- Dancing with Strangers: Europeans and Australians at First Contact
One must read this book with caution, for it both intrigues and perhaps unsettles. Inga Clendinnen's Dancing with Strangers boldly reconstructs early Australian settlement, recasting around indigenous contact and subsequent cultural conflict. With great compassion and insight, Clendinnen sets about to explicate the relations between individual men and the sometimes faceless, sometimes named Australians (as she terms them). Starting in 1788 and covering less than ten years in the colony of Port Jackson, Australia, it tells the story of European colonization and its effects. [End Page 456]
The period, while short, intersects with the colonization of Hawai'i, the emergence of Britain as an industrial power, and the raging Indian wars of North America. It was the year the British navy took over theAndaman Islands. The era has immense comparative possibilities. Rather than create a conventional history of the era or the place, Clendinnen recasts the form. She looks instead at personalities, psychology, and inner motivation.
In many ways, this book is a must for world historians looking to expand historiographic technique. The text reads easily and showcases Clendinnen's organizational talent. Each of the thirty-one chapters encapsulates a common event, person, or idea, clustering primary text, analysis, and narrative context. For students looking to write a good history or for those seeking a novel format to present their own work, one should definitely read this book.
For those reading to understand Australia's relationship to world history, the book may be something of a disappointment. This is a local text and does not easily invite comparisons. Clendinnen does an excellent job reviewing her sources and explaining them in a satisfactory manner. Purposefully, she focuses her lens upon individuals, making this more of a biographical time capsule than anything else. Rooted in primary sources and eschewing outside context, she narrows the reader's eye to each event, which is both the power and the weakness of the book.
Australianists will find the work refreshing and outright compelling. Watkin Tench, David Collins, and rarely discussed indigenous men such as Colbee and Bennelong take center stage in a classic drama of human will. Every sentence of every journal has been lovingly pored over by Clendinnen, and her best interpretation of often explained decisions and events clearly shows a well-reasoned and documented opinion. Given that the history wars in Australia still rage, her thorough and well-quoted work will surely stand its ground against opposition.
Clendinnen makes a convincing case that friendship initially flourished between the British and the Australians. She masterfully marshals quotation after quotation outlining literally dancing, feasting, sexual relations, intimacy, laughter, and trade. Over the ensuing months and years, she navigates with her protagonists, both white and indigenous, the arduous and ever decaying cultural contact. Women get serious concern, and whenever possible Clendinnen names individual women who played key historical roles. In this she must be applauded.
The uncontextualized nature of the text can be worrisome. Clendinnen, an expert of Aztec and Mayan history, does not have the secondary [End Page 457] source grounding to discern nuances that perhaps would have strengthened her argument. It is cautionary to see that by establishing as a central conceit of the process the use of a handful of primary source documents, a book so strong in explication and weak in context has been produced. Certain forgivable mistakes are made: Clendinnen maps the skin groups unconventionally, ranks Bennelong as a leader rather than a follower, makes a few generalizations that might not hold, and so on. In general, her grounding as master worker in history gives her enough latitude to compensate.
For indigenous scholars and scholars of indigenous Australia the book will surely be disturbing, and perhaps frustrating. While Clendinnen does her very best to create a realistic understanding of Australian response to white invasion, she does so with no indigenous primary sources. Every source is British and told from a British point of view. Clendinnen appears not to have consulted John Mulvaney...