In Brisbane before Christmas I was lucky enough to score a spare ticket to see Paul Kelly in concert. It was a full house in at the Riverstage when we arrived on a balmy summer Saturday evening. The notable fact beforehand was the conversation among friends about the artist we thought was on the bill and the conversation we didn’t have about the significance of the date of the event: December 21.
Pictured above is New Zealand-born singer Marlon Williams. He was excellent with a voice to die for, and later did a fabulous duet with Kelly singing the latter’s My Winter Coat. We knew he was on the bill but for some reason we were expecting Thelma Plum to open, She wasn’t named on the ticket or on the merch t-shirts so perhaps my source was mixing her up with the Sugar Plum Fairy. Though the same source assured me she played on the Sydney set.
Next up was another divine voice: Brisbane’s own Kate Miller Heidke. Heidke has been around for a number of years though her profile was raised considerably after her Eurovision entry for Australia earlier this year. I didn’t think much of that song (and I’m not sure she does either) and she did a fairly low key set with husband Keir Nuttall (pictured adjusting his equipment). Thankfully there were no poles involved on the Riverstage. Like Williams, Miller Heidke later performed a duet with Paul Kelly.
Thoughout the years Kelly has been a strong supporter of Indigenous issues and there was a Yugura man playing didgeridoo and doing a welcome to country after Miller Heidke’s set. Kelly would later sing A Bastard Like Me based on the autobiography of Charlie Perkins. The Gurindji People of the Northern Territory would also feature but more on that later.
Next up was Melbourne’s Courtney Barnett. I’ve seen Barnett play a few times now and as Kelly said of her later in the evening “she is a fucking rock star”. Some of her stuff is a bit heavy for my liking but she is quite the presence on stage. There was the obligatory duet with Kelly later on.
Finally as the sun went down, Paul Kelly and his band graced the stage opening up with On Your Side. Up too were the wonderful Bull sisters Vika and Linda. The Melbourne-born sisters of Tongan heritage brought beautiful harmonies to the stage and no little zest. They seemed to be having a good time as was Mr Kelly himself, showing few signs of ageing despite being entitled to his bus pass when he turns 65 in January.
Kate Miller Heidke joined Kelly for a duet, When We’re Both Old And Mad. They also sung Bound To Follow later in the set.
Kelly enjoys a good collaboration and one of his favourite is another Melbournian Alice Keath. Keath is a multi instrumentalist but it was the banjo with which she joined Kelly on stage for several songs including Our Sunshine about another famous Australian Kelly, bushranger Ned (pictured on the screen). The screen also showed snippets from the 1906 Australian film The Story of the Kelly Gang, the world’s first full-length narrative feature film. Keath also performed with the modern day Kelly on songs Sonnet 18 and The Magpies.
Courtney Barnett joined Kelly on stage for a terrific performance of Archie Roach’s Charcoal Lane. Kelly helped produce Roach’s debut album of that name in 1990.
At the end of his first set, Kelly got all the collaborators of his concert up on stage to perform Phil Spector’s Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)”. Again everyone was having a ball on what was Kelly’s final concert for 2019. The name of the gig was Making Gravy and How to Make Gravy was the song immediately prior to the Christmas one. What date was it, he asked the crowd to a huge roar. Yes it was #gravyday (which I only realised earlier that day when former ABC presenter Spencer Howson tweeted about it). “Hello Dan, it’s Joe here, I hope you’re keeping well, It’s the 21st of December (another roar from the crowd) and now they’re ringing the last bells.” We don’t know what crime Joe committed to be sent to prison for Christmas though there is a clue in the reggae artist Junior Murvin, namechecked in the song. Murvin’s most famous song is Police and Thieves, later covered by The Clash.
For the encore, Kelly brought Kev Carmody out on stage to sing their collaboration From Little Things Big Things Grow. The song is about the Gurindji walk off from Wave Hill in the 1960s and the backdrop is the famous photo of Gough Whitlam putting sand in elder Vincent Lingiari’s hand to signify the return of ownership to the Gurindji people.
