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Kings in Grass Palaces, by Mary Durack.

October 22, 2012

Kings in grass castles by Mary Durack. London : Constable, [1979], c1959.

An enjoyable, well researched history of the pioneering role Durack’s family played in the expansion of Australian ranching.

Mary Durack (1913-1994) was the granddaughter of Patrick Durack, who was a leader in the spread of ranching in Australia, first in southwestern Queensland and then in the Kimberly region on the northwest edge of the continent. Writing about him and other pioneering friends and relatives, she gives us not only a family story but a useful overview of the history of the western movement of ranchers and settlers into previously unexplored lands.

Kings in Grass Palaces was a phrase that Durack’s grandfather used, indicating that while the family sometimes prospered off the lush grasses, their prosperity was never secure. Like the grass on which it was based, it could disappear in a season of drought or flood. The book is traditional history, published in 1959, and extremely well researched and written. Durack uses business and personal records as well as oral interviews and her life-long memories of the stories that “old-timers” told. As a child and as an adult, she lived on and loved some of the stations which she writes about. She does not claim to be an academic historian and does not provide footnotes or engage in professional debates. Probably later historians have, or will, challenge some of her statements, but her account has value none the less. She writes with charm and commitment and accuracy.

Recently, Australian bloggers have been commenting on True North: The Story of Mary and Elizabeth Durack by Brenda Niall.  They interested in Mary Durack. When I was unable to obtain a copy of the new biography, I decided to read her Kings in Grass Palaces, instead. It has proven to be just what I have been looking for: an overview of one important aspect of the national story without lots of politics and with information about how people, if not exactly ordinary, lived their daily lives. As a non-Australian, I could not have chosen a better book

Patrick Durack, Mary Durack’s grandfather, is the major figure in the family story and in her book. He came to Australia from Ireland in the 1850s with his parents and siblings. Shortly after their arrival, his father died and, at the age of 19, Patsy, as he was called, became responsible for the large family. After stabilizing their fortunes on land near Goulburn, he decided to take his new wife to southwestern Queensland where there was land to graze cattle. At the time, this required a long, arduous trip, but they made the journey. With assorted relatives and friends he encouraged to join him, they successfully established a ranching community. For a time, he and they prospered. Drought and floods continued to threaten, however. Eventually Patsy became interested in lands even more remote. By then his sons were old enough to explore the new territory and play a role in the massive, months-long cattle drive to the Kimberly region. Part of the family, including Patsy, began to move back to more settled areas near Brisbane, but they maintained long-range involvement in the new stations in western Australia. While these were eventually successful, expansion in the new stations and into other non-ranching investments had led to debt.  A wave of bank failures devastated the family, especially Patsy who had deeded all his land to his sons. He died in 1898. The western ranches allowed the family to regain prosperity under the leadership of Michael Durack, Patsy’s eldest son and Mary Durack’s father.  By the time of his death in 1950, the heyday of free-range ranching had passed and the stations were sold, but Mary and her siblings had come to cherish life in the region.

Mary Durack obviously respects and admires her grandfather and the others involved in pioneering Australian ranching, but she is  also capable of being honest and critical in her portrayal of them. She describes Patsy Durack as an Irishman, proud, expansive, impatient, Roman Catholic, volatile, and given to wild schemes. She is particularly careful to give attention to varied women and men involved in the enterprises which he led. At times, I got lost in the sea of names of friends, employees, and relatives, especially since relatives often had the same names. For me, the names were less important than what was happening and what people were doing.

The women of the Durack family receive special attention in this book. They were a varied group with sharp personal differences. All worked hard in extreme circumstances to make their isolated stations into home for all who lived there. Life in western Queensland was rough and isolated, but the main house had chintz curtains and damask tablecloths and polished silver cutlery.  For the women there, life in the bush consisted of “cooking, sewing, gossiping, scolding and warning children against getting in the way of horses’ hoofs, slipping in the waterhole, interfering with hornets’ nests, falling out of trees or fondling the blacks’ dogs.”  All the women ultimately identified with and obeyed their husbands, but several habitually protested the plans set forth by Patsy and the other men. They seldom had the power to thwart them, but they did get concessions.

