The history of the Great Barrier Reef told through the stories of men and women who have loved or hated it, lived there, studied it, exploited it or tried to save it.
McCalman (History/Univ. of Sydney; Darwin’s Armada: Four Voyages and the Battle for the Theory of Evolution, 2009, etc.) loves the reef and fears for its future. His account begins with Capt. James Cook, whose ship Endeavor ran aground there in 1770 and who feared being trapped and destroyed in the labyrinth of coral reefs. Some three decades later, while exploring the reef, Royal Navy officer Matthew grasped its immensity and named it the “Great Barrier Reefs.” In the 1840s, the naturalist and geologist Joseph Jukes wrote glowingly of the area’s beauty and accurately of the culture of the indigenous people living there, contrary to fictitious accounts of cannibalistic savages. In one fascinating chapter, McCalman recounts the tale of a young Scottish woman who survived a shipwreck and was taken in by Aborigines. In the 1890s, the British scientist-artist-photographer William Saville-Kent studied the reef intensely for four years, producing a masterpiece that showed the world the wonders of its underwater world. In 1908, Australian E.J. Banfield’s The Confessions of a Beachcomber presented it as multiple island paradises, and the 20th-century attempts of America zoologist Alexander Agassiz to disprove Darwin’s theory of the origin of coral reefs made it the center of scientific interest. McCalman then focuses on two Cambridge scientists whose publications in the 1930s ignited the interest of tourists and inspired the actions of men and women determined to save the islands from exploitation. McCalman’s final chapter, sadly titled “Extinction,” introduces Charlie Veron, an authority on coral reefs, whose message is that forces already underway are destroying the Great Barrier Reef, a message that the author bravely, hopefully attempts to counter in the epilogue.
McCalman selects his subjects judiciously and writes with flair, creating a multifaceted portrait of one of the world’s great wonders.