Cruise ship reading provides reflections on Australia's past
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Cruise ship reading provides reflections on Australia's past

With time to spare on board ship, David Biles takes to the books and discovers a literary conundrum.

I have written about life aboard cruise ships before; in April this year, in fact. On that occasion I drew attention to the pettifogging rules defining what was meant by formal and smart casual as far as the dress codes for dinner are concerned, as well as many other rules that aim to control just about every aspect of the lives of passengers.

Without going down that track again, in this piece I would like to be more positive and draw attention to the obvious fact that shipboard life offers opportunities for reading serious works one doesn't have time to read at home. On this cruise, I have read three books in the first three weeks (not fast, I admit, but it is a holiday), each of which turned out to be most worthwhile, and two of them had an unexpected connection.

The first book was The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines made Australia, by Bill Gammage, an ANU historian. This monumental work has been awarded a valuable prize by the Prime Minister. It could not be described as light or easy reading, but Gammage's underlying thesis is easy enough to summarise. He accepts the proposition that Aborigines were hunters and gatherers before white settlement, but they also managed the land by carefully controlled burning to create park-like estates that provided excellent grazing for kangaroos (and also later for sheep and cattle).

The evidence he produces is overwhelming and extraordinarily detailed. It includes numerous descriptions of the land from the first wave of white explorers as well as, even more importantly, copies of paintings of early landscapes, usually by junior officers but also sometimes by convicts. These paintings are compared with contemporary photographs taken from the same positions, which strikingly illustrate the changes that have taken place since white settlement.

Gammage also makes a point that is particularly relevant to the third book in this group. He argues the traditional Aboriginal lifestyle based on land management only required one or two hours' work a day, leaving plenty of time for play, story-telling, politics and contact with neighbouring tribes.

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The second book was Letters to my daughter: Robert Menzies, Letters, 1955-1975, edited by Heather Henderson. This provides a fascinating glimpse of one side of Menzies' private life, but, as it addresses issues quite different from the other two books, I will move on.

The third book is a novel, The Secret River by Kate Grenville, published in 2005. This book has been awarded some prestigious literary prizes.

It is the story of an English convict, William Thornhill, who is transported to NSW with his wife and children in the early 19th century. He could neither read nor write, but he did know about boats, especially rowing or sailing them. He certainly knew nothing of Aborigines, and this lack of knowledge becomes a central theme of the story.

For his first few years in Australia Thornhill was theoretically assigned to his own wife as far as his work was concerned, but after a short time he is given a ticket of leave and, eventually, a full pardon. He acquired a boat and made a modest living carrying produce around Sydney Harbour.

His life changed dramatically, however, when he identified a piece of land on the (then largely unknown) Hawkesbury River.

He formally applied to the Governor to be granted 100 acres (40 hectares) of land beside the river as his private property. The Governor agreed to the request, to Thornhill's surprise, apparently on the ground that any settler who was willing to accept the risks of possible conflict with the Aborigines was worthy of support.

Thornhill and his ever-increasing family moved onto the new property with a general plan to make money by transporting produce from other settlers to Sydney and also growing corn. He was even assigned two convicts as labourers.

Thornhill was unaware of the presence of Aborigines on his property, but on his first inspection of the land in detail with two of his sons he found that at least one section had been dug over with a plant that he did not recognise. He then pulled out this strange plant and proceeded to plant a small area with corn seeds. He later established a type of relationship with the Aborigines, but there was no mutual trust. His wife did slightly better by making gifts for the Aboriginal women.

Thornhill and his fellow settlers along the Hawkesbury generally saw the Aborigines as good-for-nothings, and his sons seemed to be among the most prejudiced. Thinking their lives were in danger, they believed the Aborigines needed to be taught a lesson.

One day, Thornhill and his sons saw a large fire burning on their property and initially thought the Aborigines had lit it to destroy their living quarters and drive them from their land, but they soon realised this was a controlled burn. Grenville's description here matches that of Gammage, one difference being that she did not use the word ''pick'' for the green shoots that attract the kangaroos.

This overlapping of unusual views presents something of a literary conundrum. Did she seek the views of Gammage, or perhaps one of his colleagues? If she did, it must have been very early in the Gammage project, as her book was published a full five years before his. Or did Gammage get any of his ideas from her? Perhaps one or both of these eminent writers may find time to let us know some of the answers to these questions.

David Biles is a Canberra consultant criminologist. This piece was written while at sea somewhere between South Korea and Japan.

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