Witty romp down the tracks of long ago
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-