1788 (2), Watkin Tench

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1788 (1996) is a book in three parts: I reviewed previously the first two, Tim Flannery’s, The Extraordinary Watkin Tench,  and Tench’s account of the voyage out (here). Herewith a review of Tench’s –

A Complete Account of the Settlement at Port Jackson: According to this web site for visitors, “the Eora, Cadigal, Guringai, Wangal, Gammeraigal and Wallumedegal people … were the original inhabitants of Sydney’s harbour foreshore.” Governor Phillip had hoped that his new settlement and the local Aboriginals would live side by side, though I think he was planning on the Aboriginals doing most of the compromising. Tench writes early on:

With the natives we were very little more acquainted than on our arrival in the country. Our intercourse with them was neither frequent or cordial. They seemed studiously to avoid us, either from fear, jealousy or hatred… I was inclined to attribute this conduct to a spirit of malignant levity. But a further acquaintance with them, founded on several instances of their humanity and generosity … has entirely reversed my opinion and led me to conclude that the unprovoked outrages committed upon them by unprincipled individuals among us caused the evils we had experienced.

At the end of 1788 with the locals showing signs of armed resistance Phillip determined to capture some both as hostages and hopefully to provide a link between the white and black communities. In the event, they captured one man, naming him ‘Manly’ as it was some time before he allowed his captors to call him by his Aboriginal name Arabanoo. He was taken to tell his people what had happened to him but that did not result in any further contact.

In March 1789 a party of convicts left their work and attacked some Aboriginals at Botany Bay. They were repulsed, one convict was killed and a number were severely wounded. Arabanoo witnessed the flogging of the survivors, unhappily despite understanding its cause, and the later hanging of six marines for the theft of stores.

In April and May the bodies of Aboriginals were found who had obviously died of smallpox. This mystifies Tench as the last smallpox case amongst the whites had been 18 months earlier in South Africa. Some sufferers come into the settlement to be nursed, a couple of the younger ones survive and are fostered. The dead are interred by Arabanoo who is infected in turn and dies on 18 May.

His fidelity and gratitude, particularly to his friend the governor, were constant and undeviating and deserve to be recorded. Although of a gentle and placable temper, we early discovered that he was impatient of indignity and allowed of no superiority on our part. He knew that he was in our power, but the independence of his  mind never forsook him.

At this time an inlet between the cliffs of Broken Bay (in the northern part of the maps below) is discovered to be the mouth of a freshwater river which they name Hawkesbury, and farming is commenced on its banks, at Richmond Hill. The locals, bearing signs of smallpox, “showed every sign of welcome and friendship.” Tench who has his own small outpost at Rose Hill, upstream from Sydney Harbour was inspired to conduct his own explorations inland, towards the Blue Mountains. On the second day “we found ourselves on the banks of a river nearly as broad as the Thames at Putney”. It was given the name Nepean though as they later discovered, it is actually an upstream extension of the Hawkesbury.

Traces of the natives appeared at every step; sometimes in their hunting huts …; sometimes in marks on trees …; or in squirrel traps; or … in decoys for the purpose of ensnaring birds.

By the end of 1789 supplies of food were running out and thievery had become rife. Our first ‘police force’ consisted of 12 night watchmen selected from the most reliable of the convicts. Access to the locals’ knowledge of resources becoming daily more desirable, two more men were captured, Baneelon (Benelong) and Colbee, who soon escaped.

[Baneelon’s] powers of mind were certainly far above mediocrity. He acquired knowledge, both of our manners and language, faster than his predecessor had done. He willingly communicated information, sang, danced and capered, told us all the customs of his country and all the details of his family economy.

By mid 1790 the food (and clothing) situation was getting desperate. The salt pork and rice was now three years old and crawling. Rations were reduced. Baneelon couldn’t stand it and took off. More than 200 convicts and marines were offloaded to Norfolk Island (where they could presumably live off the land) but there, the colony’s larger ship, Sirius, was lost leaving them only with the little Supply. Finally, the Second Fleet began to dribble in, first the Juliana with a cargo of convict women, then the Justinian carrying supplies, then three more ships with convicts. Tench is (rightly) indignant as the death rate, approaching 40%, amongst convicts this time was almost entirely due to private contractors withholding rations, some of which they were able to sell at enormous prices on arrival.

Baneelon was later discovered, though not recaptured, with Colbee and a large number of their fellows at Manly beach, cutting up and eating a whale carcass. He expressed a wish to speak to the governor, who came a day or so later. For his trouble Phillip copped a spear in the shoulder, apparently from a man from a tribe further north.

Soon after, the colonists began a more regular intercourse with Baneelon in particular and with the locals in general. Baneelon introduced them to his wife, Barangaroo, and with a number of other men visited the settlement, no longer fearing that he would be detained.

