An Australian Herodotus

While Herodotus, who lived around 484BC (generally accepted as the date of his birth) was a Greek writing the history of the known world, by which he meant without intending it, an area that we know as the wider Mediterranean, Thomas Keneally is blessed with a slightly more definable territory and a larger subject.  For, every decade from the last, the estimated length of time that the continent has been inhabited by humans has retreated 10,000 years (retreated as in extended backwards from the Common Era). The present estimation is that something like 60,000 years ago humans arrived from somewhere, actual source unknown, to settle the Australian continent.

Australia 1Thomas Keneally’s new history of the country is called Australians – Origins to Eureka. In it he covers the Pleistocene Age to 1860, using identifiable people as the hook upon which to hang the whole story. The idea is to give insight into the most significant aspects of each period through examining the lives of the inhabitants, some in more detail than others.

The exciting thing about the history of Australia from a geological and environmental perspective is the conjectural nature of ‘how’. How did the continent get where it is, continental drift obviously, but from which bit of the landmass Pangaea did it break off? The question of how old Australia is still jangles the bells of imagination.

The early settlers, the Aborigines – ab origine – people who had been there since the beginning of the earth – thought that the Gods had created the landscape and the animals in the Dreamtime.  Europeans once they arrived estimated that the population had not been there for longer than about 30,000 years, but modern dating methods have shown that to be wrong by about the same length of time.  At a place called Cuddie Springs, archaeological studies and sophisticated dating methods have shown that 30,000 years ago the original hunter gatherers were using a milling method with grindstones which had previously been thought to have originated in the Middle East 5000 years ago.

Australia was tribal, and mostly nomadic which is why the Europeans thought that they could come in and take over.  While one cannot help but admire the fortitude and courage of the early explorers, who ventured across oceans in search of information and wonders, it is what later happened to that benign research that causes one to pause and have regrets.

Through the people in this book, the various stages of the drama unfolds – wonderfully and fearfully. Early settlements and relationships with various tribes were positive, but it was soon to change. Using Australia as a dumping ground for undesirables was appalling, since even if the term of servitude was short, and in some cases very short, the hope of return was limited and unlikely, since though it was free (if unavoidable) to travel out, the convict who had served his or her term had to pay to get back. Not surprisingly, most of them stayed.

Nevertheless, in spite of these poor beginnings, this book takes us up to around 1860 when the settlements were flourishing, expansion was exciting and new discoveries were being made all the time – gold, which was found by the Chinese merchants prospecting, brought hundreds of Chinese diggers and, once word spread, Europeans who rushed in to join the action.

Some of the material in this book also appeared in two earlier books, The Great Shame and The Commonwealth of Thieves, both are highly recommended but this volume, the first of at least two is a compendium of that material and much, much more.

By a strange coincidence, I began reading this book exactly 229 years to the day that the First Fleet set sail, 3 May 1787.  This being the first ships carrying prisoners from the English gaols and hulks, eleven ships in all, including those carrying supplies. The voyage took until January 1788, eight months including restocking in Cape Town. What awaited them? To the men and women on board there were hardships and difficulties ahead, to the watchers on the shore there would be illness and death, but also a few instances of mutual cooperation.

Somehow, against all the odds, the nation has survived.  Not unscathed, it has to be said. I loved this book and am most grateful to its donor, himself an Australian of ancient pedigree.

If the thought of this weighty volume does not appeal, which would be your loss in my view, very much the same territory is covered in the fictionalised history of her family in Australia, by Kate Grenville – a trilogy that began with The Secret River, followed by The Lieutenant and Sarah Thornhill. I feel no disloyalty to Mr Keneally is citing these books.  It is no secret that I love Australia and recommend anyone else who is already, or might become, interested to read these books and many more.

The other Thomas Keneally that I have been devouring, is Napoleon’s Last Island. A novel about the relationship between the Balcombe family and Napoleon on St Helena, where Mr Balcombe was employed by the East India company as provisioner on the island for their garrison of employees, dependents and the military stationed there. The Balcombes had five children, two girls – Jane and Elisabeth and three boys (all born on St Helena) William, Thomas and Alexander. Napoleon

The novel is written as a memoir of Betsy, the child who had played with and made friends with the island’s most famous guest – Napoleon Bonaparte. The whole Balcombe family fell under his spell and rebelliously continued to call him ‘Emperor’, though the dictat from England was that he should be styled ‘General’. The house being constructed for the prisoner’s abode, Longwood, was unfinished at his arrival and he lived in a pavilion in the garden of The Briars, the Balcombe’s family home.

Eventually, even before the demise of Bonaparte, the Balcombes are forced to leave the island, and they are in England when they hear the grotesque news of his death.  Thomas Keneally has no truck with the idea that Napoleon was poisoned, rather that he was ill – possibly with a malfunction of his gall bladder which led fatally to liver failure – for which the Corsican veterinarian brought in to treat him, used enemas, bleeding and other totally unsatisfactory remedies.

Further indignities were wrought upon the Balcombe family, who finally left England for Australia and it is no coincidence that their house near Melbourne is also called The Briars.

It was in 2012, when there was an exhibition of memorabilia of Napoleon and his family in the National Gallery of Victoria, that brought this fascinating and touching story to Thomas Keneally’s attention. He freely admits to having little or no sympathy for Napoleon’s overarching ambition, but nevertheless he has produced a very sympathetic portrait of Our Great Friend (OGF), as those who knew and loved him called Bonaparte, and his nemesis Lowe by name and Lowe by nature – Sir Hudson Lowe, the governor who oversaw the gradual diminishing of comforts, personnel and supplies to the Emperor’s household.

A brilliant summer read. Especially in the light of the fact that St Helena is in the news right now on account of a failed venture: the new and disastrously unusable airport.




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