Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 25, 2011

Ochre and Rust (2007), by Philip Jones

Sometimes, when I read gorgeous books like this one, I really wish I were a professional historian. Ochre and Rust by Philip Jones won the Prime Minister’s Prize for Non Fiction, and deservedly so. It’s a handsome hardback book printed on expensive paper, beautifully illustrated with photos and maps, and it’s written in an accessible style for the general reader – but more importantly it’s a book which has changed the way I think about things. It’s fascinating.

Beginning with the chance discovery of a medallion that Captain Cook gave to Aborigines on Bruny Island, the book traces the histories of artefacts that represent the collision of Aboriginal and European culture. In the early days of settlement, artefacts were ‘traded’ or misappropriated i.e. borrowed, taken by accident or by design, or deliberately stolen. European collectors rarely documented their provenance and many if not most of these things were taken back to England where (if they made their way into a museum) they were catalogued more as exotica from a culture about to be subsumed than as an examples of an ongoing one. Jones sets out to show his readers a much more interesting way of looking at these objects.

The book begins with the history of Captain Blackburn’s whip, which Jones cites as a rare example of a fusion of the two cultures. The whip, (like a cat-o’-nine-tails but with only four ropes) is European; the club part is indigenous. For some reason, Blackburn needed to fashion one of these punishment tools and used what was at hand to do it, just as Aborigines used the growing detritus of Europeans to adapt their own tools and equipment in some ways. They began, for example, to use European string, bits of material and so on – but Europeans rarely saw anything of value to adapt from Aboriginal ideas. So this whip is a rarity.

But what I really like about this book is the way Jones diverges from the story of the artefact to tell the wider story of the moment in time from which its provenance derives. So Captain Blackburn’s whip becomes the story of the First Settlement in Sydney and the troubled First Contact there, and Jones takes the opportunity to interpret the spearing of Captain Arthur Phillip differently to the notable historian and anthropologist Inga Clendinnen.

In Dancing with Strangers (another book that I think all Australians should read) Clendinnen suggested that this spearing took place as a ritual payback for Phillip kidnapping Bennelong some weeks earlier. Jones, however, thinks that this explanation fits a bit too neatly with the Resistance Model of history whereas Clendinnen thinks the panic/accident hypothesis reinforces the ‘Irrational Savage’ stereotype. To me as an amateur these contrasting theories just go to show how impossible it is to interpret a single event from First Contact when only one side documented it and then only from their own perspective – but I find it fascinating nonetheless.

The title Ochre and Rust is significant. The indigenous people of this country were stone age people: they did not work metal so rust was unknown to them until they encountered it in European objects. On the other hand, for them, Australia’s ochre was precious because it had so many ritual associations. Trafficked since ancient days, ochre symbolises the ‘sacred blood of the Dreaming Ancestors’ throughout Aboriginal Australia. This was not understood by Europeans – who considered ochre banal – until the late 19th century. The juxtaposition of these two substances in the book’s title represents both the melding and the distinctiveness of these two cultures in Australia.

In nine chapters, museum artefacts are used to shine a light on our history and reveal the complexity of indigenous-European relations since First Contact:

  • An old bark shield used by Narrinyeri elder Pullemi, found a generation later by a lighthouse-keeper. This chapter seemed particularly poignant to me because I was also reading Patricia Grace’s novel Potiki at the time. It too was about indigenous people in a transitional period between being masters of their own destiny and their relegation as an underclass of white colonial society. In Potiki the Maori were reclaiming their rights; in this chapter of Ochre and Rust the Narrinyeri were losing them;
  • An axe which is an example of the adaptability of Aboriginal people because it’s made from iron that they found at a dead explorer’s camp. This chapter about the Calvert Expedition which came to grief in the Great Sandy desert is the best I’ve ever read about the Age of Exploration and how it gripped the national imagination.  It also explains just how quickly Aborigines forsook traditional axe-making in favour of an efficient alternative, and how that had cultural implications for the authority of the craftsmen who used to make the stone ones;
  • A knotted string bag and manuscript vocabulary belonging to a man called Bennett whose efforts to document the language of the Woolna people ended up in tragedy when they speared him and he suffered an agonising lingering death from the barb;
  • The fire sticks owned by Dick Cubadgee from the Warramungu people, who adapted the technique used to join billiard cues for this ancient technology;
  • Toas (sculpture) from the Killalpaninna Mission in central Australia, controversial because of claims and counter-claims for their authenticity;
  • Snake effigies representing the transcontinental railway which was completed at Ooldea given to the enigmatic Daisy Bates;
  • The unassuming Jesus plaque made by Arrernte artist Albert Namatjira in the 1930s, which is more ‘political’ than the simple souvenir it appears to be; and
  • A cake of ochre collected from a desert ochre mine which was successfully protected from destruction by European mining in 1905.

Mike Smith at the National Museum of Australia has written a much better review of this beautiful book than I ever could in the Journal of the NMA.

There’s also a review at Readings and Joe Gelonesi interviewed the author on ABC Radio National’s Saturday Extra as well.

This is an absorbing book with all kinds of fascinating aspects. I was particularly amused to discover that the word ‘da-king’ which is how Bennelong learned to toast the king, entered the lexicon of Sydney Aborigines meaning ‘alcohol’! Ochre and Rust belongs on the shelves of every Australian or anyone else interested in the fascinating history of this country.

Author: Philip Jones
Title: Ochre and Rust: Artefacts and encounters on Australian frontiers
Publisher: Wakefield Press, Adelaide, 2007.
440 pp.
ISBN 9781862545854 (hbk).
Source: Personal library, purchased at Readings $49.95


  1. Oh, I do want to read this. As a librarian/archivist, I love looking at using artefacts to tell history. Thanks for the review. I hadn’t realised it was structured that way.


    • Sue, you would love this, and I can’t wait to see how you review it!


  2. I saw on your column at the side of your blog that you were reading this and have been looking forward to your review. I haven’t read it, and hadn’t realized until I read your review that it incorporated broader history as well as examining particular artefacts. I’m tempted….


    • Janine, there is so much more to it than I have written about here…I didn’t want to make the review too long. I think you would really enjoy it:)


  3. Sometimes, oblique ways of coming at history are the most illuminating. A recent BBC radio series The History of the World in a Hundred Objects gave insights that would never have been arrived at by other means. These books sound fascinating reads, but as always, reveal much about what Westerners did on their arrival in colonial nations. A very interesting review


    • Tom, when we were in London last year and made the usual pilgrimage to the British Museum, we were able to see some of the 100 Objects, and found them fascinating. I think that using realia to illuminate history can in some contexts be more revealing than using documents. Provided a historian can interpret them for those of us who are amateurs, that is!


  4. […] used by indigenous people in this period.  As was noted in Ochre and Rust (2007) by Philip Jones (see my review) there is ample evidence of how quickly Indigenous people adapted new materials for their own use, […]


  5. […] and trading all kinds of things including the ochre that was used for body decoration.  (I learned about this trafficking of ochre from Ochre and Rust by Philip Jones).  So I wanted to start my unit of work by acknowledging the way that Aborigines […]


  6. […] to illustrate a different way of looking at our complex and contested history, in a way similar to Ochre and Rust, by Philip Jones. Ochre and Rust explored the histories of artefacts that represent the collision of Aboriginal and […]


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