In November 1790 the Supply returned from Batavia (Jakarta, Indonesia, then the Dutch East Indies) with fresh supplies having completed the first circumnavigation of the continent (then New Holland, now Australia). Tench reports that attempts at cultivation in Sydney have been abandoned,  and that “necessary public buildings advance fast”. At Rose Hill, 200 acres have been cleared of which about 90 are given over to crops of wheat, barley, maize etc. They have fowls and hogs, but no cows or sheep.

With the natives we are now hand and glove. They throng the camp every day, and sometimes by their clamour and importunity for bread and meat (which they now all eat greedily) are become very troublesome.

James Ruse, a former convict turned farmer reports, “The greatest check on me is the dishonesty of the convicts who, in spite of all my vigilance, rob me almost every night.”

A “brick house of twelve feet square” was built for Baneelon at a site chosen by him (Bennelong Point, the site of the Sydney Opera House). There is an episode at the house where Baneelon attempts to cut off the head of a young Botany Bay woman he has taken prisoner. He is subdued and the woman is hospitalized but it is two days before his rage subsides. Tench remarks he saw no other instance of hostages being sacrificed.

In December a sergeant who was greatly disliked by the locals is speared and dies. He is the seventeenth colonist to die in this way and the Governor dispatches Tench with 50 men to exact retribution from the Bideegal people on Botany Bay. Phillip initially asked for ten men to be killed, though on Tench’s suggestion this was watered down to two to be hung and six to be sent to Norfolk Island. In the event, Tench’s party was bogged down in the swamps around the bay and no one was taken.

At about the same time a party of convicts including a woman (Mary Bryant, not named by Tench) seize the governor’s cutter and succeed in making their way up the coast and around the top of Australia to Timor. The Dutch there send them on to London but they are only required to see out the one or two years remaining on their sentences before being released.

Tench points out that the white convicts working in Sydney often put up with much hotter conditions than those prevailing in the West Indies and that the arguments of apologists for slavery are nonsense. ” Shall I again be told that the sufferings of the wretched Africans are indispensable for the culture of our sugar colonies; that white men are incapable of sustaining the heat of the climate!”

The greater part of this account is about relations between the colonists and the locals. Every effort is made to call each person they meet by his or her proper name and as many other words as possible are learned and recorded; even Rose Hill is in 1791 given its local name, Parramatta. Where convicts are caught stealing from Aborigines they are flogged, a process which incidentally the Aborigines did not enjoy having to observe.

Tench is a good writer and has a wry humour, as when, discussing a desolate lookout point in the bush, he writes “His Excellency was pleased to give [it] the name Tench’s Prospect Mount.” Or when he notes of 20 convicts who set out to walk overland to China. “I trust no man would feel more reluctant than myself to cast an illiberal national reflection… But … all these people were Irish.” Prior to his departure at the end of 1791 he makes a tour of all the farms around Rose Hill/Parramatta, which are producing tobacco and grapes as well as grain. Then of Sydney he writes, “This place had long been considered only as a depot for stores. It exhibited nothing but a few old scattered huts and some sterile gardens.” There is absolutely no reason for this account not to be more widely read.

 

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Tench’s map of the Port Jackson area, 1793
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Sydney today

 

Watkin Tench, 1788, first pub. 1789,1793. This edition: Tim Flannery ed., Text, Melbourne, 1996

see also:

The Resident Judge on Grace Karskens’ The Colony (here).

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1788, Watkin Tench

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Watkin Tench, artist unknown

The Extraordinary Watkin Tench: Early in 1787 the First Fleet, eleven ships containing over 1,000 men, women and children, gathered off the coast of England for the voyage to Australia. 1788 is a reissue of Watkin Tench’s published writings on the voyage and subsequent settlement, edited and introduced by Tim Flannery.

According to Flannery, publishers wanting first-hand accounts “flocked to sign up the principals of the venture”. Tench, only a captain in the Marines, was almost an afterthought, but his A Narrative of the Expedition to Botany Bay was the first out, in April 1789 – and probably the most readable. His A Complete Account of the Settlement at Port Jackson followed in 1793.

Tench was born in 1758 or ’59, in Chester where his parents ran a dancing academy and boarding school. He entered the marine corps (soldiers attached to the Royal Navy) at age 16 and saw immediate service in the American War of Independence where he was for three months a prisoner of war. After the war he was on half pay which may be why he signed up for a three year tour with the First Fleet and the new settlement. He subsequently returned to England, married, and died in Devonport on 7 May 1833.

Of utmost importance is Tench’s relations with the Indigenous people of the Sydney area. He learned their language, although he did not leave behind a dictionary or grammar as far as I can see, and was “a friend and confidante of the Aborigines who attached themselves to the settlement”.

