Reviewed by Ian Lipke
I read with a great deal of pleasure Robert Macklin’s book on Hamilton Hume. It is the product of a great deal of research into primary materials containing, I suspect, much information that most of us did not know and it clears up misconceptions along the way. Macklin’s style is easy flowing, nothing at all like the academic and cold accounts we regularly read by university people.
Macklin arouses interest in his book from the very first glance. Who would not be intrigued by the blurb: “the real pathfinder was a genuine Australian”, “a profound understanding of the Aboriginal people”, “an almost mystical relationship with the Australian bush”, and “a gripping and, at times, shocking portrait of colonial life”. Other authors take note: this is how a blurb should be written! But, I ask, is it overwritten?
The blurb is not overwritten but I cringe when I read the title page. On what grounds is Hume the greatest of our explorers? Why are the Murray River and rivers nearby our greatest and why is the land in that part of the continent the richest? The cover screams journalese. Rather than entice me to buy the book its outlandish claims are a ‘turn-off’, and that is a shame for the great bulk of the book is fine scholarship. Entertaining, too.
He got them through. They didn’t understand how. Willpower was part of it, but only part. There were the Aboriginal people. He talked to them in their lingo and they told him where to go, what to avoid…But there was something else, something much more important. (xi – xii)
That’s a fine way to gather interest in the opening prologue. The interest is maintained in the exceptional writing at the beginning of the Introduction when Macklin sets the scene in the early days. “It was a tumultuous time as the alien, northern culture crashed and foamed upon the country’s endless coastline and then remorselessly spread itself across the continent” (xiii). That is wonderfully descriptive writing. It has substance, too, because this book brings into the open the scandalous behaviour that a man was only as good as the location of his birth.
Macklin’s pen portraits of the various governors of the colony are a rich source of information. The carping, parsimonious begetter of madcap schemes, Thomas Brisbane is finely and accurately drawn. Information, new to me, was his insatiable interest in astronomy, a fact I should have known since I have visited the Sir Thomas Brisbane Planetarium many times. Hume’s journey south from Lake George to Bass Strait was to test him severely, saddled as he was with the peevish, demonstrably mutinous Hovell as companion.
That excursion has stood the test of time as an important journey of discovery. Macklin’s storytelling abilities are also at their best when discussing the journey. His descriptions of some of the men are masterly: “Angel was a nuggety, athletic little sparrow …[with] a droll sense of humour…Claude Bossawa was a cocky little character who, according to Hovell, had been a pugilist…on one occasion he would lie down in the dirt rather than continue the journey” (87-88). Macklin’s revelation that Hume had been wounded in the groin but continued on regardless is a detail that speaks to us about the character of Hume. So, too, does the information that, having survived a skirmish with the black people on the shores of Bass Strait, Hume went after them and made friends.
This book covers so much. There is the problem of bushranging, the characters of successive governors, intrigue in high office, and long overdue, the recognition of the services Hume had given the young colony over a long period.
This is a book written by a journalist who uses all the tricks of the professional to bring an excitingly real tale of a great explorer who is not given the importance that rightfully is his. This is an enjoyable, enlightening account that should be read by every thinking adult.
By Robert Macklin