‘Memoirs recorded at Geelong by Foster Fyans’ ed. Phillip L Brown

“What is the use of a book, ” thought Alice “without pictures and conversations?”  I’m with you, Alice.  I  certainly wasn’t expecting conversations in Foster Fyan’s memoirs, and I very much appreciated the maps and illustrations.

Foster Fyans is well known in Geelong as the first police magistrate there (1837-40), then he became Crown Land Commissioner in the district.  The area just out of Geelong known as Fyansford is named after him, and there’s a Fyans Street in Geelong itself.  After visiting Geelong a fortnight ago for the Robert Dowling exhibition I seem to be rather Geelong-conscious at the moment, and I’ve been reading Fyans’ memoirs for a paper that I’ll be giving much later in the year.

As his entry in the Australian Dictionary of Biography suggests, there is not much known about his early life beyond that he was Irish and brought up by an uncle.  In these memoirs he springs from the page as a fully-formed army man, in charge of taking bringing a band of recruits to Portsmouth.  From the start he portrays army life full of masculine humour, eating and drinking, marching and high-jinks- almost a dead ringer for Lydia Bennett’s Mr Wickham and his mates.   His description of the Peninsular War likewise emphasizes life amongst his fellow soldiers, with more distress ascribed to the illness that swept through the camps rather than actual combat.  Then off to India for several years where again, life revolved around hunting and carousing and little mention of actual soldiering.  After a short time in Cape Colony (more parties and shooting), he arrived in Sydney where he spent a short, restless, lonely time before reporting to his regiment and joining his fellow soldiers at Parramatta.  Although he attended Government House, the jocular hail-fellow tone falters here, as the realities of convict settlement and official responsibilities become more apparent to him.  He is sent to the high-security  Norfolk Island where he eventually becomes Acting Commandant, and from there as commandant to Moreton Bay (now Brisbane) which was also a penal settlement at the time.  While  in Moreton Bay he oversaw the rescue of  Eliza Fraser.   His response to the convicts probably reflects the contradictions thrown up by the system- an uneasy wariness of violence that runs just below the surface co-existing with close day-to-day proximity with men not so different from oneself.

From there he was sent as Police Magistrate to Geelong, which is about fifty miles from Melbourne and rich pastoral land.  His memoirs become even quieter at this stage.  He spends quite a bit of time describing an expedition to the port settlement of  Portland, the first recognized land journey between the two settlements.  With only two mounted police and the surveyor Mr Smythe and no maps, they set off in what seemed to be atrocious weather, greeted each morning by the “flying jackass” (kookaburra), the “chanticleer of Australia”.   By 1840 he had been appointed Commissioner of Crown Lands, responsible for maintaining order among the squatters and investigating clashes between the settlers and the displaced aboriginal groups.  Here is a sad litany of violence,  where he mainly sides with the settlers in sympathy for what they perceive as needless stock loss. Like the settlers he is critical of the Aboriginal Protectors and the nearby mission station that he feels only attracts more aborigines to the area and imbues them with a misplaced sense of inviolability.

What started out as a military romp has become a nomadic police-like existence, accompanied mainly by his aboriginal “boy” Bon Jon (the purpose for my reading these memoirs).  It has become much quieter and more isolated.  Perhaps it’s the memoirist running out of puff too, because the memoirs stop abruptly in the bush in 1842.

The editor has written an introduction, where he describes the provenance of the manuscript and the various branches of the Fyans family tree, then gives a brief summary of the content of the memoirs.  I always enjoy hearing about how a manuscript comes to be published. The original, scrawled across five hundred foolscap pages had been typed up by Fyans’ great grand-son and it was donated by his descendants to the State Library of Victoria in 1962.   Although Fyans himself did not divide it into chapters, he did create sections by inserting a page with rough headings for the pages that follow. The  editor has created chapter headings and provided notes  at the end of each chapter.  These rather dour and punctilious annotations to the entries, which are painstaking in their detail, remind the reader of the fallibilities of memory and chronology, and the infelicities that arise when a raconteur is  telling a good story.

I think that it’s almost certain that anyone working exhaustively on an archive of memoirs, diaries or letters comes to build some sort of a relationship (albeit completely one-sided) with the author.  The editor, P. L. Brown (who also wrote the ADB entry) seems rather disenchanted by the many inconsistencies and errors he found

Fyan’s reminiscences had to be checked in order to assess their worth as historical material. This checking disclosed considerable and frequent divergence between actual and remembered events, and made it clear that the text, unless fully annotated, must be more entertaining than instructive. Hence the presentation of archives, both British and Australian, from the latter of which Fyans emerges as an energetic, conscientious public servant, rather let down by his rambling old self, who nevertheless conveys the authentic atmosphere of his historical period, and told few stories which lacked a germ of truth (p. xv)

The memoirs themselves ended abruptly, and the notes themselves end with the transcription of assorted letters and returns, and further details about wills and inheritances.  I found myself wishing that P.L. Brown had returned at this point to round out the picture somewhat and to help me, as reader, to bid farewell to Fyans.  After all, he’d been a rollicking companion for the first 100 pages or so, and despite infelicities and distortions in his retelling, he sure had a story to tell- Spain, India, Cape Colony and Australia- as did many of those peripatetic colonial civil servants.

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One response to “‘Memoirs recorded at Geelong by Foster Fyans’ ed. Phillip L Brown

  1. Fyansford has always interested me. You have saved me reading the book with your neat precis. History is nearly always defective because it comes from memories. Even the written is fallible.

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