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About the Book

In this refreshing new take on Australian history, 1787 turns the fulcrum point of white settlement on it’s head. Historian Nick Brodie tells the fascinating story of how Australia and the world interacted from the late Middle Ages, at the dawn of the sixteenth century, through to the time of colonial settlement in 1788.

A complete departure from the venerable Australian history that we all learnt at school, this book is not about voyages of ‘discovery’, cartography, geography, or hero-captains and their sailing ship adventures. 1787 explores Australia’s pre-colonial past with open eyes and a wider perspective, looking past the idea that 1788 was Australia’s “Big Bang” moment. It is more complicated than that.

Brodie charts the encounters with Australia and its people by several major groups of visitors, primarily the Portuguese, Dutch, Malay, French, and British. He reveals the first encounters between indigenous Australians and foreigners, placing them into our known history, where they belong, rather than a timeless, pre-historical, anecdote. For the first time 1787 gives us the other half of Australia’s history through these readable stories.

Brodie helps us discover a bigger history, one of the rise and fall of empires, the shifts in global economies, and the impact of this on Australia. 1787 reveals Australia from a global perspective, turning it from a place on the receiving end of history, back into the active participant it was. 


Published by Hardie Grant Books. To purchase move your curser mid-bottom page and click the 'Buy' link.

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Not a Prologue

Australia’s history did not start in January 1788. However habituated we have become to telling it this way, our national story did not begin with the arrival of a British fleet. That origin story survives because it is easy to tell, easy to remember, and difficult for our nation to forget. We can acknowledge that something happened before, but it is a something that we rarely discuss.

The time before the settlement of New South Wales is too often treated as a prefatory chapter that starts 50,000 years before the present and ends as sails are seen on the eastern horizon: the ‘Dreamtime’ ends and history begins. In this way, a great slab of human history is relegated to archaeology and hermetically sealed by the founding of a British colony. But decent history does not work that way, with easy beginnings and simple sequences of events; instead, it is a process of engagement with the past.

So it is in this spirit that we need a new early Australian history. We need to look to longer colonial processes, broader world stories, a larger regional frontier, and take in the bigger story that emerges from these fleeting yet significant encounters.

While this book focuses on coastal interactions, it is not yet another rendering of the European ‘discovery’ of Australia, a paint-by-numbers narrative of ‘firsts’, who-found-what-when-and-why, and large slabs of quotation from well-thumbed sources.

Prior to the formal establishment of colonies in New South Wales in 1788, Van Diemen’s Land in 1803 and Western Australia in 1829, Australia and its peoples were already part of the great story of human history, with its local variations, conflicts, collaborations, continuities and changes. Certainly in 1787 a fleet was dispatched from England, but the processes leading to that decision involved more than just someone stabbing at a map and demanding it be done. Those processes went back well beyond Cook, and the first peoples of a Greater Australasia had more to do with it than is often allowed. There is a long history of Eurasian exploration of, but also engagement with, the land that came to be called Australia, and also its near neighbours like New Guinea, Vanuatu and New Zealand. All are part of the same story.

When the narratives of discovery are turned around, and the encounters they record are examined closely, bigger histories are revealed. Viewed collectively, these encounters become the story, instead of just isolated vignettes within larger ‘European’ narratives. We will have to abandon our old assumptions about Australia’s first peoples, and face up to our sometimes wilful ignorance about pre-1788 Australia. We will see that the Australia of the twenty-first century is a product of a much longer and more complex past than we normally allow.

Australian bookshelves are stacked with event-based one-word titles that perhaps understandably speak to our collective obsessions: 1788, Eureka, Gallipoli, Kokoda and so on. What follows takes a step away from the buzzword histories, the pop biographies, or the yarning folklore of yore, and insists that we start to explore our deeper history in a less proprietorial, more broadly inclusive way. ‘1787’ does not stand for a year — it stands for an idea.


A good illustration of this idea occurred on a warm and breezy September day in 1818, when Jacques Arago stepped ashore on the western coast of Australia. He left his companions and headed off alone, wearing a straw hat, shouldering a musket and carrying a tin lunchbox. In part, he was looking for Aboriginal Australians.

