The subject of The Savage Crows (1976) is the love life of a young man, Stephen Crisp, as he collects material for a thesis on the extermination of Tasmanian Aborigines – the Parlevar people – who after 50 years battling introduced diseases and frontier war, had been reduced from maybe 15,000 people down to a couple of hundred. In 1833 those few remaining tribespeople were persuaded by missionary George Robinson, acting on behalf of Lieutenant Governor George Arthur, to permit themselves to be removed to Flinders Island in Bass Strait, north of Tasmania.
The book has two completely distinct narrative streams – fragments of Crisp’s life up to the present where he is living alone in a flat whose toilet window overlooks a portion of Lavender Bay, Sydney Harbour; and the (imagined) journals of George Robinson as he makes his way around Van Dieman’s Land (Tasmania) as a ‘conciliator’. Both streams continue throughout the book and there is no marker when you step from one to the other. Although it is common these days for novels to contain both the story of a writer and the story being written, these two bear so little relation to each other that I found the switches annoying, rather than ‘experimental’ or ‘ambitious’ as claimed.
Crisp, as you might expect in a first novel, is a stand-in for Drewe himself, and lots of the material around Crisp’s early life in the leafy, upper-middle class Perth suburbs between the river and the sea, is familiar to readers of Drewe’s later memoir, The Shark Net (2000). Over the course of the novel we learn, not sequentially, that Crisp has an ex-wife and daughter; that he has a girlfriend, Anna; that his mother died young, some years earlier; and that he has a difficult relationship with his father and with his younger brother who has stayed in Perth to make money mining mug investors on the stock exchange, which is how most West Australians make their fortunes.
The two streams intersect briefly when Crisp, holidaying at his brother’s Dalkeith (Perth’s Toorak) house, tackles his brother, Geoff, about his racist jokes:
‘Why do it?’ he asked, sipping one of Geoff’s tawny ports. ‘Isn’t it a shade racist?’ The women had gone to bed. The dogs lay comatose at their feet, trembling at busy dreams.
‘Just for a laugh. Where’s you sense of humour?’ A propos of nothing, or something, Geoff said, ‘Ever rooted a coon, by the way?’
Crisp works his way through his relationship with Anna – at a party one of Geoff’s gyno friends points out that Anna is pregnant, but Crisp is oblivious; is divorced by his ex-wife; forges some sort of relationship with his father; and, finally, makes a visit to Tasmania and Flinders Island, where I suppose the two streams merge again, but not to any great effect.
The Robinson stream, the imagined journal, has a monotone quality, not quite as turgid as a real C19th journal, but not free-running narrative either. Robinson makes his way around Tasmania, accompanied by Truganini – famously the ‘last Tasmanian’ – and a small number of others from her language group, particularly another woman, Dray, and Truganini’s husband, Wooraddy.
My endeavours began on 30th March 1829 when I left Hobart Town at 9.30 am in a large whaleboat with six hands bound for Bruny Island lying close to the mainland due south…As I saw it … I had been placed in the vanguard of the movement for the amelioration of the natives…
Robinson’s plan is to befriend the Aboriginal inhabitants of Bruny Island, and to create a settlement for them with huts, vegetable gardens and a school. He is concerned to separate the locals from white settlers on the far side of the island who were “enticing the natives with food, clothing and tobacco for which the women were submitting to immoral practices”. In this he is less than successful and in any case the Aboriginals are nearly all wiped out by an unidentified disease.
The following year he makes up a party of half a dozen convicts and the four remaining Bruny Islanders to make contact with the Indigenous inhabitants of southern Tasmania, during which he undergoes various adventures, the purpose of which – I mean the author’s purpose – seems to be to demonstrate Robinson’s willingness to conciliate and learn rather than confront. Robinson develops a certain affection for Truganini, but Dray deserts the party and takes up with locals.
This is all in preparation for horrifying scenes of White bastardry, as shepherds massacre Aborigines and force them over a cliff:
A narrow path led down to the ledge; at its farmost reach was a dead-end – a high rock wall. Beneath the ledge was a drop of a hundred feet or more on to angular rocks stippled with brightly coloured lichens. The ledge was strewn with Toogee bodies – men, women and children lying among their scattered food baskets in a morass of blood and ripe fruit. The Dorsetman and the second Scot moved among them, swinging bodies over the cliff on to the rocks…
I remained there, gasping out prayers, as the shepherds flung the last mutilated bodies over the edge, collected their carbines and muskets and sauntered up the path to me. Below them lay the object of my endeavours, the Toogee tribe. Chamberlain led the way. ‘Morning sir,’ he said. ‘A bit of crow hunting for the company.’
As I understand it, Arthur, who had already instituted martial law so that it was legal to kill Aborigines, claimed to support Robinson but at the same time stepped up the war on the Indigenous population, a war amounting to genocide, with the ‘Black Line’ “in which 2200 civilians and soldiers formed a series of moving cordons stretching hundreds of kilometres across the island in order to drive Aboriginal people from the colony’s settled districts to the Tasman Penninsula, in the southeast” (Wikipedia). From there, 46 survivors, including Truganini, accompanied Robinson to Flinders Island. Their numbers rose to around 200 over the next couple of years as stragglers were rounded up, but declined thereafter due to disease and, no doubt, heartbreak.
A reader asked, after my post on Thea Astley’s The Kindness Cup (here), what other books there were from this period (the 1970s) on Aboriginal massacres. From what I could find, historian Henry Reynolds had begun documenting the War in Tasmania, and JJ Healy (who I discussed here) in Literature and the Aborigine in Australia (1978) was particularly tough on Rolf Boldrewood’s part in massacres in Victoria’s Western District and also discusses the Hornet Bank massacre (of whites) in 1857 and the part played by Rosa Praed’s family in the reprisals, and where this was reflected in her writing.
But as for novels, apart from The Savage Crows, the only others I could come up with that might come close were Xavier Herbert’s Capricornia (1938) and Thomas Keneally’s The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith (1972). So I guess The Savage Crows is important for its subject matter, but in my opinion the execution, the forming of the two narrative streams into a coherent whole, leaves a bit to be desired.
Robert Drewe, The Savage Crows, William Collins, 1976 (my ed. Picador, 1987)