Reminiscences: A New Look at an Old Document

Tom Petrie’s Reminiscences of Early Queensland, written by his daughter Constance, provides detailed accounts of many aspects of Aboriginal culture and relates the experiences and adventures of Tom and his family from the 1830s to the 1860s. Reminiscences first appeared in serial form in the Queenslander from 26 April 1902 to 7 August 1903, though not in its entirety; it was published in book form in 1904. For a work that is extensively cited and recognised as an authority on Aboriginal and settler history in southeast Queensland, Reminiscences has attracted little critical analysis apart from Mark Cryle’s Introduction to the 1992 edition.

Reminiscences is a mix of several genres, including autobiography, biography, ethnology and anecdote, all of which rely on oral evidence. In 1905, A. G. Stevens called it “one of the most interesting and valuable books yet printed in Australia.” While it is an important historical document it contains elements of the colonial adventure romance. Reminiscences portrays a drama of the brave, enterprising settler/pioneer struggling to make a life for himself on a violent frontier. The story reinforces the positive image of a humanitarian, larrikin ancestor/colonist against the backdrop of a wild and savage land, perhaps satisfying the urge to recognise that which is best in ourselves in our “glorious” past.

Whether or not Reminiscences is accurate in every aspect, it has been accepted and lauded as an authentic account of life in early Brisbane. It was one of many memoirs of this type, written by squatters in their later years. W. H. Wilde and David Headon state in The Oxford Companion to Australian Literature that

the stream of memoirs and reminiscences continued undiminished in the second half of the nineteenth century. The writers, usually erstwhile squatters, government officials and public figures, reflected, often from heightened imagination of their twilight years, on the lively colonial times they had lived through.

According to Cryle, Reminiscences is important as a source because it is impartial and tells the past as Petrie saw it, and that “Petrie offers a rare glimpse—a ‘non-official’ perspective with no vested interest in reporting what ought to have happened. Rather it relates what did happen.” Perhaps one of the strongest declarations in Reminiscence’s favour was made by F. W. S. Cumbrae-Stewart in the Presidential Address he delivered at the Annual Meeting of the Historical Society of Queensland in 1918: “Mr Petrie’s book consists of two parts, the first of which relates to the blacks of Moreton Bay. On this subject it is the authority. No one knew more about the native inhabitant of this country than Thomas Petrie, or was on better terms with them.” As a historical source, Reminiscences is cited extensively in The Petrie Family: Building Colonial Brisbane (1992) by Dimity Dornan and Denis Cryle and appears in the Select Bibliography of The Commissariat Store (2001) by Tania Cleary and published by the Royal Historical Society of Queensland. However, it ranks no mention in historian Raymond Evans’ A History of Queensland (2007).

Constance’s inclusion of her own research, such as in the form of botanical names of plants, enhanced the perception of Reminiscences as being written in the scientific mode, thereby increasing its perceived authority and authenticity. An example of this appears on page 107 of Reminiscences: “Other dillies were made from bark-string, such as that of the ‘ngoa-nga’ (Moreton Bay fig-tree), the ‘braggain’ (Laportea sp.), the ‘nannam’ vine (Malaisia tortuosa), and the ‘cotton bush’ or ‘talwalpin’ (Hibiscus tiliaceus), found on the beach at Wynnum or elsewhere.”

Tom & Constance Petrie

Constance paints a picture of her father as a benevolent “master” or “brother” to the Turrbal who supposedly adored him, and he reveals himself to be a mischievous type who enjoyed sharing stories and jokes. Seen through Constance’s eyes, her father is a hero, an almost mythical personage she has constructed from the stories he had told her since her birth. To be sure, Constance was never going to write anything that would bring disrepute on her family; on the contrary, Reminiscences was written to reinforce the public image of the Petries, especially her father, as paragons of virtue and great pioneering heroes in Queensland’s history. Reminiscences is a collection of narratives, many of which were passed on to Tom by convicts, squatters and Aboriginal people.

Arguably the greatest acclaim for Tom Petrie and Reminiscences comes from Maroochy Barambah, Turrbal songwoman and law-woman, a direct descendant of Kulkarawa, whom Tom knew and mentions in the book. In her speech at the unveiling of the Tom Petrie Memorial in Petrie in 2010, she acknowledged the value of Tom’s accounts of the Turrbal people and his experience of them as “one of the most invaluable sources of information about life in the Moreton Bay penal colony.”

