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 While it is an important historical document it contains elements of the colonial adventure romance.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.

WHITE GHOSTS By Richard Carroll – A review by Tony Cole

I have just finished reading this book by a local writer and I am happy to say that I enjoyed it enormously, and also that it gave me a lot of food for thought about how the European occupation of this country was managed and Queensland came to be the place it is.

At its root, this is historical fiction based on the lives of a real local family, the Petrie family, but as they were a very significant part of the history of this part of Queensland and were also very closely involved with the Aboriginal people of the area, it is also a history of Queensland, and more significantly, Brisbane.

The story is told through the experiences of a rich cast of characters starting with the first convicts to be sent here until the end of the first world war, so it is a huge canvas that Richard uses, and in fact it is a pretty large book as well.   But he manages his story remarkably well, and it remains spellbinding right up to the last page and our sympathies with the various characters, both European and Aboriginal, remain to the very end.

The characterisation of these people, mostly actually real people, is intriguing and for my part, I found that I cared about them all, both evil and “normal”, to the end of the book, and as an Englishman who obviously didn’t grow up in Australia, it gave me a much better insight into why things are as they are here – so a useful book on a number of fronts.

White Ghosts deals unflinchingly with the horrible way that both the convicts and the Aboriginal people were treated by their masters, and gave me a much better understanding of the horrors of both colonialism and the idea that you can create a functioning country by means of convicting your poorest people and sending them there.

Altogether an intriguing and highly readable book, that held my attention till the very last page, and left me in a thoughtful state as I mulled over in my mind the many points it made about the events that happened here over the last couple of hundred years.

So I can recommend it unreservedly as an enjoyable read, a way to discover a large chunk of local history and to give you a better understanding of the relationships which we all have with the land and each other.

White Ghosts is a book that should be read and thought about by everyone in Oz.


The Gift of Rain

Tan Twan Eng has gifted us with a beautifully crafted historical novel set on the isthe gift of rainland of Penang off the western coast of the Malayan peninsular in the years preceding and through World War Two and the Japanese invasion. Philip Hutton’s family on his father’s side has been an institution on the island since the early days of settlement by the English, while his mother is the estranged daughter of a wealthy Chinese family. Philip is 16 when war breaks out. Apart from his friendship with a Chinese boy his age and the ever-increasing intimacy of his relationship with his Japanese sensei who teaches him Aikido, he had always been a loner, not quite fitting in with either side of his family, his difference too obvious. In Philip’s words:

That was my burden – I looked too foreign for the Chinese, and too Oriental for the Europeans. I was not the only one – there was a whole society of so-called Eurasians in Malaya – but even then I felt I would not belong among them. I felt as Endo-san and the Japanese people here must feel: they were hated by the locals as well as by the British and Americans, for their exploits in China were now becoming daily topics of debate from the street peddlers to the Europeans drinking their ice-cold gin in the Spotted Dog.

Despite the depredations of the Japanese, Philip is able to recognise a deeper aspect of their culture:

Yet I had seen another side of them – I had seen the fragile beauty of their way of life, their appreciation of the sorrowful, transient aspects of nature, of life itself. Surely such sensitivities should count?

The author paints a vivid picture of the land and evokes a strong sense of the period and the interactions of the diverse cultures in the pot pourri that is Asia as history unfolds around Philip, forcing him to make tough decisions. How do you face someone you love who has betrayed you? How do you live with yourself when you are seen as the betrayer? Just how far will you go to protect your family and your friends? And what do you have at the end of your life apart from your memories? After a particularly gruesome event during the war, Philip reflects on his position:

I led the darkened procession with only some hurricane lamps to light our way. Anger     and sorrow walked with me, joining hands with guilt – the three walls of my prison.

While the Japanese had not physically imprisoned him, Philip’s relationship with the invaders had led to his being surrounded by the barbed wire of his own tumultuous feelings from which there was no escape.

The Gift of Rain was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize in 2007 and is a great historical novel in that it fulfils all the requirements of the genre, transporting the reader back in time to a little-known part of the world where we discover and learn about the people, their culture, their hopes and desires, and come away with a sense of having gained in knowledge.