I used to teach early 1900s Australian history to thirteen year olds. Oft times it was difficult to say who was more bored- me, wondering when the overloaded spit ball above a child’s head would succumb to gravity and fall onto a desk… Or the students, whose hormonally overloaded brains wondered who the hell these people were, wearing full length clothes in Sydney during Summer? Didn’t they have singlets back them?
To be fair, the history of early European settlement in Australia is as dry as a dingo’s donger, especially in some Year 7 text books. But scratch the surface of almost any notable historical event and there’s intrigue, competing versions of the same event and terrible misunderstandings. The tale of Eliza Fraser, shipwrecked in paradise in the early 1800s, is one such event.
My interest in her was piqued after staying in a house at Orchid Beach, at the northern tip of Fraser Island (K’Gari), I read through the accommodation’s provided handbook, coming upon the history of the island itself. Aboriginal people called it K’Gari (or paradise), but its current name was given after Captain Fraser, an English man who happened to find himself, his wife Eliza and crew marooned here in 1836. He died, but his wife lived on, being taken in by the Butchulla, an Aboriginal group who lived between K’Gar
i and modern day Noosa. When she was finally reunited with a white ‘rescue party’, her accounts of her ordeal were sensationalised and used as further evidence by white settlers of the perceived ignorance and violent nature of Aborigines throughout the colony.
Of course, she was rescued by the Butchulla first and kept alive by them in an (apparently) totally acceptable way: attempting to assimilate her into the group by making her toss aside her clothes (gasp) and perform normal tasks like gather wood and eat the food available to her (like tree ferns). Can you imagine?? It’s like they told this British native to completely forget about her previous and incredibly important cultural history by telling her to never speak her language again or by taking her children from her so they could be turned into useful members of society. What monsters. Civilised western societies would never dream of doing that. Never. Never ever. Except in Australia from the 1700s until recently. But apart from that, never.
That’s the thing about history- there are at least three sides to every story. Which brings me to “Girt: the Unauthorised History of Australia” by David Hunt. Now before you all grab the corner of an A4 piece of paper and start forming a spitball, I’d just like to quote from his introductory chapter on why the use of the word ‘girt’ is so important to Australian history:
Australia justifiably celebrates its girtuosity in its national anthem, for the history of this wide brown land has been shaped by the even wider blue seas in which it rests. It was the warm currents of the Timor Sea that carried the First Australians to these shores, and it was Australia’s phenomenal girtage that kept these hardy pioneers blissfully unaware of trousers, smallpox, large mining companies, Shane Warne and the other trappings of Western civilisation for tens of millennia…
And while the world’s other great powers saw Australia’s unparalleled girtness as an excellent reason to steer clear of the joint, Britain saw it as a virtue, for it needed a place to stash all its pickpockets, sheep thieves and Irishmen.
He goes on and it gets funnier and funnier.
Hunt’s history on the ‘discovery’ of Australia, the apparent ‘civilising’ effects of the British on Aboriginal people and the goings on of this fledgling colony are hilarious. From the character assassination of almost all the founding fathers of our nation to some pretty funny foot notes including references to the likes of Britney and Lindsay Lohan, this is a refreshing and entertaining perspective no matter how much you hated history.
Granted, poking fun at a period of history which was in turns terrifyingly awful and unbelievably great induces rage in some, but taking the piss out of anything and everything is an indelible factor of the Australian way of life. So read this for what it is- a heavily researched yet ridiculously funny piss-take of Australian history.
You might even learn something.