That Deadman Dance by Kim Scott, 400pp, Picador Australia, place, 2010, ISBN 9781405040440 (pbk), $22.99.
Shaking Hands on the Fringe: Negotiating the Aboriginal World at King George’s Sound by Tiffany Shellam, xii + 267 pp, University of Western Australia Press, Nedlands, WA, 2009, ISBN 9781921401268 (pbk), $29.95.
Kim Scott’s novel That Deadman Dance and Tiffany Shellam’s history Shaking Hands on the Fringe emerge out of different writing traditions, but are drawn from readings of similar historical documents and time (the first decades of European contact with Aboriginal people), in the same place, King Georges Sound in the far southern corner of Western Australia. Both are important (Scott’s obviously so having won the 2011 Miles Franklin Award) and accessible and will be read by people with little previous interest in the events of Western Australia’s first frontier.
Here, on what has been called the ‘friendly frontier’, European officials like Captain Collett Barker, and doctors Collie and Nind, oversaw the small military presence from 1826 that became the tiny second colony of Western Australia in 1831. Each recorded their observations of aspects of Aboriginal society, religion, beliefs and practices in journals and published articles, providing Shellam and Scott with rich material for their writing. But it is the empathetic Collett Barker’s journal that echoes most often in both works.
Barely a day passed in Barker’s journal that the Aboriginal people of the region do not feature prominently(Mulvaney and Green 1992). He wrote of an intimate relationship with some Aboriginal people, especially Mokare and his family, who became more than occasional ‘visitors to camp’, sleeping in his hut, sharing ideas, food and ceremonies. Barker came to recognise and respect the complexity and dynamism of Mokare’s world, remarking that its intricacies made it difficult for a European to comprehend. He noted that names for mountains, hills, river and the coastline, ‘change at short distances’, and were not always drawn from ancient mythological pre-historical times, but sometimes recalled recent events experienced by still living people (Mulvaney and Green 1992: 262). These are not people without history to Barker, but the notion of ‘history’ is unsettled in their hands.
Tiffany Shellam’s micro-history follows writers such as Inga Clendinnen and Bronwyn Douglas into a close reading of key documents, to skillfully tease out ‘repertoires’ of cross-cultural encounters for Aboriginal people as well as for Europeans. This is more than a reading ‘against the grain’ or a ‘two way’ history; it is multi-dimensional in its illumination of texts, creating a world of actions and encounters and identifying the growing ‘reservoir’ of new knowledge that was built for both Aboriginal people and the ‘newcomers’ from the sea, the Europeans.
Shellam adopts ‘King Ya-nup’ as a collective name for any Aboriginal person who contributed to daily life of the King George Sound settlement from 1826 to the early 1830s. She does not use the term ‘Noongar’ for Aboriginal people of the area, as does Kim Scott, choosing instead to render a word from the available historical documents, Kincinnup, for her ‘snapshot of a unique community’ that is ‘relevant for a very specific period of time and to a particular group of Aboriginal people and a particular selection of daily stories’ (Mulvaney and Green 1992: 33). From King’s journal of his week-long visit in December 1821, Shellam examines the minutiae of recorded meetings or sightings in texts and illustrations, using gazes, stances, distances between people and individual words to create a rich scene of exchange and mutual interest.
This ethnographic reading of the texts adopts Geertz’s ‘thick description’ that turns a wink from a voluntary closing of one eye, to a purposeful and more deeply meaningful action, contextualised according to the possibilities of culture, place and time, and framed by Shellam’s reading of the texts. Similarly the handshake is an action with many meanings and cultural and historical contexts that both Shellam and Scott utilise in their work. In 1834 Ensign Dale portrayed the handshake between Indigenous people and Europeans at King George Sound in a beautiful sketch. This image is on the cover of Shellam’s book, symbolising her overall approach to cast Aboriginal people as actively engaging with Europeans and quickly doing their own reading of words and behaviours of the newcomers. Having met the French for whom the handshake was accepted practice, some time before the English, who were beginning their acceptance of the handshake between gentlemen in the early nineteenth century, Aboriginal people of the region put out their hand on meeting the newcomers from the sea.
For Scott the handshake has a darker, less historically specific side, signaling Noongar confidence, lack of fear and the false friendship from Europeans that would turn sour within decades of these first encounters. This is an exciting story of the first years of European occupation and settlement, a longer view than Shellam’s. It is told through the eyes of a boy, Bobby Wabalanginyi, who experiences the best of what Europeans might offer in the first few years of contact, ‘appropriating cultural forms – language and songs, guns and boats’, grasping opportunities in the European ships, working with the white men to capture whales, learning to read and write with kindly Europeans and growing estranged, alienated, but never bitter as his land and people change. He is guide, translator, worker, the quintessential cross-cultural figure. Scott inhabits his characters with warmth and empathy, revealing the personalities of the friendly frontier through the friendliest of characters. He lingers over words and feelings without becoming self-indulgent. It is a book that could be read aloud and performed for its bubbling words and rich dialogue.
Scott the novelist is not as constrained to a close representation of the documents as is Shellam. As he states in the author’s note, his book is ‘inspired’ by history. It is the result of extensive documentary research, immersion in historic linguistic documents, and years of sitting with his extended Noongar family listening and repeating words until they felt right. Characters and events in the novel criss-cross with those of the historical documents; elements of Mokare’s world as described by Collet Barker, names from Dr Collie and exploration relationships between Edward Eyre and his guide. Scott takes readers into a world where Aboriginal histories are told through song, stories and poetry. Bobby Wabalanginyi embodies history, dancing the old dances and creating new ones like the Dead Man Dance of soldiers with guns and a white ochre cross on their chests, mimicking the ‘quick walking soldier Killam with the twist to his torso and the bad arm’ or ‘Guvnor Spender, nose up, hands going up and down, patting heads’. Bobby dances and sings characters to life, bringing their spirit into his and his people’s world. Bobby, like the historical figure Tommy King, a prominent Noongar man of nineteenth century Albany, becomes a ‘favourite’ of tourists and travellers, throwing a burning Kylie in exchange for a coin. In Scott’s novel Bobby tells his history to whoever will listen, adding, ‘We learned your words and songs and stories, and never knew you didn’t want to hear ours’.
Both Scott and Shellam slow down the frontier to imagine its smallest elements. Scott plays with words, while Shellam revisits historical moments in different chapters, to show the multiplicity of forms that can arise out of historical texts when they are used carefully. Both Scott and Shellam illuminate the human dramas of this frontier world without malice or meanness of spirit. Both substantially add to our understanding of contact history as a nuanced process, where lots of things were going on at once, where Europeans are brought into contact with Aboriginal people who hold a long history and robust culture. They explore the edges of historical imagination in a way that will help to keep Australian history alive.
Mulvaney, John and Neville Green 1992, Commandant of Solitude: the Journals of Captain Collet Barker, 1828 – 1831, Melbourne University Press at the Miegunyah Press, Melbourne.
Mary Ann Jebb
The Australian National University