Patrick O’Brian: Master Historical Novelist

master-and-commanderWhile reading a novel by Greg Iles I came across the name of Patrick O’Brian and looked him up on google. How could I have missed this master of the historical novel during my PhD research? I went straight to the library and borrowed the first book in the Aubrey/Maturin series, Master and Commander, published in 1969.

The story is loosely based on historical events during the Napoleonic wars. Jack Aubrey is a likeable, cheerful fellow, a strict but not tyrannical captain, an adherent to naval tradition, and one hell of a sailor. He loves music and enjoys wit and humour (though he is no wit himself). While he is a genius at sea he is quite hopeless on land and easily falls into the hands of miserable shysters who fleece him of his hard-won gains. Known as “Lucky Jack” because of his success in taking prizes, he works his way up through the ranks of the Royal Navy.

His particular friend Stephen Maturin of Irish/Catalan descent and described as quite ugly in appearance is a qualified physician and natural philosopher who has written a book about the treatment of sailors. His botanical studies and writings underpin his reputation as a brilliant scholar.

Jack and Stephen meet through music and it is this shared love that forms the foundation of their relationship as they spend many an evening at sea playing fiddle and cello together. Steven signs with Jack as ship’s surgeon so that he can visit far-off lands to pursue his research of flora and fauna. Stephen is also a spy for the British Admiralty and often finds himself in hairy situations.

O’Brian has created two wonderful characters with great depth and psychological insight; hms-surpriseother minor characters are well-rounded. He describes everyday life aboard a fighting ship in detail, taking the reader in for a close look at how the navy functions. One of the most important aspects of his writing is his use of language. Here is an example of how he describes some rotters: “slack-arsed, bloody-minded, flute-playing, fiddle-scraping, present-seeking, tale-bearing, double-poxed hounds.” He uses many old-fashioned words and phrases no longer used today to add much colour to the narrative. While this adds to the pleasure of reading it can at times be confusing as the meaning is not always clear. He also goes into much detail about sailing and one has to persist in learning the nautical terminology or simply let it slip past like the water rushing along the side of the ship as Jack adds more sails to coax an extra knot’s speed in his chase of a fat prey. Just the same I now know the difference between a spritsail and a topgallant.

Master and Commander: Far Side of the World is a 2003 film starring Russell Crowe as Jack and Paul Bettany as Stephen, which is based on three of the Aubrey/Maturin novels. If you enjoy the first book of the series you can look forward to another twenty, the last of which is an unfinished manuscript.

White Writing Black: 1 Whiteness and Representation

Lionel Shriver’s speech at the Brisbane Writer’s Festival about appropriation and the ensuing reactions prompted me to dust off “White Writing Black” a major chapter in my PhD thesis. Here I present a revised edition of the first section and will follow with more later.

conrad-martens-stockmanThe non-Indigenous writer creating stories set in Australia faces a dilemma: whether or not to write about the Aboriginal people and their culture, and if so, how. In the words of José Borghino, policy director at International Publishers Association, “the politics of speaking in an Aboriginal voice, if you’re not Aboriginal, is at best fraught and at worst a nightmare.” However, to write a novel set in early Brisbane, as mine is, with little mention of the original inhabitants would be to provide a false impression, an inauthentic portrayal of the true situation and to perpetuate the myth of terra nullius. Yet, as a white person, if I include Aboriginal characters, I need to be aware of the complexities involved in speaking for and about their experiences.

Many Indigenous people still feel resentment and anger about our colonial past and the inability of whites to understand the circumstances that created the present situation. Aboriginal people are also angry about the way they have been portrayed in white literature. Jackie Huggins contends that much of what non-Indigenous people have written about the Aboriginal people “has been patronising, misconstrued, pre-conceived and abused.”

The majority of representations of the Australian Aboriginal people in literature before 1788 were for the most part negative. The original inhabitants of this continent were described as “the miserablest People in the World” by William Dampier, and as “naked, treacherous, and armed with Lances, but extremely cowardly” by Sir Joseph Banks. When Cook wrote about Australia in the 18th century, he said the Aboriginal people were uncivilised, thus paving the way for terra nullius and possession. They were further stereotyped by the early Sydney newspapers which ridiculed the so-called “civilised” Aboriginal people, thus creating the stereotype of the “‘ignoble savage’: an ugly, comic figure whose image persisted well into the twentieth century.”

