Australia's first contact stories – the first encounters between indigenous locals and new arrivals – nearly always involved the first people having to learn about and accept the ways of the newcomers, or face annihilation. But there are also a few stories of white people – escaped convicts or shipwreck survivors - who found themselves with no choice but to find a place within aboriginal communities, to learn their culture, their language and how to live with them. Still others chose to abandon colonial society to live within indigenous societies.
At the time, such stories attracted huge interest amongst colonists as well as an intrigued public back in Britain, and were often recounted with much embellishment, exaggeration and outright deception in order to reinforce the imagined 'superiority' of white people over the 'natives'. However, whether told in the first person or by third parties, the reports do provide some fascinating insights, particularly into the perceptions and reactions of the local people to their unexpected guests and to the colonial invasion.
In Living with the Locals: Early Europeans' Experience of Indigenous Life, historians Professor John Maynard and Professor Victoria Haskins delve into the rich resources available at the National Library of Australia to recount and reinterpret the experiences of 13 individuals whose lives took this unusual turn. Some of the stories, such as William Buckley and shipwreck surviver Eliza Fraser, are well-known; others, such as the 14-year old French cabin boy, Narcisse Pelletier, who was marooned on Cape York in 1858 and lived for 17 years with local people, are not so familiar.
Each of the stories is a vivid adventure, wonderfully exciting to the eager imaginations of nineteenth century readers. But as Maynard and Haskins reveal, the experiences of these 'wild white' people are also a valuable opportunity to understand some of the complexities inherent in the indigenous-colonial interaction, and the possibilities that existed beyond the mere domination of one group by another.
The authors find that many of those who returned to colonial society had a strong sense of loyalty to their indigenous hosts, and were often reluctant to reveal details of their experiences. They had learned in a way no outsider could about indigenous ways of life, some had married and participated in everything from ritual ceremonies to hunting and gathering activites.
Maynard and Haskins also call into question inferences about aboriginal culture that have long been drawn from available accounts, which tended to exaggerate and misinterpret violence, and underrate the strong cultural and ethical values that gave aboriginal societies their strength over many thousands of years. And even more significantly in understanding inter-racial relations in Australia, they reveal a consistent warmth and generosity from the local peopole who welcomed and cared for these vulnerable strangers.
“For us the most enduring message from the stories is the profound and heartfelt feeling of loss expressed by many of the different Indigenous groups when it became apparent that those they had welcomed as family were going to leave their care.”
In this intriguing return to the formative days of Australian society, vividly illustrated with pictorial resources from the National Library, Maynard and Haskins call for a reconsideration of what might have been had colonisation occurred with a degree of respect for the culture and values of the first people.
“In the final analysis, we hope that we have delivered a glimpse of what living together with mtual respect might still be like, if we could only imagine it.”
Title: Living with the Locals: Early Europeans' Experience of Indigenous Life
Authors: John Maynard and Victoria Haskins
Publisher: NLA Publishing
240pp, full colour illustrations
Available at the NLA Bookshop