new expedition to look for Leichhardt? Despite the exhibition being about Jun Gun, Leichhardt  was mentioned often and it was McPhee who provided the quotes from Indigenous people about lost Europeans and horses; a carrot which continually enticed others to once again look for the lost explorers.

Early in 1890 (while in Melbourne) Alexander McPhee was described by the Victorian Express (Geraldton, WA) as a “gold prospector, explorer, story-teller, showman, etc.“. Perhaps McPhee (a natural story teller) simply recognised the talk, interest and questions which would arise from Jun Gun’s appearance and decided to use it to his advantage.

Unfortunately, despite all the information that is available, it is all one-sided. We can read about McPhee’s side of the story but we can’t read Jun Gun’s. We’ll never know whether it was Jun Gun’s choice to travel with McPhee or if he felt coerced in some way. We’ll never know how he felt to be on display; to be told to sing his tribal songs and make fire; to be looked over, prodded at and inspected by people full of opinions seeking to prove or disprove his Aboriginality; to stand on an oval and fend off viciously thrown cricket balls all in the name of Victorian era entertainment.  It is my hope that in the end Jun Gun really did return home to his family and his country but, in all honesty, we may never know.

Sources:

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2 thoughts on “The Prince of the Red Desert

  1. Amazing story! The amount of research you have done here is incredible. I think a lot of people will be interested to know that this happened!

    Like

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