Indigenous people are also presented with respect and admiration in Kings in Grass Palaces, especially those who proved friendly to the Duracks. While always paternalistic, the family are presented as sympathetic to native people and credited them with exceptional knowledge of land and how to survive on it. The Duracks felt they had managed to prosper in Queensland because they had learned from the people already there.

On their frequent trips away from the station, the Durack men were regularly accompanied by an Indigenous man who served as a guide, advisor, and companion. The bonds between the particular pairs of black and white men grew very close. The most striking example was the bonds between Patsy Durack and his regular companion, Pumpkin. But closeness did not equate with equality or even understanding. Who was in charge was never in question.

At the Queensland stations, local Indigenous men and women were incorporated into the larger community. Living nearby, they are said to be indispensable for many of the tasks of running the station. White children ran in and out of their village. Moving to western Australia meant dealing with a different set of Indigenous peoples, ones more fearful and more aggressively against white settlement. Some of the whites in the Durack establishments were killed by them. Yet the Duracks remained committed to generosity. They were generally willing to kill an animal to provide food to the native people in exchange for partial acceptance. Pumpkin and other blacks, who accompanied the Duracks from Queensland, even helped protect and defend the whites against enraged local  Indigenous people. When debates over the treatment of Indigenous people erupted in the press, the Duracks defended their practices saying the tradeoff between blacks and whites on the cattle station was fair. Ranchers gained cheap labor and in turn taught the Indigenous people what they would need to survive in a white-dominated world.

Mary Durack, like earlier members of her family, never questions the inevitability of that white-dominated world. While interested and sympathetic, she never moves beyond her assumptions of superiority. Yet she gives readers a great deal of information about the Indigenous people and their treatment by white Australians. Several of her other books for adults and children focus directly on Aboriginal life. I am grateful for her obvious interest in them, even when I cringe at her acceptance of their alleged limitations.

I also appreciated Mary Durack’s descriptions of the varied Australian landscape and its flora and fauna. I spent much time looking up names of plants and animals as I read. This was a good exercise for me. I learned much about what the different parts of Australia look like from Durack and how some of its towns began and grew. Her maps were incredibly useful, as I am only slowly learning Australian geography.

Currently, I am living in a part of West Texas where ranching thrived as it did in parts of Australia. I see both common themes and differences with the land and lives that Durack describes. Like parts of your country, we are dominated by rain and drought.  The English started settling North America almost 200 years before they colonized Australia and expansion took place more slowly. Despite the iconic images of cowboys and Indians, most settlement was agricultural until the Civil War ended in 1865. Then ranching spread across the arid lands just east of the Rocky Mountains. African Americans and Hispanics often did the labor on ranches not Native Americans. The sense of superiority toward all who were not white was as widespread here as in Australia, and echoes of it remain.

I recommend Durack’s Kings in Grass Castles to all readers who enjoy history written about the people living it, especially to those interested in Australian history.

What other Australian histories do some of you suggest that I read?

4 Comments leave one →
  1. sharkell permalink
    October 22, 2012 9:39 pm

    For non-fiction, you could try A Fortunate Life by A B Facey which is a story of a child taken from his family to work at the age of 5 and follows his life through until he is in his 80s. I also recommend Listening to Country by Ros Moriarty who is married to an indigenous Australian and becomes an integral part of her husband’s family and cultural life. Sarah Murgatroyd’s book, The Dig Tree, is about the infamous Burke and Wills expedition where they attempted to cross Australia from south to north for the first time. Murgatroyd’s book is extremely well researched and written. Robert Lowe’s The Mish focuses on the time when Aboriginal children were taken from their home and raised in missions. You could also try the Australian classic The Fringe Dwellers by Nene Gare.

    For fiction, you could try The Roving Party by Rohan Wilson which focuses on the eradication of the Aboriginal people in Tasmania and Foal’s Bread by Gillian Mears which is technically about the early stages of the horse riding industry in Australia but is very focused on women in a rural Australian setting.

    • October 23, 2012 8:24 am

      Thank you so much for your recommendations. Just what I needed.

  2. November 23, 2012 6:42 am

    Very interesting and infomative review. 🙂


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