A draftsman on the Uranie, a French expedition of discovery and exploration, Jacques struggled in the hostile environment. He slipped on a rocky slope, and flies bothered his face, seeming compulsively attracted to his eyes. The sun was searing. He tilted his hat low over his face and spent some time walking backwards, trying to get relief. After a few hours someone from the ship went after him, and brought him back to the main French camp. The Australians had turned up, and seemed hostile. His companions were worried for Jacques’s safety.

He could see that there had already been some limited bartering — glass beads and metal knives for spears and clubs. And with the exchanges seemingly over, the Australians gestured for the French to leave. The Australians kept saying ‘ayercadé, ayercadé’ — interpreted as ‘go away, go away’ — and pointing to the ships.

Jacques hoped to get closer, as he wanted to sketch the Australians. He noticed an old man who attracted everyone’s attention. The man was painted with coloured stripes, and wearing a prominent shell on a string that hung over his belly; his companions seemed to look to him for instruction. So Jacques decided to make towards him. Trying to allay the old man’s fears, Jacques pulled out some castanets and played them as he approached. The old man briefly danced to the tune, and another Australian kept time with his own implements.

The old man signed to Jacques to leave a gift, which he did, and signed to return in the morning. As Jacques walked back to camp the old man sang, and was joined in this song by the rest of his people.

The next day Jacques again met with a group of Australians. They came down the hill in force, armed, and one stepped out in front and made a long speech. Then Jacques was once more told, with gestures for emphasis, to ayercadé. But, prepared for this eventuality, Jacques put on a little pantomime and appeared to get angry with a sailor companion he had brought to the meeting. Jacques told the sailor to ayercadé, and walked away. In on the scheme, the sailor followed Jacques, who again told the fellow to ayercadé. The sailor disobeyed and Jacques shot him.

Or so it appeared. Having prearranged the show, Jacques aimed high, and the sailor fell at the bang. The Australians fled in apparent horror, and the sailor sprang up and the two made good their escape. Jacques had hoped to instil fear with this show, which would protect him against a potential attack by the Australians, who had superior numbers, but this was not the end of the encounters. Later there was another exchange where the French offered gifts. One even satisfied the locals’ curiosity by undressing. But over subsequent days there were no further meetings, only French expeditions to abandoned huts, and the discovery of a discarded gift of trousers.

The expedition continued north to Timor, west past New Guinea, and on into the Pacific. The French went as far as Hawaii, where they spent some considerable time, before turning westwards again towards Australia. Over a year after meeting some of the western Australians, Jacques had the opportunity to witness the other side of the continent. The Uranie put into Port Jackson, and Jacques met Governor Macquarie and saw the growing urban settlement of Sydney, with its elegant buildings and gardens, active social scene, busy commercial wharves and labouring convicts. But Jacques could not comprehend why the government allowed Aboriginal Australians to nakedly wander the streets and inhabit the settlement. They drank and danced, carried weapons and rattled fences, and struck each other in the streets.

Jacques’s confusion probably stemmed in part from seeing Aboriginal Australian people overlaying the ostensibly settled and almost picturesque colonial scene. These people seemed part of the colonial society, but they also stood aside from it. And amid the scenes of public ribaldry and wrath, they clearly continued to govern their own society by their own traditions and rituals. Jacques even watched an old woman knock out the teeth of a younger woman, which he recognised was a sort of ceremony. It was performed with piece of wood struck by a stone, while the girl’s head was held against a wall, making a colonial structure a tool in an apparently pre-colonial practice. His curiosity piqued, he inquired as best he could what this was for, and by gestures learned the girl was to be married. A man soon arrived, placed a kangaroo skin over the girl, and led her into the bush near the governor’s garden.

But there was a darker side to Jacques’s musings, which went beyond social order and public behaviour. Jacques continued to observe and dwell on the violence and disorder of the Aboriginal Australians of Sydney, and the existence of a heated frontier war between the Australians and the intruders, in his letters to friends in Europe. He related an experience of Charles Gaudichaud-Beaupré, another member of the Uranie expedition, who had a brief encounter with an old and sick man during the course of a journey over the Blue Mountains. The old man ‘had shown himself the most formidable enemy of the English’, Charles’s guide informed him, and was ‘the sovereign of all that part of the mountain’. The guide noted he had made war on other tribes, assassinated Englishmen, guided expeditions of troops and so on.

