In recent years there has been a shift in how Australian history is presented. The staid, formal prose outlining dry, dusty facts has given way to a narrative which remains factual but conveys history in an accessible manner. One of the most successful recent historians in this vein is David Hunt. His book on early Australian colonial history, Girt, has now been followed by True Girt. For those unfamiliar with the Australian national anthem, there is a line ‘our home is girt by sea’ which lends itself to the title of the books.
Recently I was fortunate enough to hear Hunt speak on Australian history. He began by quoting Mark Twain on Australian history, how it is “almost always picturesque … so curious and strange … full of surprises and adventures, and incongruities, and contradictions, and incredibilities; but they are all true, they all happened.” Emphasis was placed on the astounding efforts of the human capital – the convicts, the soldiers, the free settlers – who transformed the landscape to something vastly different from the initial concept of a remote penal settlement. The devastation this caused on Aboriginal communities and the environmental landscape is acknowledged, but it remains a remarkable feat.
The Australian history taught in high school for many years was summed up by Hunt as sheep, gold, sheep, rum and sheep. One of his aims is to shift the focus onto making history enjoyable and relevant. His first book, Girt, focused on the early years of colonisation, including the power struggles between the governors and the new squattocracy. True Girt is darker. It is about frontier country, the explorers, bushrangers and the darker side of the destruction of Aboriginal communities and ways of life.
Facts are delivered with a health dose of irony and humour. When listing some of the bushrangers he included Alexander Pearce (the cannibal convict in Tasmania), Black Mary (bushranging offered equal opportunities for employment) and the man featured on the book’s cover, Captain Moonlite. Moonlite’s story was covered in poignant detail, including the eventual reunion in death with his very good friend, James Nesbitt.
There were tales from the explorers, too. These included the bickering Hume and Hovell, who I’d now like to know more about, and the rather absurd cargo that larger expeditions took along. The Burke and Wills entourage included a stationery cabinet and Chinese dinner gong. The camels were given rum to drink and weren’t used at all for the first month or so to conserve their energy for the desert. Men carried the supplies instead. And then there’s the story of the camel who shot (and killed) an explorer. Harry wasn’t a pleasant camel.
And this is just a taste of the historical joys that await discovery. What brings history to life for you?
[Photo: Old Buttery at Bellingen, NSW]