Friday, 11 March 2016

Book Review - The explorers by William Joy

The explorers by William Joy

Adelaide: Seal Books, 1971        ISBN 0851791123

This book is a useful quick introduction to the major efforts of European explorers in Australia, from before the time of Cook, through to the final crossing of the Simpson Desert in the 1930s.

The beauties of a book such as this, that deals with a lot of history in a short space (160 pbk pages), are several: the reader can more easily ascertain which exploration events were happening in close proximity to each other, and can more clearly grasp the similarities in outcomes and events of many of the expeditions.

The lack of preparation for the new land is something that appears again and again. Australia's landscape resisted large expeditions, as the ground was not suitable for wheeled vehicles, and the land could not support large numbers of Europeans and their animals for any extended amount of time. Smaller expeditions suffered because they couldn't carry enough food and water to make it through the most barren country.

This Catch-22 situation led to many failed expeditions, and to many disasters. The exploration became harder and harder once the relatively benign coastal regions had been penetrated. In his matter-of-fact style Joy doesn't really discuss what it must have felt like to live in a country where the unknown laid over the horizon, or what it felt like to be one of the men - and it was all men - who trekked out over that horizon to see what they could see.

The European mindset led to some wrong conclusions - after finally getting over the mountain barrier around Sydney (Blaxland, Wentworth and Lawson finally realising that, contrary to their European way of thinking, the way across the mountains was via the ridges, not the valleys), the wide plains with their rivers heading inland presaged a rich country with an inland sea.

When it became obvious in the next decade or so that the rivers running inland spent themselves in salt marshes, or simply disappeared into the blazing desert, exploration moved to trying to find usable routes between areas of good country.

At times this search descended almost to the status of a sporting contest, with explorers and colonies vying to be the first across the country, or a region. This competitive activity led to many deaths, not least the members of the Burke and Wills expedition.

What drove these explorers, who often spent years at a time out in the field? They were driven by various demons, not the least being ego. Thomas Mitchell in particular certainly wanted to be primus inter pares, and often denigrated the achievements of others: in fact one expedition had its beginning in his desire to prove Sturt wrong about the Darling River (Sturt was right, Mitchell was wrong). He certainly seems to have been a nasty character, both to white and black.

And what of Black Australia? I'm always amazed at those who claim there was not a state of warfare between early settlers and explorers, or that there was no large scale death of Aborigines at the hands of whites. Joy is quite open about it, and is unafraid of using the term "war". He shows us that many of the explorers were quite prepared to slaughter Aborigines at the slightest provocation. Some shot to kill only when their lives were at stake, which they were often, as tribes defended their territory from invasion. Joy appends some chapters to his work which describe the early settler's wars in some detail.

Joy is a man of his time, so while he describes the violent clashes white on black in some detail, he is firmly in the white's camp when it comes to apportioning blame, although he is quick to condemn "excesses" on the white side.

He is also a man of his time when it comes to other biases. He excoriates Leichhardt for losing men, poor preparation and other faults, but lauds Warburton, who exceeded Leichhardt for ineptitude - but Warburton was British, which apparently makes all the difference.

Reading a book such as this explains who did what, but doesn't get to the heart of why some names linger while others diminish. The trials of Kennedy are at least the equal of Burke or Leichhardt, and yet he is little remembered today. Giles was not the first to achieve the crossing East to West or its reverse, and yet he is better known than Warburton or Forrest. There are books to be be written about why this is the case; reading this book has whetted my appetite for them.

Cheers for now, from
A View Over the Bell

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