Australian colonial texts were dominated by a “discourse of savagery,” Clare Bradford argues, which situated the Aboriginal people “on the very border between men and animals.” On the other hand, stories that explore the violence and displacement suffered by the Aboriginal people as a consequence of settlement, “call into question the legitimacy of Australia’s foundation and undermine notions of progress and growth, and they thus constitute a threat to colonial discourse.”

Larissa Behrendt argues that frontier narratives are “colonial constructions” that can promote a false image of settler interactions with the first people of Australia. She asserts that we must challenge the stereotypes embedded in the colonial mindset in order to combat its inherent prejudices in contemporary society and, in particular, the law. One such frontier narrative is Eliza Fraser’s story. Following the shipwreck of the Stirling Castle in 1836, Fraser became a cult figure after her rescue and supposedly factual account of her time spent with the Aboriginal people passed into folklore, the extremely negative images of the Aboriginal people planted firmly into

Spearing of Fraser

Spearing of Fraser

the subconscious of countless whites. The impact of these types of narrative on Australian society was significant because they created “a version of history, which constructed stereotypes of Aboriginal Australians that gave impetus for the development of government policies and then continued to create societal support for ‘civilising’ through assimilative and segregative policies.”

The Aboriginal voice is totally absent from these “captivity” narratives which are used as vindication for politicians to intervene and control Aboriginal people, because “they” are dangerous and pose a threat to “Empire.” The real story, according to Behrendt, is that Fraser was saved by the Butchulla women, as she would not have survived without their help. The silencing of the Aboriginal voice denies the positive role the Aboriginal people played on the frontier–that is, they worked hard for the white people in various roles and, most importantly, how the women helped with childbirth and childcare. Fraser’s narrative, and others like it–which are supposedly authentic accounts of the past–disempower Aboriginal women and deprive them of “authority, responsibility and independence, making misogyny a legacy of colonialism for Aboriginal women.”

Colonial folklore and the law perpetuate the dichotomy of them/us, empire/other, civilised/barbarians. In response, Behrendt constructs her own narrative based on the 1997 Report, Bringing Them Home: “captured by savages . . . suffered cruel abuse at the hands of the savages . . . treated like slaves . . . suffered a fate worse than death.” In this way, she shows that it was the Aboriginal people who suffered violence at the hands of the colonisers, not the other way around.

reminiscencesTom Petrie’s Reminiscences of Early Queensland, though not a novel, is one example of a work written through “a sense of loss for traditional Indigenous lifestyles.” Walter Roth, Chief Protector of Aborigines, states in a letter to the editor included as a Note in Reminiscences that “the aborigines are fast dying out, and with them one of the most interesting phases in the history and development of man.” Constance Petrie was thus encouraged to record her father’s memories of the Aboriginal way of life before it was too late. In the mid-twentieth century, according to Margaret Merrilees, Australian novelists such as Eleanor Dark, Katherine Susannah Pritchard and Xavier Herbert were determined activists whose writing and political actions played a major role in bringing Aboriginal people into the drawing rooms of the white populace “at a time when few Aboriginal people had the resources, the language or the will to do so.” Contemporary Australians now have access to a wide range of writing by Aboriginal authors, beginning with David Unaipon’s Native Legends (1929) and continuing through the works of Oodgeroo Noonuccal to Kim Scott and Alexis Wright.

As a non-Indigenous writer I am aware that the Aboriginal people do not need me to tell their story and my decision to make those who inhabited the Brisbane area in the nineteenth century central figures in my novel is, as writer Margaret Merrilees puts it, “a conscious choice: a political choice, in the context of the times.” Moreover, I believe that a work that recounted Tom Petrie’s life without the Aboriginal people could in no way be an authentic rendering of the past.

In my opinion the interaction between the colonisers and the Aboriginal people is a shared heritage that can and should be explored by both black and white and that there are benefits for both sides in this process. Allan Robins argues that observing a culture from the outside can be beneficial and that representing Indigeneity from the exterior can promote understanding between cultures:

With due care, non-Indigenous representations of Indigeneity may prove useful, not only to the representer, but also to the represented: as Indigenous people become more aware of how they are perceived, and the changes that take place in those perceptions over time, they may become more able to formulate more and more effective understandings, responses and counter-representations of their own.

Positive representation of Aboriginal people by a white writer can lead non-Indigeindexnous readers to the realisation that Indigenous people are not really that different from ourselves. According to Melissa Lucashenko, Nene Gare in her The Fringe Dwellers (1961), “had the imagination and the life experience to portray for a white audience—and maybe for the first time—a world in which Aboriginal men and women are both decent and normal, despite their being treated as far less than that.” This positive recognition of the “other” heightens understanding and is a step along the path to reconciliation.

