LET US REJOICE AND REFLECT
Graveyards are wonderful places, crammed full of life. All our losses and all our loves rest here – or will eventually. Tales of unspeakable tragedy, of quiet endurance, of blooms snipped far too soon, of greatness celebrated and gentle smallness that barely touched the earth, every conceivable journey through this world lies behind these stones and plaques.
Magical places for storytellers. I can’t look at a headstone inscription without sketching up a narrative of the owner’s life, or seeing a ghost glimpse of them – silk flowers set on the brim of a bonnet just caught out of the corner of my eye, a pair of tall ox-blood boots striding across the grass…
And sometimes, they bring happy little history-nerd surprises, like this headstone I came across at Millthorpe Cemetery belonging to John Hardman Australia Lister. Yes, that’s his real name. And he discovered gold in Australia in 1851. Of course, at first glance I thought someone was pulling my leg. Who would give their child the name ‘Australia’ and how could I not know this name if the fellow discovered gold in 1851 – the year the goldrush began in New South Wales?
Everyone knows Edward Hargraves was the one to first strike gold here that year, and he struck it in Ophir, on the Macquarie River northeast of Orange. Big strapping prospector who swashbuckled in from California and informed the governor that he’d single-handedly turn around the economic fortunes of the colony by calling a rush on, and indeedy he did. That’s what we learned in school. Right?
Not exactly the whole truth.
Turns out that John Lister was the young man who showed Hargraves where to find the stuff, having discovered traces of gold in a creek near his family’s pub at Guyong – about five minutes from where I live. And furthermore, it was only by accident that Hargraves even discovered Lister, only meeting him while stopping the night at said pub. Lister and a couple of brothers called James and Henry Tom then went on to help Hargraves make the famous find at Ophir, but Hargraves – I might call him a selfish, arrogant, braggardly bastard here – did not include them as partners in the deal.
History promptly forgot Lister and the Tom brothers – except for one tiny mention in the Australian Dictionary of Biography under Hargraves that states they are undoubtedly the real and unsung discoverers of that shiny, shiny loot. Meantime, Hargraves got the government reward for finding it and a town named after him – as well as a whole blinking legend.
Not even the pub – the Wellington Inn – where Lister and Hargraves met survives to tell the truth. Just this humble little headstone in my local graveyard.
As for the name Australia, well, that’s another story… Lister was born twelve thousand miles away in Herefordshire in England, in 1826. His father was a sea captain who greatly admired Matthew Flinders, and Flinders having coined the name ‘Australia’ for the continent he circumnavigated so heroically in a tiny open boat with his cat, it was decided by Captain Lister that his firstborn son should bear this magnificent name. Two years later, the captain moved his young family to that same continent, eventually settling in Guyong, up the road from me.
And this, lovely readers, is why I will never cease exploring Australian history, and why I’ll never have to move too far from home to do it.
It’s also, on this Australia Day, a reminder that our history is always more than the myths and narrative sketches we are fed at school, by commercial TV and by the Lamb & Snag Department of the Meat Board. We’ve got so much to rejoice about – we are young and free, and so very, very beautiful. Sometimes, though, we forget to look for the gold that lies in the truth. We should ask ourselves why Matthew Flinders’ cat has a statue cast in its honour, and Lister doesn’t. Why we don’t honour his magnificent name or can’t have a drink in his old pub to toast him. The truth will only make us richer.