Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 11, 2020

On a Barbarous Coast (2020), by Craig Cormick and Harold Ludwick

In the lead-up to #IndigLitWeek 2020 in July, here’s a most unusual novel to pique your interest!

On a Barbarous Coast is a collaborative work of speculative fiction.  It tells an alternative history of Lieutenant James Cook’s landing in far north Queensland in 1770.

Craig Cormick is an Australian science communicator and author of 30+ books of fiction and non-fiction.  His co-writer is Harold Ludwick, a Bulgun Warra man from the Guugu Yimidhirr & Kuku Yalandji nations, and a Fellow of the National Museum of Australia.  Together, they have woven a story that revisits the landing from two perspectives…

Magra is a midshipman on the Endeavour, and Garrgiil is a boy from the Guugu Yimidhirr people.  The story departs from history when the Endeavour comes to grief on the Great Barrier Reef.  The real-life Cook beached the badly damaged ship for repairs for seven weeks and then continued his voyage; in this novel the ship breaks up and Cook is washed up insensible along with other survivors.   Magra is a disaffected man of failed ambitions, while Garrgiil is on the cusp of manhood.  Both fear the Other, but both are curious as well.

In alternating narratives, the reader sees the catastrophe from the observations of the Indigenous people and from the British PoV.  Puzzled by the behaviour of people they think are spirits returned from the dead, the Guugu Yimidhirr people keep their distance, but maintain a watch on events, while — deprived of authoritative leadership — the survivors are divided amongst themselves.  The marines take off with the only weapons and build themselves a fort, while Magra and the rest of them are focussed on shelter from the elements and finding food and water.  The botanists Joseph Banks and Mr Solander are invaluable for identifying edible plants as a food supply, but the marines, led by a ruffian called Judge, kidnap Solander to help them when they fail to catch and kill wildlife.  Garrgiil, watching unobserved, notes however that none of the survivors are following laws and customs about where and when to gather food.  As the survivors soon find out, their food sources are not sustainable, and malnutrition and sickness are the result.

It is the marines, however, who breach the laws in the most egregious way.  They have set themselves up in a sacred site, and worse than that, a man is killed there.  Garrgiil is shocked, but the Elders can’t extract the usual retribution because they are constrained by the same laws.

Gargiil’s narrative is, IMO, marred by the clumsy use of Indigenous language.  Each time an Indigenous word is used, it’s Italicised, and an English translation is placed in brackets beside it, as in this extract:

Wuji is the tormenter, the spirit that hunts people who go into bubu dabul (sacred areas) without permission.  He is relentless in his pursuit of those who break the law.  Bamu wukpu biini (many people have died) from his nightly terrorising of them, even when bama (people) are alone gun-gun bi (in the scrub, or bush) he will appear and chase them.
Only a magarri (sacred corroboree ceremony) can halt his desire to take the flesh of our people. (p.35)

This technique breaks up the flow of the language, and it doesn’t encourage the reader to put in a little bit of effort to learn the new word.  And it’s unnecessary.  I’ve read other books which use Indigenous language — words which when placed with care enable the reader to work out the meaning from context.  This s a more natural and authentic use of the language, and (providing a glossary if really necessary) is a much better way IMO of treating Indigenous language with respect.  It has the added bonus of the word becoming familiar if it’s repeated often enough.

Back in 2004, the Australian archaeologist, anthropologist and historian Inga Clendinnen (1934-2016) won the NSW Premier’s Non-fiction Award for Dancing with Strangers: Europeans and Australians at First Contact. In the light of improved knowledge and cross-cultural understanding, the book interpreted the reports, letters and journals of the first British settlers in Australia to reconstruct the interactions between the First Nations and First Settlers in 1788. It’s 15 years since I read that book, but what I remember was the clarity with which Clendinnen demonstrated how confusion and hostility could have been prevented had effective communication enabled understanding of each other’s culture.  On a Barbarous Coast suggests what might perhaps have been, had the time between 1770 and 1788 been used to establish a respectful dialogue between Indigenous people and their visitors.

It’s tantalising to think about what might have been, but the important thing now is to face up to Australia’s Black History with honesty and good will.  We need good political leadership to make that happen across the country, but since we don’t have that, in the meantime it’s a case of ‘be the change you want to see’…

Harold Ludwick is a Bulgun Warra man from the Guugu Yimidhirr & Kuku Yalandji nations in far north Queensland.

Authors: Craig Cormick and Harold Ludwick
Title:  On a Barbarous Coast
Publisher: Allen & Unwin, 2020
ISBN: 9781760877347, pbk., 309 pages
Source: Review copy courtesy of Allen & Unwin.

See also Ashleigh Meikle’s review at The Book Muse.


  1. Now there’s a rewriting of history that would have been interesting. Would like to see more in this vein. But that word and term definition in-text would make the read laborious, I think.
    I like what you have to say about authenticity and familiarity around the language. Surprised that a good editor didn’t suggest changing the method.


    • Yes… when you think of Tara June Winch’s The Yield, for instance, which uses the language in such a natural way…I find this approach puzzling.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. […] On a Barbarous Coast, see Lisa’s ANZ LitLovers review […]


  3. […] Lisa (ANZLitLovers) also found this book intriguing. […]


  4. Nice post Lisa. And I agree re the translation of the indigenous language, though I’m so glad he used so much in the book too. I meant to say in my post, that a pronunciation guide at the end wouldn’t have gone astray.

    It’s an interesting book, and in some ways quite an exciting collaboration between writers of two different cultures.


    • Another one to add to my small category of collaborative writers!

      Liked by 1 person

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