The Fantastical Life of Daniel Solander: Australia’s First Swede | The Marais Project

The Marais Project has been celebrating little-known European music for over 20 years with a repertoire of folk and contemporary music incorporating the unique instrument the viola da gamba. In The Fantastical Life of Daniel Solander, the Marais Project turned their attention to the first Swedish man to step on Australian shores with the likes of Captain James Cook.

The program introduced Daniel Solander and his credentials as a scientist before following his exploits as an explorer in Aotearoa (New Zealand) and Australia, then known as New Holland. Using Swedish songs from the time, Australian colonial songs, and extracts from the journals of Captain James Cook and Sir Joseph Banks selected by Philip Pogson, the program recreated the atmosphere of the 18th century and Solander’s life of adventure and scientific exploration.

The trio of Susie Bishop on voice and violin, Tommie Andersson on guitar, and Jenny Eriksson on viola da gamba, began slowly with two poems by Swedish poet Carl Michael Bellman with music arranged by Andersson. Despite the cheerful popularity of the two songs, they felt rather melancholic compared to the following “Polska from Fu”, a jaunty dance number that livened up the feeling of cheer and excitement as Solander began his journey. Other stand-out songs included another polka “Catadon Polka” by George Strong, the bold and violin-heavy “Gullklimpen (The Golden Nugget)” by Timas Hans Hansson, and the solo guitar performance of Johan Wikmanson’s “Sonate för en Zittra” by Andersson which was hypnotising.

The extracts from Cook and Banks’s journals were well performed by Robert Snars and contributed greatly to the overall atmosphere of the concert, particularly as Snars was costumed like a learned gentleman of the era. However, it was troubling that, while there were some references to the Aboriginal nations being murdered and displaced alongside Solander’s scientific inquiry, the only voice provided for these people were two colonial poems by Irish Australian poet Eliza Hamilton Dunlop. It’s understandable to want to keep the programming contemporaneous but every representation of the colonisation of Australia is an opportunity to challenge whitewashed narratives of the time.

Overall, the Fantastical Life of Daniel Solander was a balanced celebration of the musical context for the first contact between Sweden and Australia with a program at times reflective and gentle, and at others lively. To see the Marais Project branch further out in their European and Australian musical connections is delightful and promising of more unusual programs to come.

The Fantastical Life of Daniel Solander: Australia’s First Swede was streamed online through Australian Digital Concert Hall on February 17th

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  1. Thanks for the review. We really appreciate your taking time to listen to and watch the show.

    As the script writer, can I just say a word about the approach taken to representation and voicing of First Nations’ peoples?

    There are a range of ways this could be done and your raise an important question. Although I have quite a deal of experience in working with First Nations’ individuals, communities and organisations – including both remote and urban communities – I did not feel able, nor did I believe it correct on my part, to ‘voice’ First Nations’ experience directly. So I chose to approach this vexed question in a number of ways. And of course I could be wrong.

    FIrstly, I was careful to write into the show reference to Tupia, the Polynesian navigator and linguist. I selected several passages from Cook and Banks’ diaries referring to him. I also use the Maori term for New Zealand – Aotearoa. The first extract from Cook’s journal refers to Aotearoa before the term ‘New Zealand’ is introduced:

    “Cook’s journal, Charlotte Sound, Aotearoa, known today as New Zealand”

    The script says ot Tupia:

    “In Tahiti their expedition was joined by Tupia, a talented Polynesian navigator and linguist. Tupia proved invaluable in guiding The Endeavour across the Pacific and in communicating with the Maori in Aotearoa.”

    I have read Joan Druett’s biography of Tupia cover to cover. Tupia’s advice to the crew and officers of The Endeavour was often discounted, and his talents overlooked or minimised.

    Secondly, every place I note Cook’s expedition visiting is given its First Nations’ place name if known, and the clan/tribe names are also given. I did this throughout the text to get across that this continent was named, OCCUPIED, owned and governed before Europeans arrived.

    For example, as to the First Nations’ engagement around Botany Bay, the narrator voice says:

    “Solander and his colleagues were on the lands of the Bidjigal, Gweagal and Kameygal clans of the Eora nation. The original inhabitants considered the unwanted visitors to be from the spirit world. Likewise, from the expedition’s perspective, there was much that was strange to European understanding. After white settlement in 1788, this clash of worldviews would have tragic consequences for generations of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders.”

    We chose the Nathan settings of Elizabeth Dunlop’s poems firstly because they are beautiful music and secondly because they show very early on, 1838, that despite the ‘clash of worldviews,’ some settlers knew murdering and taking land was wrong. As a woman, and an amateur poet, Dunlop was pilloried by the Colonial press for taking this view. She took a long term interest in First Nations peoples in the Hunter Valley where she lived, and wrote a mini dictionary of several dialects. My ancestor was a convict who arrived in 1821. When he was given his Ticket of Leave he was granted land in what is now Cherrybrook, Sydney. So my family, although poor convicts, were direct beneficiaries of the dispossession process.

    Thirdly, we clearly note and draw out the clash of world views – which comes through in Banks and Cooks diaries, and other explorer diaries such as those of Ernest Giles, the explorer of inland Australia. I have read Giles’ diaries and virtually every time FIrst Nations’ peoples resisted his incursions or attacked his party, he exhibited the same incomprehension as Cook that he was not received as an honoured guest. Giles’ horses drank waterholes dry and they shot all the game. Why shouldn’t the owners of the land by angry?

    Finally, when the story turns to The Endeavour and its crew leaving “New Holland” after being beached for repairs, the narrator makes the following unequivocal declaration:

    “On that day Cook declared the entire east coast of Australia to be a possession of the British crown. Yet the land was clearly occupied by “Indians” – that is, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. As with his superiors, Lieutenant Cook simply could not envisage the original inhabitants owning title to the estates he claimed for England at the stroke of a pen.”

    The alternative to telling a story imperfectly is to not tell it at all. I acknowledge the imperfections of my approach. It was after all a 1 hour show about Solander – with music. Colonisation changes everything. Through Solander, there was established a Swedish connection to the history of this continent. We cannot turn the clock back but we can try and tell this sub-story carefully and with sensitivity. All three members of The Marais Project have direct connnections to Sweden. One by birth, the other by descent and the third speaks the language.

    Thanks again for your comments and the challenges you threw out.


    Liked by 1 person


    1. Hello Philip,

      Wonderful! Thank you for reading and providing a thorough explanation for your reasoning. I think this provides excellent context to the script and the different artefacts incorporated. I don’t think there is a perfect way to represent colonisation and there will always be limitations, like you mention the time limit and focus on the music, so thank you for your thoughtful response. I hope readers find the additional information useful!



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