Good Reading : October 2005
goodreading 21 Discoveries: the voyages of Captain Cook, an attempt to re-imagine the experience of Cook’s first contacts across vast cultural chasms. A classic in the field, although from the perspective of an art historian rather than an anthropologist, is Bernard Smith’s European Vision and the South Pacific. Of course we might have been French; it wasn’t for lack of visits. Colin Dyer’s The French Explorers and the Aboriginal Australians surveys Gallic interest in Australia; Klaus Toft’s The Navigators provides a detailed examination of Baudin’s explora- tion of the Australian coast in competition with Flinders. Flinders is an exemplar of that late 18th century enlightenment person who is both a careerist and wildly emotional. No psych tests to pass in those days before sensitive appointments. Miriam Estensen’s The Life of Matthew Flinders is a sensitive biography of a man who loved his wife but left her for ten years because it was the only way to get promotion. Timing is everything, particularly in the history of European settlement.The rela- tively late settlement of Australia meant that we were not settled by refugees from reli- gious persecution but by the outscourings of Georgian Britain’s prison system. Louis Hartz’s thesis in The Founding of New Societies is that America was settled by puritans and got one country under God; Australia was settled by convicts and got institutionalised egalitarianism and rum for currency. Robert Hughes’s impressive account of the convict era, The Fatal Shore, will prob- ably stand the test of time. Hughes writes better than most and has some very sound insights into the Australian character; that curious combination of resentment of authority but respect for force being one of the most acute, if not most flattering. Hughes is also right to stress the fact that Sydney was established to be a prison, but one that was a very bold experiment in rehabilitation. Certain aspects of the penal policies of the late 18th century and early 19th century (especially of Macquarie) would be considered unbearably pro- gressive these days. Hughes does well to emphasise the boldness of the vision and its amazing success – as well as the horrors of places like Norfolk Island with its murder lotteries and psychopathic discipline. One of the best contemporary sources for the First Fleet is Watkin Tench’s diary, recently republished as 1788 with an introduction by Tim Flannery.Tench is a good example of the spirit of the late 18th century: rational, optimistic and curious, and his diary is an invaluable record of first contact with the Aboriginals and the pre- carious establishment of a viable European settlement. His perspective is largely free from the racial prejudice of later observers. Carolly Erickson’s The Girl from Botany Bay focuses on the career of Mary Broad, transported for robbery in company, her time in Port Jackson as the partner of Governor Phillip’s chief fisherman, and her subsequent escape in an open boat to Timor where she and her accomplices were arrested and returned to England. Her story is of particular interest because of the glimpse it provides of life at the bottom of the Georgian social pile: no place for the faint-hearted. The Floating Brothel by Sian Rees is in a similar vein. It focuses on the surprisingly well-documented female convicts who were transported as part of the Second Fleet. It’s a well-researched and well- written account of a group of people whose lives would normally not have been recorded. It also provides an insight into Georgian social engineering: women were necessary to divert the men from the occa- sion for vice. At one point it was proposed that Polynesian women be recruited for this purpose; this was a world far removed from the strictures of the Victorian period. All of these accounts of convict life – notwithstanding lashings of rum, sodomy and the cat-o-nine tails – bring out the enormous improvement in lifestyle possible for the transported. Not that all of the settlers agreed that this should be the result. The clash between the emancipists and the Rum Corps is perhaps the first great contest for the Australian identity.These days the emancipists would never get a look in but in the early settlement they found a champion in William Bligh, whose vision of a society of diligent smallholders would have produced a very different country than that which transpired. HV Evatt’s classic Rum Rebellion is a masterly piece of partisanship that will leave you wondering how someone as evil as John Macarthur ever made it onto the two dollar note.The truth is of course more complex, and for a more nuanced study read Man of Honour by Michael Duffy. Duffy emphasises Macarthur’s marginal respectability in an age where being a gentleman meant being prepared to fight a duel if you were insulted at a boozy din- ner party. But Macarthur was a resourceful australia Illustration on left from front cover of David Day’s Claiming a Continent published by HarperCollins. Illustration on right from Tony Robert’s Frontier Justice published by UQP.