Book Review: Australia’s First Naturalists, by Penny Olsen and Lynette Russell • Glam Adelaide

Book Review: Australia’s First Naturalists, by Penny Olsen and Lynette Russell

HISTORY: As silent partners, Aboriginal Australians gave Europeans their first views of iconic animals and helped to unravel the mystery of egg-laying mammals.

Another example of the history wars - Meticulously researched and goes beyond zoology into stories about real people.

Australia’s First Naturalists covers the period in Australia between 1788-1939 and includes an epilogue noting the ongoing contributions Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities have in the management of flora and fauna today.

This beautifully illustrated book chronicles previously unacknowledged contributions that Indigenous Peoples made to Australia’s early zoological records, along with their stories. There are many familiar names however let’s take one example, the story of Burigon. Awabakal man, Burigon, along with his people, were the traditional owners and custodians of the land in the Newcastle area and spent approximately two decades assisting ethnographers in the early nineteenth century.

The first officer to engage Burigon and to begin the publication of natural history in this area was Skottowe; notably he used the Awabakal names in his documentation. Further down the track, replacement officer Wallis also engaged Burigon, but shortly after Wallis left the area, Burigon was fatally wounded by escaped convict John Kirby, who became the first white man to be executed under British Law for the murder of an Aboriginal person and the killing of a ‘kind, useful and intelligent chief’.

This is but one example of the anthropological side of the book and keeps the reader engaged; it prevents the book from being rather bland for those with only a mild interest in zoology. On the other hand, if you have a specific interest in zoology and the Indigenous contributions towards it, you will also enjoy this book thoroughly. It is brilliantly illustrated with less common artworks and informational titbits not often seen in the paraphernalia of Indigenous displays in museums.

Co-author Penny Olsen is an Honourary Professor at the Australian National University and her ‘service to the conservation sciences’ was recognised in 2011 when she was invested as a Member of the Order of Australia. She has written several publications, and this is her third book. Lynette Russell has written three previous books and she has always focused on anthropology. She is passionate about embedding Indigenous studies as part of our standard curriculum and is a former recipient of the Australian Research Council Professorial Fellowship. Currently she is the director of the Monash Indigenous Studies centre.

Reviewed by Rebecca Wu

Distributed by: NLA Publishing
Released: May 2019
RRP: $44.99

Top image (cropped): Aboriginal people, some assisting Europeans, at King George Sound, part of the Swan River Colony, WA, between 1829 and 1833. Picture: National Library of Australia.

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