What the colonists never knew is a thought-provoking history of Aboriginal Sydney

  • What the Colonists Never Knew: a history of Aboriginal Sydney, by Dennis Foley and Peter Read. National Museum of Australia, $35.

The title of this fine book tells of the tragedy the book will reveal to which historians may not have given sufficient attention.

And yet we always knew. Why was it, historians asked, that after the arrival of the Second Fleet and the multiple failures of the crops already planted, that the colony was starving?

Some people, settlers and convicts, died of starvation. The original inhabitants, though, thrived on their traditional foods. Why didn't those who were starving ask for their help?

That question is at the heart of this book. It is a book of true collaboration and extraordinary scholarship. Dennis Foley writes of his ancestors, his clan living around the shores of Sydney Harbour. He writes intimately, wisely, openly, telling of a deeply loving family with a secure knowledge of its past. Peter Read's task was to place Dennis Foley's story in its historical context.

As a historian who has been working in this field, and opening up fresh insights for scholars and general readers alike, Read brings the right level of scholarship and wide understanding.

Dennis Foley is a story-teller, and a very good one, with a long story that will enthuse the reader.

There is a sadness in this book, but great beauty as well. The sadness derives from the blinkered incomprehension of the invaders for a society, rich and stable in lifestyle, lore and history, among whom they lived.

Every aspect of life pre-1788 had meaning, purpose and loving interpretation. Brushed aside by the ignorance and cultural insensitivity of the invaders it is truly miraculous that this knowledge survived and was transmitted.

Foley reveals this to the reader with location and place central to his narrative. Richly illustrated to help comprehension, the book will tell readers so much about Sydney they might have thought they already knew.

If they open their hearts to this book, they will gain a respect for a people who had so much to offer. This remains a living history.

Yet it is Foley's honesty that will impress the reader. We see a picture of a well-dressed boy in school sports uniform, cricket bat in hand which screams at us, this boy comes from a good, caring family.

Yet as family circumstances collapse, Dennis Foley is taken by the state to institutional living. He is one of the stolen generations. The coarseness of this will astonish the reader.

Foley's race could not be beaten out of him, despite the trying. He determined to know as much as he can of his traditions and clan.

To read this book is to celebrate the triumph of the human spirit.

This story A triumphant celebration of the human spirit first appeared on The Canberra Times.