Young and Haley argue that, rather than harm Indigenous culture, writings by outsiders can benefit those cultures by stimulating interest and creating an audience for Indigenous literature. They further highlight the value of literature in inter-cultural understanding:

In the process of communication between cultures, literature has a vitally important moral role to play. It is through literature that readers undertake to imagine what it would be to be someone else, someone perhaps completely different, just as women can understand and imaginatively identify with a male character from the inside and vice versa, so can members of other cultural communities.

Stories written by a non-Aboriginal person about our common past thus represent an opportunity for discussion and the advancing of the reconciliation process. In order for contemporary Australians to move beyond the barriers of racism we need to look at our past relationships and recognise how they have shaped our present attitudes. According to Merrilees, “part of the way we unlearn our white racism is by telling stories, as honestly as we can—our stories of what’s happened, the interactions between races in this country.” It is this knowledge of where we came from, who our ancestors were and what they did that can lead us to greater tolerance and compassion for those who are different to ourselves. And these stories, especially if they are told by someone who has experienced Indigenous cultures, are important for all Australians. However, the way we tell these stories is critical to the way they are received by Indigenous and non-Indigenous readers alike.


Behrendt, Larissa. “The Eliza Fraser Captivity Narrative: A Tale of the Frontier, Femininity, and the Legitimazation of Colonial Law.” Saskatchewan Law Review 63 (2000): 145-84.

Borghino, José. “Rumbles in the Zeitgeist.” Australian Book Review 256 (2003): 46-47.

Bradford, Clare. Reading Race: Aboriginality in Australian Children’s Literature. Carlton, Vic.: Melbourne UP, 2001.

Huggins, Jackie. “Respect V Political Correctness.” Australian Author 26.3 (1994): 12-13.

Lucashenko, Melissa. “Introduction: Fighting in the Margins.” The Fringe Dwellers. Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2012.

Merrilees, Margaret. “Tiptoeing through the Spinifex: White Representations of Aboriginal Characters.” Dotlit 6.1 (2007): 1-14. 8 May 2012 <>.

Petrie, Constance Campbell. Tom Petrie’s Reminiscences of Early Queensland. St Lucia, Qld: U of Queensland P, 1992.

Robins, Allan. “Representing Indigeneity: A Reflection on Motivation and Issues.” TEXT: Journal of Writing and Writing Courses. 12.1. April (2008). 17 August 2010 < >.

Young, O. James and Susan Haley. “‘Nothing Comes from Nowhere’: Reflections on Cultural Appropriation as the Representation of Other Cultures.” The Ethics of Cultural Appropriation. Ed. Young, O. James and Conrad G. Brunk: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009. Print.


Settling the Dust: Fairbairn Dam 1969/70:

I awoke at 6.30 am to the piercing shrill of my alarm clock and dragged myself out of bed. It was mid-December and the sun was already well into the sky and promising another scorcher. This was my first day of work in my first real job. I had just finished Grade 12 at the Emerald High school in Central Queensland where I had been named Senior Dux – not such a great feat as there were only eleven in the class.

tflood22c tm22/208/17 Fairburn dam still flowing freely on Thursday, February 21My step-father Bill worked for the Irrigation and Water Supply Commission (IWSC) and was the storekeeper during the construction of Fairbairn Dam on the Nogoa River about twenty kilometres southwest of Emerald. He had managed to get me a job as a labourer. At sixteen, I was 178 cm, skinny as a rake and wore thick black plastic-framed glasses. Not exactly Arnold Schwarzenegger.

The first day I was set to work on a compacting machine that vibrated and bounced up and down like a frenzied robot out of control. I was supposed to hold it and direct it along the bank of a small coffer dam. I think I actually bounced more than the bloody machine! At the close of the day my arms felt like they had been wrenched out of their sockets. I was totally exhausted and collapsed gratefully into my bed straight after tea.

Fairbairn Dam was being built to provide water to irrigate the rich black soil plains around Emerald. The small township built especially to house the workforce consisted of several distinct sections. The lowest of these was the quarters for the single men, row upon row of barracks, the great mess hall, and the shower and ablutions block. Next were the two-bedroomed huts for the married men, three-bedroomed huts for the married “staff” workers and a little further up the hill were the barracks for the single “staff.” Right up on top of “snob hill” were proper houses reserved for senior staff such as engineers and supervisors.

