Thursday, January 8, 2015

The Reef: A Passionate History, by Iain McCalman

Staff Review by Chris Saliba

Iain McCalman's wide ranging and imaginative history of the Great Barrier Reef throws up many surprises and long forgotten stories.

Historian Iain McCalman’s The Reef: A Passionate History, is divided up into twelve chapters, plus a prologue and epilogue. “Being drawn instinctively to human stories, I’ve chosen to write a series of biographical narratives…” writes MacCalman, explaining his book’s clever organisation. Each chapter focuses on famous or forgotten figures in Australia’s history. We start out with Captain Cook’s unwitting voyage into what would later be known as the Great Barrier Reef in 1770. The narrative then moves through various other explorers, settlers, castaways, aboriginals, naturalists, conservationists and scientists, all building up a hugely varied and rich history of the reef. The book really is a brilliant patchwork of natural history, biography, science and brutal frontier politics. 

The most fascinating aspects of the book were the more obscure characters and their stories. The middle section of The Reef, called “Nurture”, concentrates on castaways on the reef who were found and looked after by the local aboriginal tribes. It seems unbelievable that this part of Australia’s history isn’t more well known. The story of Eliza Fraser is a great example of the uninformed way white Europeans made assessments of the Aborigines’ character. Eliza Fraser spent six weeks living with an Aboriginal clan at the southern end of the Great Barrier Reef. A highly sensationalised account of her ordeal was published by the journalistic hack, John Curtis. The book painted the indigenous peoples as absolute savages. It was hugely popular, demonstrating that white audiences wanted to believe the worst.

In contrast to this, McCalman provides many examples of Aboriginal clans looking after shipwrecked Europeans. The most interesting stories are of James Morrill and the Frenchman Narcisse Pelletier. Both would be adopted by indigenous clans and would learn their language, customs and way of life. Reading these accounts makes for fascinating reading. You really get to see the other side of the frontier conflict.

Life would end fairly tragically for both men. Narcisse Pelletier eventually returned to France, but never felt at home. Treated as a bit of an oddity, he felt he didn’t fit in and grew depressed. James Morrill remained in Australia. Due to his considerable knowledge of the local Aboriginal clans, he was asked to work as a translator and go-between. Things didn’t work out well. He felt torn between his Aboriginal friends, friends he knew were being dispossessed of their lands, and the white authorities. He often had to explain to his Aboriginal friends, those that had looked after him, that the whites were going to take their land. The colonial authorities he translated for didn’t trust Morrill, thinking that he was colluding with the Aborigines. Hence he was deeply distrusted by both sides. Worse, Morrill knew extinction of his old friends was underway:

As early as 1864 Morrill reached the melancholy conclusion that “the work of extinction is gradually but surely going on among the aboriginals. The tribe I was living with are far less numerous now than when I went among them”.

The last chapters of The Reef deal with environmental degradation and the campaigns to stop the Reef being exploited. Charlie Veron, a famous marine biologist, ends the book with the depressing verdict that the corals are being bleached at an alarming rate, due to climate change warming the water.

The Reef is an extraordinary history, from Captain Cook’s troubled voyages through the Reef, to the Aboriginal philosophy of maintaining care for the land and sea, and ending up with ecological destruction due to economic exploitation of the environment.

The Reef: A Passionate History, by Iain McCalman. Published by Penguin. ISBN: 9780143572053  RRP: $24.99

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