September 2020 Open Book Group – Buckley’s Chance by Garry Linnell

Thank you to Gerry for moderating Buckley’s Chance by Garry Linnell.


In 1835 three British men sitting on the shores of Port Philip when a 6ft 4″ white, hairy man, wearing animal skins and carrying a spear, walked out of Australian bush. That man was escaped-convict William Buckley. He had spent the past 32 years living with an aboriginal community where he married and had a least 2children.

 In Buckley’s Chance, Gary Linnell tells William’s story. Born in Cheshire in 1780 Buckley trained as a bricklayer. He fought and was wounded, in the Napoleonic wars. Then, on his return to English he was sentenced to transportation to Australia for life when, aged 20, he stole a blot of cloth.

 Arriving in Australia he was sent with other convicts and free settlers to build a new colony in Port Philip. Port Jackson was now well established and the powers-that-be in England wanted to expand in the south of the continent. Like many convicts, William escaped into the bush, but unlike many, he survived after being adopted by the Walthaurong people who saw him as a ghost coming back from the dead.

 His return to white society was difficult. Taciturn by nature he had largely forgotten his English. The rapacious colonists used him as a translator as they sort to grab rich pastoral land from their traditional owners.

 While Buckley’s story is fascinating Linnell uses it as a cog around which he builds a vivid account of the colonisation of both Port Philip, soon the be renamed Melbourne and Van Diemen’s land, modern-day Tasmanian. He recounts the appalling acts of genocide undertaken by appalling men such as John Batman and John Fawkner, emboldened by the equally appalling government policy of terra nullius. Their violent acts resulted in traumas that have vibrated down generations of indigenous Australians, while at the same time they were largely ignored in the histories taught to generations of the invaders’ descendants.

 Garry Linnell is a Walkley Award-winning journalist. We all agreed that his style made for an enjoyable, engaging and easy read.

 Linnell uses the second voice to narrate Buckley’s story. He refers to Buckley as “you” and In the process he gently teases and chides William. While some found this a slightly irritating it did enable Linnell to add a layer of humour to what is otherwise a grim tale.

 There are very few facts known about Buckley other than a short book written by John Morgan, who interviewed him after his return, and some official reports. We were particularly impressed with how Linnell had taken these few accounts and weaved the history of the founding of Melbourne around them. We commented on the depth of his research. One member likened it to a PhD thesis but without the impenetrable language so beloved by academics. The contemporary photographs and the epilogue of what happened next to all the protagonists made this book the complete package.

 The destruction of Aboriginal culture by alcohol, disease and straight down the line massacre was confronting. However as one member pointed out what sort of people would one expect to be attracted to joining convicts on the other side of the world: chancers, risk-takers or the second sons of the minor aristocracy. All motivated by self-interest the lawlessness of the early settlements gave their inhumanity free rein.

 We noted that the destruction of native cultures was par for the course for European invaders. From the Spanish conquistadors in South America, the French and British in North American to the British promoting the opium wars in China indigenous peoples and their cultures were quashed. Like the generational trauma suffered by aboriginal communities, one member commented that China too has a long memory. China’s present repositioning in the global economy may well come at a cost to those who humiliated it in the past. A prescient comment as 3 hours later the nightly news reported that the last two independent Australian journalists based in China had just made a hurried departure after veiled threats of detention from the local police.

 Buckets account of living with the Aboriginals for 32 years was fascinating. He learnt their language, how to survive in the bush and find food. We observed that Linnell’s portrayal was balanced. The aboriginals were not picture book noble savages. There were frequent tribal incursions. Buckley was prompted to return to white culture when his wife and father-in-law were killed in a revenge attack.

 Members noted how Anglo-centric their school history lessons had been. Over the past twenty years, and certainly since the Government’s apology in 2008, we were more hopeful that recent generations have a deeper understanding of the history of their country.

 “You’ve got Buckley’s” is a well-known Australian aphorism. The majority of Australians would have Buckley’s of knowing where the saying came from. Linnell has more than rectified this making Buckley’s Chance not only a great read but also an essential one.

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