November Books: First Contact

This month I’ve been continuing to read history, and have an interesting pair of “contact” stories to report on, plus a third book that I hoped would provide some scientific insight to the stories of early encounters. Since I’ve backed into this whole topic after reading newspaper reports about the “history summit” a few months ago, let me stay in character and proceed in reverse chronological order through history itself.

Cleared Out: first contact in the western desert by Sue Davenport, Peter Johnson, and Yuwali (Aboriginal Studies Press, 2005) focuses on events in the 1960s in Western Australia in Martu homelands that lay in the path of the Blue Streak rocket tests conducted by the Weapons Research Establishment (WRE). It is a remarkably balanced telling of a chapter in the broader story, detailing the confusion of policies among national and state government agencies, the personal histories of some of the Native Patrol Officers who attempted to protect an unknown population of Aboriginal people from the unpredictable flights of the rockets, and the first-person reminiscences of some of the Martu people themselves, in particular a woman named Yuwali (also known as Ivy Nixon), who was a girl of about 17 in 1964 when the key events described in the book took place. In its focus on individuals caught up in the conflict of contact, it makes for exciting and unpredictable reading.

The first part of the book provides the background and introduces the small band of Martu women with whom the Native Patrol Officers would make contact. This was apparently a most unusual group, living in the country around the Percival Lakes northwest of Well 35 on the Canning Stock route for a period of several years without any adult males (although there were some young boys traveling with them at the time). They were thus an isolated group even by the standards of western desert isolation at the time.

Part One also details the context for the rocket tests, and the beginnings of real incursions by white men into the previously largely unpenetrated regions around the borders of South Australia, the Northern Territory, and Western Australia. This is the story of the establishment of Woomera, of the Giles Weather Station, and the construction of the Gunbarrel Highway by Len Beadall. It is also a story of good intentions foundering on ignorance and conflicting solutions to a issue whose parameters were unknown. Davenport and Johnson lay out the sorry state of knowledge about the inhabitants of the western desert during the 1950s. Compounding the problems of ignorance were unanswered questions about the best way to deal with the desert’s Aboriginal inhabitants–should they be left out of sight and hopefully out of mind? Were the droughts killing people off, and if so, should the government intervene? Did reserves help to preserve traditional ways of life or act as lethal if untended concentration camps? It seems as if the answers to these questions were as numerous as players on the stage and the only thing that was certain is that a fundamental lack of knowledge led to plans that had the most unintended consequences.

The central sections of the book are a day-by-day recreation of two periods in the fall and spring of 1964, the weeks leading up to the launching of a pair of Blue Streak rockets that were expected to fall back to earth in the vicinity of the Percival Lakes. These are told in diary style through the notes and recollections of the patrol officers and the Martu who were out on the ground at the time. Walter MacDougall was charged with locating any indigenous people in the area, and making sure that they were “cleared out” of harm’s way and the path of the rockets. His job was made most difficult by the lack of knowledge, first of all, about whether there actually were any people living in the area, and secondly, by the lack of time he was given in the first instance to locate, contact, and remove them.

The book is most sympathetic to MacDougall, who frequently clashed with his superiors, and whose sympathies clearly lay with the Martu and in a desire to protect them. It is in many ways the heroic bush narrative of trackless sands, bogged vehicles, and desperate isolation. It is also the story of a race against time, as MacDougall and his fellow patrol officer Terry Long discover that there is indeed a band of people scattered around the Percival Lakes who are quite successful in eluding contact and whom he finds himself unable to help in the face of an inflexible launch date.

The other side of the story, told in Yuwali’s reminiscences, presents an equally gripping story of terror and confusion at being pursued across the dunes by an enormous moving rock (the International truck MacDougall was driving). Hunger, thirst, and exhaustion are precariously balanced against fear, and the resourcefulness of the young girl in evading her pursuers and protecting the younger children is touching and admirable. By the end of the first patrol and and the date of the first launch, Yuwali manages to stay clear of the unknown pursuers, and MacDougall satisfies himself that, at the very least, he has chased the band out of the projected landing space of the rocket. Ironically, that initial launch ended in failure, with the rocket blowing up several hundred kilometers to the southeast.

