This is a new kind of history, where the writing is borrowing a page from the anthropologist’s notebook and using first hand accounts as sources for enthnographic study. In the wrong hands, that could be disaster, but Clendinnen uses all her skills to tease out information without ever presuming a complete understanding.
Dancing with Strangers is a study of the relationship between the whites (government administrators, military personnel and convicts) of Australia’s First Fleet (1788) and the native peoples that they encountered when they settled what eventually became Sydney. Interestingly—and significantly—Clendinnen called those native peoples “Australians” while the settlers were “whites” or “the British”. [It occurs to me that the term usually designating Australian natives, Aboriginals, is far more “damaging” as a term than is the term usually used for American natives, “Indians”. “Indians” was just plain wrong, but wasn’t inherently demeaning while “Aboriginals” suggested some prehistoric people who really might not be fully human.]
Clendinnen wanted to study the relationship between the British and the Australians in the “first instance” of European settlement on the continent. Obviously the Australians left no documents or records—at least none recoverable now, but the British did and she relies on the journals and letters of a number of administrators, military personnel and visitors to the colony, several of whom made an effort to describe what happened accurately even if they couldn’t or didn’t understand it. The first governor of the colony, Arthur Phillip, set the tone by his determination to understand and make allies of the native peoples rather than to battle against them. That was clearly a practical decision but, on his part, also a philosophical one.
The book is like no history I’ve ever read. There’s no focus on historical narrative per se, though obviously there are “touchstones” like dates and well-known events. There’s a relatively minor focus on the purpose of the colony as a prison. The focus is not even entirely on the whole journals or letters, but on the places in those documents where interactions between the British and Australians are described. In other words, what came closest to a transcript of an informant. (I should point out that she used paintings of the period as well, some of which are included in the text.) Then she examines the “transcript”, attempting to understand what was going on independently of the interpretations made at the time. Obviously she’s not successful, or not completely successful, in every case, but she does an excellent job of stripping the journals and letters of assumptions and prejudices of the time and attempting to understand, from a human point of view, what might have been the attitudes—as well as the ideas, assumptions and practices—of the Australians.
The example of Phillip makes this particular encounter between Europeans and natives a productive one, because unlike many in charge of white settlers, Phillip had a stated philosophy of cooperation and a genuine desire to understand what make the Australians—and their society—tick. Phillip is even speared by natives at a gathering which the British assumed was both formal and friendly. He was hurt badly but not mortally, but more interested in why he was attacked than in retaliation. It may possibly have been a ritual retaliation for wrongs done, surmises Clendinnen who knows the dangers of her methodology and makes every effort not to overreach.
Clendinnen is an Australian, of course, but her major work before this was done on the Aztecs in Mexico. Interestingly several individuals who read this book in one book group with me also read Philbrick’s Mayflower in other book groups and commented on similarities and differences in the author’s description of first encounters with native peoples. First of all Philbrick did not put major focus on the Indian point of view but he by no means ignored it—making the comparison especially interesting. Several facts though made the comparison productive—the American Indians had had more encounters whites before the Mayflower landed than had the Australians and the characteristics of the native societies were very different.
If you're interested in history, especially the history of those peoples without the "civilized" skills to write and reflect on their history, I especially recommend this book and its methodology.