Upfield, upon his return to
from Australia Europe after serving in the Australian Army in WW I, found work in the outback in a variety of jobs including work along the No. 1 Rabbit Proof Fence.
While living in the bush he worked on his writing.
The first book, The Barrakee Mystery, for his enduring character, Bony, was published in 1929.
Travis Lindsey in his Master’s thesis, available on the official Upfield site, discusses the origins of Bony from Follow My Dust!, Jessica Hawke’s biography of Upfield:
According to Hawke, in her biographical work written in collaboration with Arthur Upfield, Upfield was boundary-riding from an outstation for five months around 1924 with one other, a part-Aboriginal, part-European called Tracker Leon, who had spent some years as a tracker with the
police. Queensland was supposedly found as a baby with his dead mother in the shade of a sandalwood tree. He had been brought up in a mission school, where he made such progress that he was afforded a high school education. Leon
Hawke’s account continues that the even-tempered, pedantic Tracker was brown-skinned, lean, of less than middle height, and possessed of eyes of a piercing blue. Unusually for one not of pure Aboriginal descent, he bore the cicatrices of the fully initiated.
Lindsey subsequently sets out other examples of Upfield providing slightly different sources for Bony.
In a 1950 interview for The San Francisco Chronicle newspaper he refers to meeting a half-caste aborigine of exceptional intelligence who taught him tracking and tried to interest him in The Iliad.
In an unpublished autobiographical work from 1938 Lindsey says Upfield referred to meeting a swagman “around 1925 on the road to Bourke”. He refers to traveling together for a month and engaging in sophisticated historic, ideological and political discussions.
Lindsey believes the explanations of Upfield are as fictional as Bony. He is satisfied from comparing when and how the explanations were given that they were created to satisfy public and press demand for an explanation of Bony’s origins.
Conducting a literary detective investigation he reaches the conclusion that Upfield was actually inspired by another author, Catherine Martin. In her 1923 book, The Incredible Journey, she features an Aborigine woman, Iliapa, but also has a prominent male character an Aborigine, Nanka, that Lindsey believes was the origin of Bony. He quotes Nanka’s description of himself in The Incredible Journey:
You know I have been long, long away from all my own people, (he said). A police trooper took me to
Alice Springs, then away to the . For many years I have been a tracker to the police force. I am now, but not in uniform. I am on what they call the secret service. They gave me the name of being one of the most cunning trackers in Northern Territory . When the inspector of police wants to find things out from the blacks he will sometimes say, “You may as well tell me what really took place, for we have a tracker here, as you know, who can become the very shadow of a guilty man. He may then go to the left or to the right, to the north, south, east or west; he may lie in a cave; or climb a mountain to the sky; he may hide among the rushes round a swamp, or go far by the Great Salt Water that has only one shore; but Jim - that is what they call me - will find him. Jim can track a spider or a bullock, a man or a lizard, even on horseback, running all the time, hardly looking at the ground.” After a time they sent me sometimes all alone as far as Australia and Queensland to find out about men who were thought to have done some evil thing. I have been sent here in that way. I will tell you why. Some moons ago an inspector of police came on a visit from New South Wales . One day he got a letter from a brother who looks after the men that are in prison all their lives. One of these is a boundary-rider of Roalmah, who was tried some years ago for killing a black man one night at the Wonka Creek. . . . The boundary-rider paid a very clever man of law to speak for him, so he was not hung, only kept all the time in prison. Adelaide
There are differences between Bony and Nanka but Lindsey makes a convincing argument Upfield drew on Martin’s character, Nanka, to create Bony.
(There have been some interesting comments on my review of The Battling Prophet about the merits of Upfield as an author.)