Hamilton Hume: Book Review

Hamilton Hume
The Life and Times of Our Greatest Explorer
By Robert Macklin
Hatchette Australia 2016

A comprehensive biography of the explorer Hamilton Hume is long overdue. His outstanding contribution to Australian history has been scandalously neglected: most versions of 19th century colonial exploration were written by supporters of the pro-British and pro-colonialist ascendancy. Hume’s role was bitterly resented and resulted in the simple expediency of relegating him to the margins. If the British colonialists could inflict terra nullius on the great southern continent it was a relatively simple matter to publish selective history as well.

Macklin argues that Hume remained largely unsung because he was a born and bred Australian. As such, he lacked the social and political cache of British-born explorers who had connections with the Admiralty, the playing fields of Eton or Harrow, Whitehall, Westminster or the City of London. Hume “stood emotionally apart from the ‘Europeans’, as he called them” and during his extensive travels always fostered a warm and respectful relationship with the colony’s indigenous people.

His most celebrated overland journey from Sydney to Port Phillip, the future site of Melbourne, was shared with Captain William Hilton Hovell, who subsequently laid claim to the nation-building discoveries of their trip. Macklin uncovers Hovell’s self-serving scheming in forensic detail and installs Hume in his rightful place as the real leader of the harrowing expedition.

Macklin, a Canberra-based journalist with a string of books to his credit, including Jacka VC, My Favourite Teacher, SAS Sniper and Dark Paradise, has a deeply personal connection with Hamilton Hume. His wife, Wendy, is the daughter of the late R.H. “Bob” Webster who wrote and privately published a biography of Hume in 1982 called Currency Lad. Macklin returned to the original research conducted by his father-in-law and launched his own investigation at the National Library, the National Archives, the Mitchell Library and the Trove digital newspaper site.

It is unusual for a professional journalist to make a successful career as a historian, and academic historians tend to take a mean-spirited view of interlopers from the media. In many cases, their prejudices are well-founded because the arrivistes compile their works without attention to social, political or economic context and reduce their narratives to vulgar and personalised sensationalism. Not Macklin. He is studious, respectful and painstakingly fair.

His opening lines create an unforgettable image:

“They emerged from the bush like skeletal ghosts, the convicts first, staggering in short steps, all in rags but – he was barefoot and naked, wild eyes staring from a face of black bristling whiskers. It would be days before he return to his senses …

“Then, finally, came the tall, angular bushman who had guided and shepherded them all the way, there and back … He got them through. They didn’t understand how. Willpower was part of it, but only part. There were the Aboriginal people. He talked to them in their lingo and they told him where to go, what to avoid, how to find springs and waterholes. But there was something else, something much more important.” I won’t spoil the “something else” which Macklin uncovers with methodical care. Just read his book!

As far as European explorers are concerned, I grew up absorbed by the careers of Matthew Flinders (My Love Must Wait by Ernestine Hill) and Ludwig Leichhardt (Vos by Patrick White) and then I switched to bushrangers – Ned Kelly, Ben Hall, Frank Gardiner, Frederick Ward (Captain Thunderbolt) – whose role in forming the distinctive Australian character is much under-estimated.

Macklin has enlivened my interest in Hume as well as deepening my understanding of the threads of history.


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