In this mesmerising book, all of these aspects of the reef’s past and present are explored through a series of biographical sketches.
We meet the scientists, the dreamers and the castaways who’ve explored a natural phenomenon ‘so extensive that no human mind can take it in’. It is, after all, half the size of Texas, stretching 2,300 kilometres along Australia’s east coast. Its 3,000 individual reefs and 1,000 islands have many fascinating tales to tell.
For the first Western explorers, beginning with James Cook, this was ‘a cruel and capricious seascape’. It was difficult to navigate and held countless hidden maritime dangers. The precise nature of the reef’s construction was also something of a puzzle back in the 1770s: coral, little studied and barely understood, was ‘a taxonomist’s nightmare’. The task of surveying the region was, for a man such as Matthew Flinders (another of McCalman’s subjects) a daunting task: the ‘isolation and mental strain’ placed on 18th- and 19th-century survey captains led to breakdowns and even suicides.
The locals may well have wished that the Westerners had saved themselves from such hardship. The book recalls how the Aboriginal population was affected. The displacement and loss of ancient lands was bad enough, but there were also grotty manufactured tales of savage tribes who supposedly abused victims of shipwreck. In the case of Eliza Fraser, ‘newspaper melodrama’ and a silly bestselling book ‘congealed into a core cultural myth’ and an image of Aboriginal people as ‘violent, animalistic, and sexually predatory’ that contaminated the cultural groundwater for generations.
Happily, some 19th-century Westerners were more fair minded. We meet the naturalist Joseph Jukes, for example, who, as well as analysing the reef’s geological structure, was also a nuanced ethnographer. And it was the work of men such as Jukes, of course, that opened up another fascinating chapter in the reef’s history: its role in scientific exploration.
McCalman discusses William Kent, ‘Australia’s first professional reef scientist’, who did much to analyse the different types of coral and how quickly they grow. His 1893 book, The Great Barrier Reef of Australia: Its Products and Potentialities, flew off the shelves. Then there were the 1920s Cambridge scientists who did so much work that it took 38 years and seven hefty volumes to publish their findings.
The scientists are still hard at work, although these days there’s far too much bad news for them to report. The book ends with the exploits of Charlie Veron, who has spent his professional life studying, cataloguing and discovering corals. And he has no doubt that the Great Barrier Reef, and reefs around the world, face extinction.
Such a loss would be intolerable, not least because reefs ‘are nature’s archives and historians... complex data banks that record evidence of environmental changes’ over millions of years. To watch them being eroded by climate change is, Veron once said, ‘like seeing a house on fire in slow motion’.
Don’t imagine for a moment, however, that this is a glum book. It sounds a necessary alarm but it’s full of wonderful stories. There are fantasy merchants such as Louis de Rougemont, who made up a ‘tale that made Robinson Crusoe’s sound prosaic’; there are the genuine castaways; and there are people such as Ted and Bertha Banfield, who, at the turn of the 19th century, decided to set up home on a small island within the reef and live in a simple shack.
I’ve never visited the Great Barrier Reef and this wonderful volume makes me long to make the trip; although, as McCalman puts it, you probably have to be an astronaut in orbit to truly appreciate its scale and majesty.
The Reef has a lot to say about 19th-century imperialism, it revels in the excitement of scientific discovery and it makes me ashamed to know that we’re placing this great natural wonder in jeopardy. Achieving that in 300 pages is a triumph.
THE REEF: The Great Barrier Reef from Captain Cook to Climate Change by Iain McCalman, Scribe, £20