March 1797. Ninety Mile Beach, Victoria. Five British sailors and twelve Bengali seamen swim ashore after their longboat is ripped apart in a storm. The British penal colony at Port Jackson is 700 kilometres to the north, their fellow-survivors from the wreck of the Sydney Cove stranded far to the south on a tiny island in Bass Strait. To rescue them and save their own lives, they have no alternative. They set out to walk to Sydney. What follows is one of Australia's greatest survival stories and cross-cultural encounters.
In From the Edge, award-winning historian Mark McKenna uncovers the places and histories that Australians so often fail to see. Like the largely forgotten story of the sailors' walk in 1797, these remarkable histories—the founding of a 'new Singapore' in West Arnhem Land in the 1840s, the site of Australia's largest industrial development project in the Pilbara and its extraordinary…
McKenna’s book proceeds by way of four meticulously-researched and engagingly-told case studies of early cultural exchanges between indigenous Australians and white navigators, explorers, traders, ‘settlers’, and resource-extractors. Three of these four cultural exchanges occurred (and continue to occur) in regions that are still considered ‘remote’. This layer of the book shows how these engagements were characterised by mutual (and often respectful) learning between the custodians and the ‘incomers’ but also how disruptive these exchanges were physically, culturally, and epistemologically. They were sometimes destructive but also disruptive in the contemporary sense of radically reconfiguring knowledge, practices and beliefs. The frontier was never terra nullius – in fact or in the consciousness of the earliest ‘incomers.’
These four case-studies, especially the first, arise from original research that is grounded in both the archive and the places where these exchanges took place. McKenna is a compelling advocate and brilliant exponent of ‘boots-on-the-ground’ history. The second layer of the book arises from this groundedness: it is about “eyeing the country.” ‘Ways of seeing,’ ‘representations of’ Australia have become familiar historical and analytical tropes, but McKenna weaves evidence with reflection about how and what was seen (and can still be seen) at these key contact sites. This lightly-philosophical dimension of the book gives the archival research and the extensive fieldwork its resonance and underscores its profound contribution to understanding “the country.”
Mark McKenna is one of Australia's leading historians. A research fellow in History at the University of Sydney, he is the author of several prize winning books, including Looking for Blackfellas' Point: an Australian History of Place, which won the Douglas Stewart Prize for Non-Fiction and Book of the Year in the 2003 NSW Premier's Literary Awards.
His essays and articles have been widely published in Australia and overseas. Seven years in the making, his biography of Manning Clark is his most ambitious project to date.