Reviewed by Patricia Simms-Reeve
The earlier chapters of On a Barbarous Coast might strike the reader to be an imagined survival story set near what is now Cooktown. The exploits of the crew of Cook’s Endeavour are graphically related. It is, in fact, much much more.
In order to conclude as it does, the authors have altered the accepted history and created a credible alternative. A badly injured Cook is rescued from his ship which has sunk on the reef with more than half the crew drowned. He is barely alive and lies unconscious for weeks with the men attempting to care for the leader they admired.
These men, twenty-five of a total of ninety, had scrambled into small boats to reach the shore. The saga of their efforts to stay alive in an alien environment follows.
It is related by James Magra, a Midshipman. He is Corsican by birth with Irish and American roots also. Like many Australians today, his origins are a combination of cultures.
Magra tells of the struggles to find food, water and to avoid the dangers and terrors that lurk. They are unaware of the habits of crocodiles, which prove fatal for one hapless man. At this stage, with their commander incapacitated, the reader may assume that this is a variation on Robinson Crusoe, then later, Lord of the Flies.
On a Barbarous Coast is an example of human nature’s ability to adapt and the attributes that aid confronting and dealing with a challenge to their very lives.
There are the gentlemen such as Banks and Solander, midshipmen like Magra, Parkinson a devout Quaker, and the able seamen – a motley crew. The educated gentlemen are invaluable in seeking and identifying edible plant food, with few mistakes. Parkinson buoys spirits with a link to the old life in England with his constant references to God and his conviction that they will be rescued eventually.
The two Tahitians join with the other men to hunt for meat – a vital practicality. Unfortunately, tension develops related to the dastardly villain named Judge.
Like a conventional thriller, men gradually lose their lives. They are aware of members of the local Bama tribe constantly hovering, which is another source of terror and uncertainty.
The book is Magra’s detailed account alternating with commentary from Garrgiil, a young Bama man who is fascinated by the activities of these ‘ghosts’. His view is an engaging contrast to the stranded crew’s and implies the hopelessness of their plight. Only when the connection between the first peoples and remaining shipwrecked men is made, are hopes raised.
At this stage, Cook speaks and is able to stand. It is soon obvious that their once great leader is reduced to a shadow of his former self. His injuries have caused terrible damage and he merely repeats meaningless phrases.
For me, the most interesting section of the book comes in the final chapters. The white men are welcomed into the tribe and learn to live its way of life. This proves challenging on occasion, but satisfying to the degree that it leads to their making a surprising decision.
Harold Ludwick, an indigenous guide attached to James Cook University, collaborated with Craig Cormick, also highly qualified, to write this daring and accomplished re-invention of the Cook history.
When the lives of our First Nation people are considered today, one cannot help wishing that a better alternative to the early white settlement had happened.
Magra’s account shows it was possible.
It is mentioned by some of the characters that they longed for the landscape, even the weather, of England. This yearning for the familiar later led, of course, to the introduction of pests such as rabbits and foxes. This rigid attitude shaped the failure to realise the fragility of this new world.
The most touching scene happens when both the aborigines and remaining sailors join in laughter. It gave a moving link to their common humanity. A small step towards a glimmer of hope for the future.
There is so much to appreciate and learn in On a Barbarous Coast: the respect and connection to the land, the skill in caring for country which are intrinsic to native Australians.
Books like this highlight the importance of our need to accept this and, like these characters, learn how to live carefully in this land we all call home.
On a Barbarous Coast
by Craig Cormick and Harold Ludwick
Allen and Unwin
ISBN 9781 760 877347