Should Australia's History Be General Knowledge?

Kath Heiman — 30 January 2020
The starvation of Burke and Wills at Cooper Creek is a tragic but pivotal Australian story. Is it fair to expect everyone to know it?

For those of us who spend time in Australia’s vast interior, it’s a familiar story. 

Burke, Wills and King return to the Dig Tree at Cooper Creek just hours after the Depot Party has departed. There, the creek is alive with fish, mussels and yabbies; the trees are full of waterbirds like ducks and pelicans; and the creek bank is home to snakes, lizards, small marsupials and insects. Yet, Burke and Wills starve to death.  

Weakened by their return journey from the Gulf, and with little knowledge of the basics of foraging, the explorers had watched how the local indigenous people harvested seed from a native water plant, nardoo, ground it into flour and then used it to make a form of Johnny cake. Trouble was, unlike the locals, the hapless explorers ate the meal raw. And by failing to prepare it properly, they suffered the effect of the enzyme it contains, thiaminase, which destroys Vitamin B1 and can cause beri-beri. This condition, combined with the other ravages of their journey, ultimately led Burke and Wills to their death. 

A sobering tale indeed.

When we visit Cooper Creek on our regular overland treks, the thought of these early explorers, starving while surrounded by food, is always a hot topic of campfire conversation.  And we deliberately look for outcrops of nardoo growing wild by the banks. It never looks like an easy source of sustenance when there’s so much other bush tucker around. 

So, knowing the important part that nardoo plays in the Burke and Wills story, I was really pleased last year to be able to buy the plant from a nursery at my local hardware store. It thrived over summer in the small water feature in our backyard, and I tended it through the winter in a large bucket, undercover to protect it from the frost.  

The plant is sufficiently unusual that people who come to our home comment on it. After all, it’s not something you’ll find in every suburban backyard. But I was amazed when I recently started to describe to a visitor this native water plant’s relevance to Australia’s colonial history, only to be asked: “Burke and who?” 

Now, I’m no snob when it comes to how much ‘general knowledge’ an adult should have. I realise that what amounts to ‘general’ knowledge for me might be pretty obscure to someone else whose life journey has been different to my own. For my part, I remember stuff that has direct relevance to things I’m personally interested in. So, I’ll prattle on about nardoo because my dad was a plant specialist, my husband is an environmental scientist, I like gardening, and I’ve been back and forth to Cooper Creek since the mid 80s. Sure. I know I’ll get blank looks if I’m talking to 99 per cent of the population.  

But the bloke I was talking to in my own backyard the other week grew up in the same town as me, has the same level of schooling as me, is about my age and is a proud flag-waving Aussie. So, surely it was reasonable to expect him to at least have heard of the leaders of the Victorian Exploring Expedition, Burke and Wills, even if he knew nothing else about their fateful efforts in the early 1860s to connect Victoria with communication and trade routes from Java through to Europe.   

This incident made me reflect on how much we learn about our country when we’re fortunate enough to regularly travel to parts of it that have such remarkable significance to Australia’s story.  

Whether it’s 15 million years of archaeology recorded in the rock face at Riversleigh in Queensland’s Lawn Hill National Park; stands of the world’s tallest flowering tree, the mountain ash, growing near the Tahune Forest Reserve in Tasmania’s south-west; or the cultural landscape of Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park with its sacred aboriginal sites — living history is all around us when we travel.  

There are hundreds of places that we go that have cultural, social, economic and ecological significance. And when we see these places, when we touch them and when we read the interpretative signage that local and state authorities erect near them, the knowledge of them begins to form part of our own Australian story. We absorb the experience and it sticks with us long after we’ve unpacked our vehicles and reversed our campers back into the carport.

Is it any wonder, then, that our nine year old daughter’s teacher doesn’t get too concerned when we plan to take her out of school for an extra few weeks after the scheduled term breaks? “She’ll learn more with you than we could hope to teach her back here at school,” she’ll reply. With a travel itinerary rich with living history, our daughter’s education moves from theoretical to practical. Add the discipline of some structured periods set aside for the 3Rs, and we know that she’s on track to achieve all the developmental milestones that matter. And much more besides.

She has the inquisitive mindset and capacity to learn that is the unique preserve of our younger generations. And while I know that her life journey will differ to mine, I reckon my job as a parent is to build in her a real sense of connection with her environment and its people: past, present and future.  

Basically, I reckon my job is to ensure that she’s never afflicted with a dose of “Burke and who?”


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