The second last song was an a capella number God Told Me To with Vika and Linda and his two band members David McCormack and Cameron Bruce. The band finally came off the gravy train – just minutes ahead of the Brisbane 10pm curfew – with Darling It Hurts, to finish a fabulous night. I’d do it all again ‘coz you’re the best I’ve ever had.
For a decade, I’ve had end of year fun picking my person who has made most impact in media that year. My scope is broad though initially I confined it to Australia and in that first year 2009 I gave it to ABC boss Mark Scott for plotting a bright digital future for the national broadcaster and generally sticking it up to the Murdochracy and its outsized influence on Australia. I noted Rupert’s China speech about the end of the age of the Internet free ride being over and Scott’s view that News’s “empire” no longer had the power to dictate terms over the cost of the ride. Scott – and I – were wrong about that. Ten year later Murdoch is still selling newspaper subscriptions and setting agendas while Scott has disappeared into the bureaucracy of New South Wales government.
In 2010 a remarkable Australian hit the world stage, Julian Assange. As I said then, “with the possible exception of Mark Zuckerberg, no other person has dominated and indeed changed the media landscape with such effect.” I said his Wikileaks “set the gold standard in whistleblowing journalism of international proportions.” True, but perhaps I should have given the award to Zuckerberg, whose Facebook and other products have become ubiquitous in our lives while Wikileaks remains at the margins. Unlike Zuck, Assange couldn’t keep his megalomania in check. Turfed out of the Ecuadorian embassy this year, he threatens once again to become the poster boy of media freedoms as he fights extradition to the US. I would not like to see that happen but it’s hard to feel much sympathy for him given his propensity for headlines.
Assange’s impact allowed me to cast the net wider and in 2011 and 2012 I chose British recipients on a familiar theme – fighting Rupert Murdoch. In 2011 I chose Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger and journalist Nick Davies for “their disciplined and determined expose of the insidious tactics of the News International empire in illegally hacking phones for dubious journalistic ends.” In 2012 I gave it to Judge Brian Leveson who followed up the Guardian investigations with his inquiry of “nine months of oral hearings involving 337 witnesses and 300 statements, (in) the most public and most concentrated look at the press Britain had ever seen.” Murdoch used his own testimony to call it the most humble day of his life but looking back again however, he appears to have got away with it.
In 2013 I returned to the whistleblower tradition giving it to Edward Snowden. Following Assange, Snowden leaked top secret National Security Agency documents to world media. The documents showed the extent the surveillance state was willing to go to achieve intelligence dominance. As with all whistleblowers, Snowden has paid a high price and remains in hiding in Russia six years on.
In 2014 I gave the award to Al Jazeera journalists Peter Greste, Mohamed Fadel Fahmy and Basher Mohamed. The trio spent a year in an Egyptian prison for reporting on the overthrow of that country’s Muslim Brotherhood government. They were a reminder that speaking truth to power in some countries had dangerous consequences and were an ominous warning of growing authoritarianism across the world.
A year later I returned to Australia to correct an anomaly in my awards. Up to then no woman had won it. Clementine Ford used her writings to bring attention to that very problem of a male-dominated world. It is hard work. Her uncompromising stance in publicly outing misogynist behaviour has attracted praise and vicious abuse in almost equal measure.
I had intended to give the 2016 award to another woman, Hillary Clinton, who knew more than most what Ford was going through, but on an even bigger scale. But somehow she contrived to lose the US presidential election to Donald Trump. I could not bring myself to give the award to Trump despite his inventive and disruptive use of media so in a sentimental choice I gave to it to my favourite musician, David Bowie, whose unexpected death six days into January gave 2016 a sense of foreboding it never shook off.
In 2017, I gave it to murdered Maltese journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia. Galizia died in a car bomb explosion after her investigations into official wrongdoings threatened to bring the government down. She went further than the three Al Jazeera journalists of 2014, a martyr to the cause. As Archbishop Charles Scicluna told journalists at her funeral mass, “never to grow weary in your mission to be the eyes, the ears and the mouth of the people … We need people in your profession who are unshackled, who are free, intelligent, inquisitive, honest, serene, safe and protected.” Two years on, protests continue in Valletta with calls for the prime minister to resign. Galizia was the same age as me, and I look up to her as courageous best practice in my industry.
