The incredible true story of William Buckley
and how he conquered a new world
Penguin Books October 2019
Paperback 368pp RRP $34.99
Reviewer: Robert Dixon, November 2019
This an intriguing book. On the one hand is it is a very well written story about both an interesting man and an interesting period in the history of Victoria. On the other hand, the book is written in a very unusual style, with the author addressing his story to Buckley himself. One imagines this is the reason for the sub-title to the book “A new era of Australian storytelling”. It is a style which is not ‘off-putting’ but it does take some getting used to.
William Buckley’s story is well known, at least in outline. In 1802 he was convicted of having received a roll of cloth knowing it to have been stolen and was sentenced to transportation for life. He left England in early 1803 aboard HMS Calcutta, one of two ships sailing to Port Phillip to form a new settlement there. They arrived in October 1803 and anchored near modern-day Sorrento. The new settlement lacked fresh water and had poor soil, so a decision was made a few weeks later to abandon the site and relocate to Tasmania. Shortly before the settlement was abandoned Buckley and three other convicts ran away into the bush. Buckley's friends turned back and were not heard of again. Buckley made his way down the western side of Port Phillip Bay, feeding on shellfish and berries, and was befriended by Aboriginals of the Wadawurrung people. He lived with them for 32 years, with no contact with Europeans. In 1835 he emerged to meet John Batman’s colonising party who had recently landed on the Bellarine peninsula and tried to work as an intermediary between settlers and aborigines, but felt he wasn’t trusted by either. He moved to Hobart in 1838 and remained there until his death in 1856. Having said all that, so little is known about the details of William Buckley’s life that this work is best categorised not as history but rather as historical fiction, albeit very entertaining and well-researched historical fiction.
Garry Linnell is an Australian journalist who has won several awards for his writing, including a Walkley for best feature writing. As would be expected, given the author’s profession, this book is extremely well written and is hard to ‘put down’.
The copy sent to RUSI for review includes twenty-three pages of endnotes and a bibliography but it does not have an index or any maps. The absence of any maps is not likely to be an issue for readers from Melbourne or Geelong (in particular) but the absence of an index is a major drawback in a historical work.
The RUSI – Vic Library thanks the publisher for making this work available for review.