On the face of it the crew of the Uranie’s encounters with Australians seem to speak to opposites. In the far west there were peoples still unaffected by colonisation. On the eastern seaboard its effects were well evident, summed up by the twin spectres of death and drunkenness. In the east some of the old ways were passing; in the west they still had a little way to go. To the casual reader it is evidence of the state of affairs before and after that magical colonial moment, that first footfall, that first flag-raising, that first memorial plaque. The east exhibited a post- 1788 world; the west was still in 1787.

But the irony is that the west had a longer history of outside contact. The old man on the western sand dunes did not necessarily lack for precedent when dealing with overseas visitors. He knew the ships had carried the strangers, and he seemed to know to keep himself and his people at a discreet distance. And when the French expedition travelled to the north of Australia, near New Guinea, and into the Pacific, they were sailing through Eurasia’s south-eastern frontier — a conceptual geography that had been expanding in fits and starts over a very long time, connecting the cultures and economies of far western Europe to far eastern Asia. This dynamic frontier abutted another large cultural and economic zone that was not yet fully part of the Eurasian story: Greater Australasia.

This vast territory is the scene of our real national beginning. It was almost invisibly busy beneath the clouds hovering above its waters — until the coming of the written word drew the clouds back, exposing it to and inscribing it on the greater world.

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Part 1: Circa 1606

Australia’s documented history starts mid-scene. It’s like a manuscript with the opening pages torn off — the narrative is already underway without cause or context. The story started some indeterminate time beforehand, and can only be inferred from the actions of the main characters. In the early seventeenth century the Australian narrative starts in the midst of a world in motion.

Between the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries the Spanish and Portuguese world empires met in the seas and territories to Australia’s north, west and east. Portuguese mariners had passed the Cape of Good Hope in the 1490s, and efficiently entered the Indian Ocean trade. They took towns, built forts and grew rich. The Spanish continued their westward expansion from Europe into the Americas and across the Pacific, approaching Australia from the east. Then, into this mix appeared the recalcitrant Dutchmen, sailing directly for the Spice Islands in the 1590s.

Stronger cultural and economic networks were developing on Eurasia’s south-eastern fringe. A frontier that had existed since the days of the Italian traveller Marco Polo — who journeyed from medieval Europe to the court of Kublai Khan, the Mongol emperor of China, and throughout South-East Asia — was discernibly beginning to move southwards, eastwards, and into peripheral territories like the Malay Peninsula and Indonesian Archipelago.

Each part of this Eurasian frontier had its own history. States rose and fell. People lived and died. There was victory and defeat, wartime, peacetime and story-time. But these cultures generally left little in the way of written records. Certainly there were historical traditions, some strong, others vague. Beyond the firmer documentary traditions of Greater Eurasia was a frontier of small-scale societies, diverse in dialects and traditions. Of those beyond the frontier — the peoples and places blurring into Greater Australasia — little was known.

The limits of Eurasian knowledge are well captured by the travels of Marco Polo in the late thirteenth century. This son of Venetian merchants travelled and traded along the old silk route that connected the western and the eastern peripheries of the largest landmass on earth, leaving behind one of the best-known travel narratives from the high Middle Ages. He knew China, India and Arabia. While his experiences were not common for a European individual, they were not entirely unknown or unfamiliar. The medieval world was more globally connected than modernity’s prejudices would have us believe. What really made Polo different, however, was the fact that he wrote an account of his travels and that this text was copied a lot and read widely.

But all is not quite as simple as it first appears. Polo’s description of the world was drawn from a combination of sources and observations, which makes it a typically problematic medieval text. Polo’s travels were ‘improved’ by at least one collaborator, Rustichello of Pisa, a writer of medieval romances. Most likely various other scribes ‘improved’ or ‘corrected’ it along the way as well, as the text was copied and translated down the ages. Polo’s work, therefore, has narrative elements that might not be his own experience. Yet these problems aside, Polo’s own observations and inquiries, coupled with information gained from his father and uncle — who preceded and accompanied the younger Polo on various travels — as well as numerous other sources from around the known world, make the text an amazing historical document.

