Dancing with Strangers: The True History of the Meeting of the British First Fleet and the Aboriginal Australians 1788 
by Inga Clendinnen.
Canongate, 322 pp., £16.99, August 2005, 1 84195 616 3
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On 25 January 1788, HMS Supply eased her way between the imposing sandstone cliffs that mark the entrance to Port Jackson and into a waterway that John White, the First Fleet’s surgeon, proclaimed as ‘the finest and most extensive harbour in the universe’. The hyperbole was perhaps understandable, for the Britons were seeing Sydney Harbour through eyes wearied by months at sea, and this was to be their new home. The Aborigines must have watched in amazement as, the following day, the remaining ten vessels of Australia’s First Fleet glided between the heads and dropped anchor. From what we can gather, their first impression was that the white-skinned visitors were the dead returned to life. The misconception was forgivable, for there had been no contact between these human lineages for 60,000 years, when the first great migrations carried their ancestors out of Africa.

It’s to this meeting, and to precisely what followed in the first few years of European settlement at Sydney Cove, that Inga Clendinnen turns in the excellent Dancing with Strangers. Never in the history of humanity had two peoples been reunited after such a long isolation, and rarely have so many acute and educated minds been focused on documenting events. Unfortunately, as Clendinnen makes clear, the documentation is almost entirely British. If we are ever to understand what the Aborigines were thinking, she advises us, we need to ‘cultivate deliberate double-vision: to retrieve from British descriptions clues as to autonomous Australian action, not the simple reaction the British naturally assumed’. Clendinnen uses a thought-provoking nomenclature, referring to the Europeans as the British, and the Aborigines as the Australians.

Dancing with Strangers takes its title from a custom that sprang up almost at the first meeting between the British and Australians, and which seems to have persisted for years. It involved ‘dancing’, though exactly how is far from clear. Lieutenant Bradley, second in command of HMS Sirius, gives us some idea, saying that ‘these people mixed with ours and all hands danced together.’ His painting of one such event is more informative. Clendinnen interprets it as showing ‘the British and the Australians dancing hand in hand like children at a picnic: that is, dancing in the British style’. ‘We don’t readily think of dancing as a phase of the imperial process,’ Clendinnen says, but the fact that the British seem to be taking the initiative raises her suspicions.

In Clendinnen’s retelling of events, there is a critical moment in the relationship between the British and Australians that has been fundamentally misunderstood by previous commentators. In September 1790, Governor Phillip was speared by an Aborigine at Manly Cove. It was an event that could have led to all-out war, but in the improbable world of Australian colonial history it led to a great reconciliation, and to a closeness between black and white which remained unmatched until the Australian High Court’s Mabo case in 1992 began the process of returning land and dignity to many Australians. The Mabo decision recognised traditional ownership of land by Aboriginal people, overturning the colonial fiction that Australia was terra nullius – an ‘empty’ land, there for the Europeans’ taking.

Arthur Phillip was the son of a German immigrant. His naval career was unorthodox: the Admiralty gave him permission to serve in the Portuguese navy in Brazil, where he learned to speak Portuguese. The experience left him with a deep distaste for slavery, and a sympathy for other cultures. He was also fluent in French, and made lengthy and mysterious journeys to France. These were supposedly undertaken for the good of his health, yet it is suspected that, in this and other instances, he was acting as a spy. Although not lacking in bravery, he never captured the main prize – a Manila galleon perhaps – so never got rich.

There was one thing that Phillip could not abide: buggery. And as he contemplated what might be going on below decks among the 500 male convicts under his care, he considered shipping sodomites off to New Zealand to be eaten. Phillip’s humanism was often sorely tested during his time in New South Wales. On the day that 200 convict women were sent ashore, the sailors had been given a double serving of rum. Then a tremendous thunderstorm broke, and a bolt of lightning knocked a sentry senseless and killed some of the colony’s precious sheep. With authority distracted, a ‘scene of whoredome’ unfolded, as Lieutenant Ralph Clark of HMS Friendship described it. The sailors had given rum to the women, and lightning bolts illuminated displays of fighting, rutting and carousing. The next morning, when a hungover carpenter, a convict woman and a cabin boy dressed in a woman’s petticoat were marched from the women’s camp, Phillip suspected the worst. Nothing could be proved, however, and the trio were simply ordered through the assembly to the mocking lilt of ‘The Rogue’s March’.

Phillip knew that the success of his venture depended on his relationship with the Aborigines, and he did everything in his power to treat them fairly and with dignity. Escaped convicts, however, were suspected of perpetrating outrages, and soon after the female convicts’ landing, the Aborigines stopped visiting the colony. When convicts began to be found in the Bush riddled with spears, Phillip suspected that they had brought the punishment on themselves, and did not act. There were 17 deaths before he ordered reprisals.

With the Aborigines avoiding the camp, Phillip had no way to communicate his goodwill, so an Aborigine was kidnapped. Arabanoo was brought in handcuffs to the governor’s cottage, where he was treated to a sumptuous dinner served on the colony’s only china. His shackles removed, he mimicked perfectly the manners of his captors – using a knife and fork, and even enjoying a tot or two of Madeira. At the end of the meal, he was about to discard his plate out the window, like a bark dish, when his fellow diners rose as one and jumped on him to save the china. Arabanoo became accustomed to life in the camp and Phillip’s experiment was progressing well – until the Aborigine died of smallpox.

