Reading Down Under

A Terribly Wild Man by Christine Halse

Reading two biographies on Aboriginals has shown me how little progress has been made. It’s very easy to be reminded of Native American’s who have suffered a similar fate to that of Indigenous Australians. The story of Ernest Gribble is the epitome of an anti-hero and Christine Halse does an admirable job of untangling the web that he and many others managed to weave around his life.
For a start, it is very unlikely that you will LIKE Ernest, his behaviour is everything that missionaries have been disliked for: interference in other cultures, arrogance and the presumption that “Civilized” meant “Western”. Ernest is an example of such a man so extreme in these examples that even other faithful Christians could not handle his temperament. His primary belief was that Aboriginals should be kept separate from Whites on missionaries and he played a huge role in the Stolen Generation, bartering with the police forces to give him as many infant Aboriginals as they could.

Yet Ernest did do good things for Aboriginal people, as small as they seem compared to the well-intentioned prisons he created for them. Halse shows us a man who believed he was on a mission from god to protect black people and who sacraficed his place in white society in trying to obtain that goal.

He was a champion of black rights, working against a huge amount of prejudice to obtain even the smallest amounts of justice, often not even managing to do that. It is easier to sympathise with him when he stands against white prejudice, simply because we temporarily forget that he is a part of it, though in a different form. The stories of the Indiginous Australian’s that he meets and befriends are heartwarming and it becomes clear that he was loved at times by those who he controlled so rigorously, being called Dada Gribble in one mission.
What is impressive to me is how Hales has managed to thread together so many narratives into a biography. Gribble’s view on white outsiders was always suspicious and his diaries notably fall into deranged paranoia. On top of that, the newspapers were almost entirely damning of Gribble during most of his life and white society treated him as a leper. It is with determination and hard work that Hales has managed to create this unbiased and clear-cut biography. However, that may be a problem in itself.

This biography is sad. It is very, very sad following a man who’s actions you admonish and yet he is clearly the best man the Aboriginals could hope for in such a time. He is one of the few who sympathises with them and the only one willing to stick his neck out for their rights. Simply put, he may be one of the best white characters in Aboriginal rights battles that Australia had (though I obviously can’t know that for a fact). His work to shed light upon an extermination of dozens (at least) of Aboriginals in the 1920’s (the date itself blew me away) is truly commendable, even if his personality and mistrust served to make things more awkward for the police in equal measure to his aid. There is also no story arc as you might find with biographies of people who had one great defining moment in their life, just as there is no respite at the end of a job finished and well done. Gribble’s life began with toil and ended in being forced to leave his mission against his will in his 80’s. In that sense the book is anti-climactic in that it doesn’t deliver a happy ending, or even really a definitive ending at all. Yet such is the way with historical biographies as we are not guaranteed a tale like we receive through fiction however “A Terribly Wild Man” gives us a story that is incredibly important, as well as much bigger than Gribble himself.

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