Dancing with Strangers

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.

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31 Responses to Dancing with Strangers

  1. Jennifer says:

    I loved this book, which I read at the same time as the federal government was attempting to remake the history curriculum for secondary schools. I wished I had read it in high school, instead of the endless dreary stuff about crossing the Blue Mountains I learned at the time. So much insight into clashes between two cultures and the gulf of lack of understanding between them.

    But I think it is a classic example of the kind of history John Howard and his history friends hated – too much cultural relativism, not enough positivity about the white experience.

    My review is here if you’re interested.

  2. Far be it from me to defend John Howard’s views on this. Well actually I think I am – somewhat to my surprise – going to. So here goes. What stands out in the book is that Gov Phillip had the patience of Job and an incredible goodwill towards the indigenes – surpassing any other examples that I, or the author suggests she, can think of.

    So it’s not ‘black armband’. Further the recording of the barbarity of the Australians (as she calls them – ie the aborigines) to their women particularly is recorded unsparingly – indeed in a way that is airbrushed out of many accounts and is one reason it’s take as long as it has to defend children and women who have been being abused in today’s aboriginal society.

    I’m sure Inga C would have written her book the way she did with or without John Howard – that is unstintingly. But Howard’s intolerance for the whitewashing of aboriginal society, the noble savage stuff is – however impure his motives – pretty much on the money. Human beings don’t do well out of being sentimentalised, much less do they do well from buying into others’ sentimentalisation of them.

  3. Bill Cushing says:

    Your comments re Howard and Clendinnen’s unsentimental presentation are spot on, Nicholas.

    I thought this by far the best account of Australia’s early days I have ever read.

    And it’s contemporary resonances are so striking.

    She is a wonderful writer — and I certainly don’t find her guilty of ‘relativism’.

  4. Yuwalk says:

    The whole “noble savage” concept really bugs me. Not because I think Indigenous culture was either noble or savage, but that it takes attention away from how the British were at the time of colonisation and how attitudes to Indigenous Australians are still impacted by the noble savage idea. Either through lack of valid criticism of Indigenous Australians and their culture because of the noble savage idea, or through thinking that the British were and now mainstream Australia is superior to Indigenous Australians.

    I have not read Dancing with Strangers so I cannot argue specifically about the book, but I am also unsure about the idea around inconsolable differences. Many of the differences that are used to argue against the noble savage concept are actually similar to how things were in England and even are today in Australia.

    Multiple child brides is one example. As pointed out by Anderson and Wild in page 14 of the Little Children are Sacred legal protection for boys under ten from forced sodomy and girls from rape was not started in England until the 16th century. I also believe it was not until the mid to late 1800’s that the age of consent from girls was raised first from 12 to 13 and then only after public outcry and pressure from the media that it was raised to 16. How common was the practice of men in this age visiting brothels or having a mistress as well as a wife? How many ugly, but rich and powerful men marry younger beautiful wives or become a sugar daddy today? How different is this to the powerful men in Indigenous culture getting multiple child brides?

    If you look closely enough and think on the “differences” both good and bad of Indigenous culture it is often not that different to England at the time of colonisation or mainstream Australia today. The last paragraph quoted points out how we “are all Australians now”. Maybe we are just better at recognising how similar we have always been.

  5. Ken Parish says:

    “If you look closely enough and think on the differences both good and bad of Indigenous culture it is often not that different to England at the time of colonisation or mainstream Australia today.”

    I don’t know about colonial England, but if you seriously think mainstream Australian society today is “not that different” to a remote indigenous community, then all I can say is you have spent very little time in indigenous communities. The Australian Crime Commission has found levels of sexual abuse against children about 400% higher than mainstream Australia, and the levels of violence by Aboriginal men against (especially) their wives are horrific by any standards. The fascinating thing about the Clendinnen book (which I also haven’t yet read) seems to be that the white immigrants of Governor Phillip’s day were equally horrified by the extreme violence of Aboriginal men against their women. It appears that this is an enduring social feature of indigenous culture, not just an contemporary artefact of social dysfunction caused by alcohol abuse or dispossession and its consequences.

    Obviously serious domestic violence exists in mainstream Australia too, but it’s so much more drastic and ubiquitous in indigenous communities that your assertion is simply bizarre. I can only hope that this particular form of left wing denialism is now becoming increasingly rare, because it does no-one any favours.

  6. Nuwalk says:

    I’m sorry Ken if thats what you read in my comments, but its not the point I was trying to make. I happen to spend a fair bit of time in Indigenous communities and in my experience it is the ones with the strongest Indigenous culture that are the least violent.