On my second day of work the foreman took pity on me and put me with a gang digging trenches for water pipes to feed a new section of huts. I swung a pick and heaved on a shovel until my hands were red and blistered. But worse was to come. For some unknown reason I found myself one day on the steep rocky slope of the proposed spillway, a huge jackhammer, that weighed about as much as I did, in my hands. The shaly rock had to be cut back to the required angle and this was the only way to do it. Since then I have done a large variety of jobs but this was by far the worst. I couldn’t get to sleep that night as it felt as though I was still on the spillway, my whole body and especially my hands still vibrating to the rhythm of the hammer.JackHammer

The dam wall was to be made from compacted clay and would stretch across the river between two high points. A vast area across the valley floor had been cleared of timber, which bulldozers had pushed into massive pyramids. I was handed a box of matches – my job: set fire to these stacks and pick up all the scattered bits of wood missed by the dozers. I thought I had landed in hell as the fires blazed. The usual temperature of forty degrees Celsius was cool to what I experienced that day.

Then I got lucky. I was assigned to look after the filtration plant that supplied water to the township. The small fenced complex sat on the top of a hill well above the houses. Muddy brown water was pumped from the river far below to a square tank on a tower. From there it passed into two conical shaped flocculation tanks where alum was used to settle the silt out of the water, after which lime was added to rectify the ph and finally chlorine was added to kill any germs. The water was then stored in an enormous block of a tank before being distributed to the town. My job was to ensure the right mix of chemicals went where they were supposed to and to make sure everything worked correctly. It was a cushy job and I had time some days to sit reading a book and smoking my pipe in the cool shade under the flocculation tanks.

When I turned seventeen in January and got my driver’s license I was given a ute to drive to work, an arrangement that was soon cancelled when I turned too sharply into the complex and the steel fence post scored jagged gashes along the left side of the ute. With head bowed, I showed it to Karl Moser, the German foreman, who exploded. “Vot haf you done to my car? Bloody hell!” Needless to say, I had to walk up the steep hill to work after that.

In the few weeks I was guardian of the water there was only one other real disaster. One day I forgot to turn the pump from the river off – it was automatic normally – I don’t know what happened but river water was coming up and no chemicals were going into the system. When the people in their houses turned on their taps, a thick brown undrinkable mess poured forth. I kept a low profile until the dust had settled, literally.

“Country” and Aboriginal Heritage

Aboriginal rock artCountry embraces all aspects of the Aboriginal people’s relationship to the flora, fauna and physical nature of their environment. They see themselves as integral to, and responsible for, the land they inhabit. Country also encompasses the spiritual world; the landscape comes alive through spiritual beings and ancestors. Aboriginal people know their country intimately – their survival depends on their knowledge of flora, fauna, landscape and weather.

Photo by Alberto Otero Garcia

The Australian Aboriginal people see themselves as guardians of the earth and its creatures, they are an integral and vital part of a multitude of interdependent bonds with the universe; their attachment to where they live is their essence. Professor Deborah Bird Rose defines country as “a place that gives and receives life”, she imbues it with consciousness. Country nourishes the body, mind and spirit, it is home and peace. Aboriginal people believe they are responsible for the wellbeing of the country and as Rose says: “A fundamental proposition in Indigenous law and society is that a country and its people take care of each other”, and that “those who destroy their country destroy themselves”. The birds and animals are regarded as relations, while country is perpetuated through every aspect of daily life and particularly in ritual, dance, song, stories and art.

The fundamental nature of the relationship between the Aboriginal people and country makes it essential to any discussion of heritage. The Department of the Environment and Heritage states that, “Although people’s attachment to place is an integral component of understanding heritage values, this has been neglected in the past”. Aboriginal heritage is as vast as the land of Australia and as deep as the wells of the universe, but despite 50,000 years of continuous habitation, the Aboriginal people have left relatively little material evidence of their society.

Yet their country is full of monuments and their culture is steeped in meaning if we are prepared to look beyond the superficial. Of course the land they have walked for countless centuries bears witness to their presence in the shape of middens, quarries, bora rings, rock art and so on, and these are important parts of their heritage. But in many areas the links between Aboriginal people and the land are not necessarily evident to the western eye. We have difficulty discerning the significance of sites where no direct physical evidence of habitation is present; this is why it is essential to understand the Aboriginal concept of country because it highlights the links the Aboriginal people have with the land. Sacred sites may look ordinary to westerners, a particular landscape feature may seem banal, but to the Aboriginal people it could play a vital role in the Dreaming or it may be the manifestation of an ancestor.

