Allen & Unwin, Australia, 2020
This is historical fiction, but rather than an account of what we know from Cook’s journals, it is a- re-imagining of his voyage up the eastern coast of Australia, which has the Endeavour shipwrecked near what is now called Cooktown and a small party of survivors making it to shore.
What we know from our currently recorded history is that Cook and his crew spent 47 days in ‘Cooktown’ in 1770 after running aground on the Great Barrier Reef, the ship undergoing repairs and finally making port in Batavia in October of that year.
Craig Cormick and Harold Ludwig, co-authors of this book, propose a different possibility – that the ship went down and that two small parties of men Including Cook himself, who had been injured on board and rendered unconscious, made it to shore and eventually made contact with the local Aboriginal people. Told mainly in two voices, that of Magra, demoted from his position of Midshipman under suspicion of attacking another crew member, and that of the Guugu Yimidhirr youth Garrgiil. The authors thus cleverly direct our views to different perspectives on the same events, reflecting cultural knowledge versus the perceptions of the newcomer.
At the heart of this tale of the stranded is a view of colonial exploration with fresh eyes. The issue of communication with the ‘other’, the fear of the unknown, the stranger, is always key. More layers of this emerge in the voice of Magra, himself an outsider of sorts hailing from the Americas. There are questions of what knowledge is important, what systems break down in new and changed circumstances. The authors explore reversion to type, the adherence to, or collapse of, conventions of relationships, hierarchy and society.
A third voice adds to this drama, that of Gandhaarr, the crocodile, at once a voice of fear and of conscience, a constant internal in Magra’s head, an ancient creature with the real power to destroy and to evoke terror – this in a land so strange to the white seamen that almost everything is a source of fear and suspicion, and indeed a fertile ground for cultural transgression.
The novel provides an interesting examination of the ‘great’ names of Cook’s voyages – Cook himself is in a coma for much of the story, but held in high esteem nevertheless by certain crew members and recognised as significant by the Bama; Banks with his personal foibles and the Swedish naturalist Solander, a disciple of Linnaeus, whose botanical knowledge is especially prized in this version of the story, Parkinson whose drawings of the Indigenous people, of landscapes and plants survive in the British Museum.
Above all the book invites us to see the arrival of Cook and his party through Indigenous eyes and to learn with Magra the way to traverse cultural difference, to embrace an alternative way. The profuse use of the language of the Guugu Yimidhirr people in Harold Ludwick’s chapters helps us to see how certain plants, animals and concepts are seen by the people who know them best. Language always provides entrée into the way of thinking of its users, and this is certainly so in this work.
Craig Cormick can be relied upon as an author to awaken our perceptions and in this collaboration with Harold Ludwick, we are treated as readers to not just a fine tale, but to an education in history, culture and country. The writing is fluent and rich but at the same time accessible, the story engrossing and thought-provoking. On a Barbarous Coast is a welcome addition to our understanding of our history and an invitation to rethink what we have been taught for the merest time of 200 years.
Many thanks to Allen & Unwin for giving me a review copy of On a Barbarous Coast.