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Dancing With Strangers: Europeans and Australians at First Contact, by Inga Clendinnen.

July 31, 2012

Dancing with Strangers, by Inga Clendinnen.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, c2005.

A fascinating exploration of the thoughts and actions of the British who first colonized Australia, the thoughts and actions of people they found already living there, and the vast cultural divide between them.  A wise and beautifully written book.

The only records of the encounter between the first group of British colonists and the Indigenous Australians are those written by British officers and professionals who accompanied the first colonists to settle at Sidney. With skills drawn from history and anthropology, Clendinnen explores the assumptions and cultural patterns which motivated both the British writers and the Australians, as she calls them.  She does not question the accuracy of the British accounts of what happened; she does question the British assumptions that the Australian Indigenous people were irrational and inferior. She goes on to reconstruct unwritten cultural assumptions of both groups, assumptions that lay in the way of any long-term reconciliation between them.  Such an approach is problematic, of course, as Clendinnen would agree, but she sees it as alternative to those who would understand the encounter only through the judgmental eyes of British.  Her speculations push us to consider the first Australians as human beings, not the passive, pasteboard figures which they too often appear.

Clendinnen begins with discussions of the handful of men whose writings she has used most heavily in her account, delineating their different attitudes toward the native people.  First among these is the colony’s governor, eager to be generous even when it brought danger and confident that the Australians would quickly see the benefits of how the British lived and adopt their lifestyle. Other writers were less hopeful, but sometimes more accurate.

On the initial meeting of Australians and British both sides were cautious but friendly.  They joined together in singing and dancing, as shown in the painting above.  But misunderstandings abounded and tensions rose, despite the governor’s attempts to reach out to the Indigenous people.  With no shared language, little of importance could be conveyed, especially concerning abstract assumptions about what was fair or just.

Clendinnen looks at particular events with an eye for detail.  For example, when the governor was wounded by a spear thrown at him, she does not agree with the British interpretation that an Australia had thrown the spear in simple panic.  She shows how that explanation leaves too much about the incident unexplained. Instead she suggests that the Australians had performed a ritual to humble a person who had hurt them without destroying their larger alliance with him.  She does not claim that she positively knows what motivated the spear throwing, only that if, unlike the British colonizers, we start from the assumption that the Australians were fully rational and had their own frames of reference, then their actions can be seen as anything but thoughtless.

In exploring a series of similar incidents, Glendenning points out how incomprehensible the actions of both sides seemed to the other.  The Australians could not understand the British sexual mores or their flogging and hanging of members of their community.  On the other hand, the British found the Australian men’s abuse of women unacceptable.  As Indigenous Australians were encouraged to enter the British settlement, their assumption that they would be fed became intolerable to the British, especially when the ships with food and other supplies failed to arrive when expected from Britain.  Glendinnen is particularly astute in identifying the conflicting views found among the British.  She even notes the differences between the officers and the convicts in the colony.  On one hand, the convicts resented the graciousness shown the Australians when they themselves were forced to exist with strict rules and low rations of food.  Often they were the British most likely to be killed by blacks.  On the other hand, convicts often joined the Australians in drinking parties and for sex.

Glendinnen is not interested in assigning blame for the failure of black and white to achieve the harmonious relations they both initially hoped to achieve.  If anyone is at fault, she sees the problem in the failure of the home country to adequately supply the young colony.  She does not see racism as a major issue, although she acknowledges it.  For her, the more basic problem was that both the British and the Australians held unexplored cultural assumptions that could not be communicated, basic beliefs about the proper treatment of others.  In the end she admonishes her readers that whenever we encounter cultures other than our own; the first step must be to examine our deepest assumptions and decide what we can and cannot accept from others.