Aboriginal artPhoto by Alan Levine

One of the most important aspects of Aboriginal heritage is their knowledge of the natural systems in which they evolve. Unlike the majority of westerners, the Aboriginal people have lived in close proximity to the earth for millennia; they know the life of ants and kangaroos, they know what plants are good for food or medicine, they know where to find water in an arid waste, they know when to burn the land. This knowledge, this heritage, is precious; it must be preserved and used to preserve…country.

The Bunya Pine

800px-Old_Araucaria_bidwillii(Photo by Bidgee)

Before the arrival of the white colonists, the bunya pine was of significant importance to the Aboriginal people of South-East Queensland. Despite its name, the bunya pine (Araucaria bidwilli) is a conifer and not a true pine. The genus name Araucaria has its origins in the word Arauco, an area in Southern Chile where the monkey puzzle tree (A, araucana) grows. The second part is named after the botanist John Bidwill the first “scientist” to describe the tree in detail. The first whites to see the bunya pine were escaped convicts in the 1820s. According to Constance Petrie in Tom Petrie’s Reminiscences of Early Queensland 1904, her grandfather, Andrew Petrie, first discovered the tree and gave some specimens to Bidwill who sent them to England where the tree was named after the botanist, rather than Petrie.

The bunya is endemic to Queensland, being found in the south-east of the state and in two small stands in the far north. The tree is thought to have a life span of 600 years; it occurs naturally on basaltic soils and in areas where the annual rainfall is greater than 1000 mm. The conifers are considered to be very ancient with relatives dating back to the Jurassic period, 175 million years ago. The tree can grow to a height of 45 metres with a diameter of 1.5 metres while the branches form the shape of a dome.

Every three years, the bunya pines produce an abundant crop of nuts packed into a cone bigger than a man’s head, and capable of cracking the head if it happens to interfere with the cone’s descent when it eventually falls from a high limb. Roasted in the coals, the nut is delicious and the Aboriginal people loved it. The Aborigines considered the “bon-yi” as they called it as sacred. When a multitude of nascent cones appeared on the trees, messengers were sent far and wide to invite everyone to a great feast in the Bunya Mountains and the Blackall Range. Each tree was owned by an individual and no one      else was allowed to harvest the nuts; the “owner” would climb the tree using a vine and toe holes cut in the trunk though Tom Petrie said that the Aborigines would never have cut a tree and only used a vine to climb. People came from as far south as northern New South Wales and north to Bundaberg, numbering 600 to 700 in the Blackall Range but perhaps in their thousands in the Bunya Mountains. The nutritious nut was eaten either raw or roasted, though it was not the only food eaten during the festival.

Paddy Jerome, Jarowair elder and Bunya Mountains custodian, underlines the importance of the Bunya Mountains and the bunya pine to the Aboriginal people:

The Bunya Mountains, that means our Mothers’ breast – Boobarran Ngummin. This is a very sacred place. To us it is equal in status to Uluru. To all the tribes of South-East Queensland and Northern New South Wales it has been very significant, in fact for thousands of years, perhaps 60 000 years and that’s a long, long time. Our people would gather at the Bunya Mountains from these areas. It is very important that we get the right perspective on these gatherings. Some people think it was just to gorge on bunya nuts. No, it was very deeply spiritual arousing of ceremony. We went to suck the breast of our Mother, who gave us this, the spirituality that was so intense that it was part of our bearing in this country, our Mother Australia, the Earth. We are sucking the breast, sucking the milk, the bunya nut, from her.


(Photo by Dgies)

The festival was a huge celebration featuring corroborees, exchange of news, trade, marriage arrangements and fighting. Popular belief held that the Aborigines were cannibals and would feast on those who died in the fights or from disease and old age; some people went as far as to say that they made sacrifices as well.

There seem to be few written accounts or legends about the bunya; the only legends found were presented by John Mathew in Two Representative Tribes of Queensland, 1910:

The Rivals

The Bonyi (bunya) and the Kuloloi (cypress pine) being rivals, at one time had a great fight…Then they began to fight and Bonyi speared Kuloloi low down, hence all its lower branches are like spears. As for Bonyi, it was speared high up, which accounts for the lower part of the stem being clear of branches to this day.

