Did you know that the female co-founder of the Bank of New South Wales started her career as a horse thief and standover woman? Or that Trim the cat raced a French monkey to become the first animal to circumnavigate Australia? Or that no small number of people in China believe that their ancestors were mining uranium in Kakadu in the 15th century?
Yeah, I bet you kind-of did (except for probably that last one – that was a surprise to me, and I’m sure it was to you, too, no matter what you try to tell me). Most survivors of Australian public education kind-of know about our history, and most of what they kind-of know is that it’s boring. We have no mythologised revolutions, no heroic leaders or mad tyrants and no story of a people striding boldly forth from an epic past towards a glorious future.
Well, you’d be right about the third one, but the other two are complete bollocks, and David Hunt has boldly stepped up to explain why in a memorably irreverent fashion. Hunt tells the story of Australia from the first indigenous settlement (and their encounters with “the biggest, stupidest animal they had ever seen… sitting on the beach, thoughtfully stuffing nuts into its pouch”), through the initial discoveries by the Dutch and Spanish (some of whom had a weird affection for nailing plates to trees), settlement by the British (including the reason why we don’t really teach schoolkids about the Second Fleet), Australia’s only military coup at the hands of the corrupt-as-all-getout New South Wales Corps and the rise and fall of Governor Lachlan Macquarie, who came as close as anyone ever has to being the de facto king of Australia.
On the way, he turns a phrase as only a seasoned comedy writer knows how – one NSW Corps officer is described as having “a double chin so mighty as to suggest that surely, somewhere up in heaven, a cherub was desperately searching for its buttocks.” Often, he is assisted by the weirdness of the historical goings-on, such as when he says “Australians do not like to think their continent was unlocked by a wild-eyed, dreadlocked, marsupial-clad paedophile.” Or when he recounts the tale of a convict woman transported to New South Wales for “Felony of Sock”.
Hunt also manages to deal with sensitive subjects respectfully. His recounting of the stories of Pemulwuy – the leader of the first organised, armed resistance to European settlement - and the contrast with Bennelong – who became, quite against his will, an ambassador to the British – taught me more about the impact of colonisation on the indigenous peoples than I’d managed to learn in the preceding 33 years.
A sequel is apparently in the works, which will cover the settlement of Hobart, Melbourne and (hopefully) the infamously-brutal Moreton Bay Colony. I will pick it up without waiting for the thinking music.