So Phillip kidnapped two more men, Colbee and Bennelong. Both were leaders, but their temperaments were very different: Colbee was grave and thoughtful, Bennelong daring and mercurial. Lieutenant Watkin Tench wrote of the latter: ‘His powers of mind were certainly far above mediocrity . . . Love and war seemed his favourite pursuits.’ Bennelong and Phillip eventually became such good friends that in 1792 the governor took the Australian to London, where he spent three years.

On being kidnapped, however, Bennelong was unsurprisingly furious, and when food ran short he escaped, not to be seen again until a great whale appeared in Manly Cove. The creature, which may have entered the harbour to give birth, had upset a rowing boat, drowning several marines. A few of their comrades, fancying themselves as amateur whalers, set out for revenge and fatally wounded the creature. When its carcass washed up in the cove, it attracted hundreds of Aborigines. Phillip was in the area, and took the opportunity to re-establish relations with Bennelong. At first Bennelong was reserved, but soon he called for wine and proposed a toast to ‘the king’ (‘ducking’ is still an Aboriginal term for alcohol). All proceeded well until a stranger approached. Later identified as Willemerin, a man from Botany Bay, he was alarmed at seeing Phillip, probably the first European he had encountered. As the governor walked over to calm him, Phillip’s dagger dropped from his belt onto some stones. This seems to have unnerved Willemerin, who launched his spear into Phillip’s shoulder.

In the chaos that followed other spears were thrown, but the marines’ powder was wet, and only a single (ineffective) musket shot was fired in retaliation. The governor’s wound appeared serious enough for him to be given the last rites as he was rowed across the harbour. Phillip never ordered retaliation, however; indeed, after recovering, he pursued reconciliation with the Australians.

Clendinnen sees Phillip’s spearing as a carefully planned and premeditated reprisal for the wrongs suffered by the Aborigines at the hands of the new arrivals. Their grievances included the theft of tools and weapons, the taking of fish and other game, and of course the kidnappings. We must balance this, however, against the 17 lives taken by the Australians in earlier, unpunished attacks. One could argue that Phillip, as leader, was special and had been chosen to bear the reprisal for his ‘tribe’. Indeed, by coincidence, he lacked a front incisor, which marked him as an initiated man. (The Aborigines called him Beana, meaning ‘father’.) Yet this was not the Australian way: children and women were the most frequent victims of revenge raids.

Most historians see the spearing as the result of the tension of first contact, and I’m inclined to agree with them. First contact situations (I have experienced them in New Guinea) are invariably tense, and the instincts to fight, flee or reconcile jostle for supremacy. Violence is never far below the surface. Subsequent events could be construed in support of Clendinnen’s view, however. After the spearing, Bennelong and his family paddled past the settlement in Sydney Cove and asked after the governor. When, after several meetings and gift-givings, it was established that there would be no retribution, Bennelong entered the settlement. This, Clendinnen argues, shows that the Australians were satisfied at the ‘blood payment’ extracted from the British with Phillip’s spearing. Bennelong and his wife, Barangaroo, were treated with special favour, often sleeping at Phillip’s residence and enjoying a hearty meal while the Europeans (including the governor himself) made do with rations. Clendinnen elucidates for the first time the character of Barangaroo. She was, Clendinnen says, ‘a daughter of the largest, toughest and most dominant tribe in the region’, and a woman of exceptional energy and independence. Even the fiery Bennelong had to give way to her on occasion: when he displeased her she not infrequently broke his spears, shield and even his canoe. After being laughed at by a party of men (including her husband) the first time she donned a petticoat, she became a woman of ‘determined nakedness’, who refused to wear a stitch of clothing regardless of weather or circumstance. Indeed she often went to dine with the governor wearing only a bone, which pierced her nose. Such ornamentation, it is interesting to note, was far more usual among males than females, and gives us an idea of the strength of character possessed by this woman. The extent to which the governor indulged the pair was underlined when, soon after their initial visit, Phillip had a brick house built for them on a point just east of the settlement. Known as Bennelong Point, it is where the Opera House stands today. Many British officers were at this time still sleeping under canvas or wattle and daub.

Bennelong became a power-broker between the Australians and the British – and eventually a man stuck between cultures. He was celibate while in London – which did not suit him – and soon after returning to Sydney made an attempt on Colbee’s wife, Booreea. Colbee asked Bennelong sarcastically if he meant his behaviour to be taken as ‘a specimen of English manners’. Phillip’s fate was no kinder. After returning to England in 1792 he suffered chronic ill-health, and there are rumours that he committed suicide. Today Bennelong lies in an unmarked grave on Kissing Point, a picturesque spot on the harbour, while Phillip was interred in the Church of St Nicholas, Bathampton. His grave, too, is unmarked: the plaque on the church floor supposedly marking his tomb was placed there following restoration. It would be fitting if their remains could be brought together at Sydney Cove, under a memorial that recalled the unique goodwill and dignity that characterised their friendship.

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