In 2018 I could ignore Donald Trump no longer. Unlike Galizia, I do not aspire to be like Trump. My award was a warning not an honour. But I could not help admiring the way he had upended the rules of political and media engagement. Despite all his thrashing of the norms, he still has a plausible path back to the White House in 2020. Worse still, I noted, were the Trumpian copycats. “There are other authoritarians such as Bolsonaro in Brazil, Duterte in Philippines, Salman in Saudi Arabia, Orban in Hungary all watching and learning Trump’s crafty anarchy at work dismantling democratic checks and balances.” The symbiotic relationship between media and politicians will never be the same again.
So to 2019 where happily I can find an award winner I do admire in young Swedish climate change activist Greta Thunberg. One of the moments of the year was in September when Thunberg and Trump almost crossed paths at the UN climate summit in New York. She was in the background as Trump hove into view in imperial fashion. It’s not clear if he saw Thunberg but she gave him a look that could have sent him the way of JFK.
Trump didn’t speak at that summit and preferred to talk about religious freedom than listen to Thunberg. In flawless, articulate English the young Swede did not mince her words when she spoke to the world leaders that were there. “You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words,” she told them. She accused them of ignoring the science behind the climate crisis, saying: ‘We are in the beginning of a mass extinction and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth”. The next three words were most memorable, “how dare you!”
Climate denialists went into overdrive in an argument summed up as “how dare you say how dare you.” They made fun of her anger, her mannerisms and her callow youth but had little to say about the truth of her central argument. Plenty of others did, mostly her own age with extinction rebellions and school climate strikes spreading across the globe. They remind us of the biggest contrast between Thunberg and Trump. Trump is 73 while Thunberg will celebrate her 17th birthday on January 3. Trump represents the gerontocracy (and in the next US election his main rivals are equally old: Joe Biden is 77, Bernie Sanders, 78 and Elizabeth Warren, 70).
But it’s not okay, Boomer. Trump will unlikely be alive in 2050, when the UN says all emissions must cease if we are to have a fighting chance of keeping warming below three or four degrees by the end of the century. But Thunberg will be there and could likely still be alive aged 98 when 2100 comes around. Given the policies put in place by Trump and others the earth in 2100 is likely to be a grim place without ice sheets, coral reefs, and low lying islands and cities but with deeply unpredictable and violent weather. The dystopian future painted by 2019 UK TV series Years and Years could if anything be optimistic. Thunberg and her generation are right to be angry.
There is hope in Thunberg’s back story. Her mother Malena Ernman is an opera singer who represented Sweden at the 2009 Eurovision Song Contest. Ernman and husband Svante Thunberg toured Europe with their daughters, Greta and Beata. Greta suddenly stopped eating in the fifth grade and was later diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome. One day at school Greta heard about climate change and was deeply shocked. Consumed by the issue she set out to raise awareness beginning with her family. She slowly convinced them to stop eating meat and dairy and to stop flying, which impacted her mother’s career. Greta attributes her persistence to Asperger’s. Without it “I would simply have continued to live and think like everyone else,” she said.
When US children refused to go to school after the Parkland school shootings she wondered “what if children did that for the climate?” After Sweden’s hottest summer on record, she refused to go to school and picketed the Swedish parliament ahead of a September election. The first day she was alone, the second day people joined her. She handed out leaflets reading: “I am doing this because you adults are shitting on my future.” When people told her she should be at school, she said she had her books. “But also I am thinking: what am I missing? What am I going to learn in school? Facts don’t matter any more, politicians aren’t listening to the scientists, so why should I learn?”
When Thunberg posted her original strike photo on social media, it went viral. After Ingmar Rentzhog, founder of climate change PR group We Don’t Have Time, gave her additional publicity with a video in English and Finnish bank Nordea quoted one of her tweets local reporters began to tell her story. After the election she continued to strike every Friday and by end 2018 had inspired copycat actions in 270 towns and cities in countries across the world, including Australia, the UK, Belgium, the US and Japan.
