Opinion

Lessons From The Reef: Spiritual and Aesthetic Legacies As Care

Mark McKenna speaks with SEI co-founder Iain McCalman about the greatest hope we have for addressing the destruction of the Great Barrier Reef: the traditional ecological and spiritual ethic of ‘Caring for Country’.

Image via Unsplash

Mark McKenna: One of the continuous threads in your work over several decades now has been your long-standing interest in biography. How did you come to decide that a series of biographical portraits would be the ideal structure for writing your history of the Great Barrier Reef?

Iain McCalman: I’ve always loved writing collective biographies because they provide such complex, nuanced and contradictory perspectives on human character and experience. Blake thought we could capture the universe in a grain of sand; I feel we can often do this through a single human life.

What did these life stories allow you to reveal about the history of human engagement with the Reef that might not have been possible otherwise?

Wonderful scientists like Charles Darwin and his Australian namesake Charlie Veron have helped us to understand the complex physical processes through which a tiny coral polyp and an even tinier plant work together to create vast underwater walls of limestone. Humans, however, also construct reefs using their imaginations and emotions. I wanted to find a diversity of individuals — young and old, men and women, Indigenous and European, artists and scientists — through whom I could track the different ways the Reef has been viewed over time. During the last two centuries, it has been seen variously: by Aboriginal people as a site of spiritual wonder and nurture; by European explorers as a labyrinth of terror; by artists and writers as an escapist paradise; by politicians and developers as a resource for plundering; and now, by most Australians, as a fragile treasure that faces extinction.

I know your work with Indigenous Australians has had a profound impact on your research. Could you describe one of the most memorable experiences you have had working in these communities?

I was deeply moved by the experience of doing some filming at Lockhart River a few years ago. This is a small Aboriginal settlement on Cape York, and I went there to ask about their response to the story of a fourteen-year-old French cabin boy, Narcisse Pelletier, who’d been rescued and adopted by a maritime clan of Uutaalnganu speakers, ancestors of Lockhart River people today. Pelletier’s shipmates had abandoned him, wounded and dying of thirst, in a remote area known as the Sandbeach. Renamed Anco, he lived a rich and fulfilling life with the Wanthaala clan for seventeen years. Forgetting his origins, he became an Uutaalnganu speaker, an initiated warrior, and an expert maritime fisherman. In 1874, however, his life was torn to pieces when he was forcibly captured by European fisherman and taken back to France. Here, he was mocked as a savage and lived a lonely miserable life. In 1894, he died — locals claimed— of nostalgia for his former life with the people of the Sandbeach. In a sense, Anco can be seen as one of the first stolen children. During this same time, his former clan was herded into a mission, where they and four other language groups were scrambled together to lose all memory of their past.

Pelletier’s story had, however, reached the people of Lockhart River through a wonderful translation of his memoir by Stephanie Anderson and a chapter in my book, The Reef — A Passionate History. To my surprise, the story was causing great excitement in the community because nobody knew about the life of their clans before the mission. They described the story as a window that had helped to recover their proud past as a skilled maritime people who lived in close connection with the Reef. The mayor, Wayne Butcher, himself the descendent of an Uutaalnganu speaker, told me that Anco’s story had transformed the morale of the Lockhart river community and had inspired him and others to start a maritime fishing business to reconnect with their past.

In the last decade, how have you come to understand the connection between Indigenous relationships with the Reef and what we can learn from them today, as we try to pull the Reef back from the brink of annihilation?

I believe that the traditional ecological and spiritual ethic of ‘Caring for Country’ is the greatest hope we have of addressing the Reef’s destruction. Developed over 60,000 years of Australian Indigenous collective practice, this ethic stands as a beacon to set against the way Westerners have managed to defile our continent’s lands and seas in the short space of two hundred years. It reminds us that the Reef is not a series of resources to be exploited for money, but the largest living organism on the planet and one essential to the health of the Pacific and Indian Oceans. Before it is too late, we need to adopt Aboriginal practices of custodianship.

You’ve argued passionately on several occasions that it’s only by marrying the sensory, spiritual and aesthetic dimensions of the Great Barrier Reef that we will be able to understand the threat that it currently faces and act in time to save it. Could you explain why?

To save the Reef we need to mobilize the support of the people who live and work along it, as well as the hundreds of thousands of people who visit it every year to experience unique sensual beauties and pleasures. Science can demonstrate the threats to the Reef and can try to find ways to save or restore some proportion of its corals. Yet in the end it is those who swim, dive, fish, sail, cruise, photograph, paint, or simply relax in, on, or near its waters who must want to save it and be willing to take political action to do so.

Following on from this, much has happened since ‘The Reef’ was published. Do you retain the defiant optimism you once had for the Reef’s future?

Like so many people who study and love the Reef, I oscillate between hope and despair. I despair because our government has done too little too late, and it continues to evade the real issue of climate change. On the other hand, I’ve been heartened by the activism of a younger generation of mainly women scientists who have been engineering resilient species of coral using the techniques of accelerated evolution. They are an inspiration to all of us and a reminder that hope goes hand in hand with action.

The full interview can be found in the latest issue of SOPHI Magazine, published by the School of Philosophical and Historical Inquiry at the University of Sydney.


Mark McKenna is one of Australia’s leading historians. He has written several highly acclaimed books, including From the Edge: Australia’s Lost Histories, An Eye for Eternity: The Life of Manning Clark and Looking for Blackfellas’ Point: An Australian History of Place. He is professor of history at the University of Sydney.

Iain McCalman is Professor Emeritus at the University of Sydney, Co-director of the Sydney Environment Institute and a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society, the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia, and the Australian Academy of the Humanities. He was awarded the Inaugural Vice Chancellor’s Prize for Teaching Excellence at the Australian National University in 1994, and an Officer of the Order of Australia in 2007 for services to history and the humanities. Iain has written numerous articles in British, American and European History and Literature journals on Modern British, European and Imperial cultural history and written and edited number of books, including the acclaimed The Romantic Age: An Oxford Companion to British Culture, 1776-1832, (2001), Darwin’s Armada: how four voyagers to Australasia won the battle for evolution and changed the world (2009) and The Reef: a Passionate History (2014).