Extract from 1787: THE LOST CHAPTERS OF AUSTRALIA’S BEGINNINGS
by Nick Brodie
NOT A PROLOGUE
Australia’s history did not start in January 1788. However habituated we have become to telling it this way, our national story did not begin with the arrival of a British fleet. That origin story survives because it is easy to tell, easy to remember, and difficult for our nation to forget. We can acknowledge that something happened before, but it is a something that we rarely discuss.
The time before the settlement of New South Wales is too often treated as a prefatory chapter that starts 50,000 years before the present and ends as sails are seen on the eastern horizon: the ‘Dreamtime’ ends and history begins. In this way, a great slab of human history is relegated to archaeology and hermetically sealed by the founding of a British colony. But decent history does not work that way, with easy beginnings and simple sequences of events; instead, it is a process of engagement with the past.
So it is in this spirit that we need a new early Australian history. We need to look to longer colonial processes, broader world stories, a larger regional frontier, and take in the bigger story that emerges from these fleeting yet significant encounters.
While this book focuses on coastal interactions, it is not yet another rendering of the European ‘discovery’ of Australia, a paint-by-numbers narrative of ‘firsts’, who-found-what-when-and-why, and large slabs of quotation from well-thumbed sources.
Prior to the formal establishment of colonies in New South Wales in 1788, Van Diemen’s Land in 1803 and Western Australia in 1829, Australia and its peoples were already part of the great story of human history, with its local variations, conflicts, collaborations, continuities and changes. Certainly in 1787 a fleet was dispatched from England, but the processes leading to that decision involved more than just someone stabbing at a map and demanding it be done. Those processes went back well beyond Cook, and the first peoples of a Greater Australasia had more to do with it than is often allowed. There is a long history of Eurasian exploration of, but also engagement with, the land that came to be called Australia, and also its near neighbours like New Guinea, Vanuatu and New Zealand. All are part of the same story.
When the narratives of discovery are turned around, and the encounters they record are examined closely, bigger histories are revealed. Viewed collectively, these encounters become the story, instead of just isolated vignettes within larger ‘European’ narratives.
We will have to abandon our old assumptions about Australia’s first peoples, and face up to our sometimes wilful ignorance about pre-1788 Australia. We will see that the Australia of the twenty-first century is a product of a much longer and more complex past than we normally allow.
Australian bookshelves are stacked with event-based one-word titles that perhaps understandably speak to our collective obsessions: 1788, Eureka, Gallipoli, Kokoda and so on. What follows takes a step away from the buzzword histories, the pop biographies, or the yarning folklore of yore, and insists that we start to explore our deeper history in a less proprietorial, more broadly inclusive way. ‘1787’ does not stand for a year — it stands for an idea.
A good illustration of this idea occurred on a warm and breezy September day in 1818, when Jacques Arago stepped ashore on the western coast of Australia. He left his companions and headed off alone, wearing a straw hat, shouldering a musket and carrying a tin lunchbox. In part, he was looking for Aboriginal Australians.
A draftsman on the Uranie, a French expedition of discovery and exploration, Jacques struggled in the hostile environment. He slipped on a rocky slope, and flies bothered his face, seeming compulsively attracted to his eyes. The sun was searing. He tilted his hat low over his face and spent some time walking backwards, trying to get relief.
After a few hours someone from the ship went after him, and brought him back to the main French camp. The Australians had turned up, and seemed hostile. His companions were worried for Jacques’s safety. He could see that there had already been some limited bartering — glass beads and metal knives for spears and clubs. And with the exchanges seemingly over, the Australians gestured for the French to leave. The Australians kept saying ‘ayercadé, ayercadé’ — interpreted as ‘go away, go away’ — and pointing to the ships.
Jacques hoped to get closer, as he wanted to sketch the Australians. He noticed an old man who attracted everyone’s attention. The man was painted with coloured stripes, and wearing a prominent shell on a string that hung over his belly; his companions seemed to look to him for instruction. So Jacques decided to make towards him. Trying to allay the old man’s fears, Jacques pulled out some castanets and played them as he approached. The old man briefly danced to the tune, and another Australian kept time with his own implements.
The old man signed to Jacques to leave a gift, which he did, and signed to return in the morning. As Jacques walked back to camp the old man sang, and was joined in this song by the rest of his people.
The next day Jacques again met with a group of Australians. They came down the hill in force, armed, and one stepped out in front and made a long speech. Then Jacques was once more told, with gestures for emphasis, to ayercadé. But, prepared for this eventuality, Jacques put on a little pantomime and appeared to get angry with a sailor companion he had brought to the meeting. Jacques told the sailor to ayercadé, and walked away. In on the scheme, the sailor followed Jacques, who again told the fellow to ayercadé. The sailor disobeyed and Jacques shot him.
