Rachel Fieldhouse

Books

New book claims man from Snowy River “had to be Aboriginal”

New book claims man from Snowy River “had to be Aboriginal”

The man from Snowy River from Banjo Paterson’s famous poem has always been depicted as a white man, but one author claims the character was based on an Indigenous stockman.

The 1890 poem regales the story of a runaway horse, with various stockmen pursuing the colt and attempting to separate it from a herd of brumbies. When the wild horses descend an apparently impassable slope, the man from Snowy River is the only one who continues the chase.

In The Brumby Wars, author and Walkley Award-winning journalist Anthony Sharwood claims that the poem indicates the story takes place in the Byadbo region of the Snowy Mountains, where he says all the local stockmen were Indigenous.

His theory relies on lines from the poem’s final stanza, which mention an area near Mount Kosciuszko “where the pine-clad ridges raise”.

Sharwood said Byadbo is “the only part of Australia’s alpine region and nearby foothills with cypress pine forests, a native conifer that thrives in dry country”.

“If the poem were sourced from stories of the Byadbo area, then the stockman had to be Aboriginal because all the best riders in the area had Indigenous blood,” he said.

In his newly-released book, Sharwood considers the controversial case for reducing brumby numbers due to their overgrazing of national parks, versus the calls to protect them because of their romanticised image.

“Forget that Patterson knew they were pests and advocated for them to be shot to protect the pasture for cattle,” Sharwood said. “The brumbies are characters in the poem and that makes them sacred, eternal, untouchable, as quintessentially Australian as Vegemite and thongs.”

However, Sharwood isn’t the first to suggest the titular character was Indigenous.

In 1988, Victoria’s official historian Bernard Barrett proposed the character may have been based on a young Indigenous rider named Toby, with Barrett claiming “a better rider never sat a horse”.

Image: Getty Images

Professor Jakelin Troy, director of Aboriginal research at the University of Sydney and an Aboriginal Australian from the Ngarigu community of the Snowy Mountains, said we may never know who the rider was based on.

“I don’t think any of us really care who the man, or woman, from Snowy River was, but it is an interesting thing to explore because it definitely plays into the mythology of the area,” she said.

“One piece of research says he was my father’s great uncle called Jim Troy. 

“Banjo stayed with the family and Jim Troy fits the description even down to the horse. They bred them tough like their horses were a mixture of Timor pony which are really tough and thoroughbreds with a bit of Arab to make them a bit finer. The horses were a mixed breed … We will probably never know who the actual person was.”

The Brumby Wars was released on Wednesday, August 1 by Hachette.

Image: Getty Images