The period allotted to the second patrol, in October 1964, was extended at MacDougall’s insistence to allow more time to find, contact, and bring in the desert dwellers. This time, with the assistance of two Aboriginal men, Punuma and Nyani, who spoke a Martu dialect, the patrol was able to make contact with the small band, but the story is, if anything, more heart-rending. The group is no less terrified, fearful of the food that is offered them, pressured to come in to the Jigalong Mission to be re-united with family members they have not seen in years, and clearly overwhelmed by the inexplicable and frightening demands of both whitefella bureaucracy and blackfella self-interest (Punuma and Nyani find the young girls to be eminently marriageable).

The final section of the book shifts its focus away from the individuals to an extent, but provides an excellent look at the Jigalong Mission and documents the process of “detribalization” that occurred in the wake of contact throughout the desert. Despite being more of an institutional history–though it continues the chronicle MacDougall’s stormy relationships with his government superiors–it is no less affecting in its examination of the aftermath of the story of the patrols and in what the book characterizes as the imperialism of preconceptions. It is in the end a cautionary tale of how even the best intentions go awry in the moments of first contact and in the face of the enormous gap in cross-cultural understanding.

That, too, is the theme of Inga Clendinnen’s superb recreation of the years following the arrival of Governor Philip and the First Fleet in Sydney Harbour, Dancing With Strangers: Europeans and Australians at first contact (Cambridge University Press, 2005). This book may be the best historical writing I have ever come across, on any subject. It is beautifully written, humane, and filled with detail that is not simply illuminating but which leaves me wondering why I never asked the many questions that Clendinnen examines.Dancing With Strangers doesn’t simply probe into what happened, it asks why, and what those events might have meant to the human beings who are described in it pages. In the end, it left me a little appalled at my own lack of curiosity: few of the stories it tells were unfamiliar to me, but the interpretations of events here presented were a complete revelation. 

The book’s title refers to an incident which happened shortly after the landing at Sydney Cove, and Clendinnen’s exegesis of it carries her major theme:

Despite or perhaps because of the width of the cultural chasm between the two peoples, each initially viewed the other as objects not of threat, but of curiosity and amusement; through those early encounters each came to recognise the other as fellow-humans, fully participant in a shared humanity (p. 285).

Clendinnen relates several occasions during the first days (literally days) after the landing at Sydney Cove when Lieutenant Bradley or Surgeon White recorded that “these people mixed with ours and all hands danced together” (p.8). Thus in the absence of shared language dance–and song–became a way for that “shared humanity” to manifest itself. Clendinnen’s ability to see behind the simple words in which these Englishmen recorded what they witnessed is simply and quickly illustrated in another passage about dancing, one which describes a corroboree that took place in 1791. 

Hunter…was particularly impressed by a remarkable feat performed by the male dancers, achieved by ‘placing their feet very wide apart, and, by an extraordinary exertion of the muscles and thighs, moving the knees in a trembling and very surprising manner’. Then he adds, casually, ‘which none of us could imitate’, and suddenly we know that at some stage of the evening Hunter and other Englishmen were on their feet and in the ring, furiously wobbling their knees (p. 41).

Clendinnen’s ability to see, and to make us see, that vision of the Englishmen “furiously wobbling their knees,” to extrapolate something physical and at the same time psychologically penetrating from a throwaway remark, is what makes this book quite unlike any other history I have read, and makes me eager to return for more such insights from the author.

