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Sunday, 24 January 2016

Book review: The Reef, Iain McCalman (2013)

It wasn't clear to me whether the subtitle of this fascinating and impressive book was thought up by the author to reflect his own passionate attraction to the subject, whether it had to do with the kinds of relationships the people written about in the book had had during their lives vis-a-vis the Great Barrier Reef, or rather if it was just the idea of an enterprising editor. It probably doesn't matter in the end but the subtitle continues to niggle at me, suggesting that someone somehow thought the book wouldn't be thought worth reading by the general public if not for this addition to its cover and title page.

McCalman, who teaches history at the University of Sydney, goes back here to the very earliest interactions on record and in that chapter and the 11 subsequent ones introduces us to a collection of people - both white and black - whose lives were deeply intertwined with this natural phenomenon, the Great Barrier Reef. There is also a prologue and an epilogue that frame the narratives, and that bring the focus back to the author himself in the present.

At its outset the book talks about explorers and ship-wrecked sailors and the passengers who traveled on their ships and who came into contact with the Indigenous population of what is now known as the Queensland coastline. Science also plays a key role in the process of making knowledge about the Reef from the earliest times, including in the beginning, in 1770, when James Cook sailed up the coast in the company of naturalist Joseph Banks. And it continued to play a central role in our understanding of the Reef in subsequent decades, as generation after generation of men and women sought to unlock the secrets that the Reef held. Each of the book's 12 chapters brings the focus of the narrative to bear on one or more individuals whose lives have intersected with the Reef.

From the early interactions it is clear that severe damage for an inordinately long period of time was done to the original inhabitants of the area by unprincipled storytellers. These writers were keen to elicit terror in their readers with stories of cannibalism and "unnatural acts". Such a man was Eliza Fraser's "hackwriter" (to echo McCalman's chapter title), John Curtis. Curtis' account of the events we have come to associate with Fraser's shipwreck on the Reef were not only deeply misleading - criminally misleading, in point of fact - but he also mixed them up with facts and rumours associated with other, similar events in order to produce the lubricious concoction he then sold to the public. The public unfortunately continued to read the account for a long time afterward and it came to characterise to a large degree the relationship between many in the broader community and the Reef.

The local people were in actual fact not barbaric - either those living along the coast or those in the Torres Straits, where peoples of different racial origins live - but rather affectionate, intelligent and capable. Working to help save the reef from oil exploration that was supported by the Bjelke-Petersen government of the 60s and 70s, poet Judith Wright made such claims and more for Aborigines, McCalman tells us later in the book. Faced with indiscriminate and imminent exploitation of it by the forces of Capital, Wright pleaded for the Reef alongside others who were filled with a similar passion. But she furthermore emphasised in her writings that the Aborigines were actually better custodians of the continent and its waters than white people were. Today this is hardly an innovative notion, but in the late 60s it was something few had thought about, let alone said publicly.

There are other great stories in this intriguing book, which comes with an exhaustive set of notes at the back. Together these stories help to fill in the gaps in our general understanding of the Reef. The prose is always accessible and engaging, despite the fact that the author often has to deal with sometimes very complex scientific concepts. This is a great book to serve as an introduction to Aboriginal history in Australia, and also to show how important it is to listen to the people living among us who are prone to dream. For it is often among their words and deeds that we can reliably find the true path forward into the future. 

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