A Kindness Cup (1974) is a short (150pp), powerful novel on the savagery that underlies white settlement in Queensland. Set in a fictional coastal town in the far north at the end of the C19th, it is a story of Aboriginal men casually murdered for no reason; of a town whose sugar industry is based on the slave labour of Pacific islanders; a town of mindless citizens, happy in their wilful ignorance; and above all, the story of the few white men who tried to help or speak up, bashed and sidelined.
I own a few Astleys and I guess I must have read them over the past 40 or so years, without retaining much, but this is the one that has stayed in my mind, the one that for me typifies her writing. Thea Astley (1925-2004) was born and educated in Queensland before moving to NSW with her husband in 1948. Without having read all her books, I get the impression that Queensland is at the heart of her writing. And I believe she writes so ferociously about Queensland in A Kindness Cup because so little had changed. Her fictional township is a perfect metaphor for Brisbane and Queensland in the venal, racist years of Joh Bjelke-Petersen and his coterie of corrupt cabinet ministers, police and businessmen.
The premise of the novel is that Dorahy, a classics teacher, has been invited back to a town reunion on the 20th anniversary of … I’m not sure we’re told, and about 18 years after a massacre of local Aborigines which he (imperfectly) witnessed. We proceed along a number of timelines at once. Dorahy making the six day voyage up the coast from Moreton Bay to attend the reunion; Dorahy teaching a class which includes the gentle Tim Jenner and the oafish Fred Buckmaster; Fred Buckmaster, a Trooper Lieutenant in the police, being grilled at an inquest into the massacre; the even more oafish Buckmaster père and the oily politician Sweetman threatening and blustering both ‘now’ and 20 years earlier; the seven days of the reunion; and so on.
Other characters who play a part are Boyd who prints the local newspaper and is philosophically opposed to Buckmaster and Sweetman, but mostly keeps his head down; Lunt a farmer on the edge of the district who is sympathetic to the local Indigenous people. Women in this novel are mostly in the background, there are just Kowaha, an Aboriginal woman friendly with Lunt and Dorahy, and who has a new baby daughter; and Gracie, a girl competed for by Tim and Fred, who goes on to become a professional singer down south, but returns for the reunion.When fights break out at a town meeting –
Gracie Tilburn, her red hair ablaze, rushes to the footlights and pleads for silence. It is so outrageous for a woman to assert herself among men, the hall is temporarily shocked and muted.
The massacre becomes inevitable when Buckmaster and Sweetman form the intention of ‘dispersing’, ie. shooting, the local Aborigines under the pretext that they had abducted, starved and abandoned a local (white) child, despite it being clear to everyone else that the child was lost, had been rescued by the tribe, had been unable to eat Aboriginal food, and had been returned to a place near her home.
Lunt warns the Aborigines, who are camping at a waterhole on his property, of the impending attack, and undertakes to care for a sick old man whom they are unwilling to leave behind. When Buckmaster finds them gone he approaches Lunt in a rage, shoots the Aboriginal man in his bed and lashes Lunt to him. By the time Lunt is discovered, days later, gangrene has set in in a minor wound in his leg and it has to be amputated.
Buckmaster orders his son, by now a policeman, to conduct a raid without waiting for a warrant or instructions, and a party is made up of troopers and townsmen. They find the tribe in the bush around a local peak, Mandarana, and fan out, herding them up to the top.
The world, the stupendous views, narrowed to a horror of shots and shouts and screams as they burst in upon the score of blacks herded into the inner circle of rocks. One spear caught Roy Armitage in the shoulder, but the others flew wide as the natives, awed by the bullet, became only a huddle of terrified flesh. They cringed against rocky shields…
It was truly time to make arrests, but Buckmaster had lost control of his men who went forward and in, shooting steadily and reloading and shooting until the ground was littered with grunting men and there was blood-splash bright upon the rocks…
‘Leave the gins!’ Sweetman roared in a moment of sanity. ‘Leave them!’
Kowaha breaks free from her fellows and leaps to her death holding her baby, who survives! Dorahy, Boyd and Tim Jenner and his father come up at that moment, having hoped to impede or at least bear witness to the ‘dispersal’.
Dorahy and Lunt are forced to leave town. The inquest uncovers Fred Buckmaster’s guilt and incompetence but, as is always the case in Queensland, exonerates him anyway. He too leaves town, to become a publican.
And so we come to the reunion. Sweetman tries to persuade Dorahy to forget his grievances, “That’s all over now. So long ago no one remembers.” But Dorahy, old and frail, is determined to make a scene and ropes in Boyd and Lunt. The ending isn’t happy.
Thea Astley, A Kindness Cup, Penguin, Melbourne, 1984 (first published 1974)