Long before they became our modern playground, the places where land, sea and sky meet were for tens of thousands of years home to Aboriginal people. As the NSW Deputy Opposition Leader, Linda Burney MP, points out in her foreword to this magnificently produced and beautifully illustrated book, Aboriginal culture and society falls into two broad groups – saltwater and freshwater people.
John Ogden’s ‘Saltwater People of the Fatal Shore’ deftly explores the physicality and natural and human history of Sydney’s southern beaches, from South Head to Port Hacking and the Royal National Park. The focus of this book is the littoral world of the shoreline, as in his earlier book, ‘Saltwater People of the Broken Bays’, about Sydney’s northern beaches. Ogden describes it as a ”high-energy intersection between sea and land where waves whipped up by wind and storms – possibly originating thousands of kilometres out to sea – pound the coast in a final dramatic explosion, or caress it with a gentle cascade.”
Like the original Saltwater people of the region, in the 21st century indigenous and non-indigenous residents and visitors ”fish, dive, swim, surf and sail these waters, or just bask on the sandy shores”.
This stunning collection of black-and-white and colour photographs and other illustrations, accompanied by a revealing text, is a delight to hold, to read and to absorb. Those lucky enough to live around the places so vividly chronicled will count their blessings.
While now most of us appreciate these natural wonders, it wasn’t always thus. The reality is that, as Ogden claims, quoting Keith Willey’s ‘When The Sky Fell Down’ (1979): ”No two people could have been more different in their concepts of the world and the meaning of human life than Europeans and Aborigines.” This particularly applies to the non-indigenous notion of progress and of the non-human environment. Until quite recently, when Europeans destroyed something created by man it was called ”vandalism”, but when Europeans destroyed something created by nature it was often termed ”progress”. These days, most of us value our natural environs, although in some cases the appreciation might have come too late.
In the past, these now-cherished places played host to scenes of terrible confrontation. Ogden usefully refers to Sydney’s southern beaches as ”the sharp end of impact between the British interlopers and one of the oldest continuous cultures on the planet”. Within two years of the so-called First Fleet arriving at what is now Botany Bay, almost 70 per cent of the Aboriginal population of the Sydney Basin had been wiped out.
Yet in 1770, Captain James Cook had presciently seen the quality of the lives of the first Australians. Hence in a journal entry Cook wrote of the indigenous people: ”They are far more Happier than we Europeans Ã¢â‚¬Â¦ they live in a Tranquility which is not disturbed by the Inequality of condition. The earth and sea of their own accord furnishes them with all things necessary for life.”
But what Cook did not know, as Burney puts it, is ”the sacredness of the land and the sea, and the reverence the people had for them, and that they themselves were of the land and the sea – a notion that can join us all together”.
The sad truth is that, since European occupation, we have damaged the ocean and the shorelines in such a manner that our best science might not be able to fix it. Indeed, it seems probable that, as Ogden states, there might be ”only decades left to reverse some of the destruction wrought by pollution and overfishing”. As Phillip Hyde, an Australian who knew Sydney’s beaches, wrote in 1988: ”Progress I know is something that cannot be prevented, but if in the name of progress such things happen as the disappearance of most fish, the almost complete lack of native birds, no wildflowers and extensive pollution, then I am definitely sad to be an unwilling part of it.”
But surely in the second decade of the 21st century we can, as Ogden urges, all play a part in protecting the land, the ocean, the shoreline and natural resources.
For some wise words about our first peoples and their descendants, we can heed the following lines from the great Aboriginal poet, to whom Ogden refers, Oodgeroo Noonuccal:
”Let no one say the past is dead.
The past is all about us and within.
Haunted by tribal memories, I know
This little now, this accidental present
Is not the all of me Ã¢â‚¬Â¦
Let no one tell me the past is wholly gone.
Now is so small a part of time, so small a part
Of all the race years that have moulded me.”
Like Oodgeroo Noonuccal’s poetry, Ogden’s ‘Saltwater People of the Fatal Shore’ is something to savour, to treasure, to help change our lives and the environment in which we live, for the better.
Ross Fitzgerald is an emeritus professor of history and politics at Griffith University, and is the author of 35 books.
OF THE FATAL SHORE
Cyclops Press, 336pp, $99
Sydney Morning Herald, January 19-20, 2013, Spectrum pp 30-31