Immediately this book opens, we know we are in for a startlingly different view of the British ships, sailing into Sydney harbour in 1788.
The First Nations people of the lands surrounding Sydney are portrayed in a rich cultural context (informative and easy to absorb within the story), however they have European names and wear modern European dress. What does this mean? What is happening here? We are left to wonder.
It is an effective device to ensure that readers approach this story with a different mindset than they might otherwise do. Especially if the readers have been raised in Australia, and grown up with the story of Captain Phillip planting the British flag in the sand of Sydney cove in the name of His Majesty King George.
Instead, we see the ships from a vantage point above the cove, where seven respected Elders, representatives of their various nations, have come together for a day to collectively decide what their response to these ‘visitors’ should be.
The cover blurb of the book reads:
1788, Gadigal country.
They’ve got a big decision to make…The Visitors
It’s a brilliant premise and the reader is plunged into the many considerations and issues that the seven men need to take into account as they ponder their response to this unprecedented situation.
Some of the older men remember the time, eighteen years earlier, when similar ships had appeared and strange looking men disembarked. In their short time on land, those men had cut down trees, trampled precious clean water to mud, and took ridiculous amounts of seafood from the waters. But that time, those visitors left and did not return. Perhaps the same thing would happen again?
Each of the seven men representing their mob have their own backstory: a set of family, cultural and tribal circumstances that affect their behaviour and how they approach the discussion and voting. This allows the reader to see them first of all as people – with their own preoccupations and motivations.
I enjoyed the portrayal of the tensions, petty squabbles, and individual behaviours of the seven. It meant I could approach their story as I could that of any other people dealing with a sudden and unexpected arrival of uninvited visitors of their country.
Within the narrative of a long day of arguments, counter arguments and vote-taking, the author has woven in a great deal of beautifully described customary lore and traditions. It includes one of the best and easiest-to-understand explanations of songlines:
Songs, Joseph knows, are a living map of country – where the fresh water is, the good fishing spots, the whereabouts of steep crevices or marshy swamps and all of the other signposts, so you don’t get lost or travel the hard way. And all songs are three-dimensional, referring to the stars above and the earth and even below the seas. And the songs are always evolving and being shared. They are maps for all who need them to travel for food, for shelter or, like him, for business. And they are sung, because singing is the most effective way to memorise great swathes of data.The Visitors, p33
The use of modern expressions by the men also helps to bring us into our own time, with an understanding that these men represent a spectrum of life experiences and attitudes – much like today’s representatives in our modern parliaments.
There is a telling moment when the men are faced with the idea that perhaps, this time, the strangers won’t leave, and a great deal of irony as well-worn European-centrist ideas about ‘barbarism’, ‘a dying race’, ‘thieves’ ‘superior weapons’ and ‘capable of learning’ are turned on their head.
This book invites us to ask those ‘what if?’ questions: what if the First Nations peoples of Sydney had attacked in a concerted effort to rid their lands of these foreigners? What if the British had been able to listen and learn from the original inhabitants of the continent? What if the diseases brought by those ships had not wreaked such a terrible toll? So many things we can never know, but in the asking of the questions, there is learning to be had.
In a profound way, one of the men, Gary, sums up what was important for those Elders and still remains important today:
Just because they break lore, doesn’t mean we should. Then they’ve won, in a way, before even one spear has been thrown. I think we need to be good ancestors.What are the stories a good ancestor needs to create, to leave behind? Do we want our descendants to look behind them and see that we have failed in our duty, that we succumbed to the lowest denominator? Or do we want them to be proud of us and the stance we took?…I’m voting to let them land and that we do what we always do: we follow protocol to the letter. That means when they step on country, we welcome them and wish them safe passage.The Visitors p222-223
If only those ‘visitors’ could have been so generous and gracious in their response.
The Visitors is published by Fourth Estate in August 2023.
My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.