The clarity of the writing and presentation is a major strength of the book, which like the best art, allows us to look at the familiar in a new and unexpected light. Clendinnen begins by introducing the Europeans upon whose documents she relies, names that are familiar to anyone who has read even the small amount of Australian history that I’ve encompassed: Arthur Phillip, Watkin Tench, John Hunter, John White, and David Collins. Her early chapters provide biographical sketches of each of these men, allowing us to grasp not only their place in the history she is about to recount, but the personality that will inform the writings she quotes, the prejudices and predilections of each man, and how they themselves may have seen their roles in the colonial enterprise and in the recording of it as well. Clendinnen similarly tries to bring the indigenous players into a fresh focus, transcribing the name of the most famous of them as “Baneelon” and thus partially freeing us from the accumulations that might prejudice our view of the more familiar “Bennelong” whose brick house within the confines of the early settlement is now irretrievably linked to a more famous Opera House.

The bulk of the book is given over to the period from January 1788 to December of 1792, the period when Governor Phillip was in charge of the new colony and attempted to create a settlement in which the British might achieve not simply domination over the indigenous Australians and more than coexistence with them. It is disconcerting at first but also characteristically enlightening to realize that, throughout, “Australians” refers only to the indigenous Cadigal and Cameragal people (mostly these groups among those inhabiting the port area: Clendinnen eschews use of the generic “Eora”) and never to the “thousand British men and women, some of them convicts and some of them free [who] made a settlement on the east cost of Australia in the later years of the eighteenth century” (p.1).

As I said, the events thus described will be familiar to most readers: the landing at Botany Bay and the remove to Part Jackson, the riotous first days at Sydney Cove, the capture of Baneelon and Colbee, the spearing of Governor Phillip, the subsequent “coming in” of Baneelon and his people to semi-permanent residence at the settlement, the killing of John McEntire and the futile punitive expedition led by Watkin Tench in its aftermath. Clendinnen retells the stories that Phillip or Tench or Collins with puzzlement recorded. By marrying those narratives with what has been learned of Aboriginal social customs and values in the two hundred years since, she is able to allow her readers to see how those events might have appeared from both sides of the cultural chasm. The adducing of this indigenous viewpoint is what distinguishes Dancing With Strangers as a triumph of the historical imagination.

As an illustration, let me take Clendinnen’s treatment of the incident of the spearing of Governor Phillip. Months before the event took place, Baneelon had been captured, spent a considerable period of time living in the settlement with English, then suddenly “escaped” and was not seen for another four months. One day John White and a party of Englishmen came upon a group of Australians at Manly Cove, and Baneelon, looking much worse for the wear, emaciated and scarred, was among them. Baneelon expressed a strong desire to meet with Phillip again, and sent Hunter and party off with a gift of decomposing whale meat–which certainly sounds offensive, but which Clendinnen rightly points out was a luxurious culinary treat to the Australians.

Phillip, who was always eager to establish and maintain good relations with the Australians, came quickly to Manly Cove, and stepped ashore “alone and unarmed” to approach Baneelon. The two men were reunited, and although accounts differ in details, there seems to have been some unsatisfactory negotiations between the two about a gift exchange, Baneelon desiring hatchets from Phillip, and Phillip expressing interest in a spear that Baneelon held, but threw down in the grass behind him. At some point, Phillip, pressing his desire to become reconciled with Baneelon and to establish friendly relations with the other Australians gathered behind the erstwhile captive, moved forward with his arm extended to shake hands with one of the other men. That man, surprisingly, retrieved Baneelon’s spear from the grass, hefted it, and despite what seemed to the Englishmen to be Phillip’s continued friendly and welcoming advance, speared the Governor through the collarbone.

Even more puzzling than this seemingly unprovoked attack was the fact that within days of it, Baneelon and his family returned to the English settlement and took up residence once again with the utmost friendliness and comfort.

I can’t begin to reproduce the subtleties of Clendinnen’s argument here, but in broad outline she suggests the following interpretation from Baneelon’s point of view. His deteriorated state may have been the result of a general loss of status among his cohort after what was seen to be an inappropriate sojourn with the English–Colbee had, after all, escaped much earlier than Baneelon did. The meeting in Manly Cove, though somewhat fortuitous, became Baneelon’s opportunity to re-assert himself and regain his status as negotiator with the English, and the famous spear that he threw to the ground was set deliberately to allow his comrade to seize it and spear Phillip in a ritual combat. The Australians, for their part, expected Phillip to dodge the spear, not to continue walking amicably towards the armed man, and the spearman’s agitation following his successful strike may have been as much shock at the unanticipated outcome as anything else. Once Phillip had “accepted” the challenge, met it, and been speared, normal friendly relations could be resumed with the English: hence the swift return of Baneelon and his family to the colonial settlement.