The Revengeful Lover, or How the Nicks Came on the Wild Plum

There was once a Bonyi that fell in love with a dainty little tree called Kulvain, which bore a bluish-black fruit like a plum. So he went to Kulvain’s father thinking he had only to ask and the girl would be his and he said unceremoniously…[ The father refuses and Bonyi is enraged] Bonyi then slashed away at Kulvain’s father, and that is why the fruit of the Kulvain is marked all over with nicks at the present day.

The widely available scientific details about the bunya pine are indisputable for the most part. That the bunya is ancient seems beyond doubt; however the facts concerning its evolution are contentious due to the difficulty of obtaining exact information from fossils. Tests done on the nut show it to be a rich source of carbohydrates, and therefore confirm its importance as a seasonal food source to the Aborigines. Scientific knowledge of the bunya is of great help to westerners in a pragmatic sense. Yet the doors are closed on the metaphysical aspects of Indigenous knowledge, which are deemed beyond the realm of scientific endeavour and therefore of little significance. Perhaps the most important document concerning Aboriginal contact with the bunya is Constance Petrie’s recording of her father’s experiences. His eyewitness account of the actual festival is of great value as a historical record, though there may be some inaccuracies due to Petrie’s memory of events.

There is much more scientific information than Indigenous knowledge regarding the bunya. It could be argued that westerners are obsessed by detail and that we have the technology and means to satisfy our curiosity. Science is only interested in instrumental values and the benefits that can be gained from knowing something scientifically as opposed to the Aborigines who venerate nature for its intrinsic value as well. The dispersal of the Aborigines led to the demise of the bunya festival towards the end of the nineteenth century. Aboriginal knowledge and tradition was handed down orally from generation to generation; the destruction wrought by the colonists on Aboriginal society has meant that much knowledge has been lost. Much Indigenous knowledge is secret, only available to initiates and therefore beyond the reach of westerners.




Tom Petrie Monument

tom petrie memorial 1911 queenslanderTom Petrie passed away in 1910 and was honoured the following year when the Governor of Queensland, Sir William MacGregor unveiled a monument in his memory. At the same time, the name of the township that had grown where Tom had settled some fifty years earlier was changed from North Pine to Petrie. Many people in the area were opposed to the change and the debate raged in the community for years afterwards.
When first erected, the monument stood about fifty metres from the School of Arts on the opposite side of Redcliffe Rd. The 15 ft 6 in. (5 metres) high structure consisted of a sandstone obelisk with a marble tablet set into its surface on which Tom Petrie’s epitaph was inscribed: “Pioneer, Patriot, Philanthropist.” A stone water trough connected to a nearby windmill lay alongside the monument. A tap and small bowl on one side allowed people to drink. The monument has since been moved and now stands in front of the School of Arts building.
The inscription on the monument is as follows:

(1831 – 1910)
ON JULY 15TH 1911,

NP school of arts

North Pine School of Arts

Author Talks

author talks 002I will be talking about Turrwan in Moreton Bay Region libraries at the following venues and dates:

Albany Creek Library, Monday 14 September 2015, 10.00am
Woodford Library, Friday 18 September 2015, 1.30pm
Deception Bay Library, Thursday 01 October 2015, 10.00am
North Lakes Library, Wednesday 07 October 2015, 1.00pm
Bribie Island Library, Tuesday 13 October 2015, 10.00am
Caboolture Library, Wednesday 21 October 2015, 10.00am

For more details go to Moreton Bay.

Red Gold, the Sequel to Turrwan

Almost a year has flown by since I wrote a post called “A New Direction: Revisiting the Petries” where I announced my intention of writing a sequel to Turrwan. I have just put the finishing touchesseq map 4 003 comp to the manuscript I have called Red Gold which continues the story of Tom Petrie and his family from the early 1860s to the 1920s. I have created a couple of nasty villains to persecute the family across the generations and continue where Grayson left off. I am now waiting on some professional beta readers to send me their feedback before submitting it to publishers.
This time I have included a map of South East Queensland in Red Gold to make it easier for those readers who do not know the area to situate the action. I searched all over for an appropriate map but found nothing and decided to create one myself. I loved making maps as a kid at school and used techniques I had learned then to trace an outline of the coast and rivers which I scanned into Photoshop. With the help of my son, Shane, we made the map above.

