QUARTERLY ESSAY 11 Whitefella Jump Up



P.A. Durack Clancy

Commonsense dictates: ignore Germaine Greer’s latest attention-seeking stunt. Response will simply encourage her. Reaction, it seems, is just what the “eminent expatriate” awaits.

It is possible to ignore the main thrust of Greer’s essay – her admonition to whitefellas to become jumped-up born-again blackfellas. Let those who will, “sit on the ground with (Greer) and think”. Others will give her nought out of ten for workable shortcuts; ten out of ten for media coverage.

It is even possible to ignore the numerous comments that reveal the depth of Greer’s myopia regarding Australia’s past and present. On page 22, for instance: “(in 1971) half a world away … I could suddenly see that what was operating in Australia was apartheid …” More comparable “insights”, along with contradictions galore, appear throughout the essay.

It is possible, too, to ignore the few occasions where Greer actually says something that is correct. The sentence beginning: “The intervention of the academics …” on page 45, is one such instance.

It is simply not possible, however, to ignore what Greer has to say when she turns her careless sights and shoots venom upon Mary Durack’s Australian classic Kings in Grass Castles.

Greer is not the first to descend upon Kings and willy-nilly to pluck passages from it in support of some cockeyed specious thesis.

Indeed for the past twenty years or so various minnows have nibbled at Kings. Those of us who happen, with reason, to admire our forebears’ achievements and Mary Durack’s art as a writer and historian, may have been irritated by the minnows but most of the time the things they said were so absurd and wide of the mark they could not be taken very seriously.

When “a renowned writer, academic and broadcaster”, quite a big fish in other words, also attacks Kings and Duracks and comes up with even more absurd and offensive inaccuracies than the minnows, it is time to stop thinking that the abuse of Australian history and of our family will simply go away.

As far as I am concerned there is no point in enumerating all of Greer’s shameless misrepresentations of Kings, its author and its lead characters. Three examples of the way Greer distorts history and of her jaundiced slipshod method will suffice.

The examples come from a long paragraph beginning on page 65 with, “The evidence from the Durack family …” and concluding on page 66 with “… an expensive disaster.” In amongst this jumbled paragraph Greer says:

1. “In 1879 their land hunger drove a posse of Durack men westwards towards the Kimberley where … they helped themselves to the pick of the Ord and Fitzroy country …”

In these remarks Greer summarises about five detailed chapters of Kings. Fair enough to condense, but what rough research led to such distortion of the facts? Apparently Greer cares not a jot for accuracy. In the interests of the latter, and for the record, here is a factual account of Greer’s loaded sentence above.

In July 1882, following reports by Alexander Forrest of his 1879 expedition to Kimberley, a party of six men, “expert bushmen of proven toughness and resource” led by “Stumpy” Michael Durack, left Brisbane by sea with “twenty-three tried and well-bred horses” and fifteen hundredweight of rations and equipment. They were bound for Cambridge Gulf, Western Australia to see for themselves whether the Kimberley country was as favourable and suitable for stock as Forrest had claimed. In Darwin they engaged two Aborigines, Pannikin and Pintpot, who not only proved their worth on the expedition but so relished their Durack experience they later joined the team on the long trek that led Queensland cattle into Kimberley.

In short, Greer’s “land-hungry posse” was a well-organised, well-disciplined reconnaissance, or survey, party composed of white and black men.

2. In the same paragraph, page 66, Greer adds: “[the Duracks’] first expedition (to Kimberley) was a disaster and they were repeatedly lost on the second …”

