This a an excellent and well-written book, which covers a little-known subject: the European exploration of Australia and attempts at settlement before Captain Cook's sojourn there in 1770. The author, Graham Seal, is Professor of Folklore at Curtin University, Western Australia.
- Graham Seal
The Savage Shore is a valuable addition to the history of Australia and the British Empire. The author's style is easy and readable, so the general reader will enjoy it. It is a story of incredible feats of navigation, danger at sea, courageous castaways, geographical, technological and scientific breakthroughs, imperial rivalry, stolen gold, murder, terrible loss of life, fascinating encounters with Aborigines, the clash of cultures and an amazing gallery of individuals who were lured or forced into the unknown.
Captain Cook, although he was the greatest navigator of his age, did not “discover” Australia. In 1770 he charted the hitherto uncharted and dangerous coast of south-eastern Australia, claimed it and its hinterland for the British Crown and named it New South Wales. He opened the way for British colonisation and settlement, starting with the arrival of the First Fleet in 1788. Eventually Australia would become a Dominion within the British Empire. By 1939, about 90 percent of the population was of European, mainly British and Irish, descent, leaving the native inhabitants feeling distinctly outnumbered.
None of this was a foregone conclusion, however. Other explorers had visited Australia – and even tried to settle there - long before Cook. Most of them were not British but Dutch. Abel Tasman had made a landfall as long ago as 1642. Dutch place-names around Australia's coast survive as evidence, e.g. Arnhem Land, Dirk Hartog Island and Cape Leeuwin. In the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries it seemed likely that the Southland, as Australia was then usually called, would become part of the Dutch East Indies. France was interested, too: a French explorer, Count de la Perouse, sailed into Botany Bay four days after Cook. On that occasion the Anglo-French encounter was friendly. Events far from Australia, notably the loss of the British North American colonies and the urgent need to found a new penal settlement, caused Britain to colonise New South Wales and later the whole continent. In the nineteenth century the discovery of gold and other natural resources stimulated further, massive white immigration, mainly to coastal areas. The exploration of the inhospitable interior was a long-drawn-out process, lasting through the nineteenth, and well into the twentieth, centuries. One remote Aboriginal tribe was contacted for the first time as recently as the nineteen-eighties.
At least 300 Europeans had settled in Australia before Cook arrived. Most were from the Netherlands. Many were not there voluntarily; they had been marooned or shipwrecked. Some managed to return to civilisation to tell their tale; others just disappeared. They probably met tragic fates, although this is not certain in every case: oral tradition suggests that their mixed-race descendants might still be present among certain Aboriginal groups. More research is needed.
What makes the book especially interesting is that Graham Seal did not confine his research to archives and libraries: he has used archaeology to support his theories: finds of mysterious artifacts, ancient shipwrecks, unusual burials, Aboriginal and settler legend and folklore all become threads in a fascinating tapestry. Seal allows space for an examination of Aboriginal culture and the impact on Aboriginal society of European colonisation. He examines accounts or legends of possible earlier explorers and settlers: Spanish and Portuguese (definitely), South Indian (definitely; there is DNA evidence), Indonesian (definitely, seeking edible sea-cucumbers); Chinese, Arab, Phoenician and Ancient Greek (probably not).
My one criticism is the lack of illustrations. Contemporary maps play an important role in the story; the author refers to them often. Not only are they invaluable historical documents, showing the evolution of geographical knowlege, but they are often works of art. It would have been helpful to have some of these reproduced in the book, although there is a good modern map. Likewise, it would have been interesting to have the portraits of Cook, Banks, La Perouse and others mentioned in the narrative as illustrations.