Extraordinary stories of survival and tragedy from the early voyages of discovery to Australia
Remarkable stories from the dangerous early voyages to Australia - long before Captain Cook claimed it for the English - reveal a very different history than the triumphal British version we learnt at school.
Graham Seal is Professor of Folklore at Curtin University, and a leading expert on Australian cultural history. He is author of the bestselling Great Australian Stories and Larrikins, Bush Tales and Other Great Australian Stories.
I’m a self-confessed history nerd with a passion for all things ancient with a slight bent towards mediaeval. With these interests as a focus I am a little embarrassed to admit that I don’t have much time for Australian History. In fact, despite taking a course (and somehow passing it) with the renowned lecturer Bill Gammage in 1993, I confess that my knowledge of this topic is quite abysmal really. I mean, Australia was discovered in 1788 by Captain Cook right?
Apparently not it seems. As Graham Seal purports in an argument supported with a convincing array of evidence, maritime adventurers, the Dutch mostly, managed to reach our distant shore well before Cook and his buddies. In fact, Seal goes back as far as 5th century Greece, when philosophers had speculated about the presence of this Great Southern Land. However, I digress, since the bulk of this book focuses on Dutch exploration pre 1788. Of particular note was his account of the 1629 shipwreck of the Batavia, along with the mutiny and gruesome atrocities that followed. Similarly, I was also fascinated by the story of merchant ship the Zuytdorp, who in 1712, came to grief upon a treacherous reef on the Western Australian coast and was never seen again. Or so we thought? You see the most interesting thing about this book is the questions that Seal raises regarding the survivors of some of these shipwrecks. As he goes on to explain, there is significant evidence to support the theory that some of these survivors made contact with indigenous Australians and possibly integrated themselves into these communities or formed their own. It is a theory, substantiated with growing historical and genetic evidence, which is beginning to appear more likely.
Seal’s book, intriguing as it is, will hold greatest appeal with Australian History enthusiasts with a particular bent on all things maritime. It is quite a dense read which I suspect, without teacher guidance, will preclude engagement with most secondary students (except those that are particularly gifted and have an interest in this area of history). While I wouldn’t race out to fulfil a bulk order of this title, it is certainly valuable as a library resource for History teachers and senior students of Australian History.
Tanya Grech Welden, Secondary English & History Teacher, Gleeson College, SA
The role of the VOC (Dutch East Indies Company) in mapping Australia in the seventeenth century is vividly brought to life in this highly readable book about the exploration of Australia. Finding a sea route to the Spice Islands (East Indies, today’s Indonesia) meant huge profits could be made by this Amsterdam company in bringing spices back to Europe. But they wanted more: to keep profits up, they needed more resources and more markets, (doesn’t that sound familiar!) and so mariners were told to watch out for possibilities when they landed on unknown shores. This resolve coincided with a new faster route being discovered by Brouwer in 1611. He travelled east from Cape Town, instead of hugging the African coast, using the Roaring Forties to travel across the Indian Ocean and turning north to Batavia when the distance appeared right. Without any accurate means of telling where they were on the ocean (the discovery of longitude was still a hundred years away) many ships hit the Western Australian coast, some disastrously, but took their charts with them to head office when rescued. So pieces of the Australian coastline were uncovered and mapped throughout this century but kept close by VOC hesitant to allow others this information lest they cash in the lucrative trade that may transpire. Names like Batavia and Tasman spring readily to mind when thinking about this early exploration, and Seal gives a full account of both these stories, but includes others less known. In the eighteenth century, the fortunes of the VOC were in decline and a more scientific appraisal of the Southland was undertaken by both the French and British. Stories of Cook, Baudin and Flinders stand out as they mapped and explored possibilities of the new country.
I loved reading this history giving a fascinating account of the attempts to discover the Southland, the activities by the VOC and the many stories of survival by seamen. Half remembered stories are fleshed out as the cartographers pieced together the coastline, and secondary students and adults alike will find this book adds to their knowledge of our early history. A number of recently published books add to the interest given by this book, Batavia (Peter Fitzsimmons, Heinemann, 2011) gives an impressive account of that chilling chapter in Australia’s history as does My father’s islands (Christoebl Mattingley, NLA, 2012) giving a fictional account of Abel Tasman and his importance to Australia’s exploration for younger readers.
I did rankle somewhat at the myth that school children are taught that Cook discovered Australia, knowing that the texts I read and used certainly belie this. But a good story always needs a little spice and this book certainly gives the reader that. Stories of being marooned on this uninviting land, of murder and betrayal, of incredible courage and fortitude, of Aboriginal stories about contact held my attention. A comprehensive index, glossary and bibliography serve the book and its readers well. This is a substantial addition to any school, class or home library. And a marvellous companion to the recent exhibition at the Art Gallery of South Australia: Treasure Ships, art in the age of spices.
A standard topic in a Year 9 History curriculum is the discovery of Australia. The Savage Shore recounts the tales of the explorers who found and charted Australia’s coast. The work begins with the question as to who may first have discovered Australia. Although he discusses evidence of potential discoveries by sixteenth century European explorers, Seal re-affirms standard historical scholarship that the first verifiable contact with Australia was by Jansz in the Duyfken in 1606. Seal then examines the various contacts by Dutch explorers and people from vessels, such as the Batavia, that were shipwrecked, particularly along the Western Australian coastline, before exploring the voyages of English and French explorers. However, Seal devotes little space to Cook’s first voyage, probably because it has been the subject of intense study, and is well known.
One of the chief strengths of this work is that it takes into consideration recent scholarship, making references to works and studies published as recently as 2014. In examining evidence, Seal exercises caution in evaluating and interpreting claims, particularly of discoveries prior to 1606. However, he does not dismiss sources often previously overlooked, such as oral traditions amongst Aboriginal people. This, together with written evidence from the nineteenth century of Aborigines who displayed European features suggest that some survivors of various shipwrecks intermingled with indigenous people, and possibly survived for some period of time after they disappeared. The author displays what could be interpreted as a negative attitude towards aspects of European culture, particularly Christian beliefs; however, this does not seem to affect the overall quality of his analysis.
The Savage Shore would be a useful reference work for history teachers, particularly those wanting to read a work to re-acquaint themselves with the key events in the discovery of Australia that reflects current scholarship. It would also be a useful addition to a school library, and extracts from it could be incorporated into resource material for students, as Seal’s writing is accessible to secondary students.
Michael E Daniel, VIC