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Delicate steps

  • 10 July 2006

Inga Clendinnen has once again written on a subject chained to brutality, anger and sometimes unspeakable suffering—as with her extraordinary book Reading the Holocaust (Text Publishing, 1998). The history of white ‘invasion’ or ‘settlement’ is also a highly politicised one: where both sides in the history war claim to know the truth.

Clendinnen describes what happened between black and white in the first few years after the arrival of the First Fleet. She does not claim the objective truth, but rather likens her subjective journey through the letters and journals of the First Fleeters to an underwater, an aquatic experience. Clendinnen takes as her academic mantra Milan Kundera’s phrase ‘Man proceeds in a fog’. Everything is strange here, in this misty and submerged place called the past. Yet through the patchwork process of research, Clendinnen lets us hear bits of conversation, distant voices and songs from Botany Bay.

Clendinnen gives us a wonderful picture of the chaos and misunderstandings of those years. The initial encounter between black and white is one that begins with dancing. As one Lieutenant William Bradley, second in command of HMS Sirius, recounts: ‘these people mixed with ours and all hands danced together.’ On the hot sands, the raggle-taggle mob that has just arrived from the seas meets up with the other mob that lives here. They begin to dance. Each partner in the dance is equally appalled by the other’s weird smell. The white man is fetid, stinking of unwashed wool, sweat and grime. The black man is perfumed with fish oil that has been poured over his hair and all down his bare skin to ward off mosquitoes. Yet they dance and sing together.

This encounter marks the beginning of a fragile reciprocity between the newcomers and the Australians. On both sides, there is a mixture of puzzlement and contempt as they stare at the strange figures before them. There is the exchange of women, weapons and fish. They share also the violence of men. Two warrior cultures. One side is horrified at the hangings, the gibbets, the slash and burn of the cat-o’-nine-tails. The other side shocked at the domestic beatings, the blows across the head and the rape of women. To each party, the other’s violence seemed aberrant and uncontrolled.

There is also, initially, a careful diplomacy and a degree of collective political bargaining. Clendinnen, in her description of the relationship between Captain Arthur Phillip and