Keith Vincent Smith, Mari nawi: Aboriginal odysseys.
In a sense, this book is an elaborate catalogue for the 2010 exhibition at the State Library of New South Wales under the same title as the book, curated by Dr Smith. It is a work of superior antiquarianism which is of great significance to historians, even those who prefer to look at the 'big picture' interpreted through theory, but it is also much more than either of these.
In 1990 Henry Reynolds published With the white people, which reopened the subject of those Aboriginal people who were crucial in forming partnerships with white settlers in the exploration and development of Australia in colonial times. It had become fashionable, politically and historically, to denigrate such Aboriginal people as 'Uncle Toms' or 'Jackys' and praise only those who resisted. Pemulwuy was much more acceptable to this discourse than the 'traitors' Bennelong and Truganini.
Reynolds, however, had long recognised the truth of anthropologist W.E.H. Stanner's aphorism that 'for every Aborigine who, so to speak, had Europeans thrust upon him, at least one other had sought them out'. With the white people presented a picture of wide-ranging voluntary involvement of Aboriginal men and women in the frontier of the 'white world'. As it happens, and consistent with this contratrend, Dr Smith's earlier works include sympathetic biographies of both Bennelong and Bungaree. He thus continues this honourable revisionism here.
'Mari nawi' was the Eora term for European ships, 'big canoes'. The theme here is Aboriginal voyages from 1790 to 1850. This book is an extremely thorough examination of a multitude of Indigenous men and women, extraordinary and ordinary, who participated in the early maritime history of the Australian colonies (Reynolds' black pioneers were terrestrial).
The colonies, we sometimes forget, were outward-looking trading settlements from the beginning. Smith's narratives cover action not only in New South Wales but also Van Diemen's Land, Norfolk Island, South and Western Australia, north America, London and the Pacific islands and even Rio de Janeiro. Not only are the high seas featured but also bay whaling and river navigation.
To say the research is fine-grained is an understatement: all conceivable sources have been ransacked and minutely interrogated to wring out every drop of information about these black maritime pioneers. The textual critical work needed to identify or distinguish particular individuals (such as two Pigeons and two Marias) is truly impressive. Documents and pictures, including many drawn or painted by French and Russian artists, are reproduced and are integral to telling the stories.
Well-known figures are here, such as Bennelong, Bungaree, Nanbarry, Musquito and Yemmerrawannee, who died and was buried in London in 1794. There is a multitude of the lesser-known presented which shows that the famous ones were not so exceptional after all. One of the longer
stories concerns whaler Thomas Chaseland, son of an ex-convict and a Dharug woman, who ended up marrying a Portuguese-Maori woman on Stewart Island, New Zealand.
There is some polite correction of a few mistakes by earlier historians. Missing, however, is Miago, a Noongah man from the upper Swan River who sailed on the famous Beagle in the late 1830s.
It is important for historians to take these painstakingly crafted stories seriously. The chapter on Musquito and Bulldog includes significant analysis of the resistance and misdemeanours which led to their penal exile to Norfolk Island and Van Diemen's Land.
Gradually, we see the kin and other relationships between and among black and white actors becoming clearer. Connections in and across the Pacific are gradually revealed: whaling took several men on extensive voyages, boatswain Maroot went sealing on Macquarie Island, and Gnung-a Gnung-a observed surfing in Hawaii.
Like Reynolds' account of black pioneers, Smith's book underlines the need for balance and sensitivity in understanding race relations in colonial Australia. The stories frequently show respect for people's choices and demonstrate that respect, friendship, employment and romantic love regularly crossed racial and cultural lines, despite all the violence and prejudice that we now know so much about.
Even with the plethora of people and ships' names and the detailed nature of the narrative, this is an easy and fascinating read. The indexes for places, people and ships are very useful. It is richly illustrated in monochrome and colour (though it's a pity that the cover is a trifle pedestrian in design), clearly set out and printed on quality paper, combining to produce a very attractive paperback for which the small house Rosenberg Publishing should be congratulated.
Professor of History
Australian Catholic University
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|Publication:||Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Dec 1, 2011|
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