Oceanic histories: how seas shaped Australia's past

Monday, 9th November, 2020

Author: Ben Silverstein

How do oceans make histories? Or how do we make histories from oceans? These were questions posed in a recent webinar hosted by the ANU Research Centre for Deep History in conjunction with the Centre for Environmental History, convened by Laura Rademaker and Ruth Morgan. How, participants were asked, have seas shaped Australia’s deep history? We were provided with two engagingly different answers by Lynette Russell and Patrick Nunn, each speaking from a distinctly interdisciplinary position.

These are, perhaps, ontological questions, calling positionalities into question. Damon Salesa has observed that the vast Pacific Ocean, as a named, known, and narrativised place, has its origin in European mapping. To identify this origin is not, of course, to suggest that Islanders were unaware of the ocean, but rather to take seriously the proposition that they experienced maritime places differently to those concerned with mapping empires and globes. The Pacific Ocean, once it was named and experienced as such, rubbed up against but did not dislodge those enduring ‘native seas’. More recently, Islanders have re-possessed and Indigenised the Pacific itself. It has become, in Epeli Hau’ofa’s phrase, a ‘sea of islands’, connecting the Pacific with ‘native seas’ in what we might understand as a decolonising move. Places of history—whether oceans, seas, islands, super-continents, or nations—are emergent in ways that depend on where we approach them from.

Speaking at the webinar, Lynette Russell reminded us of Chief Brody’s quip, in Jaws (1975), that ‘it’s only an island if you look at it from the water’. For Russell, questions of knowledge and perspective are central. How, she asked, is the ocean seen from the land, and vice versa? Insisting on understanding land and sea in relation, on what Alison Bashford has elsewhere termed terraqueous histories, the ocean emerges as a space of unceasing churn, bringing human and more-than-human beings together and apart in new configurations. It can be a space through which people move and a place where they dwell; oceans can be homes, whether temporarily or permanently. An ocean, then, makes new encounters possible, becoming a flowing site of meetings across cultures and languages that generate new ways of being and belonging at and across the seas.

These stories of encounter introduce possibilities of change by, in part, bringing together history and culture while holding onto what makes peoples distinct. These are moving histories, carried along by historical currents that break on shorelines. Greg Dening had tried, in his distinctively transdisciplinary fashion, to write history ‘from both sides of the beach’. The beach was, in his imagination, a threshold over which people met in what were often mutually transformative encounters. As Russell told us, thinking the moving beach as the historical threshold of Australia, as the space from and on which Aboriginal people have met outsiders, helps us to re-frame a deep history of Australia as one not of isolation but of encounter. She provided us with a glimpse of her exciting new Laureate Project, Global Encounters & First Nations Peoples, which in part will explore some of the ways a history of encounter might centre Indigenous experiences and knowledge of others.

The ocean itself is an object of knowledge, and Patrick Nunn took us through some of his research on Indigenous memories of the sea that have been, he argues, passed on through millennia. Surveying the Australian coastline, Nunn identified 27 distinct groups of drowning stories, each of which speaks of water encroaching from the sea, covering the land and never receding. These, he told us using a method familiar to readers of his popular 2018 work The Edge of Memory, can be described as Indigenous Australian memories of post-glacial sea-level rise.

In 1939 or 1940, a Yaraldi man named Karloan told anthropologist Ronald Berndt a story of Ngurunderi, a ‘creative hero’ of ancestral times. Nunn drew our attention to one part of Berndt’s re-telling of Karloan’s story, in which Ngurunderi pursued his two wives until finding them walking from Tjirbuk (Blowhole Creek) to what is now Kangaroo Island. When they reached what is now the centre of the Backstairs Passage, Ngurunderi called the waters to fall upon them. The rushing waters both drove them further south and transformed them into Meralang (The Pages islands), and remained in place, separating Kangaroo Island from the mainland. This part of the story, Nunn argues, is a container for the memory of rising sea levels some 10,080 to 10,950 years ago.

This is one way, as Ruth Morgan put it in her response, of thinking though connection and change over time. And it prompts reconsiderations of how we have and how we might continue to relate to Indigenous historical knowledge, whether of the seas or otherwise. Is that knowledge a resource for answering questions posed elsewhere, by reference to other epistemologies? Or, as Russell suggested, is this the moment to turn to that knowledge in order to ask new questions, from new perspectives?

We acknowledge and celebrate the First Australians on whose traditional lands we meet, and pay our respect to the elders past, present, and emerging.


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The School of History, The Australian National University