Witty romp down the tracks of long ago

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

Google ‘‘True Girt’’ and chances are you will find your­self read­ing about True Grit, the Coen Broth­ers’ 2010 west­ern star­ring Jeff Bridges as the one-eyed law­man Rooster Cog­burn. Or the 1969 orig­i­nal star­ring John Wayne. Or al­most any­thing, in fact, ex­cept the se­quel to David Hunt’s best­selling Aus­tralian his­tory Girt, which was shortlisted for a NSW Premier’s Lit­er­ary Award and won the 2014 In­die Award for non­fic­tion. In an age of mind con­trol by search en­gine, you can’t help ad­mir­ing an au­thor who dares give the fin­ger to an al­go­rithm.

In Girt, Hunt took us from the first Euro­pean sight­ings of the great south­ern con­ti­nent to the res­ig­na­tion of gov­er­nor Lach­lan Mac­quarie in 1821. True Girt picks up the story and drops it 70 years and 400-odd pages later with the phrase ‘‘Such is life’’, the al­leged fi­nal ut­ter­ance of the ‘‘poor, thiev­ing, mag­nif­i­cently bearded cop-killing ter­ror­ist with a pen­chant for fetish-wear’’, Ned Kelly.

Whether or not Kelly ever said the phrase at­trib­uted to him, it is en­shrined in our folk­lore and an apt way for Hunt to sign off on his witty and ir­rev­er­ent romp along the high­ways and dirt tracks of Aus­tralian his­tory. His char­ac­ter­i­sa­tion of Kelly is also a good ex­am­ple of his use of anachro­nisms to un­set­tle our read­ing of the past.

This time Hunt pushes be­yond NSW to de­scribe the found­ing of new colonies, the growth of agri­cul­ture, the gold rushes, trial by jury and the re­lent­less ex­pan­sion of white set­tle­ment. Along the way we en­counter a fa­mil­iar cast of con­victs, bushrangers and ex­plor­ers.

One of Hunt’s main themes is the fraught and of­ten bloody re­la­tion­ship be­tween the Euro­pean colonis­ers and the Abo­rig­i­nal peo­ple. The lan­guage of con­tem­po­rary doc­u­ments is some­times so bizarre that it is hard to tell whether they are gen­uine or the prod­uct of Hunt’s satir­i­cal imag­i­na­tion. Take the fol­low­ing speech by Ge­orge Gawler, the newly ar­rived gov­er­nor of South Aus­tralia, to an Abo­rig­i­nal gath­er­ing in 1838: Black men, we wish to make you happy. But you can­not be happy un­less you im­i­tate good white men. Build huts, wear clothes, work and be use­ful. Above all you can­not be happy un­less you love God who made heaven and earth and all things. Love white men. Love other tribes of black men. Do not quar­rel to­gether. Tell other tribes to love white men, and to build good huts and wear clothes. Learn to speak English.

In the same year, Hunt tells us, at Myall Creek sta­tion in north­ern NSW, about 30 Wir­ra­yaraay peo­ple, ‘‘mostly chil­dren, women and old men’’, were roped to­gether and taken to a nearby gully, where they were ‘‘shot, hacked, blud­geoned and burned to death’’ in re­tal­i­a­tion for the spear­ing of some cat­tle.

Eleven stock­men (but not the landowner who led the mas­sacre) were charged with mur­der and tried, but a jury took less than 15 min­utes to find them all not guilty. Seven were re­tried on new charges, found guilty and hanged. The ver­dict and ex­e­cu­tion split the colony. The Syd­ney Morn­ing Her­ald com­mented, ‘‘the whole gang of black an­i­mals are not worth the money the colonists will have to pay for print­ing the silly court doc­u­ments on which we have al­ready wasted too much time’’.

Such episodes, of which there are dis­arm­ingly many, make for con­fronting read­ing, and Hunt has done a use­ful his­tor­i­cal ser­vice in dig­ging up and pre­sent­ing ev­i­dence of at­ti­tudes whose bale­ful con­se­quences still plague us (al­though at times the tone of his foot­notes seems a bit mis­judged).

This book is sig­nif­i­cantly longer than its pre-

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