It influenced how European readers and travellers understood and experienced the wider world for many centuries. Many of the travellers who visited Greater Australasia very likely had read it in whole or in part at some point.

So Polo is useful for getting at a general idea of Eurasian understandings of peoples and lands in and beyond south-eastern Asia before the age of Iberian expansion and colonisation accelerated the rate of documented encounters. Basically, through Polo and travellers and writers like him, Eurasians knew how the main regions of their world connected, and what some of the broad cultural distinctions were.

Irish folk knew of a place called India and the learned of Cairo knew there were days of perpetual light in the far north. Similarly, shared histories survived and diverged in local traditions. Whether it was the great movements of history like the invasions of Iskandar the Macedonian, or the dynasties and ethnicities that defined epochs and places, like the Abbasids, Tartars and Mongols, much of the world was connected, even if only by stories.

But those stories blended into fantasy in a few key realms, just as the geographical precision diminished beyond the closest of trading routes and political neighbours. The regions south of the inhabitable lands of northern Africa, barricaded by desert, were poorly known, as were its inhabitants. Here, perhaps, resided ancient kingdoms cut off from fellow empires. In the frozen tundra of the north, yet more fringe peoples were rumoured to live in a semi-fantastical way, where myth and legend informed a dimly lit reality. And beyond the south-eastern edges of Eurasia was another zone of mutual ignorance, where people lived in secret wealth or abject barbarism, unknown to outsiders, variously hostile or friendly, ever seeming to hide in the equatorial jungles of rarely visited islands.

It was hardly secret that there were a bunch of regional kingdoms or principalities on the coastal area between China and India, of which one of the most important was Java. Polo thought it was the largest island in the world. He described it as rich with spices, and noted that the people were idolaters ruled by a powerful king. The Javanese were fiercely independent, he also mentioned, and the Chinese could not subdue them. In neighbouring ‘Lesser Java’, perhaps meaning the island of Sumatra, Polo observed that some of the people there had recently converted to Islam. Polo claimed to have spent five months on another side of this island, while on a mission for the Great Khan. It is an unusual part of Polo’s account of the world, because it is one of the portions using the first person. It was also mentioned in his prologue, providing additional contextual details that fitted with a narrative of his own travels, making it more likely these were his own words and experiences, not Rustichello’s embellishments.

In essence, during this period Polo was part of a diplomatic assignment, helping convey a princess to a marriage. He, with his father and uncle, was also carrying communications from the Great Khan for the Pope and select European kings. They travelled in a fleet of, Polo claimed, fourteen large ships. Excluding the hundreds of sailors manning the ships, there were reportedly 600 people in the mission. They took provisions for a journey of two years and, for five months, camped in ‘Lesser Java’ while waiting for favourable sailing conditions. Two thousand people formed part of what was, in essence, a temporary settlement. The settlers protected themselves with earthworks and wooden fortifications for fear of the indigenous people, who were reportedly cannibals. While the temporary settlers traded for provisions without incident, they were on guard against treachery, informed as they were by the prejudices of millennia.

Polo’s reports help to reveal how this region was frontier territory for a long time. But Polo’s account was so brief and relatively confusing that later generations were further confused; identifying the locations with precision was so difficult as to be almost pointless. Yet the big social and cultural points Polo makes are quite intriguing. His not mentioning another major island east of Java, New Guinea, or an even bigger one to the south, Australia, indicates that from the perspectives of the regional societies there was not really anything of note or interest there. If there was something out there, then its global impact was minimal.

Remarkable as it may seem, Polo’s view proved largely correct for another two centuries. The Eurasians followed mostly within the geographical parameters he had established. Chinese treasure ships headed to Africa; Arabic merchants gathered spices from Islanders; Iberians sailed through the spice straits to Japan; an English navigator even landed at Java. All played their part in affirming the general consensus, even while gradually broadening understanding.

Then, finally, with a flurry of activity, Portuguese and Spanish adventurers led the way in changing how the Eurasian frontier advanced. One of the first major breaches of the Eurasian frontier came not from Europe or Asia, but from the Americas. And with this incursion the documentary process commenced, capturing the peoples of Greater Australasia mid-stride.


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Chapter One: The Monk's Chronicle

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