Shipwrecks, Sailors & 60,000 Years, by Jackie French

How can we know what happened sixty thousand years ago?This is a question asked by Jackie French in an author note at the beginning of this book. She points out that we don’t know much of the past for certain, although we are helped by stories passed down through generations and by scientific work. She goes on to say that this book is as accurate as the team which put it together could make it. What is important about this author’s note, and its prominent placement at the beginning of the book, is that it does what so many other history books have failed to do, by admitting that history is both fallible and changeable.

After this note, the book provides an outline of the history of Australia from the arrival of Aboriginal people roughly sixty thousand years ago, until Captain James Cook claimed the land for England in 1770. There are chapters detailing how the many Aboriginal people explored and settled the continent, and how they lived, hunted and traded. This is followed by a detailed discussion of how Australia was ‘discovered’ and mapped by Dutch, French, Portuguese and British sailors, and how these people’s visits to a land they regarded as occupied by savages impacted on the Aboriginal people.

French provides a no holds barred version of events, but does so without being preachy. For example, she points out that Cook declared New South Wales to be terra nullius, despite knowing that the land was inhabited by people who didn’t want Europeans there, but rather than offering an opinion of Cook’s actions, she leaves readers to draw their own conclusions.

The other highly appealing element of this book is its humour, which makes it accessible to even reluctant readers. On every spread, cartoons and illustrations by Peter Sheehan provide humorous interpretations of the text, and French also makes sure she puts plenty of high-interest and often humorous facts, knowing intuitively which gross or gruesome facts will appeal to young readers.

This is history as kids and schools have not previously seen it.

Fair Dinkum Histories: Shipwreck, Sailors & 60,000 Years, by Jackie French
Scholastic, 2006