“Warrior” by Libby Connors

warriorThe relationship between blacks and whites on the early Queensland frontier is a major theme of Turrwan, so I was delighted when historian Libby Connors published Warrior earlier this year. Connors’ work is a significant contribution to this state’s historical record and while non-fiction may not be everyone’s cup of tea, I can thoroughly recommend Warrior if you are an amateur of Australia’s past and the “non-war” the Aboriginal people waged against the invaders of their country.

Connors explains how the different tribal groups of South-east Queensland interacted and reacted to the white presence on their lands. She points out that British policy was to treat the Indigenous people as citizens of the empire and therefore subject to colonial law. However, the majority of politicians, bureaucrats and ordinary citizens were incapable of recognising, let alone understanding, that the native peoples had their own system of traditional law with all-encompassing guidelines that had to be followed. Neither could the Aboriginal people understand the whites who came unbidden to their lands, an unthinkable breach of etiquette under Indigenous law.

With the closing of the penal colony and the opening of Brisbane to the general public in 1842 came an influx of new settlers which led to an increase in conflicts between the opposing factors. Dundalli, the central figure in Warrior, was a Dalla man from the Blackall Range inland from the Sunshine Coast. He was a lawman given the task of resisting the invaders and organising payback for crimes committed by the whites against his people. The notion of payback is central to Aboriginal thinking as it preserves the carefully constructed balance of their culture and society. If harmony is not restored through an act of retribution, the door to chaos and the disintegration of their way of life is thrown open.

Connors skilfully outlines Aboriginal and white politics, highlighting the conflicts between the different Aboriginal groups themselves and how this led to certain tribes using the whites to punish their traditional enemies. Dundalli was a big, powerful man greatly feared by both the whites and the Brisbane Aboriginal people – it was a member of this last group who eventually betrayed Dundalli to the police. Dundalli, a hero to the Aboriginal people to the north of Brisbane, was arrested and imprisoned for six months before being brought to trial. Evidence of a dubious nature was presented and deemed enough to sentence him to death. He was hung in Queen St where the GPO stands today, exhorting his people to exact revenge on the man who denounced him.

Life on Queensland’s early frontier was fraught with uncertainty and danger, fear and violence. Connors has done a wonderful job of unravelling the complexities and nuances of the white invasion and Aboriginal resistance, the writing is fluent, the narrative compelling.

PS I had to smile when I saw the cover for Warrior as I had thought to use this same watercolour by Conrad Martens for Turrwan.

The Novel & Brisbane Part 4: Transformation

bris1888slqMany writers fled Brisbane during the Joh Bjelke-Petersen era (1968–87). Queensland has been represented in the past as a cultureless backwater inhabited by rednecks. The state was perceived as being of no interest, a rural backward society caught between its violent frontier past and an artificial present. However, this negative image, while still valid for some, has changed radically since the World Expo in 1988 and the demise of Bjelke-Petersen. By the end of the twentieth century Brisbane had begun to reposition itself as a cosmopolitan city with a healthy cultural base.

A number of factors have also contributed to this transformation. The population has increased through migration, Queensland’s image as a tourist destination has been enhanced through sophisticated marketing and the government has invested in cultural organisations and practitioners. At the same time, Queensland writers such as Venero Armmano, John Birmingham, Nick Earls, Andrew McGahan and Simon Cleary among many others have played a central role in changing how Brisbane is perceived. For McGahan, the city is far from ugly. In his novel, 1988, he describes his return after a stint in the north:

The glow in the sky. Orange streetlights. Outlying suburbs. It was beautiful. The highway turned onto the six-lane arterial. We came in through Oxley and Annerly, flowing with the traffic. Then the city highrises were in view, alight, multi-coloured. Brisbane. It was impossibly beautiful.

The negative qualities of Brisbane, as portrayed by writers like Malouf in Johhno, have old queenslander toowongbeen refigured by other writers, and Malouf himself, so as to portray Brisbane in a positive way. One transformation in particular was how the old wooden houses became to represent all that was good about the city. The “Queenslander,” as the house is known, was epitomised in Malouf’s 12 Edmonstone Street (1985), where he describes the building as “a one-storeyed weatherboard, a style of house so common then as to be quite unremarkable; Brisbane was a one-storeyed weatherboard town”.

