Review Blog

Jan 26 2017

Living with the locals: early Europeans' experience of Indigenous life by John Maynard and Victoria Haskins

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National Library, 2016. ISBN 9780642278951
(Age: Secondary) Depicting experiences of early contact between Europeans and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, this book necessarily relies on primary and secondary historical sources. Importantly however, sensible and considered anthropological analysis is applied to better understand the records.
Nine separate experiences of colonial Europeans living with Indigenous Australians are detailed and they all occurred on the East coast of Australia, reaching south from the tip of Cape York down as far as the bushland around Melbourne. Presumably Dutch and Portuguese sailors had similar unrecorded experiences living with Aboriginal people on the Western Australian coast, prior to British colonisation.
British colonials found themselves living with Indigenous people for varying lengths of time, from three months in Eliza Fraser's case to 32 years for the well-known William Buckley. This came about because they were convicts fleeing captivity or because they found themselves stranded as a result of shipwreck.
A common theme evident in the accounts is the incapacity for 'rescuers' and contemporary commentators to consider that living with Aboriginal people was a valid existence which could be considered as a permanent way of life. Some returning individuals refused to expand on their experiences or divulge particulars regarding social and spiritual practices, possibly to protect the people to whom they were grateful for having saved their lives. Others exaggerated and even fabricated aspects in order to gain notoriety and possibly profit from journalists and speaking events. In the case of Eliza Frazer, one can ponder whether she suffered from a psychiatric disorder, either pre-existing or brought about by trauma and whether this may have influenced her account. Often, commentary which openly acknowledged kindness and the fact that European lives were saved by people who sometimes were the victims of terrible violence and exploitation was still patronising and dismissive of Aboriginal society. Sadly, early colonial discussion regarding Indigenous people on occasion tended to focus on cannibalism when there was little evidence of it (apart from William D'Oyley's and John Ireland's experience). Similarly, the cases of white women living with Indigenous people were treated in a lurid manner, implying capture and sexual abuse rather than emphasising their salvation from certain death and generous adoption into community.
I found it a curious experience to read this text, identifying the ignorant and arrogant views expressed by colonial commentators and feeling appropriately embarrassed. Any notion of being 'holier than thou' is however dispelled by considering the accounts from the perspective of the writers who lacked the knowledge and progressive understanding of culture which has developed in the centuries since. Hopefully this book will continue the process of educating non-Indigenous people regarding the culture and society of Australia's original inhabitants.
The text is highly relevant to the contact topic in the current Australian history curriculum.
Rob Welsh

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