In January of 1788 the First Fleet arrived in New South Wales and a thousand British men and women encountered the people who will be their new neighbours; the beach nomads of Australia. “These people mixed with ours,” wrote a British observer soon after the landfall, “and all hands danced together.” What followed would determine relations between the peoples for the next two hundred years.
Drawing skilfully on first-hand accounts and historical records, Inga Clendinnen reconstructs the complex dance of curiosity, attraction and mistrust performed by the protagonists of either side. She brings this key chapter in British colonial history brilliantly alive. Then we discover why the dancing stopped . . .
What we say – review by Eoin Howe:
The birth of modern Australia took place on an undetermined day in January, 1788, when eleven ships from England, carrying administrators, Royal Marines, and transported convicts, sailed into Botany bay in what is now New South Wales, in order to create a permanent settlement in the form of a penal colony. The descendants of White Europeans have dominated the continent ever since.
The cultural differences between the First Fleet and the Aboriginal population could not have been starker: Aboriginals lived in the stone age. They possessed no metal of any kind; they made no buildings; they wove no cloth. They lived a nomadic hunter-gatherer lifestyle that Europeans had not known in tens of thousand years. Their languages (which were both unwritten and preposterously numerous- sometimes being mutually incomprehensible over an area of only a few square miles) bore no relation to spoken English, and no Englishmen knew even a single word in any of them. The Aboriginal universe, so breathtakingly complex in its relation to their own locality, history, and way of life, did not contain a concept of size that could have even explained where England was. These new neighbours could hardly have been more different if one had landed in a spaceship from Mars.
They had literally only one thing in common: they were the same species. How was this seemingly impossible gulf to be bridged?
Inga Clendinnen’s masterful popular history book, “Dancing with Strangers”, attempts to unpick the mystery of this ‘first contact’, and the beginning of this new colony of Australia. In doing so, it not only helps clarify a vitally important moment in Australian history, but teases out the little-understood fact that much of what we think of as ‘History’ is in fact a complex patchwork of guesses, assumptions, cultural biases, and plain lack of information. If ‘History’ is a story we tell ourselves to explain our own present by way of the past, how can we ever get to grips with an alternative story that is almost completely lose to us, due both to its own almost absolutely alien nature, and the subsequent complete destruction of the people who could have tried to explain it to us?
In teasing out the complex tangle of what exactly it was Aboriginals thought of the First Fleet (who made the business of working out their thoughts much easier by leaving diaries and written accounts), the book has to confront some seemingly incomprehensible, but incontrovertible, facts.
The book is intended, partly, as an exercise in “what could have been”- the earliest history of Australia’s settlement contained some promise that the divide between the British and Aboriginal universes would not prove completely impassable. Subsequent Australian history, of course, was to prove otherwise. The incident that provides the books title stands for this possibility – the first true face-to- face meeting between a party of Royal Marines and British sailors, and Aboriginal warriors, on a beach. The Marines realised, by pantomime (at which the Aboriginals were masters), that, never having seen cloth before, the Aboriginal men thought that the English had woollen broadcloth skin. By cajolery and promises of extra rum, they persuaded the youngest member of their party, a Ships boy, to strip, to the Aboriginals wide-eyed amazement; when he shed his final garment and revealed that most private of parts, the Aboriginals burst out laughing and whooping – these peculiar strangers, while admittedly an odd colour, were human beings after all!
This is not the sort of book that would satisfy a history professor, or someone looking to place the First Fleet into the context of world history of the time. It is, however, a riveting and eye-opening look at a brief moment in time that helps hold a mirror up to human beings. I would heartily recommend it to anyone who believes that the study of history should confine itself to “The Facts” – because, at its core, it is about attempting to reconstruct exactly what a ‘historical fact’ might be, before we can even begin to say what we think that fact tells us about the past.