From the Edge: Australia’s Lost Histories
By Mark McKenna
Melbourne University Press, $35, 251 pages, ISBN 9780522862591
1787: The Lost Chapters of Australia’s Beginnings
By Nick Brodie
Hardie Grant, $30, 294 pages, ISBN 9781743791608
The study of Australia’s early history can be a tricky field. There have been more than a few polemicists who have eschewed true research, instead searching for any bits and pieces that can be spun into a black-armband version of events. But thankfully there are still some historical writers who believe in the value of primary research. There is, indeed, much to say about Australia’s early (white) history, and many important things to understand about the interactions between the new arrivals and the indigenous peoples.
McKenna, with a number of well-regarded books under his belt, finds some remarkable stories. In one, he examines how a group of five British sailors and twelve Bengali seamen staggered ashore at Ninety Mile Beach in Victoria in 1797, after a shipwreck in Bass Strait. Short on luck and options, they decided to walk the 700 kilometres along the coast to Sydney. On the way they encountered several Aboriginal tribes; they would have soon perished without their help. Astonishingly, three of them made it (although they were rescued by a fishing boat forty kilometres from Sydney). It is a remarkable story, and it is surprising that it is not better-known.
Other ventures into the unknown were more deliberate, such as the attempt to found a “new Singapore” at Port Essington in West Arnhem Land in the 1840s. It lasted for a decade but never really had much chance. There are still a few remnants of the site although the main legacy was introduced animals, such as buffaloes, pigs and wild dogs.
At least, there, the white would-be settlers tried to understand the indigenous people. But at the Burrup Peninsula the early relationship, based on the pearling industry, was exploitative to the point of slavery. McKenna acknowledges that gas companies now working in the area try to be sensitive but he wonders if industry and indigenous cultural heritage can be compatible. He points to some remarkable rock art, such as the millennia-old thylacine engraving on Angel Island, and notes that it is entirely unprotected, even while remains of a nearby European settlement barely a century old have been carefully preserved.
Perhaps the most significant chapter in the book deals with Cooktown, established at the place where the damaged Endeavour came ashore for repairs. The event was recorded in detail in Aboriginal lore, and comparing those records with the writings of the ship’s officers illustrates the size of the gulf of between the cultures.
In fact, north Queensland saw some of the most horrific violence of the settlement period. But when McKenna speaks with elders and other representatives of the indigenous people of the area around Cooktown, who are entirely aware of the consequences of the Cook landing, he finds little bitterness. Instead, there is an admirable desire to cast aside victimhood and look to the future.
This shows something significant about the methodology of the book: McKenna’s willingness to get down to the roots, to get his hands dirty and his skin sunburned. He certainly did a huge amount of academic research in libraries, working through old journals and musty records. But he also walked through the area along the south-east coast and hiked through difficult country to get the feel of the places he writes about. He is sympathetic to indigenous people and the bad historical hand they were dealt but he also recognises the values of Euro-Australian culture, and he appreciates that there has been a sustained push for better understanding in the past several decades.
How far that understanding can go is an open question: reading this book, there is a feeling that perhaps the chasm can never be truly bridged. But digging into stories beyond the official history is a way forward, and can provide an important extra layer to the national consciousness.
In 1787, Brodie challenges the notion that European history in Australia began with the British, although he is looking in a different direction, to pre-Cook discoveries and encounters. It is not new to say that Cook was not the first white person to see and land on the Australian shore but Brodie provides a far richer picture.
The Spanish were among the first to reach the area, with a small fleet sailing west from their colony in Peru in 1605. Their aim was to reach the Spanish colony in the Philippines but they were happy to explore, giving islands and other features names as they found them. In fact, one of the ship captains was Luis Vaes de Torres, after whom the Torres Strait was named.
This fleet found indications of a vast – and inhabited – southern continent but it was the next wave, sailing eastwards and southwards from Asia, that started to fill in the blanks on the map. There were Dutch entrepreneurs looking for trading opportunities, French explorers looking for adventure, and English seafarers looking for, well, whatever wasn’t nailed down. Ships from Asian countries also visited the islands around Australia and the mainland, pushing the known frontier forward. At the same time, other explorers were finding the southern and eastern edges of the continent. But it became clear, when indigenous peoples were encountered, that the new land did not offer much in the way of economic opportunities, at least not the type being sought. One cannot help but think that Australian history could have turned out very differently, if there had been a little nudge here or a small accident there.
Taken together, these two books offer a more expansive version of Australia’s history, and both authors deserve credit. If there is an obligation to understand the past as a means of interpreting the present, this is good place to start.