Greta went global in 2019 with a stroke of genius. Her intention was to go to the Americas for the climate conventions in New York and Santiago however because of her ban on flying she needed a lift across the Atlantic. A flight to New York would have added close to 1000 kg of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere while cruise ships often leave an even larger carbon footprint. In July the crew of the Malizia II, a monohull 18m round-the-world sailing yacht, offered her passage. It was quick but basic – the boat had no kitchen, toilet, or shower.
The 15-day journey attracted enormous media attention. She was just getting started. Though “how dare you” captured the headlines, there was more to her summit speech. It was the judgement of the young on the old. “Young people are starting to understand your betrayal. The eyes of all future generations are upon you, and if you choose to fail us, I say, we will never forgive you. We will not let you get away with this.”
Many older people were angry at the temerity of this young upstart telling them what to do. She was accused of crimes and misdemeanours: she was a stooge, a Communist, a hypocrite, she was mentally ill, she was manipulated by her parents, she was even a refugee from Children of the Corn. Criticism of Thunberg’s strong argument is valid but most of it was sneering ad hominem attack. Even Donald Trump joined in on the trolling: “She seems like a very happy young girl looking forward to a bright and wonderful future.” There was no sense of irony from Trump that it was his actions that were helping directly lead to the opposite outcome for Thunberg.
When the Santiago COP conference was moved to Spain due to unrest in Chile, Thunberg had to sail again back to Europe. In Madrid she said the voices of climate strikers were being heard but not enough “concrete action” was taking place. “There is no victory, because the only thing we want to see is real action,” she said. “So we have achieved a lot, but if you look at it from a certain point of view we have achieved nothing.” She was right to be pessimistic. Countries like the US, Australia and Brazil stymied meaningful change in COP25.
The science remains on Thunberg’s side. The backsliding of Madrid will only add to the horror people like her will face if they live to 2100. Her message is urgent and potent. She is Cassandra and few like listening to Cassandra. But listen to her we must because our future demands it. For once Time Magazine and I agree. She is a deserving person for the year 2019.
The bloodiest event in the history of white Australia has nothing to do with either British or the Aboriginal people. It concerns the Dutch ship the Batavia wrecked on the Houtman Abrolhos Islands on 3 June, 1629 off western Australia. The wreck killed 40 of its 341 passengers. A mutiny among the survivors led to a massacre of 200 more.
Batavia was on her maiden voyage seven months out from Amsterdam when she struck the reefs during the night. She belonged to the Verenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie, the VOC or Dutch East India Company which ran Dutch trade to Asia. While many Dutch vessels approached Australia, and they were the first documented Europeans to do, the Batavia was well off course. She was headed towards the Spice Islands but was lost a long way south of her intended destination.
The skipper was Ariaen Jacobsz but like all VOC ships the officer-in-charge was the upper-merchant, Francisco Pelsaert. The ship was doomed after she hit the reefs at Houtman – named for another Dutchman who ran aground there 13 years earlier. The Batavia did not immediately sink and at first light the crew could see islands nearby. They started to unload onto two boats which could hold 60 people before the hull crashed into the ocean sending a dozen into the sea who drowned. After a day they had moved half the crew and water and other goods to a nearby island.
Pelseart and Jacobsz boarded a boat to the island intending to move them to a larger island leaving 120 on what was left of the ship. After four days the pair decided to sail a longboat to Java to get help. It was a monumental undertaking (which William Bligh would repeat 160 years later for an even longer journey after the mutiny on the Bounty) but it left most of the crew and passengers abandoned to their fate, 70 on the sinking ship, and 200 on the island which author Mike Dash called “Batavia’s Graveyard”.
The most senior VOC official left in the Houtmans was under-merchant Jeronimus Cornelisz. Cornelisz was a smooth-tongued but bankrupt apothecary who went to sea to get away from financial and personal problems. He was likely wanted for heresy due to his unorthodox belief and he was also embroiled in a court with a nurse over the death of his child due to syphilis. Before the shipwreck Cornelisz was plotting mutiny. Jacobsz had seduced a woman aboard and was chastisted by Pelsaert. Jacobsz confided in Cornelisz his own problems with Pelsaert and the two men began to plot against the upper-merchant.