Again, for the record: In 1879 Alexander Forrest had “conjectured” that the mouth of the Ord was on the west of Cambridge Gulf and that is where the Durack survey party first landed in August 1882. It needs to be noted that before this date the rivers of East Kimberley had not been mapped. (Nor were there any roads, let alone comfy air-conditioned four-wheel drives that today’s “Kimberley explorers” take for granted. It should not be necessary to spell all this out but apparently it is for the likes of Greer.) Stumpy Michael and his party were identifying rivers and naming them for whitefella maps. They were the first to start sketching on paper the river courses and their tributaries. Over time it was discovered that five major rivers flow into Cambridge Gulf. The Ord had been named by Forrest but its course was not known. Stumpy Michael, foreseeing the route to the Ord would be circuitous, marked a boab tree “D1” at the site of their first camp. Within one month of landing on the west side of Cambridge Gulf the Durack party had found the Ord some two hundred kilometres east at its junction with the Negri (as noted by Forrest). There they marked a final boab “D24”, followed the river downstream almost to its mouth and reported Kimberley country to be “fine beyond expectations …”

Their return route, still “in the saddle”, was some one thousand kilometres west to Beagle Bay. From there they caught a ship to Fremantle and another on to Brisbane. From start to finish the reconnaissance took six months. It achieved its principal aim: to sight and assess land before commitment to leasing. Eleven horses had been lost but there had been no loss of human life – white or black. By any normal reckoning this first expedition was remarkably successful.

Yet Greer in her ivory tower at the University of Warwick sweepingly dismisses the expedition as “a disaster”? Has she ever read Kings?

Or did she pass on the task to some clueless research assistant? More likely, she uncritically accepted and repeated the denigrations of the minnows.

As for “they [Duracks] were repeatedly lost on their second expedition [to Kimberley] …” This remark is Greer’s view of the 1883–1885 overland cattle drive from Queensland through the Territory to East Kimberley. Has she any realistic understanding of moving stock long distances through uncharted land? Her put-down of the epic achievement is beneath contempt.

3. Greer again, on page 66: “The Duracks understood so little of what they were doing in the Kimberley they couldn’t even position their original dwelling at Argyle high enough to escape the rising waters of the Behn River in the wet season … it doesn’t take much bushcraft to find evidence of periodic flood; evidently they didn’t even look …”

What an offensive and inaccurate view of those “first footers” who shared a reputation with the finest bushmen in the land. Sure the Behn rose high in the record wet of 1888 and the kitchen, built as was customary well separate from the main house, was swept away. The house itself however withstood the flood and remained in use as a functioning homestead on the place where my great-grandfather Patsy and Pumpkin pegged it until it was drowned by the waters of Lake Argyle some ninety years later – (another story …)

While ever “posses” of prejudiced influential academics set out to rewrite our history and to knock cherished and good Australian stories (I refer not only to Kings), what hope for “reconciliation”? What hope too when loopy negative cock and bull is condoned and applauded? It would be interesting to know, for instance, the number of Australians who would agree that Greer’s “vision … may be precisely the kind of thing Australia has been yearning for all these years”; or that Whitefella Jump Up “crystallises something which has been in the air … for a long time … but which has never … been so well expressed”? My tip is that if today’s battlers were ever to read the essay it would (to paraphrase Greer) simply confirm their own deserved loathing of the eggheads.

For those of us who live in Australia there has long been awareness that in many subtle ways aspects of Aboriginal culture impinge on our lives. Likewise there is a mostly easygoing awareness and acceptance of many other peoples’ cultures. If being Australian is something that we feel and know “in our bones”, why try to pin it down? Can identity be pinned down? Surely identity, personal and national, is a dynamic concept that meanders, changes and adjusts as circumstances and understandings evolve?

To conclude with a prayer: Please God, spare us from a zealous self-exiled academic who preaches to us in real old-style missionary mode that “the way to light is through darkness, and this darkest hour could be just before our dawn as a genuinely new nation …” Amen.


P.A. Durack Clancy is a descendant of “Patsy” Durack and niece of Mary Durack, the author of Kings in Grass Castles. She has lived and worked in Lusaka, Tokyo, New York, London and Sydney. During the 1990s she ran the Durack Gallery in Broome.


This correspondence discusses Quarterly Essay 11, Whitefella Jump Up. To read the full essay, subscribe or buy the book.

This correspondence featured in Quarterly Essay 12, Made in England.


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