SYDNEY -- In the year of Australia's bicentennial, when the aborigine population is demanding greater recognition, a historian has revealed that "The Man From Snowy River," one of white Australia's most revered legendary heroes, might well have been a native Australian.
"Banjo" Paterson's ballad of that name was an immediate hit when it was published a hundred years ago, and ever since there have been claims and counterclaims as to who provided the inspiration. Several towns on the Victoria-New South Wales border have claimed him as their own. It has always been taken for granted that he was a tall, fair-haired outdoorsman, probably the son of a white rancher.
But Bernard Barrett, Victoria's state historian, says a piece of vital evidence has been ignored. It is a collection of true stories published shortly before Paterson's poem and almost certainly one of the sources used by the poet. Entitled "Cassell's Picturesque Australasia," it was a well-known collection of travel articles and contemporary accounts of Australian life. One of the tales contributed by a cattleman named C.W. Neville-Rolfe describes an exciting 20-mile chase after some wild horses.
The hero of the hour is a slightly built aborigine lad called Toby who is able to distinguish the horses' tracks and follow them, leaving the other members of the team behind. Barrett says the story line is "very similar" to "The Man From Snowy River."
"In both the story and the poem he's an outsider who comes from the rear of the pack." The main difference is that the horsemen in "The Man From Snowy River" are chasing the "brumbies," or wild horses, in order to break them and sell them, but in the short story they're chasing after one of their own colts that has gotten mixed up in the pack.
"People have overlooked the book," Barrett says, "which has been sitting on library shelves for the last hundred years."
In 1895, when the 13-stanza poem was published in a collection of "Banjo" Paterson's work, it sold 10,000 copies in a year and firmly established itself in the whole Australian ethos of the outback, along with Paterson's other famous ballad, "Waltzing Matilda." Ever since then, says Barrett, there's been no end of hopeful claimants to its title. "Many people have come forward and said, 'My Uncle Tom or old Harry down the road was very good on horses.' " The community of Corryong in Victoria has made a healthy living out of the tourists who flock to see the headstone in the town's cemetery that is inscribed "in memory of the man from Snowy River, Jack Riley. Buried here July 1914." This in spite of the fact that it has been proved Riley wasn't living in Corryong when Paterson visited the town collecting ideas for his poems.
And what about Paterson himself? Until his death in 1941, he remained enigmatic about his sources. In a letter to a friend shortly before his death, he simply wrote that he "felt convinced that there must be a man from Snowy River." He would have been amused to hear the controversy that still rages today about the identity of his hero.