‘Much to my surprise in Dec last I received a particularly choice box of seeds, and your polite note, requesting a return of the Native seeds of Augusta’ wrote Georgiana Molloy on 21 March 1837 in her first letter to Captain James Mangles, an amateur botanist in London. Molloy had emigrated from England to south-west Western Australia with her husband John Molloy, arriving in 1830. Her phrase refers to the exchange of seeds — both English and Australian — which was to become the foundation of her relationship with Mangles. Yet her inclusion of the adjective ‘Native’ to describe these seeds signals a problematic relationship with the flora and with the Noongar people who helped to collect the seeds for her.
Molloy, born in Carlisle in England in 1805, was devout in her Presbyterian beliefs and prone to proselytising. She was accustomed to a life of leisure and numbered botany among her interests. Her husband, John Molloy delete , had fought against Napoleon, but after becoming a captain in 1824 and finding further promotion elusive, he proposed to Georgiana in 1829 and the couple set sail for the Swan River Colony. Upon their arrival, however, the Molloys found the settlement process in chaos, and, together with a handful of other emigrants, they elected to sail south to the new town of Augusta, the third British outpost in the colony regally named after the sixth son of King George III, the monarch who lost Britain’s North American colonies. A few days after they landed, the heavily pregnant Georgiana gave birth to their first child, a girl. Over the course of ten days, the baby became progressively unwell, then died.
This sense of nauseating stress, of being out of place in an environment, first made me empathise with Molloy in that tent on the shores of Augusta, her first child dying in her arms. She was in a tent in the driving rain, beyond which were the strange cries of birds and a landscape of towering trees that she described to her sister Elizabeth Besley in 1832 as ‘the unbounded limits of thickly clothed dark green forests where nothing can be described to feast the imagination.’ Not only was the land surrounding her inexpressible, but so was her grief.
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