Liz Ashburn

The new adventures of Mark Twain

These works were part of a group exhibition called The new Adventures of Mark Twain, They were exhibited in the Gallery of the University of Newcastle and Pearl Street Gallery in Brooklyn New York State in 2007. The drawings are titled Beautiful Lies as Mark Twain said that the history of Australia was a series of “beautiful lies.” I have used his quote to paint five of the “beautiful” lies of Australian history and have placed in each painting images of characters from the original illustrations in several books by Mark Twain to act as his present day observers. All works are watercolour  and gouache.

Lie One:

The continent of Australia was sparsely populated so that the British in Australia treated this colony as terra nullius – as unowned land. This doctrine remained law until 1992 when aboriginal land rights were officially acknowledged. These land right are again under attack by the Australian Government.


Applying terra nullius was anomalous in the context of British colonization. The British had been colonizing North America for two centuries before they reached Australia and commenced colonizing New Zealand several decades after Australia. As a matter of official policy the British recognized North American Indians and New Zealand Maoris as possessors of property rights in their land, and this land was often acquired in transactions structured as purchases.


British land policy was different in Australia as these aboriginals were reported to be few in number and were ‘miserable savages.’ They were seen as living in the state of ‘nature’ as they did not cultivate the land, wear clothes and were stupid and uncivilized.  This state, as Europeans understood it, was a state in which humans had not appropriated land as property. As there was nothing that the British offered aboriginals that they would take in return for their own possessions, it was decided that there was no point in trying to buy their land. Consequently when the first British fleet of colonizers reached Australia, the man in charge, Governor Phillip, was told to seize the land by force.


The British discoverer of Australia, Captain James Cook, had reported that the Natives on the coast did not appear to be numerous, nor live in large bodies but were dispersed in small parties. Consequently the belief was that Australia had few inhabitants. Australia is an island larger than Europe and equal in size to the USA (without the state of Alaska) but by present day estimates there were between 1 and 1.5 million people spread over the continent in this period. Nor did these people lack the concept of property, as they belonged to tribal groups and while these tribes were nomadic, each had their own boundaries and extremely strong connections to their land.


Although the aboriginal inhabitants of Australia strenuously resisted what they call their invasion and have shown that far from being primitive they have a sophisticated understanding of their world, they continue to be treated as lesser citizens in their own land. This is in part due to the lie of terra nullius.



Lie Two:

It was of benefit to Australia to introduce foxes, rabbits and cane toads.


 The Australian continent accounts for just under 6 percent of the world’s landmass, Despite arid climate, bush fires, poor soils and perhaps the longest continuous human occupation anywhere, it is home to 12 percent of the world’s bird species, 10 percent of all reptiles and 9 percent of all frogs. It has about 6 percent of all mammals, but they are unique in 50 percent of all monotremes (warm blooded and egg laying mammals) and 66 percent of all marsupials (mammals with pouches) are exclusive to Australia.

For the early settlers these animals, such as kangaroos and koalas were unfamiliar and ‘foreign’ and they almost immediately began importing familiar things from ‘home.’ Animals and plants were brought to Australia as part of a project to augment or supplant the ‘inferior’ native flora and fauna. The red fox (Vulpes Vulpes) was probably brought out for sport as the native animals did not provide a satisfactory experience when hunted with guns or hounds. The native wild life had never experienced such a versatile mid-sized predator and many small to medium sized species had their numbers greatly decreased.


Similarly the European rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus) came out with the first British fleet in 1788. By 1890 the rabbit population had reached plague proportions and in 1907 an anti-rabbit fence of 1,833 kilometres long unsuccessfully tried to halt their spread. Since then the development of several strains of viruses have failed to keep their populations down.


The Cane Toad (Bufo marinus) was deliberately introduced in 1935 against scientific advice to save the sugar industry from native beetles. Cane toads were imported from South America and while they ate insects these were not usually those they had been imported to eat as the toads were ground dwelling while these beetles only went to ground to lay their eggs. While Cane Toads spread more slowly than foxes or rabbits, they are prolific breeders and their toxin is potentially deadly to animals and humans. They have become environmentally disastrous.




Lie Three:


A yellow peril from Asia threatens to overwhelm Australia.


The Yellow Peril was a colour metaphor for race that originated in the late nineteenth century with the immigration of Chinese workers and gold miners to Australia and the United States. The fear was that the migration of large numbers of the ‘yellow skinned multitudes’ of Asia would lower wages and standards of living. The belief was that they would not hold the same superior moral values and would corrupt European society.


 The White Australia Policy is a generic term used to describe a collection of historical legislation and policies intended to restrict non-white immigration to this country. However the Racial Discrimination Act of 1975 made racially-based discrimination illegal. As Australia is located just to the south of Indonesia there remains fear among some Australians of these ‘Asian hordes’ spilling into this country.  The recent detention by the Australian Government of non-European men, women and children, particularly those from Moslem countries, has raised this spectre once again.






Lie Four:

Asylum seekers would throw their children overboard.


In 2001 the Australian Government won an election in part on the claim that a group of asylum seekers trying to reach Australia by boat were desperate, wealthy queue jumpers. The Government in suggesting they had links to terrorists and had thrown their children overboard, painted them as not the sort of people wanted in Australia. It was later revealed that the boat had sunk and that no one had thrown their children into the water.


Lie Five:

 Iraq had weapons of mass destruction.


Australians went to war, together with the United States of America, because they were falsely told Iraq had weapons of mass destruction.


© Copyright Liz Ashburn