    I agree that violence particularly against women is bad. I did point out that the noble savage concept is used to avoid valid criticism. But it is also used to denigrate Indigenous culture for things which are often not that different to mainstream Australian culture.

  7. Jennifer says:

    I agree that one of the wonderful things about this book is the way in which it shows the whole story of both sides – the violence in the aboriginal culture (mostly against women) is horrifying to the english, and the violence in the english culture (hanging and beating the convicts) is horrifying to the aboriginal people.

    But the reason I thought John Howard would hate it is just that it shows how history isn’t one narrative – there isn’t a single truth about what happened. What you think about people’s motivations colours your views about what actually happened.

    Clendinnen’s close analysis of the spearing of Phillip in Manly is a great example – she argues convincingly that from the aboriginal perspective, Phillip was a by-player – there was a power struggle going on in the aboriginal community, and Phillip being speared advanced one agenda.

    While the fact that Phillip was speared is not in dispute, that reading of the episode does change your understanding of what happened.

    The book makes the point that both sides fundamentally misunderstood each other – and it was hard to see how they could have got to a point of understanding, even with a lot of goodwill on both sides before the whole thing broke down into warfare and disposesssion.

  8. Pavlov's Cat says:

    the reason I thought John Howard would hate it is just that it shows how history isnt one narrative

    I think that’s exactly right. His problem, at least as I remember him expressing it more than once, seemed to be less with the actual content of any particular history than with what he saw as the evil pomo relativism versus the unifying master narrative, while never really understanding postmodernism at all. His issues were more historiographical than historical.

  9. Laura says:

    Isn’t “the point that both sides fundamentally misunderstood each other” a single unifying master narrative?

  10. Geoff Honnor says:

    “Clendinnens close analysis of the spearing of Phillip in Manly is a great example – she argues convincingly that from the aboriginal perspective, Phillip was a by-player – there was a power struggle going on in the aboriginal community, and Phillip being speared advanced one agenda.

    While the fact that Phillip was speared is not in dispute, that reading of the episode does change your understanding of what happened.”

    I’m a great admirer of Inga Clendinnen but it’s worth pointing out that her analysis of Phillip’s spearing at Manly was originally offered by Watkin Tench – who witnessed it. In “A Complete Account of The Settlement At Port Jackson” he observes that aboriginals encountered by the colonists at Manly, the day after the governor’s spearing, identified the assailant as a man from a rival clan group in Broken Bay.

    “On reaching Manly Cove, three Indians were observed standing on a rock, with whom they entered into conversation. The Indians informed them, that the man who had wounded the governor belonged to a tribe residing at Broken Bay, and they seemed highly to condemn what he had done. Our gentlemen asked them for a spear, which they immediately gave. The boats crew said that Baneelon and Colbee had just departed, after a friendly intercourse. Like the others, they had pretended highly to disapprove the conduct of the man who had thrown the spear, vowing to execute vengeance upon him.”


    So…at least one of the First Fleeters understood that the incident at Manly might be more nuanced than it first appeared. In fact, given that Phillip directed that there be no reprisals, he too might have realised this.

    It amazes me that there has been no major biographical study of Tench. His insights are extraordinary, he steps out of the sort of Austenesque landscape beloved of ABC “bonnet and bosoms” Sunday nights and he led an heroically
    colourful life.

  11. Antigone says:

    Inga Clendinnen is a winning writer but this book is pure hypothesis and it marries nicely with what so many want to believe. Which is what, precisely? That the Gadigal people were habitually and structurally violent towards Aboriginal women? And this is according to whom? The eyewitness accounts of the upper-class English male seamen and officers who’d ferried on death ships human cargo to start a community from scratch in a hostile and totally strange environment?

    Apart from anything else her book is simply bad science. It’s speculative reportage-fiction…or something. As she herself admits in it, from necessity, it tells us nothing about Aboriginal society beyond these pointed statements about women and and male violence that smug white people of privilege in the 21st century really need to believe.

    The other obvious point is that any observations of the Sydney-region Aborigines simply cannot be extrapolated to the rest of the Australian Aboriginal population, unless you want to postulate some sort of univeralist theory of behaviour based on species and geography. And if that is so, then why not toss in gender?

  12. You’re sending us up aren’t you Antigone?

    “it tells us nothing about aboriginal society beyond pointed statements about women and main violence that smug white people of privilege in the 21st century really need to believe”.

