With a Mauritian mother and Dutch father, Adjunct Professor Edward Duyker OAM , FAHA , has had an array of influences on his career as an historian. Amanda Geddes spoke to the author about unearthing history and the thrill of the chase.
Drawing inspiration from his heritage, author and historian Professor Edward Duyker is known for documenting non-Anglo, European exploration in Australia.
“I had a strong sense that Australian history was terribly Anglocentric,” he said. “I felt from an early age that we weren’t really getting the whole story on Australian exploration, there was such a focus on [Captain James] Cook.
“I also wanted to write about my own heritage and seek a personal truth; I wanted to give my parents’ people a place in Australian history.”
Professor Duyker has recently turned his attention to a biography of Jules Sébastien César Dumont d’Urville – arguably the most famous French explorer during the age of sail. His interests included archaeology, entomology and particularly botany.
According to Professor Duyker, d’Urville “while botanising ashore on the Aegean island of Milos he learned of a Greek peasant named Kentratos who had recently dug up an extraordinary marble statue on his land
“We now know that statue as the ‘Venus de Milo’ and d’Urville, then only a young ensign, was instrumental in its acquisition by the French Government.” Today it is one of the most famous works of ancient Greek sculpture and is on permanent display in the Louvre Museum.
Professor Duyker said d’Urville had visited Australia on a number of occasions between 1823 and 1840 – a part of his life that had never been properly addressed and studied.
“Historians so often repeat each other’s errors, so I always go back as often as I can to the original sources. Some historians have written that d’Urville’s father was arrested during the French Revolution, but in fact it was his mother who was arrested. She basically emptied a chamber pot out the window over revolutionaries – not a very good idea.”
Professor Duyker found the dossier relating to her arrest in archives in Normandy.
Digging through documents – namely d’Urville’s journal during his visit to Australia in 1823-24 – also helped Duyker solve a longstanding mystery.
“It’s long been thought that there was one or more graves at Pulpit Hill, near Katoomba in the Blue Mountains of New South Wales,” he said. “In d’Urville’s.journal he recorded the actual inscription on the grave, which was of a man called Edgar Church, a convict who died of alcohol poisoning.
“The discovery led to several articles being published and an application for a heritage listing, so it’s very satisfying to make such discoveries.”
Professor Duyker said he loved the detective work and thrill of the chase that such research involved.
“Writing, however, is another thing. Writing involves different skills, and the ability to integrate historical facts and details into some sort of coherent narrative which is also engaging.
“I think historians can aspire to create works of art. History can be as engaging and enriching as a novel, with the added benefit of truth.
“I love travelling and I’ve often chosen biographical characters that have journeyed to interesting places. I have especially delighted in sharing that sense of discovery with my children.
“There are careers for historians in bareas such as heritage consultants and archaeologist, or as history teachers in schools. To be a writer is not an easy thing, and I’ve have chosen a harder path but wouldn’t change it for anything else.”
Professor Edward Duyker’s biographies include An Officer of the Blue, on Marc-Joseph Marion Dufresne, the first explorer after Abel Tasman to reach Van Diemen’s Land, Nature’s Argonaut on Daniel Solander, the first Swede to circumnavigate the globe, Citizen Labillardière, on the French naturalist Jacques Labillardière – which won the New South Wales Premier’s General History Prize in 2004 – and François Péron, the life of the controversial zoologist of the Baudin Expedition – which won the Frank Broeze Maritime History Prize in 2007.
His wider work includes Tribal Guerrillas, The Dutch in Australia, Of the Star and the Key, (with Coralie Younger) Molly and the Rajah, A Woman on the Goldfields and A Dictionary of Sea Quotations.