Contemporary writers may be reconfiguring Brisbane in a positive manner, but the question still remains of why so few historical novels have been written about the colonial era in Brisbane. Is it due to a collective will to forget the early history of Queensland, especially the “birthstain” of the penal colony and the desire of emancipists and their descendants to hide their convict origins? This denial of our convict past was deepened by a desire to forget the way early settlers treated the Aboriginal people—the massacres, the poisonings, the diseases. The frontier violence in Queensland has been replaced by the notion of the brave pioneer taming a wild country and has been collectively forgotten in the same way as our convict past has. Australians are unwilling to treat with this period because they would need to look deep within themselves and confront the demons that are unleashed when one people dispossesses another.

Even so, since the 1970s, more and more family historians have been searching the archives and discovering convicts in the family tree. Now people are accepting their convict ancestry to the point that it has become a badge of honour for some. We are also beginning to recognise and acknowledge the suffering the whites caused in their early interactions with the Indigenous people of Australia. Then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s “Apology to the Stolen Generations” in 2008 is one example.

And has literature itself unwittingly played a role in putting novelists off? Indeed, as we have seen, a thread of negative images of the city runs through the novels discussed in earlier articles, from The Curse in 1894, which depicts a city in decay, to the myth of the hostile country portrzigzag stayed in Penton’s Landtakers and then the city concealing its past in the follow-up Inheritors. The line continues through the works of Malouf: Johnno, Anderson: Tirra Lira and Astley: Reading, who paint Brisbane as uninteresting, a place to flee from. Does this sense of Brisbane as not worthy of attention still haunt the collective subconscious and reinforce the desire to forget the city’s past? Nick Earls, author of Zigzag Street (1996), which is set in Brisbane, says that, “[f]or years I wrote things and deliberately avoided setting them in South-East Queensland because people didn’t seem to do that and the area didn’t seem to be regarded as worthy of carrying a story.”

And so our writers escape from Brisbane to look elsewhere for their stories. Two contemporary historical novelists who have lived in or around Brisbane have turned towards the “old country” to tell their tales. Kate Morton has chosen to set her novels in England, flitting back and forth from the present to the first half of the twentieth century, beginning with The House at Riverton/The Shifting Fog (2006) through to The Secret Keeper (2012). M. K. Hume, who grew up in Ipswich, is consumed by ancient history which, as she says on her website, she “loved to teach . . . using stories to bring the ancient world to life for my students.” Hume has written two trilogies centred on her “first love, King Arthur, and the legends of the Arthuriad.” It seems the wonders of our distant ancestors in Europe are more attractive to writers than what happened in Brisbane in its early days. That is quite understandable, but more and more people want to learn about Brisbane’s past. However, only time will tell whether or not historical novelists turn their eye to the colonial era and do justice to the city. Brisbane has changed much since those far-off days of a tiny settlement tucked into a bend in the river and ringed with an endless sea of vegetation and later its image as a cultureless backwater where nothing ever happened. Now the city has begun to embrace its past more than ever and has become a place to move to, not to escape from.

The overall survey shows a common thread in the early writings from Praed through to Penton. Whiteness is either questioned or affirmed, while inter-racial relations on the frontier and in the city explored. A number of these works, White or Yellow? in particular, raise questions of national identity. Another thread links novels written in more recent times, from Malouf to Cleary. In these works, the built environment features along with the landscape and Brisbane takes on character as a place in the hearts and minds of its inhabitants. Anderson and Shaw represent yet another strand of novelists (to which I belong), whose “settler accounts,” like Penton, take place in colonial times and explore various aspects of the period. What stands out in many of these works is the way the river is depicted as defining the city, an essential part of its character.

Turrwan has little in common with some of the early works set in Brisbane, especially Turrwan 300dpi011White or Yellow? and The Curse. However, like many of the works cited in this analysis, Turrwan explores relationships between Black and White on Queensland’s frontier. In contrast, Anderson’s The Commandant makes little reference to the Aboriginal people except as a vague presence until the murder of Logan. Yet, there is a similarity between my work and Anderson’s in that we both use fictive characters who confront well-known historical figures. Despite the fictional content, I, like Anderson, have strived to respect the historical record. Barry states that in The Commandant, “[t]here is great authenticity in the factual background of the novel.” However, as we saw earlier, Penton was wrong with the dates in Landtakers, and as shown earlier, Shaw was inaccurate with historical details in Mango Hill. These may simply have been details overlooked by the authors, but it does reflect negatively on the historical veracity of the works.

From the foregoing, it is clear that Australian fiction writers have neglected the early history of Brisbane and that my novel could help fill this gap. No historical novels have been set entirely in Brisbane and its surrounds in the period covered in Turrwan, that is, from 1830 to 1862.

So novelists, to your pens.