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WHAT a feisty lot our pioneering colonial women were. Among the best known and colourful identities of that period were Mrs Elizabeth Macarthur and Mrs Elizabeth 'Betsey' Macquarie.
Elizabeth Macarthur was, of course, the loyal, long-suffering wife of John Macarthur, a dangerous enemy of the English establishment in early Sydney Town. It's Liz Macarthur, not her more famous argumentative husband though, who is today credited with creating Australia's wool industry by minding merino fleeces at Parramatta. John, after all, was away for years back in England lobbying to quash a possible charge of treason after the infamous "Rum Revolt" against Governor Bligh.
And then there was "Betsey" Macquarie, the wife of the governor of NSW Lachlan Macquarie. Both arrived in the European garrison of colonial Australia back in December 1809. Governor Macquarie is today probably best regarded as "the father of modern Australia", transforming a remote, raw penal settlement at the edge of the world into a thriving city with magnificent, permanent civic buildings and town planning principles.
Award-winning journalist Sue Williams, in her first novel, explores what happens when two determined women holding sharply conflicting views, but having vision and courage, come together at a pivotal time in the nation's fledgling history. Entitled Elizabeth & Elizabeth, her historical fiction is something I wouldn't normally delve into, but after a few pages, I was hooked.
As Williams comments: "Both Elizabeths were incredibly impressive as women of their time. They were tough and extraordinarily resilient in what was, in many ways, a brutal man's world. They both lost children ... yet both managed to forge independent lives for themselves and make a huge difference in the colony when women were seen but rarely heard."
But I'll concentrate today on Mrs Elizabeth Macquarie, nudging hubby Lachlan towards social reform and pouring over her architectural pattern books to improve the look of the colony. In time, however, Governor Macquarie came under intense scrutiny by the British Government for alleged excessive spending on fine buildings in a convict outpost. Enter special commissioner John Bigge, from London, seeking out Macquarie's enemies, scouting around for any dirt.
In a recent news article Williams expanded on her research to give the background to Macquarie's downfall a modern slant - that of "fake news" - and it all happened 200 years ago this month. According to Williams, Bigge asked leading questions, ignored Macquarie's supporters, refused to take evidence under oath - despite being a lawyer himself - and surrounded himself with cronies of critic John Macarthur who'd lent Bigge an Arab stallion. Like today's "cowed, power-hungry Republicans in the US" few people were prepared to come to Macquarie's defence, afraid Bigge might become the new NSW governor.
Bigge's report was damning. Macquarie ended up a broken man. In February 1821, a new governor Thomas Brisbane was appointed instead.
"The failure to speak out against spin set Australia's progress back hugely," Williams wrote.
Macquarie went home, wrote a rebuttal against the accusations but then died in 1824, without his name being cleared. Elizabeth Macquarie declined a government pension until her husband's rebuttal was read out in the English Parliament. This took four long years.
Elizabeth & Elizabeth by Sue Williams. Allen & Unwin, $29.99.
Private war now public
WORLD War II legend Jock McLaren was uncomfortable with the idea of being depicted as a lone Pacific war hero in his upcoming biography. This was about 1955. McLaren asked his co-author (a ghostwriter, really) to insist on a statement saying all the fighting and privations were shared by fellow guerrilla fighters "much braver than himself". McLaren's fellow author, later Port Stephens identity Hal Richardson, agreed but was also annoyed when the title of the finished manuscript finally emerged from the publisher called One-Man War, rather than the suggested title of McLaren's Private War.
But before the book was published, the tall gangly Scotsman (a Queenslander in reality) died in March 1956 in a freak traffic accident. McLaren's war memoir was eventually published in 1957 and is probably largely forgotten now, almost 64 years later. But what a remarkable WWII tale of an era of bravery, savagery, sacrifice and mass betrayal, and of a time when Australia was under the very real threat of enemy invasion.
Luckily, acclaimed true-life crime writer and novelist Tom Gilling has now taken up the cudgels to forensically dissect the man behind the larger-than-life reputation once awarded two Military Crosses after being reported missing, lost in action. Gilling's new book, titled Bastard Behind The Lines, reveals a true hero, one of our great guerrilla fighters, a courageous and inspiring leader.
McLaren had initially been caught by Japanese forces, but soon became a serial prisoner-of-war (POW) escapee. He escaped first from Changi and later from the notorious Sandakan POW camp in Borneo. He paddled a dugout canoe over open sea to then fight for two years with Filipino guerrillas. His bold exploits caused his Japanese foes to put a price on his head. Using a whaleboat bristling with machine guns and a mortar, McLaren then created havoc with lightning raids on enemy-held harbours. In early 1945, McLaren then joined Australia's highly secretive Z Special Unit. He was 43 at the time - an old man in military terms.
He cheated death often and once saved his own life by removing his appendix using two large dessert spoons and a razor blade - all without anaesthetic.
Reviewing both Allied and Japanese documents, Gilling has produced an engrossing book, vividly bringing to light disturbing facets of Australia's Pacific war. The book also sharply focuses on the dirty politics of warfare. Both McLaren and guerrilla comrade Rex Blow were later haunted by the memory of a mission to rescue starving POWs at Sandakan being vetoed. These prisoners soon underwent death marches in the face of the advancing Allies.
McLaren believed the Australian commander-in-chief General Sir Thomas Blamey had reneged on a personal assurance to launch a major rescue with Aussie troops. But was the decision really insisted on by US General Douglas MacArthur? Was there a deliberate non-use of Australian units in the reconquest of the Philippines? Did MacArthur want to be seen as the "leader" who, with US forces alone, was able to avenge the humiliation he suffered in his earlier defeat and retreat from the Philippines?
For readers born after the end of WW11 in mid-1945, the book is a sobering reminder of a horrific era which should never be forgotten. An extraordinary true tale.
Bastard Behind The Lines - the wartime story of Jock McLaren's escapes and guerrilla war against the Japanese, by Tom Gilling. Allen & Unwin $29.99.
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