This week’s book review is Dancing With Strangers: Europeans and Australians at First Contact, by Inga Clendinnen. It is a detailed historical narrative of the first five or so years of the white settlement of Australia. I’ve read Inga Clendinnen’s essays before in weekend papers, and found them hard going, so I wasn’t sure that I was going to enjoy this. Surprisingly, I found it excellent.
Her aim, in this book, is as much as possible to reconstruct the story from both sides – white and aboriginal (or in her words, British and Australian). What she does, while writing her historical narrative, is spend a lot of time with the primary sources. She makes it clear to the reader the process of working out a narrative from sources that often contradict, rather than (as in most books of popular history) making one interpretation and reporting it as fact. There are six main sources, which is not many, for such a momentous event, particularly as nearly all of them were consciously writing for publication and posterity.
The best example of this is a detailed deconstruction of the story of Phillip (the first Governor) being speared by Aborigines in Manly. The usual interpretation of this event is that suddenly, without warning, a group of Aborigines turned on Phillip without any reason. Clendinnen makes a convincing case, while showing her evidence from the primary texts, that what actually happened was that Bennelong was making a power grab and creating a ritual spearing event in a standard response to Phillip and his people’s many recent offenses.
Ths book makes pretty clear that Phillip, and many of his officers, started the colony with very good intentions towards the Aborigines, even if they didn’t create a treaty, or legally acknowledge prior ownership of the land by a hunter gatherer culture. But it chronicles what seems to be an inevitable slide towards conflict from both sides, because the cultural gulf between the two sides was just too great.
What I find interesting is that this is a classic example of the post-modern history hated by many traditionalists, in that it clearly shows how much history is in the eye and interpretation of the beholder. For example, from John Howards’s Australia Day address:
“And too often, history, along with other subjects in the humanities, has succumbed to a postmodern culture of relativism where any objective record of achievement is questioned or repudiated.”
But it is the kind of book that would have created real understanding in my school study of this episode of history, because it creates empathy for both sides – both the early Aborigines and the early British settlers appear to be real people, as opposed to the cardboard cut-out stupid native or racist British stereotype they usually were, depending on who was telling the story. Done this well, there should more post-modernism, not less, in school histories, and those for the general reader.