Books Australia

Our colourful stories

3 January 2014

3:00 PM

3 January 2014

3:00 PM

That’s girt by sea, as in the national anthem. As a title, it fits the overall tone of the book, which revels in its unauthorisedness and genial silliness. Hunt lists his credentials as ‘historical consultant and comedy writer’, which seems both appropriate and tautological, although there is obviously a good deal of research here as well as considerable talent.

He makes the point that the country’s history (the book covers the period between initial white discovery and 1824, when the name Australia was coined) is fairly humorous to start with, lacking the drama, tragedy and wars of the development of many other countries (although the perspective of the indigenous people might be rather different). Convicts and sheep, basically. Lots of sheep. And rum.

But even before Botany Bay there were peculiar things. Why, for example, did Dutch explorers like to nail plates to poles? Why was Captain Cook seen as such as wonderful seaman when he was a lowly lieutenant and managed to run into the Great Barrier Reef?

Hunt has a good time injecting some colour into the rather dour-looking figures of the early period. Joseph Banks might be remembered for botany but apparently he tried to smuggle his mistress onto a ship, disguised as a man. Indeed, Banks liked to travel with an entourage as well as stock of alcoholic supplies. Perhaps that is where the national liking for a drink came from. In any case, his capacity for political and personal manipulation and his tendency to marry money helped to put Australia on the map, in a very literal way.

Quite a few more of the national characteristics appeared early. The First Fleet left port six months late, with too much of some things and not enough of others. It was a private-public enterprise, a bureaucratic device which would evolve into a way for everyone to claim credit while avoiding blame. Hunt appears to have a soft spot for Arthur Phillip, although he memorably describes him as ‘at school, the pale asthmatic kid with flat feet who was always picked last for team games’.

Nevertheless, he seemed to be the right person for a questionable job, especially when it became clear that the settlement site was not nearly as bountiful as Banks had promised — or, as Hunt notes: ‘Phillip rapidly realised that Banks was a lying bastard’. Phillip had mixed feelings about the indigenous population, a view that was reciprocated, at least until the newcomers started shooting them.

Despite an astonishing level of misunderstanding of the environment, the colony managed to cling on and eventually grow, in large part because Phillip had forgotten to pack a record of the convicts’ sentences and therefore found it easier to operate a forgive-and-forget policy. Many of them showed an entrepreneurial streak but unfortunately it usually involved liquor, in all its forms. Phillip had aimed to keep the colony ‘dry’ but, well, no one took it seriously.

In any case, John Macarthur would soon appear in the landscape, with a certain robber-baron panache. His interest in rather dubious property developments, his occasional sulks and his remarkable sense of self-entitlement would have made him entirely at home in the present-day NSW Labor Right, but in any case he saw the chance to make a lot of money/rum, which came in useful for the colony. Macarthur had a series of run-ins with Phillip and his successors, and Hunt enjoys recounting the endless stream of vitriolic correspondence about Macarthur’s wheeler-dealer ways. Macarthur was a key figure in the Rum Rebellion, a political event rivalling the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd thing in its lack of preparation and overall foolishness, although it was not clear which side he was on. Both, probably.

There were plenty of other colourful characters to parade through Hunt’s pages. Mary Reibey, who appears rather pallid on the $20 note, was, according to Hunt, a ‘convict entrepreneur and standover woman with a single-mindedly vicious approach to anyone who owed her money’. True, probably, but she got things done, with the support of the energetic, autocratic Governor Macquarie.

Macquarie also favoured the architect-cum-forger Francis Greenway, who was clever enough to name a lot of things after his patron. He had a great time tearing badly built things down and putting up strangely designed things. At least Greenway gets better treatment from Hunt than John Oxley, an explorer and surveyor who apparently explored very little and surveyed even less. This was when Sydney people started to complain about the city’s infrastructure, which turned into a habit and then a continuing obsession.

But Hunt is the first to admit that some of the most colourful stories come from the decidedly non-famous. A particular favourite was the group of Irish convicts who tried to escape by walking to China, equipped only with a paper compass. They got 26 miles, which wasn’t bad under the circumstances.

Is all of this, or indeed any of it, reliable? Probably not, or at least no less unreliable than what passes for the official version of the story. Some of it is laugh-out-loud funny, much of it evokes a wry smile. But there is a more important point, an indication of how our national character came to be, with all its eccentricities and warts and occasional flashes of nobility. And it reminds us not to take ourselves too seriously. Not that there was ever much chance of that.

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