I’ve just finished reading Dancing with Strangers, which I’ve read in fits and starts because of lack of time. I’m still too busy to write a decent review, but no doubt you can find them if you look. The book was showered with praise on its release a few years ago. Rightly so. It’s marvellous, as is so much of Inga Clendinnen’s stuff. Do we have a better essayist in the country? A better historian. I don’t know of any.
As befits the author’s intent, the book is sympathetic to all, but spares us the sentimentality that so often bathes the treatment of our indigenes. The aborigines were frightened and appalled by the way the British flogged their convicts, and the British were appalled by the ferocity and regularity with which aboriginal men bashed and mutilated their women and by their inability to stop it. The locals fancied the British hatchets and then brought their women into the local hospital having ripped into their heads with the British hatchets.
The book focuses on the first few years – Governor Phillip’s time really, though the last quarter scoots through till the mid 1800s – and shows those people on the First Fleet and most particularly Phillip in a very good light indeed. Particularly under Phillip they were determined to try to come to some mutual accommodation with the locals, but mutual incomprehension overcame any possibility of that, leaving history to the uglier spectacle of the mutually incompatible intentions of the two cultures that sought to share the land.
Go and buy the book. Now!
And as a taste, I’ve reproduced the epilogue below the fold. It contains some marvellous writing, even if the author attempts the impossible towards the end, which is to read us a ‘lesson’ from the past. I don’t know what lesson to draw, and Clendinnen doesn’t entirely persuade me that her heart is in the last few paras. But she does her best of what seems to me to be an impossible task.
During an early and relatively benign phase of their imperial adventure the Britishor rather the selection of them we have just metchanced to encounter in Australia one of the few hunter-gatherer societies left on the earth, (Today, to my knowledge, there are none.) 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.
Unseen conflict lay in the path. If less peripatetic than their inland brothers, the people around Sydney Cove were nonetheless compelled to exploit the seasonal resources of all of their territories if they were to survive. During those first years, both the complexity and the fragility of the nomad economy were masked from the newcomers by local population losses and the fortuitous provision of British rations to supplement the diet of those Australians most directly affected by the British presence. Only a handful of First Fleet observers began to grasp the great fact of the Australian’s intimate dependence on what the British continued to think of as `wild’, indeed empty, land. And then it was too late. The British with labour enough from convicts, would find no place for Australians in their colony-building enterprise. What they wanted was land, and they took it. Once that conflict became explicit, racial frontiers, pushing irresistibly outwards, would be marked in blood and many Australians would die; some from British bullets, more from disease and starvation.
Milan Kundera reminds us that we humans proceed in a fog. By coming to see the fogs through which people in other times battled in the direction they hoped was forward, we may be better able to recognise and penetrate our own. Fast-evolving colonial situations demand swift responses. Our two main protagonists, Phillip and Baneelon, were given no space for reflection, revision or even explanation of their positions. Each failed, to their own and their people’s injury, and to ours. They cannot be blamed for that failure.
We have a duty to the people of the past: to rescue them from the falsifying simplifications we impose if we refuse to see the fog through which they were trying to make their way. W. E. H. Stanner has called the Australians `a high-spirited and militant people’, and it is as a high-spirited, militant people they leap from the eighteenth-century page. They should be honoured not only for; their ingenious adaptation to life on this, the least manipulable continent on earth, but also for their inventive resourcefulness in dealing with the strangers. The men of the First Fleet deserve honour too, for their openness, their courage, and their stubborn curiosity. In the end, it was the depth of cultural division which defeated them, not any lack of energy, intelligence or good will.
Every indigenous people has walked their trail of tears, but few others enjoyed that springtime of trust. Our first shared Australian story is a tragedy of animated imagination, determined friendship and painfully dying hopes. Through time and accumulated disillusionments each group, despite their domestic proximity, lost both curiosity and concern for the other, and imagination atrophied into settled mistrust. Now, with hope for reconciliation renewed over this past decade, it is time to think again about that atrophy: how it came about, and how we might climb out of it.
Accordingly I have introduced a rather more expansive concept of culture into the discussion of race relations in this country than is currently in use. I hope I have persuaded the reader that `culture’ is more than a bundle of legal principles, a matter of going clothed or naked, of cherishing privacy or ignoring it, of sharing or not sharing. It is best understood as the context of our existential being: a dynamic system of shared meanings through which we communicate with our own. Because those meanings are rarely made explicit, understanding another culture’s meanings is and will always be a hazardous enterprise.
History is not about the imposition of belated moral judgments. It is not a balm for hurt minds, either. It is a secular discipline, and in its idiosyncratic way a scientific one, based on the honest analysis of the vast, uneven, consultable record of human experience. To understand history we have to get inside episodes, which means setting ourselves to understand our subjects’ changing motivations and moods in their changing contexts, and to tracing the devious routes by which knowledge was acquired, understood, and acted upon. Only then can we hope to understand ourselves and our species better, and so manage our affairs more intelligently. If we are to arrive at a durable tolerance (and it is urgent that we should), we have only history to guide us.
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 to attempt the wholesale reformation of what we identify as the defects of the other. A lasting tolerance builds slowly out of accretions of delicate accommodation: 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 arei 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.