Tasmanian Times

Seal Studies Shipwrecks on a Savage Shore

Paula Xiberras

Graham Seal will be in Tasmania in January for the Cygnet folk festival. This Renaissance man tells me that writing books is ‘another language’ than that employed in writing songs and Graham should know as he does both! Graham is an accomplished expert and lecturer in folklore and the trip to Tassie will see Graham and his musical colleagues combine this interest of music and the social participation aspects of folk lore as well as the adaptation of community to bush ballads.

I’m catching up with Graham again to chat about his most recent book ‘The Savage Shore’.

When Australia was the uncharted south land early conceptions of it were of ‘a hot place where people walked upside down’ with ‘winged horses and hermaphrodites’.

Graham’s book explores (pardon the pun) the early attempts from ancient times of explorers to discover the southern land of Australia. This includes the Dutch East India Company, the Spanish, Portuguese and French explorers up until Captain Cook’s explorations and Matthew Flinders becoming the first person to circumnavigate the continent, proving it to be an island and giving it the name Terra Australis.

The book emphasises the dangers of these early expeditions most notably resulting in shipwrecks and the detective work of their aftermath. There is much myth and legend involved with these early explorations and the jury may still be out on the conclusions made from them.

Some of the stories canvassed in the book are the mystery of the mahogany ship to shipping stories at their most shocking with an account of the Batavia.

The debate of what happened to those who survived those early shipwrecks involve some genetic detective work such as that accounting for the prevalence of ‘porphyria variegata’ among the indigenous population of the Kalbarri, possibly brought by survivors of shipwreck while at the same time acknowledging the condition may occur spontaneously in the indigenous people of that area.

A similar discussion of the genetic ‘Ellis van Creveld syndrome’ which may present in those with the condition as ‘extra fingers and toes or over large feet’. This condition is normally only found in the Amish or plains people of America and we know a member of this community was on the shipwrecked Dutch East India Company’s ‘Zuytdorp’, which may indicate that there were survivors of this wreck that intermingled with the indigenous community.

Graham also discusses in the book, lack of understanding between the explorers and the indigenous population. The explorers didn’t realise that fire was employed by the indigenous population, among other things, as a sign of welcome.

The Savage Shore is out now published by Allen and Unwin.

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