Beyond upholding the Petrie reputation, one of the principal reasons Tom and Constance wrote Reminiscences was to defend the Aboriginal people by providing justifications for their behaviour and to refute their portrayal as a treacherous and barbaric race. One example of this is when Constance presents a long dialogue between Dalaipi, the epitome of the “Noble Savage” who has refused the temptations offered by the whites, and Tom (182/83):

Before the whitefellow came,” Dalaipi said, “we wore no dress, but knew no shame, and were all free and happy; there was plenty to eat, and it was a pleasure to hunt for food. Then when the white man came among us, we were hunted from our ground, shot, poisoned, and had our daughters, sisters, and wives taken from us. Could you blame us if we killed the white man? If we had done likewise to them, would they not have murdered us?

Reminiscences was written at a time of a decline in fortune for Tom and his family due mainly to drought, and must have produced sorely-needed income. The book was the catalyst for the recognition Constance sought for her father and which came about when Governor William MacGregor unveiled a monument to honour Tom’s deeds in 1911, the year after his death. The ceremony was accompanied by the change of name of the community from North Pine to Petrie. Unfortunately, this decision sparked controversy and opposition from the local population for many years after the event and was one factor that ultimately led to Constance’s decline in health and her incarceration in the Goodna Asylum where she died in 1924, her father’s greatest defender.

Author Interview – Australian Authors

Mt Mulligan Map

Australian Authors: Tell us a little about yourself? Perhaps something not many people know?

I first left Australia aged twenty excited at the prospect of discovering the world. Over the years, the more I travelled the heavier my backpack became as I replaced non-essentials such as clothes with books. Travelling through Europe, the US and then overland through Asia, living and working in diverse countries was a huge learning experience. For many years I read only nonfiction as I learnt about religion, philosophy, society, culture, the environment and so on. The first time I put pen to paper (apart from the rare letter home) was during a writing retreat in the south of France. Poetry was my preferred mode at the time and I eventually compiled a collection which has never seen the light of day. All these life experiences have contributed to how I see the world and the way I now write historical fiction.

Australian Authors: What made you want to become a writer?

I have always been an avid reader but only came to writing in my thirties when I started with poetry. In what seems like another life I taught astrology and when my students suggested I write down my teachings I did so. My book on astrology and meditation was published (in French) in Switzerland. As a teacher (ESL, astrology) I tried to make learning fun. The environment and nature are of great interest to me and I wanted to create a learning resource on the subject that was fun and exciting for students. My next work was a workbook for secondary students that explores ecosystems and Indigenous peoples of the world.

Historical fiction has always been a preferred genre with the likes of James Michener, Ken Follett, Bernard Cornwall, Kate Grenville, Wilbur Smith, Margaret Atwood, Conn Iggulden, Tom Keneally, Diana Gabaldon, Peter Carey etc. among my favourites. I am fascinated by history and these authors offered a window to the past: the cultures, customs and beliefs of our predecessors.

In 2004 I fulfilled a lifetime ambition and did a BA at university with majors in writing and environmental studies. I then set up a website for Francophiles before continuing my studies through Honours (a memoir set in France) followed by a PhD in creative writing. The PhD involved writing an exegesis on authenticity and the historical novel and writing the novel “Turrwan” set mostly in Queensland in the nineteenth century. Feedback from readers of “Turrwan” led me to expand the story of the Petrie family into a saga spanning one hundred years.

Australian Authors: What gives you inspiration for your book(s)?

My first novel “Turrwan” was inspired by the story of Tom Petrie who arrived at the Moreton Bay Penal Colony with his parents in 1837. Six-year-old Tom grew up with the local Aboriginal people, learnt their language and became initiated as one of the clan. There are very few novels treating Queensland’s early history and relationships between blacks and whites on the violent frontier. Tom’s daughter Constance recorded her father’s experiences which were published as “Tom Petrie’s Reminiscences of Early Queensland” in 1904. This work, recognized as an authority on Aboriginal customs, stories and beliefs, was the foundation on which my novel was built. My second novel “White Ghosts” begins in 1824 and recounts the arrival of the first whites to settle in Queensland and the consequent establishment of Brisbane. The past holds many lessons that can help us understand the present.

