A Wild History: Life and Death on the Victoria River Frontier by Darrell Lewis, 319 pp, Monash University Publishing, Clayton, 2012, ISBN 9781921867262 (pbk), $39.95.
Although over the past three decades I have been interested in, frequently visited, and occasionally researched and written on the history of the Victoria River District in the Northern Territory’s north-west, there is much about the region that I did not know until I read Darrell Lewis’s A Wild History and the earlier doctoral thesis on which it is based. A Wild History successfully tells the story of a remote and sparsely populated part of Australia but one that is of continuing fascination to many Australians. Lewis has a wealth of personal insights based on his long-standing and intimate association with the Victoria River District. His meticulous research and first hand knowledge of the region’s people and places result in a ground-breaking study. The narrative is clear and strong with a commendable absence of jargon. The book significantly complements other work on Australian frontier history.
Each chapter in A Wild History is almost a separate essay yet the overall structure works well. There is a thematic focus on ‘the various moments and types of early contact between Aborigines and whites, and the formation of a local settler society’ (p. xxi). The Victoria River District’s physical environment, its Aboriginal people before contact with Europeans and its pastoral industry are also covered in considerable depth. The emphasis is on the period between the 1880s and the early 1900s.
Many appropriate, and usually intriguing, examples are considered. Attention is devoted to individuals such as the policeman WH Willshire and the pastoralist Joe Bradshaw who played significant and sometimes violent roles in Aboriginal-European contacts. Outlaws, dreamers, alcoholics and various others are described. Lewis offers sensitive and shrewd assessments of them. While sources on individual Aborigines are generally more limited than they are for Europeans, wherever possible Aborigines like Jimmy and Pompey are named and discussed. The chapter on the ruggedly beautiful Jasper Gorge conveys a powerful sense of place. Its analysis of the ‘most famous event’ (p. 134) in the gorge’s history, when Aborigines besieged the teamsters George Ligar and John Mulligan in 1895, pays careful attention to detail.
The book is an impressively original contribution to knowledge of its subject area. It is based on a thorough examination of relevant sources, including the use of many hard to locate unpublished materials and interviews. While other historians, the best of whom is Lyn Riddett, write about the Victoria River District, no one else considers the place, the people, the specific period and the themes in the same depth. Most of the material presented does not appear in other studies. A Wild History makes perceptive observations about regional identity, the physical environment’s impact on both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal settlement and how people remember their histories. On the latter point, Lewis points to a ‘weak transmission of local knowledge from generation to generation among local whites’ and how older Aborigines ‘know their country intimately from years spent working on the stations and from going on extended wet season walkabouts’ (p. xix). He succeeds in his aim of beginning the ‘the process of “resurrecting” the history of the region and transforming the “wild imaginings” into “wild history”’ (p. 295).
A Wild History’s presentation also warrants praise. The book is sturdily bound and attractively produced, with a striking cover design, well laid out pages and numerous images and maps, all of which complement the text and are important components of the evidence presented. Source references are where they should be, in footnotes at the bottom of each page. The bibliography is well set out and the index is easily understood.
Given that the book is ‘for the ordinary reader rather than academics’ and does not directly engage with ‘current (and usually ephemeral) historical controversies and debates’ (p. xxiii), it is perhaps unfair to criticise it for only occasionally mentioning previous historical scholarship yet more references to such scholarship would be helpful. Lewis does not, for instance, refer to the cultural historian Mickey Dewar’s argument based on a comprehensive study of literary sources, including some relating to the Victoria River District, that the Northern Territory frontier is a place quintessential to the Australian experience. There is no mention of Bill Wilson’s pioneering work on Northern Territory police history. Wilson, incidentally, points out that Mounted Constable Willshire quite frequently fell behind in writing his journals, which he later attempted to reconstruct. This may partly explain why, as Lewis observes, there are differences between the journals and Willshire’s book Land of the Dawning and presents another perspective on Lewis’s statement that ‘the journal was deliberately incomplete’ (p. 106).
In spite of my small criticisms, A Wild History is a major contribution to understanding Australia’s frontier past. When describing their nation’s historical frontiers Australians quite frequently use the names ‘bush’, ‘outback’ and ‘never-never’ and locate them in areas like the Victoria River District that are a long way from the more closely settled parts of the continent. Lewis’s findings convincingly support Graeme Davison’s notion that the Australian frontier was more than just a line on a map and represented an idea as well as a place. Henry Reynolds’ foreword wisely observes that A Wild History ‘is a story with which every Australian should become familiar’ (p. vi).
Charles Darwin University