Brendan James Murray’s latest book, Venom, is the fascinating story of taipan snake bite victim George Rosendale and the search for deadly snake bite antivenom. But it’s much more than that – it’s a story about the great turbulent relationship between Indigenous Australians and European settlers.
Before the discovery of antivenom, people would do whatever they could to draw poison from a wound, no matter how drastic and life altering the consequences. For early settlers and especially for the Indigenous people of the Guugu Yimithirr nation, the eight-foot, deadly nugman, known to us now as the taipan snake, was the most frightening and dangerous creature in the outback. A single taipan bite injects enough venom for certain death.
The Aussie outback’s reputation for danger is well archived, but what is less known is how venomous snakes have been portrayed in Aboriginal stories of the land. What followed Australian invasion by white settlers was a scramble for an antivenom that could cure people of deadly snake bites. With great sensitivity and eloquence, Murray uses the incredibly true story of George Rosendale, a taipan bite victim and member of the Guugu Yimithirr nation, to examine the colonial settlers’ regrettable and problematic relationship with Australia – the land they wrongly deemed Terra Nullius.
Murray takes us further back into George Rosendale’s life, before his paralytic snake bite, when he was paralysed by being caught between two spiritual planes: his indigenous heritage and spirituality; and Christianity, or ‘white man’s mythology.’ These two worlds are of course mutually incompatible, because their explanations of the origins of things are so vastly different.
The way Murray writes history instantly brings to mind contemporaries such as Peter Fitzsimons, Grantlee Kieza, and Julia Baird. Not only has he picked an admittedly unusual entry point into Australian social and history; he has done so with a novelist’s flair. These days, the best kind of history writing engages the reader’s intellectual curiosity as well as their yearning for story and narrative. It’s the subject matter – venom and poisonous snakes and Australia’s indigenous and colonial history – that draws the reader in. And the story of European settlers’ antagonistic relationship with the land, and our hero George Rosendale, tied into this sticky mess, that keeps us reading.
Moreover, Murray manages to keep his history relevant by offering the prospect of future reconciliation. We recommend Venom for lovers of history and escapism, but its hammer-striking message seems only appropriate to leave in closing – words originally uttered by George Rosendale – ‘acceptance and love destroys racism’.
Brendan James Murray lives with his partner, Greta, on Victoria’s Mornington Peninsula and teaches in a large government school. His first book was The Drowned Man: A True Story of Life, Death and Murder on HMAS Australia.