Review Blog

Sep 29 2015

The savage shore by Graham Seal

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Allen & Unwin, 2015. ISBN 9781760111076
(Age: secondary to adult) Highly recommended. History, Early exploration of Australia, Spice trade. The role of the VOC (Dutch East Indies Company) in mapping Australia in the seventeenth century is vividly brought to life in this highly readable book about the exploration of Australia. Finding a sea route to the Spice Islands (East Indies, today's Indonesia) meant huge profits could be made by this Amsterdam company in bringing spices back to Europe. But they wanted more: to keep profits up, they needed more resources and more markets, (doesn't that sound familiar!) and so mariners were told to watch out for possibilities when they landed on unknown shores. This resolve coincided with a new faster route being discovered by Brouwer in 1611. He travelled east from Cape Town, instead of hugging the African coast, using the Roaring Forties to travel across the Indian Ocean and turning north to Batavia when the distance appeared right. Without any accurate means of telling where they were on the ocean (the discovery of longitude was still a hundred years away) many ships hit the Western Australian coast, some disastrously, but took their charts with them to head office when rescued. So pieces of the Australian coastline were uncovered and mapped throughout this century but kept close by VOC hesitant to allow others this information lest they cash in the lucrative trade that may transpire. Names like Batavia and Tasman spring readily to mind when thinking about this early exploration, and Seal gives a full account of both these stories, but includes others less known. In the eighteenth century, the fortunes of the VOC were in decline and a more scientific appraisal of the Southland was undertaken by both the French and British. Stories of Cook, Baudin and Flinders stand out as they mapped and explored possibilities of the new country.
I loved reading this history giving a fascinating account of the attempts to discover the Southland, the activities by the VOC and the many stories of survival by seamen. Half remembered stories are fleshed out as the cartographers pieced together the coastline, and secondary students and adults alike will find this book adds to their knowledge of our early history. A number of recently published books add to the interest given by this book, Batavia (Peter Fitzsimmons, Heinemann, 2011) gives an impressive account of that chilling chapter in Australia's history as does My father's islands (Christobel Mattingley, NLA, 2012) giving a fictional account of Abel Tasman and his importance to Australia's exploration for younger readers.
I did rankle somewhat at the myth that school children are taught that Cook discovered Australia, knowing that the texts I read and used certainly belie this. But a good story always needs a little spice and this book certainly gives the reader that.
Stories of being marooned on this uninviting land, of murder and betrayal, of incredible courage and fortitude, of Aboriginal stories about contact held my attention. A comprehensive index, glossary and bibliography serve the book and its readers well.
This is a substantial addition to any school, class or home library. And a marvellous companion to the recent exhibition at the Art Gallery of South Australia: Treasure Ships, art in the age of spices.
Fran Knight

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