Tuesday, 10 January 2017

Book Review - Dream Millions by Fred Blakeley

Dream millions : new light on Lasseter's lost reef by Fred Blakeley, edited by Mary Mansfield

Sydney ; Angus and Robertson, 1972             ISBN 0207124418

Lasseter's reef - how much treasure has been wasted on this chimera, created by a shyster... and how much ink has been spilled in creating and debunking theories concerning whether the fabled reef ever existed, or how it had been hidden.

This book, edited from a manuscript written by the leader of the first Lasseter expedition, is in my view a definitive statement that Lasseter's claim from the beginning was a fraud, sealed by information revealed by Blakeley in the last chapter of this book. Thankfully though, the book is more than a retelling of Lasseter's tale: it is a description of breaking into new territory, and of Aboriginals making their first contact with white man.

Blakeley was a relatively experienced Outback man, having moved around the country a bit in his life, and became involved in the Lasseter story via his brother Arthur, who at the time was Minister for Home Affairs in the short-lived Scullin Government. The Great Depression was beginning to bite in Australia, and Lasseter's story of a ten mile long reef of gold struck a chord with with the president of the Australian Worker's Union John Bailey as a good news story that could potentially provide employment and riches for the country. Blakeley, on hearing Lasseter tell his story in Sydney, had his doubts about Lasseter's veracity, but agreed to lead an expedition out past the MacDonnell Ranges to see where the truth lay.

The expedition, financed by shareholders that included Blakeley himself, started out from Alice Springs well equipped, with plenty of food and - in what was an innovation at the time - a six-wheel drive Thornycroft truck and an aeroplane, The Golden Quest. It turned out that the biggest problems for the expedition came from breaking a trail for the truck, and providing a strip for the plane to land on.

Blakeley spent much of his time organising the logistics of the group, and enjoying the country he was travelling, even when the labour of creating a path for the truck, or digging it out when it was stuck in the sand, was exhausting.

Blakeley, like many other men who traversed the desert country, was a firm believer in the concept of equal treatment for the Aboriginal people who lived there. He frequently mentions in the text that the local tribes should be given their land in perpetuity, and that white justice needed to take Aboriginal lore into account. His description of the occasion when his expedition spent the night with some Aboriginals from Hermannsberg Mission and the "Sandhill" people, which the expedition had discovered, is prescient - "Compare the five sandhills men with the five white men. Their life of peace, happiness and freedom. Then the five later products of civilization. Who are the happiest and freest? Then the three natives with white man's covering. They had lost everything. Lost the age-old man's happiness and freedom and gained nothing of the white man's pleasures. Evolution had only brought misery to these white men's slaves." What was true in 1930 for the mission residents unfortunately came to be the situation for most of the remaining "wild" Aboriginals over the next thirty years.

Of course we must now look at Lasseter, and how Blakeley saw him. His doubts about the veracity of Lasseter's story grew over the first part of the expedition into a confirmed view that he was lying. It soon became clear that Lasseter had - despite his stories - never travelled through outback country before, had never had dealings with natives, and had certainly never used anything like a sextant.

Lasseter's idea of where the reef might lie, once he finally revealed it to Blakeley, confirmed that it was a fraud - he was directing the men to an area known to have no minerals, and an area that had been traversed by more than twenty expeditions that Blakeley knew of. As the truck couldn't travel through the sandy country that Lasseter now wanted to cross, Blakeley hooked Lasseter up with some camels and a guide and left for Alice Springs, leaving Lasseter to his fate.

And what of Lasseter's fate, and the fate of his reef? Blakeley has interesting things to state on both subjects. Firstly, as to the reef itself, he had heard the Harding story long before Lasseter spoke of it in Sydney: in Western Australia in the nineteenth century, to be exact. He also knew it to be bunkum then. So, once he realised that Lasseter was trying to reach the area where people had looked for Harding's reef in 1898 and beyond, he knew that Lasseter was merely the latest in a long string of fortune seekers bitten by the gold bug.

When he comes to Lasseter's demise, Blakeley has some very interesting things to mention. He notes that Bob Buck, the person who claimed to have found Lasseter's remains, was not believed by the local police. He casts doubt on the story of the camels bolting, pointing out that if they had, they would have dumped their loads soon after running off, and that they would also have turned up back at Hermannsberg a few days after running, neither of which happened. He also notes that the local Aborigines would have known what Lasseter was up to, and if he was in trouble would have reported it to some white authority as, in Blakeley's words "They knew the value of 'reward' and all would understand that if they took information of a white man in distress to the Mission, the reward would be a big one."

The other interesting point he makes is about the diary that was found buried in the cave that Lasseter had sheltered in. Blakeley had looked through Lasseter's belongings, and noted that he had fine paper and notebooks, and nothing as cheap as the book that was found....leading to Blakeley concluding that Lasseter did not in fact die in the outback, but that he shot through.

It's hard to decide if his theory holds water, but his evidence certainly makes pause for thought; and is yet another layer to add to the myth.

This book is an interesting read on many levels: certainly a must-read if you are interested in the Lasseter story, and worth reading if your interests are more general regarding Central Australia.

Cheers for now, from
A View Over the Bell

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