A historian without sources for his or her history would appear lost — and a historian whose sources for a battle or a cultural encounter are one-sided seems doomed to one-sidedness. Inga Clendinnen in Dancing with Strangers, non-fiction winner of the 2004 Kiriyama Prize, shows that this is not necessarily so.
Her story begins with the arrival of the British settlers and convicts in Australia in 1788. How did the native Aborigines — the Australians as she rightly calls them — react? How did they learn to dance with these strangers so different in behaviour and values to themselves? The difficulty in answering these questions is that the Australians left no sources, or even oral traditions that might serve to reconstruct their mental world and explain their actions. However, there were several accounts by the soldiers and administrators of the new colony. From these, and by an informed historical imagination, Clendinnen does the impossible.
While their words are mostly in Aboriginal English, the native inhabitants proved much more adept than their invaders in achieving verbal communication. We have a record, and often for key episodes, several records of what happened. These constitute a kind of ethnography of the encounter, which can be used for experiencing an event on many levels.
There’s the notorious case of “Spearing the Governor” at Manly Cove in September 1790. The accounts vary in detail but agree on the main point that Governor Phillip was encouraged to welcome a group of Australians by his ”friend,” Baneelon, until speared by an unknown warrior. The Europeans discuss the folly of the governor, the gifts of whale meat on one side and European food on the other that preceded the wounding, the unexpected consequence of the coming in of the native peoples into the new settlement. What they miss is the elaborate rituals of exchange and symbolic punishment involved.
Clendinnen presents a Beneelon anxious to protect his position as key mediator between old and new. At the same time, he must secure appropriate retribution for the seizure of land and goods, the trespass and insensitivity of the Europeans. Hence the spearing of their headman with a special spear, its significance ignored by the European observers, designed to wound cleanly, not kill or maim.
Other incidents involving Beneelon’s feisty and difficult wife, Barangaroo, are less amenable to cultural rationalization but reveal individual personality and initiative. Barangaroo reacted to the flogging of a convict by seizing the whip; destroyed her husband’s property when he defied her; and contemptuously threw away the clothing she was provided with to eat naked at the governor’s table.
Clendinnen’s book has lessons for all, not just Euro-Australians or those interested in cultures. The writing has the qualities of a good detective story as well as vividly invoking a now lost landscape and a way of life destroyed. It also invokes a ”might have been” which could yet emerge where we all dance together, acknowledging difference but celebrating life together.
Reviewed by Paul Rule