As a failed apothecary there was little in the Netherlands for Cornelisz to return to and the ship was laden with money for trade in the Spice Islands. While they plotted, the ship went dangerously off course. Strong winds and fast currents made it easy to underestimate how far east a ship had sailed in an era when longitude could not be calculated and sailors relied on imprecise dead reckoning. Despite Frederick de Houtman giving his name to a chain of islands off Western Australia in 1619 when he crashed into them, they did not appear on maps and the Batavia was at full speed when it hit the reefs.
The Abrolhos were barren islands, 50km out from the coast and too far out for Aboriginal settlement. The 300 survivors of the Batavia were split in three groups. Around 70 including Cornelisz were stranded on the ship while a group of 50 including the two senior officers were on an islet with the ship’s two boats. Around 180 were put ashore on Beacon island, “Batavia’s Graveyard”. They were without leaders and short of food and water. Many died before they were saved by rain on the sixth day.
When the ship finally broke up after 11 days, only 25 swam to safety including Cornelisz. Around 500 gallons of water also washed ashore but when Cornelisz looked at the food store on the island he knew it wouldn’t last long. He was elected to the council of leaders of the survivors but he wanted full control. He detached his supporters and gained full control of the swords and muskets, though they were still outnumbered six to one. He began by moving small parties off to other islands. One group of loyalists was sent to West Wallabi led by a private Wiebbe Hayes. They had no weapons or boats and Cornelisz hoped they would die of thirst.
The population left on Beacon was now down to 140 people. The longer term plan was to overpower any rescue ship but to be sure of success he needed to cull the population further. The killing began in July. The opportunity came when a soldier was caught tapping a barrel in the stores. Under interrogation he admitted several thefts sharing his booty with a gunner. Cornelisz demanded the death sentence for both. When the council demurred on the fate of the gunner, he dismissed the council and created his own one filled with his supporters.
He executed the soldier (though his accomplice escaped to Hayes’ island) and then accused two carpenters of plotting to escape on a raft, executing them the same day. His next plan was to convince small parties to send reinforcements to Hayes. Once in the boat three loyalists were overpowered by Cornelisz’s men with hands bound and tipped overboard to drown. Two days later the trick was repeated and two more killed.
The problem was that after 20 days flares from Hayes’ island proved the soldiers there had found water and survived. The survivors on Beacon also wondered why Cornelisz was ignoring the flares. When those to another island called Traitors Island decided to cross to Hayes using rafts, Cornelisz launched an attack. Cornelisz ordered them to change course to Beacon and three or four jumped into the sea and drowned. When they got to shore Cornelisz’s men killed everyone in the rafts in front of the 130 aghast survivors on the island.
Cornelisz’s treachery was now blatant but they knew opposition would be greeted with cold-blooded murder. Even his supporters could not rest easy and despite taking solemn vows to obey him, Cornelisz demanded demonstrations of loyalty. He ordered one soldier to strangle his own daughter, the first child to be killed. A reign of senseless murder started.
The next targets were the 11 people in the sick bay. Cornelisz ordered a soldier to cut their throats, one by one and the grim task was repeated a few days later when another three or four reported in sick. To fall ill on Batavia’s Graveyard was a death sentence. The only invalids spared were mutineers’ friends. The healthy weren’t spared either. A carpenter and a gunner were executed on allegation they stole from stores.
By mid July 50 people were dead, leaving only 90 on the island, half of which were mutineers or hangers on. There was an atmosphere of fear of arbitrary death, especially at night when most murders took place. Cornelisz’s next target was the 45 survivors on Seals Island. He sent a party of seven and immediately on landing lashed out with their swords. A few fled on rafts to Hayes’ island and around 15 boys hid out on the island but the rest were slaughtered except for four pregnant women spared on Cornelisz’s orders. They returned a few days later after dark to catch the surviving boys unawares. Twelve were killed, three escaped but foolishly were seen a few days later and two more were killed with the final boy becoming a mutineer.
