‘1787: The Lost Chapters of Australia’s Beginnings’ by Nick Brodie

brodie1787

2016, 304 p.

When you see Nick Brodie’s book on a bookstore shelf along with other Australian titles, with its dominant ‘1787’ emblazoned on the front, you tend to do a bit of double-take. Did someone make a mistake? Wasn’t it 1788?  There has been a constant and increasing uneasiness with 26 January being celebrated as Australia Day (something I’ve written about several times in this blog) but in this book Brodie bumps all this debate to one side, exhorting us that “‘If we broaden our gaze, our story will get bigger”. 

There are some history books where, having read them, you know there has been a shift in your awareness.  You return to ideas and concepts that you had never questioned before, and see them anew.  I’m thinking, for example, of Bill Gammage’s The Biggest Estate in the World and to a lesser extent Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu; I’m thinking of Greg Dening’s Mr Bligh’s Bad Language,  Zoe Laidlaw’s Colonial Connections or the first of Henry Reynold’s work that you might read. Tom Griffith’s book Hunters and Collectors changed my mind about museums, and as a more distant example,  I suppose that Geoffrey Blainey’s The Tyranny of Distance would have had a similar effect at the time of publication.  To this list, now I’d have to add Nick Brodie’s  1787.  He eschews the idea of our continent sitting isolated at the bottom of the globe and instead knits Australia into  Eurasia and a trading network frontier that connected the northern and southern hemispheres. Although the book is called ‘1787’ (a curious choice given his challenge to what he calls  “the arbitrariness of epochs”) it spans the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and expands its view to the  current peripheries of Australasia, including New Zealand (have I offended?), Tasmania, New Guinea and the Torres Strait.

He does seem rather fixated on the emphasis on 1789, or rather, he keeps asserting that ‘we’ are. Certainly the Australian history I was taught did include the Dutch and the Macassans and  I suspect that his somewhat conspiratorial view of the ‘lost’ness  these ‘hidden documents’ is a little overblown.

However, what Brodie does in this book is create a narrative from the writings of Spanish, Dutch, Portuguese and French mariners and contextualize those encounters into a broader Eurasian trade and Enlightenment-culture picture. He starts his book with the narrative of Don Diego de Prado y Tovar, an officer under the command of Pedro Fernandes de Quiros, who travelled the Pacific during 1606 and encountered the fringes of New Guinea. He highlights that  Islamic, European and Chinese powers converged in the islands to the north of Australia, and spends quite a bit of time on Tasman’s expedition for the VOC (Dutch East India Company). He shows that Dampier led not one, but two voyages to New Holland, and while respectful (as one must be) of Cook’s seamanship, he writes a detailed narrative of Cook’s largely unsuccessful attempts at interaction with the indigenous inhabitants . He is very aware of the constructed nature of the documents he works from.   He looks carefully at Cook’s corrections and amendments between the drafts and published copies of his journals, and considers them against Banks’ writings as well.  He cites directly from primary texts; he slows down for particular episodes; he makes pithy and stop-you-in-your-tracks observations.

I had not realized that Cook went to Van Diemen’s Land, and for me the really new part of this book came in the section ‘Forward Operating Bases’ which places Van Diemen’s Land and New Zealand as the bases of repeated encounters. The usual post-1788 narrative is that both VDL and New Zealand were settled from Sydney, but his enumeration of repeated visits by English and French expeditions that deliberately sailed for Adventure Bay( 1773 and 1777) and Frederick Henry Bay (1772) in Van Diemen’s Land and Ship Cove in New Zealand (1770, 1773 -several times-1774, 1777) challenges that view.  Ships in an expedition became separated from each other; they returned to shelter in the hope that the other ship would do likewise; they deliberately let loose farm animals in the hope that they would breed and form a land-based food supply, and they tried to encourage agriculture.

None of these journeys are accidental drop-ins: instead they are a manifestation of both the trade and knowledge networks that criss-crossed the globe.  Nor were the indigenous people they encountered always completely ignorant either: knowledge spread within Australasia as well.

Brodie has an engaging, easy tone and he sustained the energy of his writing throughout.  I do wish that there had been a map beyond the  16th and 17th century reproductions he includes within the colour plates in the middle of the book.  It’s written for a general readership, with no footnotes.

There is much to admire here, but as I found when reading his earlier book Kin, there is a brashness and self-promotion in his approach that does not sit well with me. He doesn’t need to engage in the sniping at unnamed historians who have ‘duped’ their readers and colleagues by fixing only on 1788, and I find his condescension towards other historians, their readers, and anyone who has ever studied Australian history, unpleasant. ‘Dupe’ can be a noun as well as a verb, and no-one likes to be told that they have been stupidly misled.   It is a stance spelled out in the ‘not-a-prologue’ (his chapter heading, not mine),  repeated over again in opening each chapter and reiterated in the ‘not-an-epilogue’. His insistence on his contrarian, “me against the historians” argument becomes wearing after a while.  I had thought, with Kin, that it was a reflection of his young age and impatience.  Perhaps it still is.  Despite his sneering at ‘historians’, he is an academically trained and recognized historian himself, and he’s too good to engage in such blatant self-promotion.  He’s a prolific worker (with already another book in the wings), stunningly telegenetic, and good at publicity.  It amazes me that he hasn’t been snapped up for television work.

That said, this is one of those books that makes you see things differently.  By shifting the frame to Van Diemens Land and New Zealand, he shifts Australian history subtly on its axis, and he does, it’s true, reframe the whole Captain Cook/ 1788 story. That’s quite an achievement.

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One response to “‘1787: The Lost Chapters of Australia’s Beginnings’ by Nick Brodie

  1. A pity about the tone. I think he got the title – 1787 – from Charles C. MAnn, 1491: New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus.

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