The following accounts are familiar because so often relied on to form the bases of our histories and historical fictions, notably Eleanor Dark’s The Timeless Land. But they are also well worth reading in their own right.

A Narrative of the Expedition to Botany Bay: Tench begins

The marines and convicts having been previously embarked in the river at Portsmouth and Plymouth, the whole fleet destined for the expedition rendezvoused at the Mother Bank on the 16th of March 1787 and remained there until the 13th of May following.

Eight weeks doing nothing with 759 convicts, the men in leg irons, confined below deck. “Few complaints or lamentations were to be heard among them”. Eventually, finally, Governor Phillip comes on board and they set off.

The number of convicts was 565 men, 192 women, and eighteen children. The major part of the prisoners were mechanics and husbandmen, selected on purpose by order of government.

Crossing the Atlantic, they called first at Tenerife, then at Rio de Janeiro where they were well looked after, Governor Phillip having been “for many years a captain in their navy, and commanded a ship of war on this station.” We learn that Brazil had only just started growing its own coffee, having previously had to import it from Portugal; and that although their principal crop was sugar, their rum was less than palatable.

James Cook had written (in 1773) that the women would indicate their availability by throwing flowers at the visitors’ feet. Tench regrets that this appeared to be no longer the case:

We were so deplorably unfortunate as to walk every evening before their windows and balconies without being honoured with a single bouquet, though nymphs and flowers were in equal and great abundance.

In many ways this is a ‘Lonely Planet’ account, Tench telling his readers where they might stay, what there is to see, and what currency to use.

Next, and final, stop is Table Bay, Cape of Good Hope, South Africa. They top up their stores – enough for two years – and

on the 12th of November [1787] we weighed anchor and soon left far behind every scene of civilisation and humanised manners to explore a remote and barbarous land and plant in it those happy arts which alone constitute the pre-eminence and dignity of other countries.

Sailing eastward across the Indian Ocean at around 40º of latitude, they sight the southern tip of “Van Diemen” on 7th January 1788 then loop out into the Tasman Sea, not sighting land again until “the 19th at only the distance of seventeen leagues [95 km] from our desired port”. By the morning of the 20th the whole fleet had cast anchor in Botany Bay. Only one marine and 24 convicts had perished en route.

Phillip in the Supply had arrived two days earlier. He found “the natives tolerably numerous” on the south shore “shouting and making many uncouth signs and gestures” so he landed a boat on the north shore where there were only six men “in order to take possession of his new territory and bring about an intercourse between its new and old masters.”

An interview commenced, in which the conduct of both parties pleased each other so much that the strangers returned to their ships with a much better opinion of the natives than they had landed with; and the latter seemed highly entertained with their new acquaintance …”

Botany Bay is too open and lacks potable water but before they can move to  neighbouring Port Jackson two more ships arrive, totally unexpectedly, under the command of the French Captain, la Perouse. The French stay some weeks anchored in Botany Bay and relations are amicable.

On 26th January 1788 the fleet moved from Botany Bay and settlement was commenced at Sydney Cove in Port Jackson (Sydney Harbour). “Owing to the multiplicity of pressing business … it was found impossible to read the public commissions and take possession of the colony in form until 7th of February” when the military and convicts assembled to hear His Majesty’s commission read, establishing the territory of New South Wales.

Relations between Aborigines and the British are mostly cordial but remote. Tench believes that contrary to Cook’s reports, “That celebrated navigator, we were willing to believe had somehow by his conduct offended them, which prevented the intercourse that would otherwise have taken place.” The following year Cook “offended” some Hawaiians and was killed.

Over the course of 1778, ships depart, the supply ships for China to load tea, others back to England, and a subsidiary settlement is commenced on Norfolk Island. The soldiers and convicts build huts to house themselves; courts are established and convicts are flogged and in a few cases executed; 17 whites are killed or seriously wounded by Aborigines. Existing food supplies are supplemented with fish (not plentiful) and kangaroo. Interestingly ‘kangaroo’ was a word unknown to the locals and they thought that the whites who used it meant any large animal.

This first account ends on the 1st of October with the Sirius set to return to England “by which conveyance the opportunity of writing to you is afforded to me.”

 

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Tench’s map of the Port Jackson area, 1793
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Sydney today

A Complete Account of the Settlement at Port Jackson: I have already written too much and Tench too apologises for adding to the already (in 1793) considerable literature on the founding of New South Wales. I’ll be as brief as I can, but urge you to read this for yourselves.

No, on further consideration, I have already said less about first contact than I had planned, so I’ll put up a proper review of A Complete Account in a couple of weeks.

 

Watkin Tench, 1788, first pub. 1789,1793. This edition: Tim Flannery ed., Text, Melbourne, 1996

see also:

The Resident Judge on ‘the Foundational Orgy’ of 6 Feb, 1788 (here), and on Grace Karskens’ The Colony (here).

