The profound and myth-shaking true history of friendship and brotherhood between British invaders and the Aboriginal people whose lives and land they changed forever.
This is how you fall in love with history.
Murray Arnold’s beautifully told, scrumptiously researched study of Aboriginal-European relations in West Australia’s early outpost of Albany is the book that had to happen.
A Journey Travelled treads where angels have feared to even tiptoe in the fraught and tender story of the first century of invasion. It provides a rare harvest of historical fact, and eye-witness accounts to give a history that defies the Australian norm.
For those who seek healthy relations and mutual respect, this factual account reminds us that it is individuals of all races who shape history.
And for the people of Denmark, Albany and surrounds this book restores the region’s legacy as a once and potentially future site for an extraordinary Australian story.
In a nation afflicted by what Historians call The Great Australian Silence, this book focuses on a remote and beautiful region where one of the questions most asked today is, “But where are all the Aboriginal people?”.
Arnold seeks traces of the missing, and many other lost stories. His intention, he says, “Whether I’m praised or challenged, is to leave a map for future storytellers and researchers,” and to add to the work of retrieving Australia’s true history.
In this he has succeeded. For a studious work, this book is so exciting I could practically see the movie coming together as I read on.
A Journey Travelled is the result of 4 years’ research culminating in a PhD from UWA. There is rich geology here for History geeks. But there is much more than that. This read is fascinating!
Arnold, a 71-year-old one-time farmer, now tutor and long distance cyclist, turned Aussie Indiana Jones on this quest to break a 200-year-long silence in Australia’s past. He sought the voices of those who lived during the untold chapter of the first century of conquest. It was an adventure in long-hidden archives, a treasure-hunt for maps, graves, and old books that unearthed so much history that not all of his discoveries could fit in this lovely book.
Countless hours sifting archives at Battye Library, old newspapers, police logs, court records, diaries, letters, online databases and oral histories remaining from the period yield the characters, events and choices of the time.
There are the actual words of those British men who carefully recorded what they saw and were taught about Aboriginal dress, hunting, hair styles, harvesting, building, beliefs, law and rites at first contact.
From their own diaries and orders, the book gives evidence of a mostly respectful, even gentle, approach by first white invaders.
The records show that the goodwill, friendship and diplomacy of a few good men changed everything in Albany and its surrounds. The Great Southern knew a peace rare – if not unique – in all Australia.
To read this book is to dive deep into the detail of the century that eventually undermined Aboriginal society, through early settlement, military influence, farming, arrival of the railway and eventual dispossession of indigenous people from their land.
And achieve overview too. Arnold reminds us of the religious, scientific and social context uplifting and (dare I say?) often twisting the white mind at the time.
In my view, this is a pivotal work for all those with roots and visions for the region, and for all Australians, actually. It lifts veils on the echoey silence that shrouds our past, and distorts our future together as well.
What makes this a cracker of a non-fiction yarn, aside from the chance to read historical material that may not have seen the light of day for nearly 200 years, is the shimmering trail of evidence for the remarkable fact of collaboration and generosity in this area in the first years of British settlement.
This is such a dramatic departure from the Australian cliché of frontier experience, and indeed the true facts elsewhere, that this book could fairly ignite a spark for local reconciliation.
The study shows Aboriginal people’s patience with the strange conduct of the white arrivals, their curiosity, and willing support of the British invaders’ endeavours. There is proof of a myth-busting story of respect toward Aboriginal people by early British leaders, notably Captain Collet Barker and Dr Alexander Collie, who was buried beside his Aboriginal friend, Mokare.
This indigenous hero, whose family group were responsible for the land upon which Albany was situated, is a man who deserves a movie of his own. His acceptance of the arrivals, gregarious nature, diplomatic brilliance and patience changed a hundred years of history.
But there are brutal stories too. The archives keep the trail of ruthless gangs of white sealers who plundered the coast, terrorised Aboriginal people and were despised by white officials. Tragedies related to drunkenness, violent troops, disease, mistakes, hardship and misery on both sides are documented. There are cautions that violence and misconduct against Aboriginal people may have been disguised in official logs of the time.
There is evidence of how people, Aboriginal and European, created a new language to conduct friendship, learning and commerce. Of how mutual benefit, exchange of skills, marriage, shared housing and all sorts of collaboration seeded a culture historians describe as The Friendly Frontier.
All destined to crumble once white settlers arrived in numbers to take land in Albany.
Arnold takes us through to 1926 by which time disease, dispossession, and government policy undermined the region’s Aboriginal people and destroyed a legacy precious to both black and white.
What touched me most deeply was my discovery that this loss was a tragedy for both races. The grief and betrayal of the next century would be felt by black and white alike, forced into a conflict that was not of their making.
For those in the region, and who would like to hear Murray Arnold tell stories from his research, discuss more about his book and the strange facts he unearthed along the way to writing – join me in conversation with the author.
This Monday, July 6.
5.30pm at Tea House Books in Denmark
$10, with wine and cheese.