Review: “Australia on Horseback” by Cameron Forbes

IMG_20150520_134305Those familiar with the discourse around feminist history would be aware that there is a difference between merely inserting women into existing narratives, and actually (re)writing history from a feminist perspective. In the case of Australia on Horseback, anyone hoping for a sub-altern history of the horse in this country will be disappointed. Instead, it simply inserts the horse into the narrative (whether under the explorer, the bushranger, or the General), rather than exploring the histories of these horses themselves. I couldn’t help concurring with the reviewer who, unconvinced by the book’s claim to the horse as an organising principle, commented that it was more of a ‘recurring but thin coincidence that its cast of characters quite often arrive in a saddle.’ [1]

But let us start at the beginning. This book was one of two horse-themed texts published just in time for the Christmas rush last year, and has the popular market firmly in mind. While it is not an academic text, it is still a well-researched post-colonial history of Australia. The Prologue glosses over the horse’s evolutionary history, while the Introduction (still on pages demarcated by Roman Numerals) gives a truncated history of Australian settlement, the ‘passports [of the colonists] beads, mirrors, cloth and trinkets, and sometimes something useful such as knives and axes.’ (p.xxv)

The pace of the book is at times rapid, punctuated by a pattern of ‘verb, comma, verb’, which encourages a quick reading and ready page-turning, the reader whizzing along to keep pace with the narrative. At other times, the book makes inscrutable and confusing forays into the present, for example, recounting that mass murderer Martin Bryant chased a six year old girl around a tree before shooting her, as a prelude to the chapter dealing with the dispossession and death of the Tasmanian Aborigines (p.26); or describing explorer Ludwig Leichhardt as ‘no climate change sceptic’ (p. 67). While possibly intended to ground the book in the present, these odd interjections seem more like abrupt intrusions.

The structure of the book is also curious; for example, Chapter 3, ‘Sharing a Doom’, is ten pages long (the preceding two chapters are 33 and 25 pages respectively). It begins with the story of explorer Edmund Kennedy and hints at the disaster that befell his expedition, before moving on to consider Leichhardt. This chapter concludes by naming those in Leichhardt’s party, though Chapter 4 begins exactly where the preceding page left off, with the departure of Leichhardt’s party into the unknown. The author does not return to Kennedy’s expedition for another 28 pages, when he is briefly referenced in the concluding paragraphs of Chapter 4. We once again return to Kennedy’s story in Chapter 5, via the convoluted story of two different men named ‘Jackey Jackey’.

This sense of confusion also applies to the book’s chronology. The narrative jumps back and forth across years like a child leaping puddles, while broadly progressing more or less chronologically. To give one example, pages 162 and 163 deal with matters arising in the year 1861, before jumping back to events of the 1840s, then back to 1861, then forward to 1866, and then back to 1857, all in the space of a few pages. It can make for confusing reading, which is only exacerbated by the multiple figures appearing across the pages. In fact, I would go as far as to say that at times the text lacks coherence.

Perhaps the greatest strength of this book, and one which makes up for all its other failings, is in the attention it brings to the role that horses played in the dispossession of Aboriginal people, a fact which is reiterated throughout the text. The sections of the book that deal with this explicitly, including incidents of massacres and reprisal killings, are detailed, and make sobering, but necessary, reading.

In summary, I would say that this text is highly variable in its readability, its narrative ranging from fast-paced to slow-going and at times incoherent. However, its true importance lies in revealing for a popular audience the integral role that the horse played in both the dispossession of Aboriginal people, and the process of colonisation in Australia.


[1] Jonathan Green, “How Australia rode through history on the horse’s back,” The Sydney Morning Herald, November 29, 2014, accessed 7 April, 2015


2 thoughts on “Review: “Australia on Horseback” by Cameron Forbes

  1. Pingback: Review: “Horses in Australia”, by Nicholas Brasch | horsesfordiscourses

  2. Pingback: The horse as historical actor | horsesfordiscourses

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