Australian history

Girt: The unauthorised history of Australia

An extract from Girt: The Unauthorised History of Australia (Black Inc.) by David Hunt, out now.


Our home is girt by sea.

Advance Australia Fair, Peter Dodds McCormick, 1878


Girt. No word could better capture the essence of Australia. Switzerland, Paraguay and Burkina Faso are merely girt by other countries, but Australia is entirely and defiantly girt by sea.

No other nation can rival Australia for sheer maritime girtitude. Australia dwarfs its nearest rival, Greenland, by a girt-factor of 3.52 (7,617,930 square kilometres to Greenland’s puny 2,166,086). And Greenland isn’t even a proper country, just a forlorn Danish outpost that reeks of pickled herring.

Australia justifiably celebrates its girtuosity in its national anthem, for the history of this wide brown land has been shaped by the even wider blue seas in which it rests. It was the warm currents of the Timor Sea that carried the First Australians to these shores, and it was Australia’s phenomenal girtage that kept these hardy pioneers blissfully unaware of trousers, smallpox, large mining companies, Shane Warne and the other trappings of Western civilisation for tens of millennia.

It was the vast reaches of the Pacific and Indian oceans that led Europe’s greatest minds to conclude that so much water must be girting something – for surely the world would tip from its axis in the absence of a Great Southern Land to balance the sprawling continents of the northern hemisphere. It was those same dark, churning waters that led the captains of Europe’s finest fleets, searching in vain for the elusive southern continent, to ask, “So where the bloody hell are you?”

But Terra Australis could not remain Incognita forever. The veil of waters parted for Willem Janszoon, Abel Tasman, William Dampier, James Cook, Matthew Flinders and Jessica Watson, revealing a land of golden beaches, storm-kissed bays and jewelled harbours.

And while the world’s other great powers saw Australia’s unparalleled girtedness as an excellent reason to steer clear of the joint, Britain saw it as a virtue, for it needed a place to stash all its pickpockets, sheep thieves and Irishmen. Britain fervently hoped that the tyranny of distance and the despotism of lots of water would prevent its undesirables from walking back to London.

Australia’s isolation made it a giant Petri dish, able to grow a unique culture. It attracted no-hopers, ne’er-do-wells, political prisoners, religious refugees, free thinkers and eccentrics. It drew adventurers and risk-takers and called to the poor, the disadvantaged and the merely socially embarrassing. It served as a bright beacon to a tsunami of opportunists, gamblers, entrepreneurs and gladhanders. Australian ports served as a gateway for sailors and fortune-seekers from all corners of the globe, and the lure of riches or men with big sticks carried the Chinese and Kanaks to our shores.

Australia was the place to be. Unless you were black. Or a woman. Or gay. Or suspected of being Irish. Or even worse, all of the above.

Yet geography, economy and necessity forced Australia’s disparate peoples into contact with each other, elevating men of low birth to greatness and lowering a fair share of the mighty. Rich and poor, black and white, gay and straight, Catholic and Protestant and Jew were left to simmer in the cultural melting pot.

In time, a new and distinct people emerged from Britain’s colonial kitchen. A people who bathed regularly. A people who liked a bet, a drink and a smoke. A people who were good at ball games. A people who fought and died for whatever Britain or America wanted them to fight and die for and who laughed in the face of Johnny Turk, Uncle Tojo and anyone else who looked or spoke funny. A people who would push technology to its very limits, gifting humanity with the finest lawn mowers and clotheslines the world had ever seen and a strange brown paste that could transform a simple piece of toast into a simple piece of toast covered in a strange brown paste. A people who called themselves Australians.

While our identity evolved, the sea remained a constant. The first three governors of New South Wales were all naval men, which explains why rum, sodomy and the lash have played such an important role in Australian life. Sir Henry Parkes, the man who led the fight for an independent Australia and a poet of outstanding mediocrity, wrote in 1889:

God girdled our majestic isle

With seas far-reaching east and west,

That man might live beneath this smile

In peace and freedom ever blest.

Alfred Deakin, Australia’s second Prime Minister, finished his great 1898 speech in support of Australian Federation with the words:

For God has made her one: complete she lies

Within the unbroken circle of the skies,

And round her indivisible the sea

Breaks on her single shore.

 Robert Menzies yearned for the love of a blue-hatted woman who lived far over the sea. Malcolm Fraser lost his trousers on the other side of the sea. John Howard and Julia Gillard told people to go back across the sea. And Harold Holt, our greatest submaritime politician, has been girt by sea since 1967.


The Very Late Captain Cook

It is the 29th of April 1770 and Captain James Cook, the greatest explorer of his age, strides across the deck of the HMS Endeavour while his pet botanist, Joseph Banks, scurries in his wake wittering on about seed pods. But Cook only has ears for the siren song of the land that lies spread before him like a welcoming lover. He has discovered her and all her secrets – and this day, at Botany Bay, he will name her and claim her for God, King and Great Britain.

