The Water Dreamers: How water and silence made Australia

Michael Cathcart
20 August, 2009

Michael Cathcart

Watch the lecture on Slow TV, The Monthly magazine's free internet TV channel

Why you should listen

Just as Africa was the ‘dark continent’ of the colonial imagination, so Australia was the ‘silent continent’. The first colonials imagined that the country was covered by a vast, silent forest where the Aborigines lived in a sort of primordial limbo. The settlers were confident that their axes would shatter the timeless silence and startle the continent into life – filling it with the ‘hum of industry’. But these dreamers were British: their dreams were shaped on an island where the grass is always green and the soil never dries out. By the 1830s, many settlers and travellers in remote Australia found themselves confronted by a ‘death like silence’ which refused to yield to their colonial ambitions. The land was too dry.

In his lecture for Sydney Ideas, historian Michael Cathcart argues that this experience of silence produced a melancholy brand of Australian nationalism which made heroes of dead explorers. By the end of the colonial era, a group of water dreamers dared to hope that grand hydro-engineering schemes could bring life and optimism to the silence. Many of the environmental problems we face today are the product of their grand thinking. At the heart of this lecture lies this single proposition: we do not know ourselves or the land in which we live until we understand its water. Ultimately, it is water which will determine the future of Australia.

Michael Cathcart was born in Melbourne in 1956 – the year that television came to Australia. He was educated at Melbourne Grammar, the University of Melbourne, ANU and a tyre factory in Port Melbourne. He has worked as a schoolteacher, university lecturer and theatre director. Cathcart has presented several Radio National programs, including Arts Today and the Radio National Quiz, and for ABC TV he has presented the history magazine show Rewind and the documentary series Rogue Nation. Cathcart is the author of Defending the National Tuckshop (1988), an expose of a secret militia called the White Army formed in Victoria in 1931, and he has published an abridgement of Manning Clark’s epic A History of Australia and an anthology of Australian speeches. His latest book is The Water Dreamers.