His­toric race to put Aus­tralia on the map

The Great Race: The Race Be­tween the English and the French to Com­plete the Map of Aus­tralia

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Lyn­don Me­gar­rity Lyn­don Me­gar­rity

By David Hill Wil­liam Heine­mann, 386pp, $34.95

MEN don’t read books. So goes the pop­u­lar cul­ture cliche, but it is not quite true: men do, at the very least, read his­tory. Dur­ing this sum­mer, nu­mer­ous care­fully wrapped his­tor­i­cal doorstop­pers will ap­pear un­der the Christ­mas tree ad­dressed to Dad or Un­cle Jack. But it won’t be just any old his­tory book. It gen­er­ally will be a tale of hu­man en­durance, new dis­cov­er­ies, in­di­vid­ual achieve­ment and the tech­ni­cal innovations of yes­ter­year, with po­lit­i­cal in­trigue and con­flict added to the mix.

Such el­e­ments are found in abun­dance in the grand theme of Euro­pean ex­plo­ration, and the pop­u­lar­ity of books about ex­plor­ers in the age of the sail­ing ship is a symp­tom of our fas­ci­na­tion with the dan­ger and ro­mance of that age. David Hill’s The Great Race taps into this sen­ti­ment, flows eas­ily and is of­ten en­ter­tain­ing. Be­cause of prob­lems with struc­ture and in­tent, how­ever, it is a good read, not a great one.

The stated fo­cus of the book is the ‘‘ race be­tween the English and the French to com­plete the map of Aus­tralia’’, a ref­er­ence to the ex­pe­di­tions of English­man Matthew Flin­ders and French­man Ni­co­las Baudin. In the early 1800s, Flin­ders and Baudin were sent by their re­spec­tive gov­ern­ments to ex­plore the un­charted coastal ar­eas of Aus­tralia. They were also re­quested to dis­cover whether the west and east coasts were sep­a­rated by sea or con­sti­tuted a sin­gle land mass.

How­ever, Hill’s first six chap­ters re­peat the story of Euro­pean dis­cov­ery of Aus­tralia from 1606 to the end of the 18th cen­tury, in­cor­po­rat­ing the Span­ish, Dutch, French and English ex­pe­di­tions and ac­ci­den­tal jour­neys. There is even a chap­ter on the early British set­tle­ment of Aus­tralia. Given the theme of English-French ri­valry, much of this ma­te­rial could have been cut or con­densed. At times, too much space is de­voted to in­ci­dents and de­tails the au­thor sim­ply finds in­ter­est­ing. The se­lec­tion of con­tent is thus not al­ways rel­e­vant to the stated pur­pose of the book, mak­ing it ap­pear, at times, like a dis­jointed chron­i­cle.

The au­thor (or pub­lisher) has cho­sen a prob­lem­atic theme with which to an­chor the text, not least be­cause the en­thu­si­as­tic nat­u­ral­ist Baudin does not ap­pear to have been as ca­reer driven and am­bi­tious for suc­cess as was Flin­ders. As Hill re­ports, one of Baudin’s of­fi­cers con­fided to Flin­ders: ‘‘ Cap­tain, if we had not been kept so long pick­ing up shells and catch­ing but­ter­flies in Van Diemen’s Land, you would not have dis­cov­ered the south coast be­fore us.’’

The French ul­ti­mately pub­lished the first com­plete coastal map of Aus­tralia in 1811, with Flin­ders pub­lish­ing his ver­sion three years later. This con­clu­sion to the Great Race might have mat­tered mil­i­tar­ily and his­tor­i­cally if Napoleon had pre­vailed at the bat­tle of Water­loo, but as it hap­pens, it is Flin­ders’s achieve­ments that are the most cel­e­brated.

To his credit, Hill works hard to en­sure that un­fa­mil­iar his­tor­i­cal terms and ideas are made clear for the reader. Fur­ther, while the gen­eral theme seems un­der-de­vel­oped and frag­men­tary, the jour­neys of Flin­ders and Baudin are sum­marised well with just the right amount of quotes from pri­mary sources.

The story of Flin­ders is fas­ci­nat­ing and Hill’s nar­ra­tion of his ex­pe­di­tions is com­pelling, not least be­cause Flin­ders is a flawed hero the reader can­not help but care about. Flin­ders tried to smug­gle his wife on board his ship at the be­gin­ning of his epic voy­age in 1801, but the se­cret was un­cov­ered by the navy es­tab­lish­ment: the cou­ple were not to see each other again for more than nine years. This was largely be­cause of his long im­pris­on­ment in French-ruled Mau­ri­tius, an or­deal partly caused, one sus­pects, by the English­man’s lack of tact. The au­thor’s sen­si­tive por­traits of Flin­ders and other his­tor­i­cal fig­ures are one of the book’s strengths.

If you are fa­mil­iar with the story of Euro­pean dis­cov­ery of Aus­tralia, this new work will not pro­vide many star­tling reve­la­tions. But de­spite its struc­tural and stylis­tic weak­nesses, The Great Race is a use­ful in­tro­duc­tion to the early ex­plo­ration of the Aus­tralian coast, and its fine bib­li­og­ra­phy will en­cour­age fur­ther read­ing.

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