This is, of course, complete nonsense.

Captain Cook wasn’t even Captain Cook in 1770, but Lieutenant Cook, a junior officer of no particular note. He arrived between 60,000 and 164 years too late to discover Australia (depending on whom you listen to) and claimed the continent’s entire east coast, which he didn’t like much, on Possession Island in the Torres Strait, naming it New Wales because it reminded him very much of sunny tropical Wales.

By the time Cook got around to not discovering Australia, Spanish eyes had gazed upon her emerald rainforests, a Dutch psychopath had bathed her beaches in the blood of his countrymen, and her northern shores had serviced China’s sexually adventurous and erectilely challenged for at least half a century.


The First Englishman Not To Discover Australia

Cook wasn’t even the first Englishman not to discover Australia. That honour fell to the murderously incompetent Captain John Brookes in 1622.

Brookes was one of the first children of a new golden age in which the English dreamt of Empire. King James VI of Scotland had ascended the English throne in 1603, joining the two previously hostile countries together under a common monarch and changing his name to King James I. The Irish were crushed in the same year, after sixty years of war and an even longer period of jokes at their expense. The English jackboot had already trampled the Welsh daffodil and the much hardier leek and, with Scotland and Ireland now subdued, a truly great Britain was looking to make her mark on the wider world. Britain’s first permanent colony was established in 1607 and, when the Mayflower pilgrims went to starve and freeze in America in 1620, Britain was well on her way to becoming a great colonial power.

But in 1622 Britannia did not yet rule the waves, with the Spanish, Dutch and French fleets challenging her naval supremacy. And while Great Britain is now a nation of shopkeepers, back then if Brookes wanted to buy a really good cheese, tulip, painting of a chubby nude chick with red hair or, most importantly, the latest must-have condiment, he would have had to ask the Dutch.

Europe had discovered that its traditional cuisine of turnip and lard was actually edible when heavily disguised with spices. Pepper was all the rage, the landed gentry held nutmeg parties, and gold was worth its weight in cloves. Most of these exotic treats could only be found in the East Indies (now Indonesia) and the Dutch East India Company held the keys to the spice rack.

And so it is we find Captain Brookes of the Tryall skulking off the North West Cape of Western Australia, en route to the East Indies, his hold full of silver to buy pepper from under the noses of the Dutch.

In fairness to Captain Cook, he knew he had run into Australia (or New Holland, as it was then known). Brookes had no idea. When Brookes sighted the Australian coast, he thought it a small island in the Indian Ocean. This was his first navigational mistake. His second was to run his ship into a small island in the Indian Ocean, which he thought to be open sea. The low-lying island now known as Tryal Rocks lies about 100 kilometres off the West Australian coast and is the site of the first proven European shipwreck in Australian waters.

Historians spend a lot of time doing useful things like debating the meaning of the word “discovery”. The consensus is that running into something without realising where it is does not constitute discovery, although this rule is not applied to Christopher Columbus, who maintained until his dying day that he had crashed into Asia and that America did not exist. Another rule of discovery is that you must leave X, find Y, and then return to X and announce “I have just found Y”. You can’t stay in Y being hand-fed papaya by the sixty Polynesian virgins who have declared you to be a living god.

So Brookes saw Australia, Brookes crashed into Australia, but Brookes did not “discover” Australia.

Brookes was not the sort of captain to go down with his ship. He was, however, the sort of captain to make off with its silver while his men drowned around him. Brookes and forty-five of his crew escaped in the ship’s longboat and skiff, which had room for many more men, leaving ninety-three of their fellows to succumb to hunger, thirst and high tide. He made it to Batavia (modern-day Jakarta) and told his employer, the British East India Company, that all its silver was lying at the bottom of the Indian Ocean. He promised that he had stuck to his allocated course and had been nowhere near New Holland. For centuries, seamen searched the wrong seas for the Tryall’s treasure. Only in 1969 was the wreck discovered and the first sighting of Australia by an Englishman confirmed.


The First English Backpacker

The next Englishman not to discover Australia was William Dampier. Dampier was England’s first professional tourist and clocked up a phenomenal quantity of frequent-sailor points, being the first man to circumnavigate the globe three times.

Dampier was also a pirate, but he was a sensitive pirate with soulful eyes and long girly hair who kept a diary in which he recorded his feelings about the many lands, people, plants and animals he encountered. Dampier’s pirating gave him an opportunity to see the world and kill all sorts of new and interesting people, although, in his defence, he felt bad about it afterwards (unless his victims were Spanish).

The pirates of the Caribbean, of which Dampier was one, had many endearing qualities. They revived the democracy of the ancient Greeks, with crew members electing their captain and voting on where to travel and whom to kill. After an honest day’s raping and pillaging, they would divide the day’s spoils equally. They introduced the world’s first workers’ compensation scheme, with payouts determined by battle-wound severity. On the island of Tortuga, buccaneers lived in lifelong male pairs; partners were known as matelots and they did, sharing property, food, a bed and, in every sense of the word, each other’s booty. The English turned a blind eye to this bohemian lifestyle because the pirates were awfully good at burning Spanish towns, sinking Spanish ships and hanging Spanish sailors from the yardarm by their entrails, all of which the English regarded as jolly good sport.

