From the Edge
Mark McKenna is not the first historian in recent years to present a compelling counterargument to the comfortable lie that Australian history is a dull narrative of “discovery” and “settlement”, but he is certainly one of the most accomplished. It is a convenient lie for a nation that has consistently failed to acknowledge the violence inherent in its founding, but one that soon crumbles in the face of McKenna’s gripping new book.
In From the Edge, McKenna shows how the European experience of Australia was fundamentally shaped and sometimes only made possible by contact with Indigenous peoples. Drawing on early European accounts, as well as the few precious testimonies that have come down from the Indigenous side of these encounters, McKenna tells the story of four little-known instances of early contact.
The book opens with the story of a group of shipwreck survivors who walked from Ninety Mile Beach in Victoria to Sydney in 1797, and then recounts the history of the failed British outpost “Victoria Settlement” in West Arnhem Land. The latter half of the book looks at Murujuga, the site of some of the earliest and most extraordinary rock art in the world, and discusses the history of Cooktown, where the competing narratives of colonial settlement and violent frontier war come starkly into contrast.
McKenna’s prose is crisp and powerful, his pace brisk. The first two chapters are especially gripping – you’ll want to option the film rights – but his greatest achievement is more profound. McKenna manages to shake white Australia’s understanding of the landscape as a place to be valued for its wild, “natural” emptiness. Contemporary Australians often seek out remote places precisely to revel in the sense of being profoundly alone, but From the Edge is a potent reminder of why this emptiness should chill us. McKenna gives glimpses of a country brimming with life and activity, permeated by cultural meaning and profound knowledge. We may know that Australia was not terra nullius before the arrival of Europeans, but McKenna makes the reader aware of how deeply embedded the idea remains in white Australia’s collective unconscious.
This is a book worthy of a wide readership, which is why the cover – so generic it may as well be camouflage – is so disappointing. It’s a small thing, perhaps, but it does this exceptional work a disservice. DV
Miegunyah Press, 277pp, $34.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 15, 2016 as "Mark McKenna, From the Edge ". Subscribe here.