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  • Writer's pictureThe Beagle

Gadfly 18 by Robert Macklin

What a contrast! After 10 days in Tasmania your columnist was propelled by fate’s fickle finger all the way to the little town of Lockhart River (pop 400) in Far North Queensland.

And while that ‘Little England’ of the south has expunged its shameful history of Aboriginal genocide from its map and its consciousness, the Lockhart experience could hardly be more different. Indeed, its civic affairs and most of its business ventures are all in capable indigenous hands.

I stayed in one of the well-appointed cabins near the airport. The complex is run by Jasmine Accoom, one of those super-efficient Aboriginal women who really make the community buzz. It’s about eight kilometres from the township itself which is on a bay that connects to the Coral Sea and the Great Barrier Reef.

Above: Jasmine Accoom

To reach it you need a hire car, unless you’re lucky enough to be met at the airport (as I was) by Norman Bally, the Deputy Mayor. Norman is a lovely bloke, an Aboriginal with a kindly sense of humour. He was good enough to meet me because I’m researching and writing a book that, with bit of luck, should be very good for Lockhart’s tourist industry.

It’s the true story of a French cabin boy, Narcisse Pelletier who in 1858, aged only 14, was marooned by his ‘shipmates’ on a nearby beach opposite Night Island. He would have died of thirst and starvation but was spotted by three Aboriginal women. They had never seen a white man before, but one gave him water while the other two ran to get their husbands. And when the men arrived they took him in.

One of them, Maademan, would ‘adopt’ him; and his son ‘Sassy’ would become Narcisse’s boon companion as he lived with the Night Island people for the next 17 years. Then in 1875 a group of English sailors landed and spotted this white man. They captured him and, fiercely against his will, sent him back to France. There he got a job on a lighthouse and spent his days and nights looking back across the sea to his spiritual home on the other since of the world. He died at only 52 from – I believe – a broken heart.

Some say that in spirit, if not physically, he returned and was seen many times by a variety of observers. As a rock-ribbed atheist, naturally I give such stories little credence. But something happened during the journey that Norman took me on that has shaken my faithlessness just a little. And perhaps I will speak of it in the book.

I have been researching the story for a year, and it’s to be published in Australia, Britain and Europe (France especially) in 2019. When that happens, Norman and I think quite a few readers might be interested to come and see the places where all his adventures occurred. And since he married three times, fathered three children and killed four men in combat, it has all the ingredients of a rattling good story.

So we spent the day together; and we became good such friends that we now speak regularly through the magic of email. And whenever I think about Tasmania and the way they have buried their history, I despair for them.

Robert Macklin has carved out a unique place among Australia’s literary biographers and historians. He has won numerous literary prizes including the 2009 Blake Dawson award for business literature with Peter Thompson for their classic THE BIG FELLA – the Rise and Rise of BHP Billiton.His Kevin Rudd: The Biography was shortlisted for the ACT Book of the Year; and he has won three Critics Circle Awards for his military biographies and histories. He has completed a lecture tour of three Chinese universities based on his works and is presently writing a history of Australia/China relations over the last 200 years.Queensland born, he has been a journalist at the highest level, a confidant and biographer of two Australian prime ministers; a documentary filmmaker in 32 countries of Asia and the Pacific; and is also political columnist and commentator in the nation’s capital. He presently divides his writing time on fiction, non-fiction and screenplays between Canberra and Tuross Head on the NSW South Coast.You can follow Robert Macklin's excellent commentary at CityNews

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