James Orrock: ‘On seeing Mac Betts’ Abrolhos series in a Broken Hill art gallery’

On seeing Mac Betts’ Abrolhos series in a Broken Hill art gallery


Wind-shrunk scrub sprinkled on powderwhite coral sand islets awash in turquoise and set deep in ultramarine

Reefs, watch out! yells de Houtman in Portuguese
to vessels too far east on a Roaring Forties breeze;
time is money for Amsterdam’s Lordship Seventeen
so dead reckoning on Brouwer’s low route for 1,000 miljen
then tack north before the Great South Land’s spiked flank
cuts months from a voyage, it’s many guilders in the bank.


1453 Constantinople falls to Mehmet, the Ottoman Sultan as Constantine Palaiologos dies defending Byzantium; a triduum of rape, slaughter and pillage ensues

The moon eclipsed, a kingdom of submission is come,
strange lights play on the dome of Holy Wisdom:
the great walls breached, desecration is unleashed
as two priests confecting divinity from bread and wine
pass through Hagia Sofia walls, heaven’s gate left ajar;
the overland route to the East is closed to the kuffar.


Vasco da Gama’s fleet rounds the Cape of Good Hope in 1497 and lands at Calicut on India’s Malabar Coast; a maritime route to Asia is opened for business

A shaky start, cultures collide, cheap trumperies
don’t impress so da Gama concludes no treaty yet
scarcity in Europe breeds value, the exotic adds zest to life
cloves, nutmeg, mace, pepper cut through like a hot knife.
This medicine, preservative, flavouring, aphrodisiac will be
for a hundred golden years Portugal’s rich monopoly.


A nascent Republic of the United Netherlands grants a monopoly in all its sea-borne trade with Asia to the Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie (VOC) in 1602

Unchained markets, many companies compete
buy price is too high, excess product on the street;
so VOC mercenaries, merchants and clerks of all ranks
re-engineer the fever-sweated Ciliwung river banks;
Java, Sumatra, the Moluccas are bent to the Companie’s will
the Portuguese are evicted, West African slaves fit the bill.


Francisco Pelsaert commands the Batavia on her maiden voyage, flagship of the 1629 VOC expedition laden with chests of silver for trade

Storms scatter the fleet, Batavia scuds solo like a thief
run out of ocean, she smashes onto Morning Reef.
Some souls leap, others fall swept away
many are ferried onto land to flop and pray;
Wiebbe Hayes’ limestone fort will hold out their fear,
it’s the first lasting European structure down here.


Pelsaert departs in a longboat for help as hunger and thirst begin to take hold

A great leap forward for the remnant is decreed
so that the chosen ones may grasp and feed—
“Too many mouths, not enough space, victuals or water
Lucretia Jansz is mine, you keep the Preacher’s daughter;
jerk the stubborn, infirm, the plain into the sea.”
Thus spake Undermerchant Geronimus Corneliszoon
the captain cum prophet to this kingdom of the marooned;
he crouches low against the breeze to uncoil
a hard stool as dark as a six fathom eel.


The Dutch Reformed Church formulates the key doctrines of Calvinism at the Synod of Dort in 1618-19 including total depravity and limited atonement

Mystery can chafe practical Lowlands minds
when wind-sown poppies with red tulips bloom
antinomy is verboden, there is allowed only one kind;
Preacher Bastiansz shelters under his canvas sheet
a helter skelter shore now pell-mell in bloed.
“Fearing not hellfire the damned open my eldest girl.”


A revenant from the far west alights at Central then walks up Broadway to the Valhalla where Andy Warhol’s film “Heat” is showing

Where are you now, Little Joe? Still turning tricks
in the muscle-bound gulags of liberation
wad tied tight with ribbon in a bow?
In the café downstairs blood drips
down the waiter’s just jabbed arm
as other disciples of deconstruction deep dive
along Glebe Point Road raising gravel not pearls;
at Blackwattle Bay you can watch yellow cranes feed
like Star Wars dinosaurs on the oblong metal boxes
heft from gutted ships rusting in the salt air.

James Orrock

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