August 2010

The Nation Reviewed

A man's not a camel

By Robyn Annear
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

An obelisk, I always think, sounds as if it ought to be squat and round. I can’t help knowing otherwise, though, since I live in the shadow of one. Fifty metres from my back gate stands a soaring obelisk dedicated to memory of the doomed explorers Burke and Wills. Stuck on a hilltop, it serves primarily as a landmark for the town of Castlemaine, whose citizens know the granite needle on the skyline simply as “The Monument”.

I think of it as a monument to futility and folly – in particular, the folly of men – making it the ideal spot for contemplating life’s disappointments. Election nights often find me there. Tiny bats circle the floodlit monument, feasting on insects drawn to the lights. I’ve seen mopokes and, once, a snowy owl perched brilliant-eyed at the apex, 15 metres up. Around the foot of the monument, broken glass bottles and fish-and-chip paper lie scattered. Its vantage point over the town makes it a mecca for hoons, affording them two minutes’ warning of the cops approaching. And it was ever thus: a photograph of nineteenth-century vintage shows bell-bottomed youths, their hats tipped back, lounging with undisguised insolence on the monument’s railing.

Among the town’s present-day youth, urban legend holds that there’s a nightclub underneath the monument. No one’s saying how you get inside. I like to imagine that touching the right spot on its base will cause the monument to tilt up, revealing stairs that plunge to a strobe-lit cavern. (I have yet to discover the spot.)

Probably, the names of Burke and Wills would never have lodged themselves in the pantheon of Australian history, or on many monuments, had they managed a safe return from their south–north crossing of the Australian continent. Two factors best explain their glorification: one, the Victorians craved heroes – the more tragic, the better; and two, there was no TV. Around four-fifths of the population of Melbourne filed past the explorers’ remains, lying in state. A similar number lined the kerbs to witness their funeral procession, and like-sized crowds turned up to see their public statue unveiled and a mammoth lump of granite hauled up Elizabeth Street to seal their tomb.

Robert O’Hara Burke was mourned as a favourite son in Castlemaine, where he’d served as police superintendent before being appointed leader of the great exploring expedition. This month marks 150 years since the expedition set off from Melbourne for the Gulf of Carpentaria and, a few weeks ago, Castlemaine staged its own commemoration of Burke’s departure thence.

Eighty men – “citizens of all classes” – attended a farewell dinner thrown for Burke at one of the gold-rush town’s better hotels in July 1860. “If I do not succeed, there will be a good reason for it!” Burke assured well-wishers on that occasion, his speech reported in its entirety in the local newspaper. The original venue being long defunct, the recent anniversary-bash took place instead at the Theatre Royal, built in 1858, the same year Burke arrived in town. Highlights of the 1860 farewell orations were performed by their speakers’ contemporary counterparts: policeman, mayor, clergyman and so on. Thanks to the admission of women this time around, the anniversary audience was twice the size of the all-male original. But, for the sake of authen?ticity, cardboard beards fitted with elastic were issued to the unwhiskered upon entry. As the speeches kicked off, not a bare face was in evidence. The speakers were seated on the stage, arrayed along a table like the disciples at the Last Supper. Behind them, a grizzled townsman played the part of prompter, flourishing placards urging historically precise cheers – “LOUD CHEERS” and cries of “HEAR, HEAR” and “NO” – from the audience, as per the 1860 news report of the event.

Notwithstanding ill health of the severest sort, auctioneer Felix Cappy replicated with panache the grandiloquence of Burke’s barrister friend Mr Leech, whose speech foretold the eventual union of the Australian colonies and the establishment “in the now hidden and trackless interior” of a federal capital. “We may picture to ourselves the stately House of Congress, and fronting its portico the colossal statue of a man, with one hand pointing to the Gulf of Carpentaria and the other resting on the neck of a recumbent camel. CHEERS The man of a future generation explaining the history of the city to his child, will say: ‘My son, this is Robert O’Hara Burke.’ LOUD CHEERS

At the words “recumbent camel”, there emerged from the side drapes a camel mounted on wheels. Drawn by ropes and with an uneven swag of empty bottles slung across his hump, the dromedary – former mascot of a Melbourne rug merchant – trundled across the stage behind the performers until, losing his footing, he listed in the direction of the guest of honour. The prompter dropped “LOUD CHEERS” and made an intercepting dive, tweaking a groin muscle but setting the camel to rights. Rising to speak next, police sergeant Peter Lukaitis, as Burke, drew an unprompted cheer when he began, as per the 150-year-old script: “Mr Leech did well to mention the camel …”

Modest and softly spoken, Lukaitis was surprisingly well suited to the part of Burke – surprising, because Burke is usually depicted as wild-eyed and thrusting. “I am not so weak-minded as to allow myself to be inflated by vanity,” he declared in this speech, avowedly his first. “I will not go forward for fear of being called a coward, nor remain behind to be called a fool. LOUD CHEERS

Down in the stalls, a gent in a cravat and waistcoat was heard to remark that it must have peeved the womenfolk of 1860 to have been excluded from such a gala. “Oh, I don’t know,” replied his companion through her cardboard beard, “I dare say they were making their own fun.” Out of coloured thread, no doubt, on linen stretched over an embroidery hoop. Fun of a sort, I guess. Fun, anyway, compared with piloting a crinoline cage in a crowded hall.

Or maybe not. There was one bold crinoline-wearer, one slave to sesquicentennial fashion, at the anniversary of Burke’s Castlemaine farewell. And you had to admire her pluck in commandeering, ever so decorously, the floor space of four stout men or one restive camel.

In the winter of 1860, a party of ladies made a tour of the magnetic observatory on Melbourne’s Flagstaff Hill, where navigational instruments were being prepared for use on the Burke and Wills expedition. A great commotion was observed in the instruments, caused by the proximity of such a mass of steel crinoline hoops, and the women were asked to leave. But was the damage done? Who can say that the disturbing crinoline may not have contributed to the fatal disarray of the expedition and given rise, indirectly, to the tapering granite erection on the hill behind my house?

Robyn Annear

Robyn Annear is a writer and historian based in Castlemaine, Victoria. Her books include A City Lost and Found: Whelan the Wrecker’s Melbourne and Fly a Rebel Flag: The Eureka Stockade.

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