Killing was now done for its own sake as boredom set in. Cornelisz poisoned a baby because it cried too much, though the baby didn’t die and he needed an underling to strangle it. A group attacked the tent of the church minister and killed all his family with hatchets. They attacked the under-barber but he escaped by boat to Hayes’ island. The mutineers had total control of their island and less mouths to feed but they remained dependent on rain for water and diminishing salvages for supply.
Pelsaert and his longboat crew of 47 also needed supplies and searched the Australian coast in vain. They voyaged 1500km in open seas to Java where they were scooped up by VOC ships in the Sunda Strait and taken to Batavia. Pelsaert told Governor Jan Coen his story. Coen was unimpressed but admitted the West Australian coast was dangerous as he almost ran aground there himself. Coen provided Pelsaert a ship to return to the Houtmans to salvage what he could, the ship’s cash more important than any survivors he might find. They got back on September 13 greeted by smoke on two island. At least two groups of people had survived.
By then the balance of power had changed. The killing continued after the death of the Minister’s family. The blood lust led to random and unpredictable deaths and a dispensation to kill was how Cornelisz rewarded his followers. Over on the big island Wiebbe Hayes and 47 loyalists had access to better resources including wells and lived on plentiful birds and eggs as well as wallabies and fish. When they were joined by those who escaped the massacres on Seals Island and elsewhere they improvised weapons and constructed makeshift defences.
Hayes was also a competent soldier unlike Cornelisz. Cornelisz first sent an emissary who was arrested and an attack of 20 men failed on the seaweed-strewn mudflats. A second attack was equally unsuccessful and the two groups held an uneasy truce. By end August and with water supplies diminishing fast Cornelisz launched a third attack. He devised a parley to swap water for blankets and overconfident, he and five trusted lieutenants landed on the beach while his war party waited on a nearby small islet.
Cornelisz tried to bribe Hayes’ men but instead of listening to it, they attacked suddenly and captured Cornelisz. The war party 350m away swung in to action but were too late. Hayes dragged Cornelisz off the beach and only one of his bodyguards escaped. The other bodyguards were executed, Cornelisz was imprisoned in a limestone pit where he was forced to pluck birds for his captors, and the shocked mutineers retreated to Beacon.
There was a fourth attack on 17 September using guns to fire at Hayes men from long range. But the defenders simply hid. It was stalemate and as the sides contemplated hand to hand combat, Pelsaert’s ship sailed over the horizon. Both sides raced boats out to greet him as he arrived on a smaller boat. Hayes saw him as salvation but for the mutineers it was the last chance to overpower their Dutch masters.
Hayes got there first. “Go back on board immediately for there is a party of scoundrels on the island,” he told Pelsaert. Pelsaert rushed back to his ship and aimed the guns at the mutineers who had now arrived. They eventually surrendered and Pelsaert began the interrogations. In chains, Cornelisz put the blame on others but Pelsaert formed a council to try him and the mutineers. Cornelisz was sentenced to having his hands cut off and then hanged. Seven others were executed and another nine taken to Batavia for further interrogation.
Cornelisz showed no remorse as he died. He died “stubborn” as the Minister whose family Cornelisz killed put it. Two mutineers were marooned on mainland Western Australia, the first Europeans to end their days there. They would have likely met the Nanda People, and without their goodwill the duo would have quickly died. They were the first of 70 to 200 Dutchmen washed ashore in the next 150 years.
The book is a forensic look at the clues in the search across all the areas of Australia he either visited or intended to visit. Since I first read the book, I moved to North West Queensland, and became quite familiar with much of the west of the state, so I read it again this year armed with more recent knowledge.
There was one story in the book that grabbed my attention this time round. It concerns Andrew Hume, a classic Australian adventurer, bushman, and conman. Hume led a search for Leichhardt in 1874 but perished in the endeavour. There is a monument for him in Noccundra in south-west Queensland.
Hume was born in the English-Scottish border area in 1830 and came to Australia as an infant with his family. He grew up in the Hunter region and spent a lot of time with Aboriginal people, whom he liked and admired. His education was limited but he gained a reputation as an expert bushman who could live off the land like the Aboriginals did.