Or so it appeared. Having prearranged the show, Jacques aimed high, and the sailor fell at the bang. The Australians fled in apparent horror, and the sailor sprang up and the two made good their escape. Jacques had hoped to instil fear with this show, which would protect him against a potential attack by the Australians, who had superior numbers, but this was not the end of the encounters. Later there was another exchange where the French offered gifts. One even satisfied the locals’ curiosity by undressing. But over subsequent days there were no further meetings, only French expeditions to abandoned huts, and the discovery of a discarded gift of trousers.
The expedition continued north to Timor, west past New Guinea, and on into the Pacific. The French went as far as Hawaii, where they spent some considerable time, before turning westwards again towards Australia. Over a year after meeting some of the western Australians, Jacques had the opportunity to witness the other side of the continent. The Uranie put into Port Jackson, and Jacques met Governor Macquarie and saw the growing urban settlement of Sydney, with its elegant buildings and gardens, active social scene, busy commercial wharves and labouring convicts. But Jacques could not comprehend why the government allowed Aboriginal Australians to nakedly wander the streets and inhabit the settlement. They drank and danced, carried weapons and rattled fences, and struck each other in the streets.
Jacques’s confusion probably stemmed in part from seeing Aboriginal Australian people overlaying the ostensibly settled and almost picturesque colonial scene. These people seemed part of the colonial society, but they also stood aside from it. And amid the scenes of public ribaldry and wrath, they clearly continued to govern their own society by their own traditions and rituals. Jacques even watched an old woman knock out the teeth of a younger woman, which he recognised was a sort of ceremony. It was performed with piece of wood struck by a stone, while the girl’s head was held against a wall, making a colonial structure a tool in an apparently pre-colonial practice. His curiosity piqued, he inquired as best he could what this was for, and by gestures learned the girl was to be married. A man soon arrived, placed a kangaroo skin over the girl, and led her into the bush near the governor’s garden.
But there was a darker side to Jacques’s musings, which went beyond social order and public behaviour. Jacques continued to observe and dwell on the violence and disorder of the Aboriginal Australians of Sydney, and the existence of a heated frontier war between the Australians and the intruders, in his letters to friends in Europe. He related an experience of Charles Gaudichaud-Beaupr., another member of the Uranie expedition, who had a brief encounter with an old and sick man during the course of a journey over the Blue Mountains. The old man ‘had shown himself the most formidable enemy of the English’, Charles’s guide informed him, and was ‘the sovereign of all that part of the mountain’. The guide noted he had made war on other tribes, assassinated Englishmen, guided expeditions of troops and so on.
On the face of it the crew of the Uranie’s encounters with Australians seem to speak to opposites. In the far west there were peoples still unaffected by colonisation. On the eastern seaboard its effects were well evident, summed up by the twin spectres of death and drunkenness. In the east some of the old ways were passing; in the west they still had a little way to go. To the casual reader it is evidence of the state of affairs before and after that magical colonial moment, that first footfall, that first flag-raising, that first memorial plaque. The east exhibited a post-1788 world; the west was still in 1787.
But the irony is that the west had a longer history of outside contact. The old man on the western sand dunes did not necessarily lack for precedent when dealing with overseas visitors. He knew the ships had carried the strangers, and he seemed to know to keep himself and his people at a discreet distance. And when the French expedition travelled to the north of Australia, near New Guinea, and into the Pacific, they were sailing through Eurasia’s south-eastern frontier — a conceptual geography that had been expanding in fits and starts over a very long time, connecting the cultures and economies of far western Europe to far eastern Asia. This dynamic frontier abutted another large cultural and economic zone that was not yet fully part of the Eurasian story: Greater Australasia.
This vast territory is the scene of our real national beginning. It was almost invisibly busy beneath the clouds hovering above its waters — until the coming of the written word drew the clouds back, exposing it to and inscribing it on the greater world.
This is an edited extract from 1787 by Nick Brodie published by Hardie Grant Books RRP $29.99 and is available in stores nationally – hardiegrant.com.au
Nick Brodie is a self-confessed history nerd and archaeologist, currently lecturing at the University of Tasmania and frequently returning to NSW where his family is still based. As well as academic papers, he’s written a history of St Mary’s Cathedral, and is an experienced public speaker having given lectures at Cambridge, interviews on ABC radio and 7.30 Stateline. Nick Brodie’s book Kin was published in July 2015.