Kevin Doyle Blog

Writing and activism

The Secret River and ‘The Lucky Country’

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The Secret River

Columbus’s journey to the Americas marked the beginning of a long and uninterrupted war against the peoples of the non-European world.   After invasion, came suppression and annihilation – not necessarily in that order.  Militarily, the European regimes – the Spanish, Portuguese, English, French for example – were superior entities.  They were ruthless and their hunger for new land and wealth was insatiable.  About all of this, much is now known.  For example Chomsky’s Year 501: The Conquest Continues give a good overview and perspective on what befell so many of the indigenous of the world.

Australia was an important theatre in this war. Its huge landmass was the subject of penetrative explorations from the 1600s on, and was finally declared ‘discovered’ by Cook in 1770.  Cook’s claim on behalf of Great Britain marks the beginning of a harrowing period in the history of those peoples that lived on the continent – a catastrophe for the Aborigines as the Holocaust is the Jews or the Nakba is for the Palestinians.

The war against the aboriginal peoples of Australia goes on to this day.  It is a war that has waxed and waned in termed of its intensity – veering from outright genocidal attacks on different tribes to more systematic efforts to undermine and destroy the social and cultural structure of the aborigines.  For those interested in exploring this history, I would particularly recommend Noel Olive’s Enough Is Enough which focuses on the experience of the aborigines of Western Australia and their efforts to weather the unceasing war that was conducted against them.

Into this harrowing and ongoing narrative comes an accomplished work of fiction – from one of Australia’s better known writers, Kate Greenville.  Entitled The Secret River, it was inspired in its inception by the stories told to Greenville by her grandmother about her own family’s coming to Australia.  The Secret River puts faces, names and feelings to a few of those who were the foot-soldiers of Conquest 501.  It is a powerfully told story, disciplined, revealing and ultimately damning.  It is a fine example of what top rate political fiction should be.

Grenville’s story centers on the life of William Thornhill.  After a long sea journey, he is put ashore into the small colony that is Sydney where he must fend for his family and his future. The story backtracks and we learn of the conditions that led to Thornhill’s deportation to Australia.  A working man, through illness and bad luck, he falls on hard times.  Involved in a botched effort to rob from a boat on the Thames in London, he is arrested, tried and sentenced to .  All but bereft of hope he is saved from the gallows by the efforts of his wife, Sal, the constant good fortune of his difficult life.  It is deportation instead of and so Thornhill ends up in Australia.

Like most people, Thornhill is a good person.  His only crime to date is that he has been born poor in a mean, ruthless London.  He takes with him to Australia an awareness of his place and he is not content with it.  He also knows what it is like to be poor and to be on the lowest rung in society.  In Australia he sees the same mean and privileged system that all but ed him back in England.  But there is a difference: there are more opportunities in this new land.   He works hard to become ‘a freeman’ once more and eventually does.  But he knows too that he still must thieve if he is ever to save anything from the daily grind that is his lot.  He learns how to be a better thief – to take small amounts and not get caught.   He sets up a bar with Sal and gradually his family does well.  Soon he makes his first journey outside the colony and via this he sees the vast and beautiful land that lies outside the decrepit colony that is Sydney.  Others around him are already laying claim to these very lands and he too finds himself caught up in the quest.  He sees a small finger of land that catches his eye which he names Thornhill’s Point.  He decides to make it his.

But the land he chooses is not ‘free’ land.  Is is used by the aborigines.  They visit the land and move through it; they also grow food of their own in various chosen areas. One of Thornhill’s first acts is to pull up their plants.  There is standoff but the aborigines do not attempt to remove him.  He and his family fall into an uneasy arrangement; the aborigines come and go while Thornhill establishes his ownership in terms of his own sense of what that entails: he builds a dwelling, establishes boundaries and plants crops.

The situation around him is changing quickly.  Other settlers are also claiming land.  Some make a point of living harmoniously with the aborigines but others are intent on and enslavement.  Thornhill wants no part in the latter and both he and Sal are thrown into a moral dilemma as they become aware of some of the crimes that are being carried out by the settlers.   Thornhill feels uneasy but he feels threatened too.  He is aware that what he is doing is not right but he is determined never to go back to what he barely escaped from with life – his old life as a poor man with no standing.  He prospers while Sal prods him about returning home to London one day; her big hope.

Thornhill was saved from the gallows.  The brutal system that almost killed him, spared him at the very last moment; it had some humanity in it.  Now Thornhill moves into a position where he will have the power to decide whether another human being lives or dies; in a sense the wheel has come the full circle for Thornhill.

We know the outcome and we know what happened.  Nonetheless the conclusion of this fine account of early Australia does not disappoint as it attempts to grapple with the crimes of the past.  In Thornhill’s story we see an honest, good man descending to the level of ed and thief.  The consequences of this are that in time his kit and kin will become the heirs to modern Australia and the heirs too to great wealth.  But it is an ascent that is washed through with – driven on by a foreboding memory of brutal exploitation left behind in Europe.

Grenville’s writing is superb.  It does justice to the harrowing story and is fateful throughout to the characters and their predicaments.  In some ways The Secret River  seems like an obvious story to tell.   But in Australia it would be a mistake to think this is so.  The ‘Lucky Country’, as it is called, is a place were vast numbers of people have willfully constructed a different narrative for how they came to take possession of that land and place.  The this ‘official’ narrative that Australia was in fact ‘terra nullius’ and that those who went there civilised the place and its people remains a cruel lie that still bears down on the peoples of that place.  Grenville has produced a fine book and has also done a small but important service to all those who live and struggle with the legacy of oppression and genocide.

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