    So let me get this straight. Smug white people – the ones who’ve airbrushed most references to aboriginal violence out of standard tour guides and other official expository material really want to believe that aborigines beat their women and took to their heads with hatchets? And the motive for this conspiracy of reportage – by a range of mutually corroborating (white) sources in the eighteenth century in turn reported on by their 21st century patsy Clendinnen?

    It’s spooky really. Perhaps it’s worthy of an edition of the X-files.

  13. John Greenfield says:


    Actually IC is much closer to Howard than she is to The Luvvies. The Luvvies are quite antagonistic towards IC. I think she is among Australia’s top three historians; a delight to read.

  14. Liam says:

    Thought you might say that JG, because after all Clendinnen has lots of time for Tench, Australia’s very first Luvvie Lefty.
    (And what Geoff said about him: in a just world Tench’d be on banknotes).

  15. John Greenfield says:

    Come on Liam, you can do better than that. Change yor diet. Straw only makes you constipated.

  16. Pavlov's Cat says:

    The Luvvies are quite antagonistic towards IC.

    Name one.

  17. Liam says:

    Straw only makes you constipated

    Mate, with blog comments, monotonous regularity is a vice. I prefer to bottle ’em up then let ’em all out at once.
    Like Pavlov’s Cat, I’d be interested to hear of anyone, luvvie or otherwise, who’s expressed antagonism towards Clendinnen.

  18. John Greenfield says:

    Off the top of the head Ann Curthoys, Robert Manne, Dirk Moses, Tony Barta, Ben Kiernan, Bain Atwood, and many others.

  19. Robert Manne has the principle ‘shout’ on the cover of IC’s book.

    “An extraordinary achievement”.

    I guess he’s complaining . . .

  20. John Greenfield says:

    Thta is true Nicholas, but it does not negate his criticisms of her. After all, Manne has become renowned for his historiographic circumlocutions.

  21. Well I’ve seen her criticisms of him – or more Gaita – on the claim that the stolen generation was a genocide. Where’s he criticised her in terms that would justify your claim that he’s ‘quite antagonistic’ to her. Doesn’t sound too antagonistic to me.

  22. John Greenfield says:


    OK, let’s split the difference. Though I would maintain the split over the “g” word is pretty close to the most litmus-like in contemporary Australian historiography.

  23. So now you define ‘antagonistic towards’ as someone who’s on the other side of a particular debate? Then when called on it, you want to ‘split the difference’. May I suggest you climb down and say that at least regarding Manne your argument has fallen over?

  24. Liam says:

    It’s all that straw Nick.

  25. John Greenfield says:

    Nicholas, no. Manne has been antagonistic towards her, and the others even more so.

  26. Antigone says:

    Nicholas, x-files is a cultural reference that bypasses me, I’m afraid, so can’t comment on its potency in this context. Dancing with Strangers asks the question were Aboriginal men violent towards women and answers yes based on the journals of the officers of the First Fleet. The gender relations at Port Jackson have been reported on, analysed and speculated on in much more depth than by Inga C in her delicious book which is neither the last nor first word on this question and the primary sources are bottomlessly fertile material.

    Understandably, there was an enormous sexual curiosity on the part of all parties towards each other at this time, but we only know about that of the genteel English male officers because theirs is the only written testimony of this fleeting moment in history. In fact, Tench, who was sensually besotted with Aboriginal women, said that the most puzzling thing to the English was Aboriginal sexual and social relations. This in itself, of course, is revealing.

    Why was it so important to the English?

    Care to speculate?

  27. Quite happy leaving the speculation to you A.

    They’re interesting speculative questions too. Just not particularly germane to the issue you joined us on – unless that is, you think that white English males’ particular inclinations about sex and the natives made them all conspire to say that the aboriginal men constantly and viciously beat their women when they didn’t.

  28. Antigone says:

    Well, Nicholas, Inga C did not say that that either, that the journals claimed that Aboriginal men “constantly and viciously beat their women”. So why would you retail such dangerous, dishonest racist nonsense? If this is the level of the debate then I really can’t bother enlightening you as to other hypotheses as to what was going on in the reportage.

  29. No – she didn’t say that – as you say. Indeed I didn’t say she said it “in quotes” because I wasn’t quoting her. I was reporting what she reported.

    She mentioned that one was checked into the hospital with hatchet wounds to the head. I guess she was being racist – and the guy who reported it. And Inga and me.

    But I’m with you – we’re both wasting our time and I don’t plan to do any more of it.

  30. Antigone says:

    ah, the intellectual incuriosity, it never ceases to stun me. Your loss.

  31. Antigone says:

    ah, the wounded feelings trump the intellectual curiousity. Your loss. It shows how shallow and partisan is your interest in the subject.

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