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History with a broad brush

27 August 2016 244 views No Comment

1787: The Lost Chapters of Australia’s Beginnings

In many history books, including some of my earlier works, the time before European settlement of Australia is often presented as a prefatory chapter that begins 50,000 years before the present. In such accounts it is only when the so-called “Dreamtime” finishes that a history proper is seen to begin.

As a result, a great slab of past human experience is, as Nick Brodie explains, “relegated to archaeology and hermetically sealed by the founding of a British colony”. But, as Brodie maintains, “decent history does not work that way, with easy beginnings and simple sequences of events”.

Instead, he argues, we need a new history of early Australia that reveals and encompasses much-longer processes, including broader world stories and much-larger regional frontiers.

1787: The Lost Chapters of Australia’s Beginnings by Nick Brodie.
1787: The Lost Chapters of Australia’s Beginnings by Nick Brodie.
So 1787 focuses on the early years of pre-colonial Greater Australasia from the 16th and 17th centuries and beyond. In particular Brodie deals with the complex interactions of Makassan, Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch, French and English voyagers with the first peoples of New Guinea, Torres Strait, Timor, the Solomon Islands, Australia and New Zealand.

A major strength in Brodie’s book, the title of which he tantalisingly terms “not a date but an idea”, is his use of early stories of travel and conquest.

These include the writings of the late-13th-century Italian Marco Polo, who thought Java was the largest island in the world. The Javanese were seen to be rich in spices and so fierce and independent that the Chinese could not subdue them. In what he named “Lesser Java”, which is most probably the island of Sumatra, Polo observed that some of its people had recently converted to Islam.

Journeying throughout south-east Asia on behalf of the Mongol emperor of China, Kublai Khan, Polo also traded and travelled into other territories including the Malay Peninsula and the Indonesia Archipelago.

What made him different from others was the fact that he wrote a detailed account of his travels. His text was widely copied and read by other potential voyagers intent on sailing beyond the frontiers of Eurasia to what was sometimes thought to be the Great South Land.

As Brodie demonstrates in this path-breaking book, if we broaden our gaze, our story will widen. As a result we will have to cope with an incomplete picture. Yet this larger complexity can teach us to talk about our past with much greater nuance, unafraid of all that is still unknown. Such an approach, as Brodie suggests, can allow us “to treat our frontiers as places of encounter and conflict, not foreign and distant fields to be ignored”.

If we follow Brodie’s sage advice, we are compelled, as readers and writers, to look beyond “the ‘discovery-then-settlement’ triumphalist children’s tale we have been fed for several generations”. This will surely lead us to a more inclusive understanding of Australasia’s collective past and path, he argues.

It is difficult to disagree with Brodie’s claim that, not so long ago, Australian history was unashamedly European centered. In particular the widely accepted narrative was that, before Britain’s First Fleet, Australia was an isolated continent whose indigenes were living as they had since time began. Then along came European explorers who first “discovered” our coastline and then reached into the interior. Finally, as a result of white settlement, British laws and traditions filtered in, were refracted throughout the continent and eventually became our own.

Until quite recently, this was the dominant story of our past.

A great strength of the book is the inclusion of early European maps that reveal much more than explorers’ trails. As well, they chart a distinctly Eurasian frontier advancing towards Greater Australasia. As the Eurasian frontier continued into northern Greater Australasia, they also highlight how European maritime powers opened up other frontiers in the south.

These maps and other illustrations help readers understand what are often subtle and difficult arguments. As with the author’s previous multi-layered tale, Kin, they make the highly textured text much easier to follow.

The paintings reproduced in this fine book illustrate how frontier interactions in places such as New Guinea and Torres Strait were documented for several centuries before and after Britain’s so-called “colonisation” of Australia in 1788. Such details include many examples of indigenous adaptation and resistance. Other sketches and paintings demonstrate the Eurasian frontier did not evaporate with a simple flag-raising ceremony.

As Brodie aptly puts it: “Australia’s national history bleeds into that of its neighbours, and only becomes intelligible with a broader regional and international focus.”

Emeritus Professor of History & Politics at Griffith University, Ross Fitzgerald is the author of 39 books.

The Sydney Morning Herald, August 27-28, 2016, Spectrum, Reviews, Books p 30.

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