‘Book on Queensland’s Gulf Country shows how people have lived and thrived in isolated communities’, Honest History, 20 May 2019
Lyndon Megarrity reviews Richard J. Martin, The Gulf Country: The Story of People and Place in Outback Queensland .
Queensland’s Gulf Country is a large expanse of territory in the north-west of the state, stretching as far as the Northern Territory. The region’s economy has traditionally been based around beef cattle and mining, neither of which have required or encouraged mass population growth. As a result, the gulf’s pastoral stations and small towns such as Burketown still feel isolated from the rest of Australia and relatively unknown.
As the author puts it, ‘The Gulf Country is a place where Australia’s frontier past still feels alive.’ Strongly supported by the Burke Shire Council, University of Queensland academic Richard J. Martin’s The Gulf Country is predominantly a history of Aboriginal and European experiences in the north-west during the nineteenth century onwards. There is an understandable emphasis on the pastoral industry, reflecting the hardness and toughness of life for much of the period under review. The author uses oral history extensively to develop and personalise his narrative.
One of the great strengths of the author’s use of oral history is his ability to make the lived experiences of pastoral workers come alive in the text. Long droving trips, mustering, branding cattle on horseback, gardening and cooking are all recalled by informants, highlighting the toughness of life in outback Queensland before motorised transport and better communications incrementally made life easier for pastoralists.
Some would regret, however, the costs that came with changing technology. Ironically, a number of pastoralists felt more isolated when landlines and satellite phones replaced a former reliance on two-way radio, with its mixture of gossip and community advice. As Les Clarke of Brinawa Station pointed out:
[When there were two-way radios] you knew all the news of the Gulf, could hear radios from Camooweal to Georgetown and all the way to the border. You knew nearly to the hour when to get your pump out of the river [when the river was rising] when everyone was on the radio.
The Gulf Country is also notable for its sensitive treatment of the Aboriginal view of the land and the interaction between the original inhabitants and European settlers, particularly within the pastoral industry. Martin’s work tends to confirm the value that Queensland pastoralists placed on the work skills of Aboriginal stockmen, although a degree of paternalism among pastoralists towards their Aboriginal workers and dependents was often present. The author’s analysis of white–black conflict, accommodation and attitudes is enhanced by his use of contemporary newspapers reports, government documents and personal diaries.
While there is much to learn and enjoy from this book, it would have benefited from tighter editing. The chapter structure is roughly chronological but goes back and forth in time in a way that sometimes leads to a loss of narrative focus. Furthermore, the memories of oral participants are at times privileged over the ‘big picture’ story of the Gulf Country itself. As a result, the reader is distracted from the broader themes of Gulf history by local, individualised stories. The unintentional parochialism is underscored by the puzzling use of a number of colour photos of Gulf Country folk which are poorly reproduced or lack clarity, especially in relation to the faces of photographic subjects.
Nevertheless, Richard J. Martin has added much to our historical knowledge of the Gulf Country. In many respects, this is a study of how people live and thrive in isolated communities, a place where two competing cultures, the Western and Aboriginal cultures, have learned to co-exist and find a sense of belonging to country in their own different ways.
* Lyndon Megarrity is the author of Northern Dreams: The Politics of Northern Development in Australia and has written about Labor politician and tropical agriculture expert, Rex Patterson, and historian Geoffrey Bolton.