Clendinnen likewise offers as explanation for the stringently punitive apparent nature of Phillip’s response to the killing of John McEntire, who was ambushed and struck with spears that were clearly design to kill. The Governor’s revenge mission is full of seeming contradictions. Why did Phillip, who had always tried his utmost to preserve friendly relations with the Australians, suddenly demand that his soldiers bring back the heads of ten Australians? And why did he choose Watkin Tench, who was equally sympathetic to the Australians, and who in fact argued for the capture (not beheading) of only six men, to lead the punitive party? And why in the end were two attempts to pursue and seize the Australians so spectacularly unsuccessful?

On this point, Clendinnen argues for an increasing sophistication of Phillip’s own understanding of Australian mores. Having witnessed conflict among the indigenous people, Phillip may have come to realize that they did not share the English sense that an individual be held accountable for his transgressions, but that revenge could be extracted against the group or the family of the offender equally well. She suggests that by sending Tench on this mission Phillip was in effect putting the Australians on notice, that the entire affair was meant to show that the English were capable of adapting their judicial procedures to the standards of the Australians, and that once again, having made the gesture and so his point, Phillip was content. He never intended the severity of his orders to be translated into fact. And thus the sympathetic Tench was perhaps the ideal choice to lead this symbolic expedition.

Clendinnen, in the end, does not romanticize the history of conflict between the English and the Australians. She understands full well that with Phillip’s departure, with the increasing number of English settlers and the attendant conflicts, and with the sheer fatigue generated by the seemingly unbridgeable cultural gap between the two societies, relations between them quickly degenerated. But she wonders if there ever were a first encounter between two such disparate groups that began with so much good will on both sides, if perhaps the colonization of Australia was unique in the annals of imperial expansion. And given that starting point, might there not be hope still lurking in the bottom of Pandora’s box?

Inquiry into our confused beginnings suggests that the possibility of a decent co-existence between unlike groups must begin from the critical scrutiny of our own assumptions and values as they come under challenge. We might then be able to make informed decisions as to which uncomfortable differences we are prepared to tolerate and which we are not, rather than attempt the wholesale reformation of what we identify as the defects of the other. A lasting tolerance builds slowly out of accretions of delicate accommodations made through time; and it comes, if it comes at all, as slow as honey.

There remains a final mystery. Despite our long alienation, despite our merely adjacent histories, and through processes I do not yet understand, we are now more like each other than we are like any other people. We even share something of the same style of humour, which is a subtle but far-reaching affinity. Here, in this place, I think we are all Australians now (p. 288).

After the imaginative and sympathetic delights of Dancing with Strangers, I find it hard to believe how disappointing and infuriating Josephine Flood’s The Original Australians: story of the Aboriginal people (Allen & Unwin, 2006) turned out to be. A couple of months ago, immediately after receiving the volume, I wrote, “I expect it will be one of those books that ought to be read early on in a program of study of Aboriginal people: cohesive, factual, and broad in scope.” I’m amazed at how wrong I was on every count, and how a simple perusal of the table of contents might have forewarned me against such a rash judgment. I just would never have expected a renowned archaeologist to begin a history of “the original Australians” in 1788. Nor would I have dreamed that Flood would, in her second chapter, unblushingly quote Keith Windschuttle on Tasmanian history. I struggled through a bit over half of the book with a growing sense of betrayal, and finally abandoned it, mistrusting almost any assertion that the author put forth. Life is too short to read bad books.

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3 Responses to November Books: First Contact

  1. Pingback: Ross Gibson’s 26 Views and my 14 lines (Sonnet #8) | Me fail? I fly!

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