Book review: On a Barbarous Coast by Craig Cormick and Harold Ludwick

(cover image courtesy Allen & Unwin)

The alternate history genre of storytelling is often dismissed as a fanciful game of “what ifs”, a moving around of real world people and events to create an altogether different perspective on a particularly transformative moment in time.

But the really good alternate histories perform an altogether more important role than simply providing a thoughtful form of escapist entertainment.

Books like On a Barborous Coast by Craig Cormick and Harold Ludwick, which re-imagines the history of Australia where Captain James Cook never makes it off the reef in Far North Queensland upon he temporarily foundered on 11 June 1770, provide vitally necessary insights into the history of the places in which they take place.

In this instance, the failure of the Endeavour to continue its voyage around Australia, mapping the last great undiscovered (by Europeans of course; the Indigenous people had been in the country for a minimum of 65,000 years at that point) country on earth, changes the history of Australian settlement.

In so doing, it elevates the Indigenous people from victims of rapacious colonial circumstance into those very much in charge of their own destiny; no guarantees are made, of course, that in the end the destructive invasion of Australia won’t take its well-known course but On a Barborous Coast posits what might potentially have happened if the Aboriginal tribes encountered by the Endeavour’s survivors were given a fighting chance to defend themselves.

“And there are some nights, when the moon is bright across those reefs and the strong southerly winds swirl together my memories and my longings, that I almost believe that is exactly how things played out. We saved every man Jack of the crew and sailed back to England, leaving no ruins of fortifications behind us. No footsteps disappearing away into the wilds. No graves of our dead. No bones left whitening in the grass.” (PP. 3-4)

Alternating between the perspective of the 25 or so men who wade ashore after the Endeavour breaks up one fearful night, chief among them American James Mario Magra, who it is believed wrote the anonymous account of Cook’s voyage A Journal of a Voyage Around the World in His Majesty’s Ship Endeavour, and the Guugu Yimidhirr and Kuku Yalanji peoples of Cape York (through the eyes of a young man Gaargiil), On a Barborous Coast rights the balance from a wholly Eurocentric one to one where the Indigenous inhabitants finally have their true voice heard.

This happens in one crucially important way.

While Magra narrates what happens when the Endeavour hits the reef and details ensuing events with rueful intensity and a growing self-awareness that Anglo-Saxon imperial arrogance is of scant use in a strange, intimidating land, Gaargiil is able to help us how the rightful custodians of this land saw the arrival of European explorers.

Unlike many other Indigenous people who viewed the arrival of white men in tall sailing ships with rightful hostility and alarm, the Guugu Yimidhirr initially adopt a wait-and-see approach, unsure whether people like Magra, Banks and Solander are the ghosts of their ancestors (who have oddly forgotten the lore of the land) or actual men.

As they observe the desperate scrabble of the survivors to find food and provide shelter for themselves, stripped of all their usual Western tools of survival, it becomes clear just who it is has the superior hand here.

Harold Ludwick and Craig Cormick (image courtesy Hopscotch Friday)

And it is not the Europeans.

Used to subsuming all before them by sheer weight of technological prowess and a bizarre divine right to rule, Endeavour’s survivors, which include a mostly comatose Cook, find themselves on the backfoot, unable to mount any kind of mastery over a land which seemingly rejects their every attempt to get some sort of survival-enhancing foothold.

By way of stark contrast, the Guugu Yimidhirr are completely at ease in their environment, understanding the passage of seasons, the availability of food and regulating interactions with other clans in a manner that suggests a people who have long learnt to work with the land than exploit and thus, ultimately destroy it.

It may sound hopelessly idealistic but as you hear from Garrgiil and come to understand how his people see the world around them, it becomes patently clear who has the upperhand the moral high ground … and it’s not the arrogant survivors who cling for far too long to the idea that the Indigenous people are savages and entirely uncivilised.

They are, in fact, nothing like the ill-informed caricatures to which the Europeans hold dear until, for people like Magra, it becomes obvious that they are hopelessly wrong and cruelly insulting.

“I had thought them a people of little technology and inventions at first, but I discovered that they had in fact had very clever technologies than used the local environs well and were perfectly suited to their needs. I have come to consider that all our European necessities, whether they be fine porcelain tea pots, shoes, clothes, navigating instruments or even ploughs, have all been developed with a purpose to further our needs—such as keeping us warm, or helping us navigate or farm more food—but the Bama already had so many of their needs met and so would have considered all these thing superfluities.” (P. 273)

On a Barborous Coast is a revelation because it throws aside the idea that Australia under the Europeans went from being backward to being in lock-step with the forward march of civilisation.

It doesn’t do this by crudely rubbishing the European perspective and artificially hagiographying the Indigenous view of the world; rather, it simply lets the way in which the Guugu Yimidhirr see the land they hold sacred, how they interact within their clan and with those without, including the Europeans and the way they live in harmony to be given unfiltered voice, free from a smothering, colonising and patently untrue narrative.

The result is a wholly unique retelling of historical events, told with humanistic honesty and an empathy for the First Peoples of Australia who for far too long have treated like the poor cousins to advanced Westerners.

They are clearly nothing of the sort and what emerges from On a Barborous Coast is a luminously involving story of an alternate Australia, one in which Magra is able to prepare Garrgiil and his clan for the arrival of subsequent ships, living evidence that forewarned is indeed forearmed.

But On a Barborous Coast also accomplishes one other important thing, reminding us of the universality of the human experience, and that if the Europeans had simply treated the Indigenous people of Australia with respect and understanding, the modern nation Down Under might be a very different and far more just place indeed.

Written with empathy, insight and thoughtfulness, On a Barborous Coast is not a rant against the evils of the past as much as it is a somewhat mournful musing about what might have been, along with, and this is its greatest gift, an awareness-raising vitality that places the Indigenous people back in the heart of their own story in their own land, a place that the Europeans should never have removed them from and to which brilliantly-written novels like this are going a significant way to righting the balance, to the great benefit of us all.

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