There's a reason you were bored in history class—you weren't being told the whole story about how Australia was colonised. Our problematic past has plenty of unexplored corners, filled with things we'd rather cover up than discuss.
In his book Girt, and its sequel True Girt, author David Hunt takes a completely new approach to this troubled history by shining a light on just how debauched the colonial lifestyle was. For example, did you know that Endeavour botanist Sir Joseph Banks was a notorious swinger and playboy with (literally) a woman at every port?
Fact is, for British convicts and settlers, the newly-founded colonies were places to stick the freak flag in the ground and let it fly. Compared to stodgy old England, Australia offered almost complete freedom of expression. As long as you were white, of course.
VICE caught up with Hunt at TEDxSydney to find out more about what colonial Australia was really like.
VICE: You've written two books about Australia's early colonies. Most people would find that boring. How is it... not boring?
David Hunt: I think the greatest thing about writing the book was learning what an incredible land of opportunities Australia was—if you were a white person. And, obviously, for every white person who had an opportunity, there was an Aboriginal person who lost every single thing they had. The story of early colonial Australia from what I've learnt is that, within the span of a single human life, we go from this tiny flyblown convict colony to having the highest standard of living any other colony in the world. That's an amazing success story, and that's because [the colonists] were able to reach their potential in a way that they would have never been able to do back in England or America or anywhere in Europe.
Girt is an unusual history book that uncovers how British settlers weren't exactly, how do you say, morally upstanding, in the ways we're often led to believe. Why is this important?
The way European Australian was created, it was a from a load of handkerchief thieves, Irishman, and pickpockets sent to the other end of the world with a six-to-one male-to-female policy, and a monetary policy that involved having no money. It's an especially important part of our history because often when we tell stories of our leaders, we glorify them and only mention the good bits. It's important to portray people as more than just one dimensional figures, more than rulers, but as men and women.
Australia tends to remember Joseph Banks—the botanist we named banksia trees and Bankstown after—as an accomplished and intelligent, but fairly boring guy. Who was the real Joseph Banks?
Banks was this tall, good looking, charismatic, athletic guy. He used to go on fishing trips with the Earl of Sandwich, Britain's First Lord of the Admiralty. The famous English philosopher David Hume reported they would take two or three "ladies of pleasure" for their fishing trips. So it was sex and fishing. Sandwich was also a founding member of the notorious libertine Hellfire Club. It's interesting the guy after whom the sandwich was named was also keen on threeways.
When Banks was in Tahiti, he would write quite openly in his journal on the Endeavour voyage with [Captain] Cook about his various sexual encounters. And in Tahiti he writes, "The foremost of the women… quickly unveiling all her charms gave me a most convenient opportunity of admiring them by turning herself gradually round… she then once more displayed her naked beauties and immediately marched up to me… I took her by the hand and led her to the tents accompanied by another woman her friend."
Banks got it on all over the world, and when he got back to Britain, Town & Country magazine wrote this about him: "The females of most countries that he has visited, have undergone every critical inspection by him." The magazine also wrote about his time at university: "Oxford echoed with his amours, and the bed-makers of Christ Church college have given the world some testimonials of his vigour..."
So Banks was a complete playboy.
Yeah Banks had the reputation of being a complete pantsman. When he comes back from his endeavour voyage, he dumps his 17 year-old-fiancé—having quietly paid [her] £5,000 to go away. Banks became the patron of a young lady who had been left penniless after her father died under the weight of his gambling debts. He hooks up with this woman, gives her comfortable house and an illegitimate daughter—the only child he would ever have. And at the same time, he was also having a relationship with his housekeeper, who became his well known but socially-invisible-in-polite-company mistress.
Please, tell me more.
As much as the cool swinging dude he was, Banks was the guy who introduced the word tattoo into the English language. He also wrote the first ever account of surfing—he's the world's first surfing journalist. Before he wrote about surfing in his Endeavour journal, no one had ever written about it before. He's also the inspiration for Star Trek's Mr Spock, who was in no way a swinger. When he died he was still running The Royal Institution, which was the world's leading scientific organisation—The Royal Society. He was grumpy about the way that the world was changing, and was very keen on slavery. He was old school in many of his ways.
The book provides insight into Mary Reibey, the po-faced grandmother on our $20 note. Turns out she was a bit of an Arya Stark.
She's this amazing person who was Australia's first crossdressing, horse-thieving, seal-clubbing convict entrepreneur and standover woman. Mary Reibey was this 13-year-old girl who dressed up as a boy and called herself James Barrow, so everyone thought she was a boy. She stole a horse and was charged with a sentence to hang, and that was later translated to transportation to New South Wales. She concealed her gender incredibly well—going through the whole court process and months in a cell, before anyone realises that she's a girl. When she came to Australia and married Thomas Reibey, a young Irishman in the service of the East India company, Mary Reibey had transformed from this girl who was sent out here in shame for stealing a horse, to becoming this incredibly successful businesswoman who runs this vast sealing, coastal shipping, real estate hotel empire.
I feel like being sent to Australia was meant to be punishment for convicts. Instead, it was this place to party and make heaps of money.
Back in England, Reibey never really made anything of herself. But Australia was land of opportunities for convicts who were able to transcend the limitations of class to make something out of themselves. So that's an amazing story of how a 13-year-old crossdressing girl who was sentenced to death ends up becoming one of the richest people in Australia. Australia, again, also gave advantages. In New South Wales at that time, there were no male relatives to take over the business, so she was the only one on the ground who could take over. Back in England, that wouldn't have happened. A male relative would have swept in and run the business. So Mary Reibey would have gotten that, and allowance to live out her days, until she found another husband. Instead, she not only ran that business, but grew it. Thomas Reibey left it as a successful business, and she made it be incredibly successful.
Girt also tells the story of a group of Irish convicts trying and failing to get to China from Australia by land. How did that happen?
The Irish were enthusiastic—if not terribly successful—escape artists. The first load of convicts were sent out early in the early 1790s, and a group of 21 of them believed China lay out about 150 miles to the north. Back in those days, if you're a poor Irish person, the British worked very hard to make sure that you didn't get an education, that you would be a peasant. They didn't have an understanding of the world, they just knew China was to the north and figured it was about 150 miles. They set off and their leader had drawn an arrow on a piece of paper, using it as their compass. Whenever the escapees ran into an obstacle, the one holding the paper would simply rotate it so that the arrow pointed away from the cliff face, ocean, or band of angry Aboriginal people that blocked his path. Then he and his fellow escapees would dutifully follow the arrow until something else got in their way. Watkin Tench described how these "Chinese travellers" were later discovered to have died: injured, starving, and eating poisonous berries.
In 1798, another group of Irish prisoners decided to run away to a "secret white empire" that they believed lay about 300 miles south-west of Sydney. When Governor Hunter got wind of their plan, given that the various ways the previous Irish escapees had died, he was worried that they would wander off and hurt themselves. And so began the only state-sponsored prison breakout in Australian history. The governor provided the escapees with provisions, a guide, and an armed escort. He also appointed John Wilson to guide them to the purported location of the lost civilisation so they could see that there was nothing there. There's much irony in Australia's history.
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