Inga Clendinnen: Dancing with Strangers

From my Australian friend Ian I got a good book, Inga Clendinnen‘s 2003 Dancing with Strangers. It’s an account of one of world history’s most absurd situations.

Imagine a tropical continent inhabited exclusively by fisher-hunter-gatherers at a low population density for tens of thousands of years. They’re isolated from the rest of humanity. There is not a single permanent building on the continent. Nobody ever wears clothes. Nobody has ever heard of agriculture or stock breeding. Now watch a fleet of colonisation ships from an early industrial society arrive at the continent’s south-east coast and unload a thousand men and women at a place they’ve named Sydney Cove. It’s January 1788.

The two societies are almost mutually incomprehensible to start with, and comprehension becomes even harder when both societies in the Sydney region almost immediately go into crisis. Half of the Native Australian population is wiped out by smallpox. The British colony soon begins to starve. And the colonists are not a thousand optimistic volunteer settlers: it’s a penal colony consisting of convicted urban criminals, soldiers to guard them and a small number of colonial administrators. Naval discipline is upheld, with flogging and hangings commonplace. Clendinnen’s book is a look mainly at the first five years of this mess, focusing on the relationship between the two cultures.

While much of the motivations of the British were explicit and recorded in writing, throughout Clendinnen tries to understand Native Australian motivations on the basis of British accounts of their behaviour. The British were generally baffled by the “savages'” erratic and enigmatic acts. Clendinnen argues that all or most of it should be explained by an underlying coherent system of cultural assumptions and values. I don’t know how much of her model of this system is generally accepted by social anthropologists, but she suggests that

  • Though nomadic, the Native Australians were strongly territorial (against the assumptions of the British), and thus regarded British encroachment as a wrong that called for compensation,
  • The Native Australians practiced clan-based justice, where if I kill a man then his clan can be expected to wreak vengeance not just on me but all my clan including women and children,
  • Native Australian male dignity was a highly fragile thing that would frequently demand acts of display and aggression to be upheld.

Could it be that Native Australian society was, in the absence of writing and formal institutions, in fact not quite so structured and homogeneous, but to an appreciable extent rather random in its workings? I don’t know. Anyway, what the first British colonists recorded was a system experiencing a catastrophic breakdown, so we can’t really know how the machine worked before the arrival of the First Fleet threw a spanner into it.

Clendinnen writes a beautifully effortless prose and is respectful throughout to the people she’s discussing. Her attitude to the relationship between the sexes is curious: on the one hand she is refreshingly sex-friendly, wryly and matter-of-factly recounting the dalliances and mutual desires of men and women, British and Native Australian. On the other she is in my opinion a bit too unperturbed about the rampant wife-beating and wife-murder that was an ingrained part of Native Australian masculinity. Here she takes cultural relativism too far, in my opinion. There were many aspects of British culture that stank. But Native Australian wife-beating was second to none of them. Whacking your pregnant wife repeatedly in the head with a stout wooden club is in no way excused by the fact that you both belong to a “traditional culture”.

A central message in the book is that although things thereafter quickly did became pretty bleak for the Native Australians, the first five years of the Sydney colony under Arthur Phillip‘s governorship cannot be seen as an oppressive or murderous regime. The colony was struggling, but Phillips put a lot of scarce resources into an sustained attempt at peaceful coexistence with the natives.

W.E.H. Stanner has called the Australians ‘a high-spirited and militant people’, and it is as a high-spirited, militant people they leap from the eighteenth-century page. They should be honoured not only for their ingenious adaptation to life on this, the least manipulable continent on earth, but also for their inventive resourcefulness in dealing with the strangers. The men of the First Fleet deserve honour too, for their openness, their courage, and their stubborn curiosity. In the end, it was the depth of cultural division which defeated them, not any lack of energy, intelligence or good will.” (p. 286)

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5 thoughts on “Inga Clendinnen: Dancing with Strangers

  1. Did not know Clendinnen wrote about Australia as well. I remember I read her book “Ambivalent Conquests: Maya and Spaniard in Yucatan, 1517-1570” (1987) many years ago.


  2. Governor Phillip held to Rousseau’s ideas of the ‘Noble Savage’ and thus tried to deal with them respectfully – as much as any Brit could from an 18th Century perspective. The rise in progressionist ideas, like Hegelianism, led to a decline in the Colonial administration’s view of the natives as the 19th Century saw the Colony expand. But, as the book discusses, it’s hard to reconstruct what the First Australian society was like before disease decimated it.

    One quibble – there were permanent habitations employed by several different Aboriginal groups. They were used seasonally, but they were no less permanent. It’s a common, but mistaken, view.


  3. Not having read the book, I don’t know how the British convict community behaved towards the Indigenous Australian one. But, as I understand it, many of the convicts were not hardened or serious criminals, but economic or political ones (or even falsely convicted ones). I know these examples are from later generations, but the Rufford Park Poachers were locals who tried to feed their families with animals from enclosed (privatised) land, fought with the landowner’s gamekeepers, and got transported to Australia for manslaughter. And the Tolpuddle Martyrs were falsely convicted, and even if they had been lawfully convicted, would only have been guilty of trades union activism for a living wage. So, perhaps the British convict community formed quite strong foundations for a just society!


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