“A reef is not just a place, not just a collection of corals, not just a scientific phenomenon. It is a subjective experience,” said historian Iain McCalman when he presented his Festival session, The Reef, at the Macleay Museum at the University of Sydney.
“How we think and feel about the reef starts with Cook, who sees it as an utterly monstrous place, and it was only until the very late 19th century that it began to be seen as something of a wonder, whose beauty had the power to entrance.”
Surrounded by early 20th Century photographs of the Pacific Islands and their peoples, Professor McCalman showed a video on his book, The Reef: A Passionate History, that helped demonstrate his belief the reef is something that has been shaped by humans and, in turn, shaped them as well.
He said his book is an attempt to map a trajectory of human interaction and thinking surrounding the reef, beginning with the way in which Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders interacted with the reef. “The Aboriginal people saw it as a kind of nurturing mother.”
In order to understand the way in which the Aborigines engaged with the reef, Professor McCalman told the story of European castaways such as Narcisse Pelletier, who was adopted by Indigenous Australians. Pelletier became, he said, “an Indigenous person in European skin. After he was forcibly taken back to Europe, he communicated with a doctor about some examples of what life was like. This transcript is one of the first ways we can access pre-literature life regarding the reef.”
Surrounded by specimens of animals and artifacts of natural history, Professor McCalman spoke of the interaction of science and emotion, and how the stories of what drove scientists to the reef is just as important as the beauty and wonder of the physical reef itself.
“People too often think scientific discovery happens in pursuit of objectivity, but it is more often than not driven by passion. The reef was seen as an escape, a place where one could connect with the environment.”
In exploring the human history of the reef, he looked at the immense importance that the reef plays environmentally, and why it has become an object of such fascination and marvel.
“It determines the biodiversity of corals right through the Southern Hemisphere, quite apart from the fact that it protects two and a half thousand kilometers of land from the force of the Pacific Ocean.” He described plans to dump tonnes of silt on the reef as, “a complete travesty”.
Professor McCalman admitted it was difficult to know who to include in his book but said he chose those who loved the reef the most, and were the most successful in communicating their passion. He said they shared three things. “One was an artistic sense of the reef, one was a scientific sense of the reef, and the third was often some kind of sympathy for indigenous knowledge of the reef.”