Thursday, December 29, 2011

89. Australian Bark Shield (Australia, AD 1770)

Rewriting poorly-written history.
This crummy photograph (taken through glass in the dimly-lit Enlightenment Gallery) shows a shield, made from the bark of a tree that grows about 200 miles north of Sydney, that was flourished when Captain Cook first landed at Botany Bay (near modern Sydney) in 1770. He and his men immediately came into conflict with some natives: the natives threw spears and missed, probably on purpose, and Cook, fearing that the spear-tips were poisoned, shot at them with muskets (and missed). One of the natives dropped this shield, which they must have obtained through trade from a group to the north, and eventually it worked its way to the British Museum. So it wasn’t a particularly auspicious beginning to what became a great country: the next day, Cook and his men found a settlement, offered shiny beads to some children, and were surprised the next day to find that the natives had left and had left the beads behind. “I don’t understand, all the other natives we found in this crazy part of the world go nuts for beads!” Cook then recommended that England use the lush Botany Bay harbor for a penal colony, and Australia began. (Is there a Michener novel about this area yet?)

In any event, MacGregor’s bigger point here is about the writing of history. The history of Australia has always been written exclusively from the Enlightened, British point of view, no matter the failures of wisdom (as in Cook’s death in Hawaii) or judgement, or the downright deplorable attitudes toward indigenous people that end up in these histories. Problem is, if you can’t write, then you can’t influence the way history gets written. But if you can make a shield, or barter to get a cool shield from a neighboring group, then you have in fact created a different kind of historical record. That’s his point—a defense of his program, making a history of the world in objects, in the hopes that these objects, many of which were created by illiterates, give a rounder, fuller, newer approach to the story of what happened. Certainly if a contemporary writer (the podcast quotes the diaries of Cook and Joseph Banks extensively) missed the point because they couldn’t understand the cultures with which they were interacting, or considered aborigines disposable, animals and not men, then we can consider the history they wrote to be poorly written. Whether MacGregor’s history—which is not exactly written, but created, blogged, podcasted, spoken, printed, photographed, videoed, e-chronicled—is better remains to be seen.

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