Not surprisingly for the author of a book like Dancing with Strangers, Inga Clendinnen seems to be an unusual individual, part of the academic world yet capable of working outside its walls.  She is an Emeritus scholar and has taught at the University of Melbourne and Latrobe University.  Her books on the Mayas and the Holocaust have received significant world-wide recognition.  Yet biographical information available on the web gave no clue as to her educational background.  Cambridge University Press, which published Dancing with Strangers, does not publish frivolous titles.  Clendinnen writes with all the precision expected of academics, blending her background in anthropology and history.  She does not, however, follow the rules laid down by conventional academics.  Her approach is thorough and very precise, but she does not place her findings in the context of scholarly debates among historians or anthropologists about her subject.

I am not an Australian historian and I cannot guess how her work is regarded by other experts on her topic. I found her book exhilarating, and I do know that she convinces me of the value of her work and the need for historians and novelists to do more to understand the cultural assumptions of those unlike ourselves.

Wisely she does not claim absolute factual accuracy, but her speculations are well informed by what we can know.  The intellectual exercise of viewing the Indigenous as Australians is itself enlightening.  Her method reveals that we need not limit our understanding of Indigenous Australians to the kind of flat, passive figures that Kate Grenville gives us in Sarah Thornhill.  If Clendinnen accomplishes nothing else, she forces readers to put themselves in the role of Indigenous peoples rather than the Europeans and face the fact that they are fully human.

I strongly recommend this book, especially to Australians who want to expand their own ability to speculate about their past, and to anyone wanting to think outside their cultural limitations.

Related books I have reviewed:

Sarah Thornhill, by Kate Grenville.

That Deadman Dance, by Kim Scott.

14 Comments leave one →
  1. August 29, 2012 8:13 am

    Wanted to comment in more detail on this and have had it open on my laptop for two days, but time has defeated me and I have to close it down. Will just say that I loved this book, and that Clendinnen is well regarded here. I have read a couple of her books and a long essay. BUT I disagreed with her reaction to Kate Grenville and The secret river. I think she over-reacted to Grenville’s statements on historical fiction and missed the point. Google Clendinne Grenville Secret River and you’ll probably find some “stuff” about it. (Hope you are feeling well now!)

    • August 30, 2012 10:55 am

      Thank you so much. I was glad to hear that she is well respected in Australia. I just wish you had found time and energy to write more. I will go look at her comments about Grenville. As you see, I had my own complaints about Grenville–maybe over-reacting also. I just liked Clendinnen’s approach so much more.
      I just posted my review of her Tiger Eye which I liked even more than Strangers.

      • August 30, 2012 4:23 pm

        Oh, I’ll go read your review. That was my first Clendinnen but I probably read it about a decade ago.

        The thing about Grenville is that her The secret river is fiction. You might be interested to read Grenville’s Searching for the secret river.

  2. August 31, 2012 8:58 am

    Thanks for sending me to Clendinnen’s article about Grenville. I want to read the Grenville’s Searching, at least the excerpts on line. Maybe I will do a post responding to both. Yes, Grenville writes fiction. but I was more troubled by her remarks, as quoted, than the novels. It’s the old question of what we expect from historical fiction and from history. I see the problem but care about all characters being treated fairly.

  3. September 12, 2012 8:31 pm

    Oh that was a most undignified spat: between two of our most respected authors, no less.
    But that doesn’t take away from their work: Dancing with Strangers is, I agree, a most important book and one that can be a catalyst for understanding First Contact in Australia and perhaps elsewhere as well. It’s also immensely readable, accessible to a general reader – which is important too.
    Marilyn, I just wanted to comment too about how I appreciate your interest in Australian literature, history and culture. It’s not just that I value our ‘Australian story’ being promoted to the wider world, it’s also that I value a thoughtful and informed perspective from outside our country. So thanks, and stay well:)

    • September 14, 2012 11:01 am

      Thanks, Lisa. I still know so little about Australia. I didn’t start out to learn so much. I just signed up for the Australian Women Writers Challenge, started reading, and fascinated. Your history and culture are both so similar and so different than those of the USA, and you bloggers keep suggesting books that I want to read.


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