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Delicate steps

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 Baneelon (Bennelong), gives us a glimpse of two men who are genuine in their attempt to understand each other. There is tenderness in her portrait of Phillip. She writes of his humanity, his open-house policy for Baneelon’s many relatives, his tempered generosity. Phillip builds a house on the Point for Baneelon and we see Baneelon’s partner Barangaroo sitting naked with a ‘slim bone in her nose’ at the Governor’s table, ‘except once, when, fresh from a grand ceremonial occasion, she appeared in the glory of body paint’. Then comes the gradual degradation, the slow death of understanding. The ‘springtime of trust’ turns out to be fleeting and dissolves into violence.

Inga Clendinnen is a rare scholar. She dismisses academic jargon and writes clearly. She ventures into dark subjects that require honesty, empathy and moral courage. She refuses to be silenced by the mawkish ideologies that are rife in the current political climate. She seeks some common ground. Dancing with Strangers is a work of great beauty.  

Dancing with Strangers, Inga Clendinnen. Text Publishing, 2003. isbn 1 877008 58 3, rrp $45

Kirsty Sangster is a poet. Her first collection, Midden Places, will be published by Black Pepper Press in 2004.



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