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Aboriginal History, Volume 38, 2014

Darwin by Tess Lea, 290 pp, New South Publishing, Sydney, 2014, ISBN 9781742233864 (hbk), $29.99.

This attractive looking book is one of a series focusing on Australia’s capital cities (Alice Springs gets its own book, as well). Although currently living in Sydney, author Tess Lea grew up in Darwin and until a few years ago worked at the Northern Territory’s only university. The extensive bibliography shows the book has been well-researched, yet Lea’s account is highly personal, as she often relies on her own recollections and those of family and friends. She has also sought out the accounts of other local people to bring to life various parts of the story she wishes to tell. The result is an engaging book that presents us with first-hand accounts of significant events in Darwin’s history, such as the devastation caused by Cyclone Tracy in 1974, which Tess Lea experienced as a young girl.

Lea acknowledges that there are many Darwin stories omitted from her account, such as the dramatic defection at the height of the Cold War of Evdokia Petrov at Darwin Airport in 1954, and the headline-grabbing trial of Lindy Chamberlain in 1982, where Chamberlain was found guilty of murdering her daughter Azaria. Lea argues, however, that in these cases Darwin was merely a coincidental venue for events that had no connection to the essential character of the place. Lea also admits that she has given little attention to political figures or other prominent local identities. Instead, she says her method has been to highlight Darwin’s uniqueness by focusing on individuals whose stories are used to illustrate her themes of ‘disasters and reinvention, real and imagined dangers, how the place is lived and where it is going’.

To address these themes Lea’s own recollections provide much of the contemporary part of her narrative. Her father, who grew up in post-war Darwin and later became a drover, provides war-time stories about Lea’s grandfather and tales of his own life in a frontier town and the outback. In the meantime, Lea’s children bear the surname Moo, connecting her to some of the most venerable Darwin Chinese families; today highly respected, but once feared for the threat they posed to White Australia. Lea also made contact with some of Darwin’s best known Aboriginal families and adds their stories as well. Beyond this, Lea conducted interviews with people as varied as a barramundi specialist, fishing being of great interest to many Darwinites; an entomologist, to get the story on the mosquitoes that plagued early settlers and still cause concern because of their potential to spread disease; and members of the Australian military, as a major theme of Lea’s book is Darwin’s role as a garrison town and the apparent media and public indifference to the growing United States military presence.

Lea’s training in anthropology no doubt helped her conduct her interviews and gain an understanding of her informants’ perspectives. However, her use of some other material and the conclusions she draws from it is not always as convincing. For example, she claims that ‘The humble mosquito killed off the first three attempts at northern settlement’ (p. 48), but gives no evidence for this bold statement; mosquito-borne diseases were a feature of most tropical European outposts of the day and would have been endured in the Top End as well if the settlements had been considered worthwhile, but they were not and were abandoned for other reasons. Later, referring to the 1918 Darwin Rebellion, Lea says that ‘locals menaced Administrator Gilruth so thoroughly he fled his post’ (p. 123), whereas the truth is that Gilruth was too thick-skinned to be intimidated and only left after being recalled by the government in February 1919. Elsewhere, Lea’s loose prose could unintentionally lead to misapprehensions, such as the White Australia policy being the result of the threat caused by the ‘thrifty and industrious Chinese population’ of Port Darwin (p. 54), whereas of course this was a nationwide phenomenon; or the traditional owners of the Darwin region, the Larrakia, being responsible for Aboriginal people being able to ‘determine the electoral fate of the Northern Territory government’ (p. 55), whereas the Larrakia account for only a portion of the Territory Indigenous vote and Aboriginal members of the local parliament have mainly been non-Larrakia from the regional areas.

These misgivings aside, the book is generally persuasive and those who know Darwin will recognise it through Lea’s descriptions. Lea’s view of Darwin and her interpretation of ‘the Darwin lifestyle’ is not one that will be wholly agreed with by all Darwinites and others may have chosen to highlight different aspects of Australia’s sole tropical capital city. But in this book Tess Lea has nevertheless provided an overview of Darwin that should intrigue outsiders and provoke introspection in those who live there or have ever lived there.

Steven Farram

Charles Darwin University


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