18 February 2006
'Dancing with Strangers' by Inga Clendinnen,
(Cambridge University Press, 2005), describes an encounter between two
different worlds, the first contacts between Europeans and native (aboriginal)
Inga Clendinnen starts the book in South
America and retells the story of Charles Darwin meeting the native inhabitants
of Tierra del Fuego. She quotes Darwin saying, in contrast with modern
assumptions of a universal shared humanity: “I could not have believed how
wide was the difference between savage and civilised man; it is greater than
between a wild and domesticated animal.” Only after going ashore and
meeting the Fuegans face to face, did Darwin and his party establish some kind
of rapport, by dancing with the natives.
She then describes a similar event, recorded by Lieutenant William Bradley, when the British fleet, of soldiers, sailors, settlers and convicts, landed at Sydney Cove in Australia on 29th January 1788 and met the local inhabitants: “these people mixed with ours and all hands danced together.” Bradley later painted a picture of Broken Bay, with the British sailors and native Australians dancing hand in hand, reminiscent of children playing Ring a Ring of Roses, and his picture is reproduced on the cover of the book.
The theme of ‘Dancing with Strangers’ is the experience of a common shared humanity and how two very different societies tried, unsuccessfully, to come to terms with each other.
I was interested in this book, not only for the subject, which is fascinating in its own right, but as an example of historical sources speaking for themselves. Inga Clendinnen is no advocate of ‘scissors and paste’ history; writing, as she describes others in her field have done, by: “piecing together snippets derived from a range of narratives, perspectives and sensibilities in chronological order, and calling the resulting ribbon patchwork ‘objective history.” Much of the fascination of her book is her interpretation of the actions and motivation of the native Australians, who, unlike the British, left no written records of their own. But she does tell a story, she introduces the reader to the characters who have written the accounts which have survived and she helps us see the events through their eyes. Her reference to Darwin, her retelling of the two stories of Dancing with Strangers, the contemporary illustration on the cover and the title of the book itself, all help convey the vividness and reality of the past. As she relates in the introduction, her own personal experience of a visit to a derelict settlement at the northern tip of Australia first showed her “that the past … had once been as real as the present, which is always an electrifying realisation.”
As Graham Swift's fictional history teacher
says in his novel ‘Waterland’:“what history teaches us is to avoid illusion
and make believe, to lay aside dreams, moonshine, cure-alls, wonder workings,
pie-in-the-sky – to be realistic.”