In April 1866 Hume was arrested in Baradine, New South Wales and charged with robbery under arms. Police testified he had been on a several day bender and held up an inn at gunpoint while drunk. There Hume declared he was the Black Prince, an associate of local bushranger Captain Thunderbolt. He was found a few days later nearby, hungover and in possession of few provisions, clothing and grog from the robbery. The court at Wellington sentenced him to ten year’s hard labour. Hume claimed he was innocent and while few believed this, many felt his punishment was harsh.
While in prison he told his story to in a letter to jailers. He said that aged 18 he travelled to the Queensland frontier at Langlo River, north-west of Charleville. There, he said, “the blacks refused to let me pass.” Eight years later he went west beyond the frontier again doing a great sweep of the area beyond Cooper Creek. He took a third trip in 1862 this time like Leichhardt headed for the west coast but armed only with a horse and a brace of pistols.
He said he crossed “all the rivers running north” and passed dry plains before reaching “the falls” (which Lewis interprets as the fall of water towards the west coast). Here he found water and stayed with the blacks, eventually discovering a white man among them. The man showed Hume two bloodwood trees within 100 miles of each other, one marked with “LC” over “Nov 1847”, the other “LC” over “Aug 1848” over “ROCK”. Under the first tree was a bottle with letters and near the second was papers in a saddlebag, a quadrant, a telescope and papers. He said he placed both set of artifacts under a rock at the second tree, and the man told him to alert authorities in Sydney where they were. When Hume arrived back two years and four months later, he was arrested for the incident at Baradine. He said he hadn’t told his story earlier because authorities would consider it a ploy to gain release.
Authorities read his letter with interest and he was interviewed by a group of men including the Minister for Lands and the Surveyor-General. He told them the white man was aged 55 to 60 and had lived with Aborigines for 18 years. He was the sole survivor of a party which was attacked. He survived because of his medical ability, saving the life of a wounded black. He had refused to return with Hume because he was too old. Hume’s inquisitors believed the story.
There were several reasons they should have been more sceptical. None questioned why the trees were marked LC or 1847. Leichhardt marked his trees L and the expedition did not start until 1848. There was no way Leichhardt could have gone that far west by August 1848, as claimed by the second tree mark. If the man had lived with Aboriginal people for 18 years, he was there well before 1848.
There were further interrogations and further discrepancies. Hume claimed there were 70 people in the murdered party of whites (Leichhardt had six or seven comrades). He claimed to be able to speak 30 Aboriginal languages and he was the son of explorer Hamilton Hume, he claimed to have found gold and later retracted that statement. While Hume never claimed the party was Leichhardt’s, others did. When the claims were printed in 1871, Hovenden Hely, who travelled with Leichhardt in the ill-fated second expedition, was suspicious. What did he do without packhorses, Hely asked, “Did he do without flour, tea and sugar etc, and drive before him livestock? Or did he subsist by means of his gun?”
Hely made the point about the LC on the trees and the “1847” a year when Leichhardt was still in Sydney basking in the glory of his first expedition. Daniel Bunce, who also travelled in the second expedition, said the LC could be Leichhardt’s second in command who Bunce thought was named Louis Classen (his name was actually Augustus Classen).
Nonetheless the New South Wales government took Hume on his word. They released him, gave a horse and saddle, a revolver, ammunition and £12 for the journey. They paid for a passage from Newcastle to the Roper River where he arrived in January 1872. Initially there were reports he could understand the Roper people, a later report contradicted this. “He was quite unable to converse with them though he pretended he (could)”. The journalist’s conclusion was Hume’s story was “a fabrication and a very clumsy one”.
At the Roper Hume expected to get horses and help for his search and when that did not happen, he worked for six months on the Overland Telegraph Line. When he telegraphed the government to say he had not received a horse, South Australian authorities said Telegraph Line leader Charles Todd had issued instructions to give him all the help he needed. Hume claimed Todd reneged and he “gave up in disgust”.
