The Battle of Brisbane: Australia and the Yanks at War

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Aug 21, 2016 No Comments ›› admin


Thank you very much Bill. I’m both delighted and honoured, first of all by your agreeing to give your imprimatur on the cover of the book and now for your presence and your kind remarks tonight.

I’m so glad that tonight we’re joined by so many of my wife Wendy’s family because it was Bob Webster, the father of Wendy, Lindy, Tom and Peter, whose book, Currency Lad forms the hard kernel of this work and in so many ways it is a tribute to the man whom I too came to love and respect as a father figure.

Bob compiled his work in the hard times before computers – none at least that he was prepared to operate. And in any case the internet was in its infancy, so he was denied that ever-present research assistant Master Google who sits at my side constantly offering new facts, new insights, opinions, memoirs, absolutely anything really that will get me off the narrative track and down the path to complete irrelevance.

Bob didn’t have that distraction but he also didn’t have the tools, the time and the convenience that have allowed me to build a broader story of that pivotal time from 1790 when Hamilton’s father Andrew arrived in the colony as a superintendent of convicts on the Second Fleet, to his eldest son’s death in 1873, an honoured and celebrated Australian.

Nor did he have the advantage of those of us born during and after the second world war to begin the struggle to free ourselves from an attachment to a colonial past that meant we were never taught Australian history in our schools and universities, but rather the British history of Australia, a very different beast and one that has distorted our self-perception as a nation.

And I know from Bill’s ground-breaking book, The Biggest Estate on Earth, and our many talks together that he too feels that we have yet to find our feet as Australians. In a sense we are engaged in a quest for a new perception of our country, to uncover the rich realities of Aboriginal settlement and civilisation; so discover the self-perceptions of the aliens who came from across the earthly universe to the great south land in 1788; to understand their attitudes and to trace their interaction with the country and its original people.

Only then can we begin to know and understand the differing streams of thought that struggle for primacy in the political landscape of today. Only then can we begin to grasp just what it means to say I am an Australian. Only then, I suggest, can we make sensible choices among the options which lead their several ways to a future for good or ill.

It’s not the whole story. Far from it. But unless we begin at the beginning the story has no foundation. It’s like trying to build a skyscraper by starting at the 15th floor; or teaching a child to count to 100 by starting at 42.

Bill and I in our different ways are trying to recreate those initial conditions in words and images and to use them as rocks upon which to build an edifice of history. It’s an impossible task. Words aren’t rocks; they are the artifacts of the mind – many minds – and they produce perceptions in the minds of ourselves and then through us to our readers, each one of which will be different because none of us are exactly alike.

But that’s the best we can do; and I think it’s a quest worthy of our best.

As for Hamilton Hume – Our Greatest Explorer, I am absolutely thrilled that members of the Hume family are represented here tonight by Jennifer and Anna. For far too long he’s been no more than a name on a highway or bridge or an industrial suburb. The meat of the man has been lost to us; and his achievements have been either appropriated by those who came after, or deliberately minimised by historians in the thrall of the Anglo ascendancy.

And of course, his relationship with William Hilton Hovell on his most famous journey was not only distorted and doctored by Hovell and the editor of the sea captain’s journal, but Hume’s attempt to tell the real story has been presented as the complaint of a cranky old man – when it was nothing of the kind; he was only 56 and in prime condition when he wrote his Brief Statement of Facts on the expedition. What followed has been portrayed as a feud between opponents with equal claims. It too was nothing of the kind.

It is my fervent hope that my book will help to restore the truth of the matter. More importantly, I hope that it will engage the interest of other researchers in a quest to uncover a copy of Hume’s original diary of the journey. We know it exists because just as I was finishing the research I happened upon a section of it that Hume had included in a letter to the Sydney Morning Herald. It was this letter with its description of the area around Port Phillip where they ended the journey that attracted his boyhood mate, John Batman to leave his Tasmanian property and slip across Bass Strait to found the settlement that became Melbourne.

So, Bill, if you have a PhD candidate looking for a subject, I think that might be a good starting point for her research.

And I cannot finish without a final word of thanks to my publisher, Matthew Kelly. He and I have had our gentle disagreements, but mostly it’s been us against the rest and the result, as ever, has been admirable. So thank you sincerely Matthew for all your support.

And thank you ladies and gentlemen for taking the time out of your busy lives to be with us tonight. Thank you very much.


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