Australian Authors: Now, the big question, are you working on another book?

Yes, I am. I’m working on a story set in the coal-mining ghost town of Mt Mulligan about 100 km due west of Cairns in Far North Queensland where I spent the first four years of my life until the mine was closed down in 1957. The mountain, Ngarrabullgan as it is known to the Kuku Djungan, is one of the most sacred and oldest sites in Queensland with proof of human habitation dating back 40,000 years. What the local Aboriginal people know as the birthplace of the Rainbow Serpent is a tabletop mountain 18 km long by 6.5 km wide and rising between 200 to 400 metres above the surrounding countryside. In 1876, intrepid explorer James Venture Mulligan discovered payable gold along the Hodgkinson River which flows along the eastern flank of the monolith (ten times bigger than Uluru). Miners flooded to the area but the field was never as rich as the Palmer to the north. When coal was discovered under the mountain in 1907 the gold had petered out. On a September morning in 1921 a massive explosion rocked the mine resulting in the death of all 75 men working underground at the time. Aboriginal people are supposed to have said that it was retribution for digging into the sacred mountain. The only original building remaining is the hospital which is now the homestead for a working cattle ranch that welcomes visitors.

Australian Authors: What genres do you prefer to write in?

Historical fiction and memoir.

Australian Authors: What do you think about the ebook revolution?

At first it looked like the ebook revolution would lead to the demise of the physical book but this has not been the case. The advantage of the ebook is the low cost as it allows for greater access to stories worldwide without the sometimes prohibitive cost of freight. Personally, I prefer the feel of a book, its weight, the crisp paper, even the smell emanating from the pages and also because it too has a history.

Australian Authors: Do you start a book with a definite plot, or do you just write?

For “Turrwan” I started with a rough story outline that built on Tom Petrie’s life and experiences as they unfolded. As my stories are closely tied to the historical record this acts as the base for the plot. In an early draft of “White Ghosts” I kept jumping back and forwards in time until I realised how confusing this approach was.
Australian Authors: Pen or type writer or computer?
So far all of my work has been hand written with a mechanical pencil. I then type everything on the computer which allows for a first edit.

Australian Authors: Do your characters seem to hijack the story, or are you always in control?

Mostly, I’m in control, I think.

Australian Authors: Are your characters based on real people or completely imagined?

My main characters are based on real people and some that I have created. I didn’t want to write a biography and have inserted fictitious characters to challenge the factual ones and to enliven the narrative. I have been told that some of the characters I have invented seem more real than the historical figures. Some real people such as the infamous absconder and raconteur Sheik Black Jack Brown in “White Ghosts” would be almost impossible to imagine and readers would find it hard to believe that this person could exist but he did.

Australian Authors: Have you thought about joining with another author to write a book?

Not really. I prefer to work by myself.

Australian Authors: Who are your favourite authors?

I cited a number of historical fiction authors above but I also enjoy crime and thrillers from the likes of Michael Connelly, Sue Grafton, Deon Meyer, Ian Rankin, Tony Park, Jane Harper, J K Rowling, Lee Child, John Grisham, the list is endless. Then in general fiction: Alex Miller, Melissa Luckashenko, Richard Flanagan, Peter Temple, Isabel Allende, Tim Winton, Joanne Harris. . . I also read a lot of non-fiction for my research and I have posted a bibliography of works consulted in writing “Turrwan” and “White Ghosts” on my website.

Australian Authors: What’s your advice to Authors? On writing? Publishing? Marketing?

The old adage “write what you know” comes to mind as it certainly makes life easier. Having lived in the Brisbane region for over twenty years allowed me to explore the places where my stories unfold and get a better grasp of what the early settlers might have experienced. It’s always important to keep the reader in mind – who are you writing for?

An emerging author has little to no chance of being taken up by a major publisher so self-publishing is the only avenue. However, writers beware as there are a lot of sharks and dodgy publishing houses that are only after your money. I use which is funded by the Arts Council in the UK while Ingram Spark is another possibility.
Marketing is probably the hardest bit for most authors as we would prefer to be writing rather than trying to flog our books. There is no end of “how to” books telling us what we should be doing: book launch, author talks, website, social media etc.