- Book reviewer
- History - general, Book reviews
- RAN Ships
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- September 1996 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
Title: Via Torres Strait Author: Ian Nicholson Publisher: Roebuck Society Publication No. 48, Nambour, 1996
This book in the Roebuck Historical Series is a maritime history of the Torres Strait shipping route, including the inner and outer passages through the Great Barrier Reef. It has 150 maps and illustrations, of which 30 are in full colour.
The author gives a detailed account of the discovery, development and surveying of the famous strait, the routes and passages leading to and through it, and the many wrecks and dramas associated with this story. His research has been thorough and meticulous and he has uncovered many previously unpublished documents of all kinds relevant to his subject. The many photographs and drawings which illuminate the text are supplemented by appropriate sections of contemporary charts and many historically accurate sketches executed by the author.
Nicholson has ranged widely in his treatment of the theme and gives us interesting glimpses into such varied aspects as relations between explorers, mariners and the local aborigines and islanders; the strong effects of prevailing weather patterns and tidal streams on navigation in the area; pearling, whaling and trepanging activities, piracy and slavery; and the effects of war, depression and the advent of radar on maritime activities. He has written the fullest account yet of the intriguing story of the “post office” and refuge depot established on Booby Island at the western entrance to Torres Strait.
He has attempted to evaluate the personalities and navigating abilities of some of the more important figures associated with the development of the area and his comments are forthright and to the point. Some of the characters described come vividly to life, such as the troublesome Lieut. Jeffreys, R.N. in the colonial brig “Kangaroo” and the redoubtable Capt. Martin McKenzie, “a very clever enterprising little fellow” and his schooner “Heroine”. Nicholson also includes some interesting case studies of individual events, such as the adventurous cruise of the yacht “Skaga” with a mixed crew in 1932, and the grounding of HMS “Bonaventure” (of which he was an eye-witness) in 1947.
While I believe the author is generally correct in stating that “From our early mariners’ point of view there need be no “sense of guilt” for alleged atrocities against the Aboriginal race”, I do not agree with all of his comments about the relations between Europeans and aboriginals, which seem to me a little one-sided. He is also a bit hard on conservationists, who “seem to know dangerously little” about nautical matters and who “need to take frequent advice from an experienced mariner before getting out of their depth”. While there are undoubtedly some such conservationists, many others are marine scientists with greater expertise in the area than most mariners.
However, this is generally an excellent history and we are indebted to Nicholson for the pains he has taken to bring so many fascinating aspects of the subject to light. The work is meticulously referenced, with over 600 footnotes and a comprehensive bibliography. Other appendices give detailed lists of voyages, messages left at the Booby Island “post office” and navigable passages through the Barrier Reef. As an ex-professional navigator myself I can fully appreciate his expert knowledge and the enthusiasm which he has devoted to the task of bringing his topic to life.
The book is self-published and suffers from some of the problems associated with this, one of which (the computer program) the author notes in his preface. It would read better if it were divided into chapters or sections; as it is, it runs continuously from start to finish and although the treatment is chronological, this gives it a somewhat cluttered effect. Also there is slightly too much text on each page, so that the layout appears rather crowded. But these are minor defects in what is undoubtedly a fine achievement. I heartily recommend the work to all students of maritime history.