Friday, March 4, 2011

Upside down world : early European impressions of Australia's curious animals by Penny Olsen

Late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century Eurocentric perceptions of natural history led to the flora and fauna of the new colony of New South Wales being viewed as deficient and inferior. The swans of the colony were black and eagles white, birds built shell-strewn avenues of sticks to cavort in and parrots walked on the ground. The mammals carried their young in a pouch and there were furred animals that laid eggs. This miscellany of the curious fuelled the rage for Australian natural history amongst the upper classes of Europe, bringing income and, occasionally, fame to its collectors and documenters. On the ground, in the colony, it contributed to great change for the animals and, in some cases, extinction. In this book author Penny Olsen documents how our scientific knowledge evolved, using collectors and naturalists journals to enhance her stories (from the publisher).
To see some of these illustrations, you have to wonder how closely the illustrators observed their subjects or cared about what they were portraying! One illustration looks like a mouse standing on its huge hind legs - obviously a kangaroo; while another is of a sloth, something that has a likeness to its American cousin until it is later depicted for what it actually is - a koala. I'll give you a sample of a description that was given of our unusual animals: "... a head of a rabbit, a tail as big as a bed-post, hopping along at the rate of five hops to the mile, with three or four young kangaroos looking out of its false uterus to see what is passing". A fascinating look into the initial perception of Australia's fauna.
Rating - I give this 4/5 Not bad!
Get this from the library
Reviewed by Michelle @

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