David Hunt, True Girt The Unauthorised History of Australia. Volume 2
Black Inc Books, 2016, ISBN 9781863958844, RRP $32.99, Paperback
‘Australian history is almost always picturesque; indeed, it is so curious and strange, that it is itself the chiefest novelty the country has to offer and so pushes the other novelties into second and third place. It does not read like history, but like the most beautiful lies; and all of a fresh new sort, no mouldy old stale ones. It is full of surprises and adventures, and incongruities, and contradictions, and incredibilities; but they are all true, they all happened.’ Mark Twain, Following the Equator, 1897.
In 2013 David Hunt’s best-selling, award winning first book Girt delighted readers with its fresh, surprising and slyly humorous take on the early history of New South Wales. The book covered the period from before the arrival of the First Fleet and up until the time of Governor Macquarie – the final chapter humorously entitled ‘I Think I’ll Call It Macquarie’ – bank, street, place, park, river etc etc etc. Girt was indeed as Twain surmised, ‘full of surprises and adventures and incongruities and contradictions and incredibilities’.
In True Girt, Volume 2 Hunt continues this take on Australian history. This is a much bigger book than Volume One. In it he delves into the wild frontiers of white colonial expansion – the early settlement of Van Diemen’s Land, the genesis of Melbourne and the emergence of settler communities in Western Australia, South Australia and up to the tropical North.
Along the way the reader is treated to the trials and tribulations of our fated and yet sometimes tragic explorers who made this colonial expansion possible – Sturt, Mitchell, Hume, Horell, Leichhardt, Stuart, Burke and Wills to name just a few. The history is fleshed out with the outrageous antics of convict bushrangers and feral whalers, the familiar colonial figures of Caroline Chisholm, John Macarthur and William Wentworth, the politics behind the calls for representative government, free immigration and the end to convict transportation. The struggles which this entailed between pro’s and anti’s, Exclusives and Emancipists are also charted. Hunt successfully weaves all of this amidst a backdrop of both the political and social changes then developing in Britain, juxtaposed with the general scandalous goings on of colonial Sydney – drunken debauchery, extra marital affairs, illegitimacy and seething professional rivalries between certain colonial gentlemen with scurrilous and libellous tendencies.
True Girt covers the discovery of gold, first in NSW and later in Victoria and brightly illuminates its enormous significance in shaping Australia. Gold put an end to convict transportation to the eastern colonies (the British Government were never going to provide a free passage to its felons to the goldfields!) AND it transformed both the size and the ethnic diversity of the eastern colonies. For example between 1851 and 1861, the population of Victoria ‘leaped from 77,000 to an outstanding 540, 000 inhabitants. There were more arrivals in the first two years of the rush than there were convicts in the first sixty five years of British settlement, with Australia’s population tripling by 1861’.[i] Unfortunately, as Hunt well observes, the mixture of races on the goldfields would also lead to conflict, the passing of the first immigration restriction acts and the demonising of ‘boat people’. The book closes with the bush ranging years of the Kelly Gang, the frustrations of the Irish and the subsequent calls for land reforms. But not before the reader is introduced to Captain Moonlite, ‘Australia’s most infamous LGBTI bushranger.’[ii]
As with Girt mark one, the footnotes are often really rather amusing. Hunt’s technique of a small and irreverent, and yet informative note at the end of a page can make one laugh (and indeed snort) out loud. Even while reading in a public library. In essence, volume two is a fascinating, curious, at times ‘unbelievable because it’s true’ sort of book. It is meticulously researched although his sources are only mentioned briefly in the acknowledgments at the close of the book, rather than in a formal bibliography.
But as a white English woman there were moments when I sat awkward and squirming at his take on Aboriginal history and frontier violence. I have no idea how Aboriginal readers will digest this book either. To the credit of the author he does acknowledge that in writing some parts of the book, ‘particularly some sections dealing with Indigenous people’ he found the process ‘both difficult and distressing.’ At the same time he manages ‘to use humour to both engage and inform’ and certainly satirizes Keith Windschuttle’s thesis on frontier violence with great gusto. As Hunt himself writes, ‘Satire should discomfort as well as amuse, as the verities it unearths are frequently unpleasant. I have succeeded with this book if I’ve made people laugh and squirm at the same time or laugh and then feel bad about laughing.’[iii]
For some reason both volumes one and two have front covers with rather strange pictures of men with birds on their heads. Volume one is Governor Arthur Phillip with a seagull, whilst volume two is Captain Moonlit with a squawking cockatoo. Why the books have these images one can only surmise. Perhaps they are a nod to the curious and strange novelties and absurdities noted by Twain and captured so vividly and engagingly in this wonderful, at times confronting, but always fascinating book. And just for the record, I can’t wait for Volume Three….
Dr Catie Gilchrist
[i] David Hunt, True Girt The Unauthorised History of Australia, Volume 2, Black Inc, 2016, p 282
[ii] David Hunt, True Girt The Unauthorised History of Australia, Volume 2, Black Inc, 2016, p 389
[iii] David Hunt, True Girt The Unauthorised History of Australia, Volume 2, Black Inc, 2016, p 414