Book review: 1787 by Nick Brodie

Australia Day is a fairly contentious date in the calendar. The idea that Australia began with the arrival of the First Fleet on January 26th 1788 has long been offensive to descendants of the Indigenous Australians who already occupied the land. It also dismisses interactions between Europeans and Indigenous people that predated the landing, and it’s these encounters that form the basis of Nick Brodie‘s new book 1787: The Lost Chapters of Australia’s Beginnings.

The story of brave adventurers and their discoveries are set aside in favour of a series of events that place the Indigenous Australians not as a prehistoric people, but as contemporaries – trading, fighting, and interacting with the various Europeans who visited their shores. 1787 is not about the beginning of a colonised Australia, but about the participation of an already active Australia, and the countries that surrounded it, in global history. “Australia’s documented history,” Brodie writes, “starts mid-scene.”

Beginning with the account of Don Diego de Prado y Tovar, who accompanied a Spanish expedition across the Pacific Ocean in the early seventeenth century, Brodie  pulls together stories from as far back as 1606, over a century and a half before the First Fleet even set sail. What emerges is a fascinating collection of accounts drawing from sources across Europe, from the Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, French, American, and British sailors, as well as explorers, and cartographers. All showing a level of interaction and interest in Australia and its native people that started long before its days as a British penal colony. Ultimately, the European paper trail that Brodie follows shows us something that January 26th 1788 so often chooses to ignore – that Australia and its surrounds were here long before the First Fleet was, and that the arrival was just another, though eventually very significant, encounter, with European visitors; encounters that had been taking place for almost two hundred years.

One of the biggest markers by which I judge non-fiction history is whether it’s accessible to non-history nerds – those not like me and (by his own admission) Brodie. 1787 fills that role well, coming in at under 300 pages, with chapters broken down into small, easily digestible sections. Dividing up the book in this way keeps the pace lively, providing a counter to the information heavy paragraphs. The book also includes an illustrated section, featuring beautiful maps and images from as far back as 1593.

Any writer that tries to tackle the history of Australia before 1788 is setting himself something of a challenge. The histories of the Europeans and the Indigenous Australians are, after all, charted in very different ways. 1787 invites us to widen our gaze, and to satisfy ourselves with a story that can never really be fully told. It’s a frustration that we should embrace, a step away from the comfortable, Euro-centric histories that are easier to tell and therefore easier to accept.

Nick Brodie’s 1787: The Lost Chapters of Australia’s Beginnings is published by Hardie Grant Books and is available now. For more information, see their website.