So in 1688 we find William Dampier pirating off the Mexican coast aboard Captain Swan’s Cygnet. Swan was tired of killing Spaniards in the Americas and suggested to his crew that they might like to kill some different Spaniards in the Philippines. Dampier wrote that the crew of the Cygnet only had three days’ worth of rations by the time they reached Guam and “had contrived to kill Captain Swan and eat him when the victuals were gone”. Although Swan escaped undevoured, the Cygnet’s Asian booty was restricted to rice and cotton, a far cry from the gold and silver of the Americas.

The Cygnet was now being hunted by the Spanish and the crew voted to lie low in New Holland for a while on the grounds that everyone said the place was a dump; no one in their right mind would think that the English would ever go there. And so, on 4 January 1688, Dampier landed on the coast of Western Australia. His diary from his short stay shows that, like many Englishmen abroad, he didn’t like the climate, the people or the food. He wrote:

The inhabitants of this country are the miserablest people in the world. The Hodmadods of Monomatapa, though a nasty people, yet for wealth are gentlemen to these; who have no houses, and skin garments, sheep, poultry, and fruits of the earth, ostrich eggs, etc., as the Hodmadods have: and, setting aside their human shape, they differ but little from brutes ... They are long-visaged, and of a very unpleasing aspect, having not one graceful feature in their faces.

After getting Anglo–Aboriginal relations off to such a promising start, Dampier left our shores, bought a tattooed East-Indian slave named Jeoly, returned to England, sold Jeoly to a travelling freak show, and published the diary of his travels. A New Voyage Round the World was, with the exception of the Bible, the most popular book of its era – part seventeenth-century Lonely Planet guide, part swashbuckling potboiler. Dampier could move seamlessly from a botanical description of the banana to a dissertation on the sexual mores of Filipino women, before launching into tales of rapine upon the high seas and enumerating the many failings of the various foreigners he had met and killed.

Dampier traded off his literary success and came up with a daring new plan. He would join the Royal Navy and go not discover Australia again!

The voyage was a disaster. His ship, the Roebuck, leaked and, to the horror of its sodden sailors, ran out of beer. By the time the Roebuck arrived in Western Australia, her crew were losing their teeth to scurvy and had nominated Dampier “World’s Worst Captain 1699”.

Dampier again damned Australia with faint praise:

If it were not for that sort of pleasure which results from the discovery of even the barrenest spot upon the globe, the coast of New Holland would not have charmed me much.

Dampier averted mutiny by agreeing to take his disgruntled crew home, abandoning his mission just 100 miles from Australia’s east coast.

Dampier’s A Voyage to New Holland was another literary success and ensured continued English interest in the continent. His descriptions of Australia’s unpleasant wildlife – he disliked all the sharks and snakes and declared the shingleback lizard the ugliest creature he had ever seen – would inspire future generations of naturalists, including Sir Joseph Banks and Charles Darwin. Yet Dampier’s most lasting contribution has been to literature and the English language. His voyages inspired Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels and the desert island abandonment of Alexander Selkirk, one of his sailing companions, was the inspiration for Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. Dampier’s writings introduced albatross, avocado, breadfruit, cashew, chopsticks, dildo-bush, posse, sub-species and tortilla into the English vocabulary.

William Dampier is undoubtedly one of the greatest Englishmen never to have discovered Australia.


Is That a Slug in Your Pocket?

For centuries, Makassan traders from the Indonesian island of Sulawesi had been harvesting sea cucumbers (trepang) on the north Australian coast. The sea cucumber’s value lay in it being prized by the Chinese as an aphrodisiac.

The sea cucumber appears an odd choice of marital aid as it is not remotely sexy, except perhaps to another sea cucumber. It is a large, black, slug-like creature that spends its entire life sitting in shallow water, aspiring to nothing more than avoiding ending up in a Beijing sex shop.

The Makassans were the first non-Aboriginal people to settle in Australia for any length of time, with up to forty ships and over 1000 men coming to northern Australia each trepang season. Makassan divers would collect tonnes of the Viagra slugs and deliver them to demountable factories on shore, where they would be boiled, dried, buried in sand for weeks, dug up, boiled again and then smoked.

The Makassans had a profound impact on the culture, language and economies of the Yolngu of Arnhem Land and other Aboriginal peoples they encountered. They exchanged cloth, tobacco, knives, rice and alcohol for the right to harvest trepang and hire local labour – the earliest record of trade between Aborigines and the outside world.

Indonesian fishermen have been coming to Australia in search of trepang and other less sexy sealife for centuries. Now we burn their boats. This is called progress.


David Hunt