Hume claimed he travelled south towards Alice Springs where he saw explorer Peter Warburton and his camels before Warburton went missing in the Tanami Desert. Todd investigated Hume’s claims and found them untrue. Hume said he found the long-lost white man again at Sturt Creek, where he learned his name was Classen from Leichhardt’s party. Hume says he returned to Tennant Creek to get materials so Classen could write his story which he worked on for 35 days. Meanwhile Hume found Leichhardt’s skeleton in a “coolaman” (hollowed tree). Classen wrote 61 pages and added 75 pages of Leichhardt’s writing which Hume packed in a satchel with a telescope, watch and sextant and headed back to the Roper River camp.
They he showed an overseer snippets from the writing which the witness identified as Aboriginal language. Hume replied it was Classen’s writing. Hume claimed another page was in German but the overseer recognised it as shorthand in the signature of a local drover. He also displayed the compass which witnesses said looked too new. When they found the name of a Telegraph man engraved inside the lid, they laughed at Hume. Enraged, he threatened to shoot anyone who suggested he was lying.
Hume eventually made it back to Brisbane where he was interrogated by explorer and surveyor Augustus Gregory and Rev John Dunmore Lang, the latter joining the list of dignitaries impressed by his stories. But Gregory found Hume’s description of Sturt Creek did not tally with his own knowledge. When Hume told him he saw the tyres of Leichhardt’s dray wheel, he rejected the whole story knowing Leichhardt had no wagons on his final trip. More discrepancies appeared in the news reports. Hume claimed Classen returned from a trip to find Leichhardt beaten senseless before dying and the other men fled in mutiny.
Hume refused to show anyone his evidence since his Roper embarrassment. Newspapers reported that someone who sneaked a look while Hume was drunk found only blank paper and a few old newspapers. On his return to Sydney he was due to show them to Lands Minister John Bowie Wilson. But the night before the meeting Hume claimed someone cut the bag open and stole the contents leaving only an empty bag and a telescope marked LL DHD.
Despite this fiasco, Hume retained supporters who still believed his story. His strongest supporter was Eccleston Du Faur, (who later helped another conman looking for Leichhardt, Jack Dick Skuthorpe). Du Faur, a public servant and patron of the arts and exploration, funded Hume’s return to the Northern Territory when the government refused. Hume set off again in July 1874 tasked to bring back Classen and whatever relics he could find. When the expedition threatened to founder in Murrurundi due to a Hume drinking spree, Du Faur went there and convinced him to continue in a party of three.
They crossed into Queensland and went to Nockatunga where they should have turned west-north-west to Cooper Creek but instead went south. After a day they realised their mistake but rather than turn back they struck out west expecting to find the Cooper. Sadly for them the creek changes direction in that region and they rode parallel to it rather than directly towards it. They entered waterless sandhill country in hot conditions and four days after leaving the southern track Hume ordered a retreat to the nearest water. It was too late. One of the party, stockman Lewis Thompson, returned to Nockatunga to raise the alarm but they found Hume dead, 25km from where Thompson left him. The body of the third man was never found.
Hume’s quest ended in failure. Darrell Lewis says there was some truth in what he said based on his wide experience in remote areas and among Aboriginal people. Hume may have heard of stories of a wild white man living far beyond the frontier which newspapers had reported since 1859. But much of what he said was invention such as the drays he saw or the camels from Warburton’s missing expedition.
The detail Lewis found intriguing was the name of the tribe he said Classen was with: the Piltenarina or Piltamarranam. He said this was strikingly similar to Bilinara (Pilinara) the name of a tribe on the Victoria River, not far from Sturt Creek. Though if this is not mere chance, Lewis said he may have heard the name from Aborigines on the Telegraph Line rather than those with Classen.
Lewis said Hume was a classic conman, “charismatic, plausible, intelligent… and probably self-delusional”. His education was limited but he was clever and imaginative, able to convince many of his authenticity. If all he wanted to do was get out of jail, he could simply have melted into the outback on release. “His tenacity in sticking to his story and continuing to try and prove it was true is remarkable, and for some this was proof of his veracity,” Lewis wrote.
He said Hume’s claim of spending 10 years wandering across Australia to the west coast was “preposterous”. But given the limited information of the outback and of Aboriginal culture at the time, there were very few who could contradict him.