Explorer's physical and emotional torture

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Mr Stuart’s Track, by John Bailey. Published by Pan Macmillan in 2006. ISBN: 1 40503 730 3. RRP $32.95, website 

Mr Stuart's TrackMost Australians carry a basic understanding of the challenging exploration of Australia by European settlers—characters like Burke and Wills live on in our minds for decades after we learn about them in our history lessons. John Bailey’s new book, Mr Stuart’s Track, both shatters and affirms the myths of our history and brings the harsh realities of the exploration of Australia to life. As an Australian, I had known that stories like this one existed somewhere—to read such a story in its detail and scope is delightful.

The subject of Bailey’s book is John McDouall Stuart, a Scottish man with few career options who sailed to Adelaide in 1838 in search of a new life as a surveyor. He would eventually go on to cross the continent and in doing so reveal more of central Australia to the Europeans, than any other explorer.

Stuart is not a conventional hero. He was a self-destructive alcoholic and a lonesome man who knew nothing of social nicety or rhetorical political speech. Like many settlers in the new land, Stuart did not conform to the traditional values of English society, and when finished wandering the continent, he was quickly forgotten by those in power and left to an anonymous demise. The complexity of this imperfect character provides a perfect biographical subject of Australian history.

In the Australian bush Stuart found redemption and forged a new purpose for his life. His story is uniquely Australian. He was a ‘working man’ and a ‘battler’ who shamed richer gentleman explorers through his ability to achieve what they could not, with fewer resources. He did not seek acclaim, riches or political appointment but set out to explore the continent because of an undeniable personal obsession. In his courage, independence, strength and self-sacrifice, Stuart is a mythic Australian hero.

The book underlines the danger of the harsh Australian landscape; it breathes haunting images of the physical and emotional torture of exploring the centre of Australia. The men battle excruciating pain while walking 40, 50, sometimes 60km each day; once, fuelled by desperate thirst, a horse is killed in order to drink its blood. Stuart describes his own declining health and we read of a mouth so swollen with blisters there was no room for the tongue, stale breath that smelt like a rotting corpse and a bruised body racked with scurvy and leaking blood vessels. This is the painful experience of life in the bush, to which Stuart and his colleagues returned time and again with open eyes.

While it is centred on the personal story of Stuart, Bailey's book is broad in its historical scope. Importantly, it recognises that this era could not be written about without exploring the conflict between the Aborigines and European settlers. Here Bailey presents both perspectives: the danger and threat felt by the explorers, and the anger and confusion experienced by the traditional inhabitants of the land. The newly arrived white man disrespected sacred sites, stole water without trade and slaughtered friends and family. Bailey produces documents and descriptions which illustrate the racist, uncompromising and aggressive stance adopted by the settlers from the outset. He is also occasionally critical of Stuart's own dubious accounts of his run-ins with the Aborigines.

While he generally maintains a critical historical voice, Bailey is also a writer with considerable narrative skill—his book is fascinating and accessible. Imagined conversations based on Bailey's extensive research are particularly illuminating and help to more intimately construct the characters and the challenges they faced. While the book covers a range of interesting historical subjects and entertaining anecdotes, Mr Stuart's track is essentially a tale of exploration in a new and mysterious land—a great Australian story.



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Existing comments

Excellent middle ground and lucid. Don't become fundamentalist or adopt relativistic attitudes .. they are yesterday's take-a-ways.

Noel Blake | 22 August 2006  

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