Friday, June 11, 2010

The contradictions of colonialism

The Secret River

Finally, finally I have read The Secret River – one of those 'must read' books on the bookshelf. It's the tale of one William Thornhill, a waterman on the Thames, who is caught stealing and sent to New South Wales for the term of his natural life. After gaining his pardon, Thornhill moves out of Sydney and appropriates a stretch of land along the Hawksburn River, where turns his hand to farming.

What makes the story so interesting is its focus on the encounters between Thornhill and traditional owners of the land, a story not often told in Australian literature. From the outset, it is clear that violence is in the offing, and reading the book is like watching a train wreck in slow motion.

The Secret River is beautifully written, dreamy even, especially in the passages about the river and the landscape. And yet, recalling the recent spat between Peter Carey and Bryce Courtenay on the nature of a good book, the characters are not immediate, even the story is not immediate in the way a good story, a Dickens perhaps, would be. For all its beauty, I felt as if I were reading through a veil and the book, once finished, made little impression on me. The characters have already departed.

Overall, I found it a somewhat frustrating book. The book focuses on Thornhill's thoughts and feelings; we are told constantly what is going on in his head. I wanted to shout the elementary writer's mandate: Show, don't tell! – don't tell me what he thinks, show me the actions that result from his thinking. Yet for all this thought, Thornhill's actions are largely unaffected, even contradicted, by his thoughts.

In the most striking example, Thornhill's household is woken one night by the sounds of a corroborree. Thornhill sneaks over to the indigenous camp to see what is happening. As he watches, he believes he is seeing a war dance, but as the night wears on he realises it is liturgy, and an old man dancing is a 'book'. Thornhill realises too that everyone, except himself, can read the story being told. Yet despite these revelations, which one would expect to assuage his overwhelming fears of imminent attack, he leaves to protect his household.

I would find the scene more plausible had he perceived only a war-dance (and so his defensive preparations would have made sense); or, if he indeed had the insight that he was observing liturgy, that his fears dissipated. I find it hard to swallow that a character has such profound insight, yet is not affected by it.

In another example, Thornhill observes that in the way the indigenous live, all are 'gentry'. All have time to spare every day for socializing, playing, and meaning-making activities. Despite this realisation, this word 'gentry' coming to his mind, he continues to refer to them as savages and treats them accordingly.

I have not read enough history to know whether Thornhill's observations truly reflect those found in old diaries and other records; but I experienced a strong sense of anachronism. An uneducated Thames waterman, living in a strange and hostile terrain, suffocating on fear and feeling threatened every time he heard a branch break saw a corroborree and thought of the Anglican Christmas service? Oh please. In other places, despite his deliberate choice to remain apart from the local tribe, he has insights into the way they claim and farm the land, and have a spiritual connection with it. These insights seem extraordinary, if not completely implausible, for the average Englishman of the time.

Oddly enough, despite the suspension of belief required to read this book, I would still recommend it. My family is Cornish, and left Cornwall in the hungry forties, as they called it. They came to mine, stretch out and breathe, and I can't pretend that the land they worked was empty. I am sure there is blood on our hands, just as there is on so many hands, and it is through books like this that we gain insights into our ancestors and begin to accept responsibility for our history.

As the great-great-great-grandchild of colonists, I can absolutely understand Thornhill's desperate desire for land at any cost – this is his one chance out of grim poverty, his one chance to have children grow straight and tall. It doesn't make his violent actions acceptable, and I don't condone them; but I can't infinitely condemn him either. Like my ancestors, he was born into hunger and a precarious existence; he was sent to Australia; and the philosophers of the time disputed and largely denied the full humanity of indigenous people. Not only that, but the English government ordered the settlers to take all necessary steps to subdue the native population and appropriate the land.

For Thornhill or my ancestors to question the philosophers and the clergymen, for them to perceive indigenous people as fully human and having powerful claims on the land, would be radically farsighted; for them to disobey the King and relinquish appropriated land back to the original inhabitants, unthinkable. Even two hundred years later, many Australians still deny that indigenous Australians have a special claim on the land and bitterly resent any suggestions that sacred sites, at the least, might be returned to the traditional owners.

Perhaps the contradictions between Thornhill's observations and actions are deliberate on the part of the writer. However, they seem to say more about the contradictions we might feel now as the descendents of colonists. From our position of power, we have the emotional space to acknowledge that a corroboree may be a form of liturgy, or that an indigenous person may have a different way of belonging to land – after all, these acknowledgements cost us nothing. But the violence has been done; we have the land; and, at least in Victoria, there is no one much left to take it back. Even more, we are so removed from the violence that we can almost pretend it never happened. Thus, like Thornhill, we can simultaneously make our interesting anthropological observations even as we reap the rich rewards of colonialism.

> Kate Grenville The Secret River (Melbourne: Text, 2005).

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