Labyrinthine voyage to the origin of time

The Great Barrier Reef
November 28, 2003

I enjoyed reading this book more than anticipated. It is a voyage of discovery that weaves coral reefs intricately into world history. Every few pages, through their detailed research, James and Margarita Bowen produce new insights into the role that coral reefs, particularly those of the Great Barrier Reef (GBR), have played throughout history. This is not a dry historical study. It is interesting and enjoyable and has just won the New South Wales premier's prize for Australian history. It should appeal to science and history buffs, and is a well-documented sourcebook for students of the environment and history, particularly in the management of a World Heritage Area.

It is not a treatise on corals and fish. It concerns a system much larger than Great Britain with a long and fascinating history. The Bowens anchor a historical record of early oceanic exploration, early colonisation, international diplomacy and the development of science and environmental management around the GBR theme. They also bring into their text the philosophical writings of Gilbert White, the vicar of Selbourne, and the great American writer Thoreau. There is critical assessment of politics and politicians that shows how little these have changed over the past 200 years - for example, how successive governments commission reports only to ignore the recommendations or pander to sectional interests. One cynical act stands out. In 1969, the premier of Queensland responded to claims of a conflict of interest by transferring to his wife his 49 per cent interest in an oil prospecting company with leases over much of the GBR.

A major theme is the critical role that coral reefs have played in the debate between believers in the Bible and believers in evolution. The appearance of shells and corals on Scottish hills and at 4,000m in the South American mountains, and the observations of recent coral reef platforms uplifted above living reefs, slowly convinced thinkers such as Darwin that a 6,000-year biblical history did not match the evidence. He noted in 1876 that he saw "the Old Testament (as a) manifestly false history of the world".

Darwin did not primarily join the voyage of the Beagle as a naturalist but as a gentleman companion, because the captain was forbidden from dining with the crew. The hypotheses he developed in 1842 on coral reef development remained unproven until the US drilled through Enewetak Atoll in 1947 to find subsided volcanoes during preparations for 45 Pacific atom bomb tests. For 100 years, there were endless critics who attempted to destroy the hypothesis and Darwin's reputation - which must surely warrant a Guinness Book of Records listing.

The book traces five changing attitudes to the GBR. At first, the reef was feared by navigators because it could rise abruptly and unannounced by the lead lines to smash the hulls of fragile timber ships. The second phase was of exploitation (accompanied by minimal research) to benefit the struggling colony. Much of the massive plunder, however, was by outsiders who harvested pearl shell, beche-de-mer (trepang), turtles and dugong. The increasingly strident calls to remove the "Jap and Chink" exploiters reflected the White Australia policy a century ago; but there were also calls for reef conservation by Edmund "Beachcomber" Banfield.

The third phase was scientific research, often couched so as to aid economic exploitation. Then came a phase of increasing tourism that, oddly, started during the Depression in the 1930s; and now there is a massive tourism boom that is the basis for the fifth phase, of research, management and conservation (to protect the economics of the billion-dollar tourism industry).

Unfortunately, the Bowens do not examine the thousands of years of aboriginal occupation and use. The peoples living alongside the GBR, and on it during the last ice age, were seafarers, as evidenced by the large middens of shells along the coasts. Their voyage of discovery was the more poignant as I read the book while travelling to international meetings aimed at reversing the serious global trend in declining coral reef health.

I read of sailors navigating treacherous waters while flying at 10,500m above Southeast Asia; of the early geologists puzzling over uplifted reefs while on a train passing the reef-like bands in the Jura mountains; and then of the vociferous attacks on Darwin by Alexander Agassiz while I was in the US. The words reflected national characteristics: the understated prose of the English ("if I am wrong, the sooner I am knocked on the head the better" - Darwin) versus the often-exaggerated talk of the Americans ("a lot of twaddle. He (Darwin) was talking nonsense" - Agassiz).

I learnt many things: that Denham Street, where I live, is named after a famous navigator, H. Mangles Denham; that Townsville is "the worst possible place (for a settlement)"; that Queensland is "too hot for Europeans to multiply in"; that the word coral dates back at least 2,400 years to the Greek kouralion ; that in the 1930s, the British censored a film showing turtles laying eggs in the sand to protect some unknown feelings of sexual purity; that the coral head in the hull of Captain Cook's Endeavour , which apparently stopped it from sinking, was not a boulder but only fist sized; and much more.

We call the Great Barrier Reef by the name coined by that great navigator Matthew Flinders, although he recognised that there was really a series of "barrier reefs". But I really like the term coined by Cook - "labyrinths".

Why not the Great Coral Labyrinth?

Clive Wilkinson is coordinator of the Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network hosted at the Australian Institute of Marine Science, Townsville, Australia.

The Great Barrier Reef: History, Science, Heritage

Author - James Bowen and Margarita Bowen
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Pages - 474
Price - £40.00
ISBN - 0 521 82430 3

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