Hamilton Hume: Our Greatest Explorer, by Robert Macklin
Hachette (2016), Paperback, 352 pages.
Like most Australians, I guess, at school I was bombarded with Explorers. We were lectured in serious tones about the history of Australia’s exploration and given a list parrot-fashion of all the explorers. One of the curious results of this is that all the explorers who travelled in pairs or threes have become run together in a sing-song fashion in most people’s minds. Burke and Wills; Blaxland, Wentworth and Lawson; Hume and Hovell. I’ll wager most people can recite these names off by heart, but can actually remember very little about their feats. That certainly goes, in my case, for the last-named pair. The particularly alliterative Hume and Hovell comes very easily to the tongue, but apart from the fact that Australia’s busiest highway is named after one of them, I could have told you nothing about what they discovered. Until I read this book, that is. And it’s a great story. Hamilton Hume was in fact one of the few early explorers who was native-born. In the panoply of British-born soldiers, sailors and civil servants who navigated the country in the first 50 years of settlement, Hume stands out as the only genuine Australian to lead a major expedition. For this reason, his contribution was shamefully downgraded, the cultural cringe and shameless snobbery, that elevated British-born “sterling” over native “currency”, meant his part in the discovery of the land route bewteen Sydney and Port Phillip, which was to become the site of Melbourne, was barely acknowledged until well into the 20th century. Yet Hume’s contribution was pivotal, not only did the expedition he led open the way to travel between Australia’s two largest cities, along the way he discovered millions of acres of some of the richest farmland in the world, the bread basket of Australia and the cradle of its economic wealth. He did this largely without the help of his expedition co-leader, the Scottish naval officer William Hovell, who proved to be a whining defeatist, and who threatened to turn back several times. Hume saved the expedition from starvation through his superb bushcraft and his empathy for the indigenous people, whom he recognised before anyone else as not being savages, but a people finely attuned to the land, who has mastered the arts of survival that the whites needed to learn before thay could master the vast country. Yet after the expedition’s return, Hovell arrogantly assumed the lion’s share of credit, and because he was British, the establishment automatically accepted his version over the native-born Hume. Hume lived the rest of his life as a gentleman farmer, sinking into relative obscurity after his death, but Macklin has done a great job of resurrecting this early Australian hero. Not only are the early explorations of Australia well-covered, but along the way he provides an excellent potted history of the struggles and tribulations of the young settlement. This is one of the betetr books I have read on Australia’s early history in recent times. It’s really a cracking read as well as paying long overdue credit to a genuine hero of Australia’s past.