 

Storyland, Catherine McKinnon

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Storyland (2017) as you might expect, is about stories, about the stories that make up this land, this nation. How they are made, how they are told, when they are told, why they are told, what they tell. Is itself a linked series of stories ranging in time from White Settlement into the future and back again. And rightly, McKinnon restricts herself to those stories that are hers to tell. White stories, settler stories, and above all, the story of the land itself.

In 1796 Bass and Flinders and young Will Martin take a small boat south from Sydney Cove to explore the coast. They are afraid to make landfall because the ‘Indians’ might be cannibals (see Behrendt). To pass the time Will orates the story of a sea-battle, a story he learned to tell ‘back home’, of a battle that Flinders as a young midshipman took part in. We book readers are reminded of the power of oral traditions.

A quarter of a century later, land is being cleared for farming. Labour is mostly convicts overseen by ex-convicts, ticket-of-leave men, though in this case the overseer is the NSW-born half brother of Will Martin. Hawker, the teller of this story, and Lambskin are the workers. McKinnon interrogates the myths of mateship – what happens if your mate doesn’t pull his weight? The ‘natives’ are no longer cannibals, but they threaten the crops. Yet:

When we were building the hut it was the chief’s nephew who showed us the paths through the forest to the cedar trees. He taught us how to strip the bark of the Couramyn to make a fishing line, showed us what berries not to eat. Once, when our traps had caught nothing, the nephew gave us kangaroo tail. He thought he could take corn in return… “That corn does not belong to me,” I explained. The nephew went away and the chief, with complete understanding of men’s desires, sent her back.

1900 and still in the lush farming country between the mountains and the sea south of Sydney, the Illawarra, though the coal mines and smelters that become synonymous with Wollongong and Port Kembla have started their inexorable spread. Lola with her brother and sister Mary and Abe are dairy farming on the shore of a lake . Jewell, their friend and neighbour, has been told by her father she “can’t work with no ignorant bastard girl like you, Lola, and with no half-castes like Mary and Abe.” Jewell draws pictures, another form of storytelling. “’I have to draw you like you is,’ Jewell says … ‘I got to draw the truth.’”  Jewell goes missing. Their aunt takes them to the camp of the local Aboriginals to get help. Abe is attacked by Jewell’s father.

Almost another century, and where the farms were is now housing and the lake’s a “cesspit”, clear water but the shores are black sludge. Bel is a 10 year-old whose vocation is to tell stories.

Uncle Ray says the lake was once full of fish and it was a refrigerator for everyone who camped on the banks in the olden Aborigine days before refrigerators.

Bel’s dad Jonathon is doing his PhD “on people in stories who tell stories you don’t believe”.  Bel and her friends Tarak and Isha come across an older girl, Kristie sleeping rough in Swamp Park. She says she is descended from Mary who “met my great-grandfather and he was like the son of this fierce Aboriginal warrior and they had a pile of kids together and one was my grandmother.” And so the stories link one to another, although probably place alone would have been enough. Ned, Kristie’s boyfriend can ‘spin a yarn’, another story-teller, no-one says bull-shit artist but Kristie teaches them to lie to him, “Some people you can love, but never trust. Ned is one of those people.”

We go off into the future, the near future and the far future at the same time, before making our way back again.

Nada, I want to publicly membank what we say to each other today for our Storyland project.
Ah.
If you don’t wish to be publicly membanked you have that right. If you choose not to participate your treatment here will not be affected. Nada, may I membank?
Nada nods her head.
Nada, I can’t go ahead until you say yes. You must verbally agree. This is a contract.

Nada’s story is that her community up on the escarpment above Lake Illawarra, her house sheltering under the 1,000 year old fig tree, has been destroyed in cyclone Frank.  When she finally makes her way back to the city she descends into a dystopia of food and fuel shortages, flooding and fighting. Kristie appears briefly, at the evac centre, and is shot. Back home, under the guidance of their neighbour Steve, the first Koori to command the Australian Army, they prepare to defend themselves.

Nada is a child knocked down by a car. Bel, Tarak, Isha, their ‘wolf’ dog Zeus rescue Kristie from Ned’s violence. A skeleton is dug up near the beach, the skeleton of a Kuradji, a ‘clever man’. His axe is missing, but we have seen it, in other stories.

Jewell is found.

Hawker kills the woman he has lain with, in the most horrible way imaginable.

Will Martin, Bass and Flinders eat a meal with the ‘Indians’.

Gulls circle above, and the fire spits. The fish is cooked. We sit and eat, pulling the flesh from the bones. We invite our friends to join us. They eat the same way we do. This is proof that they are not cannibals.

Though they continue to have their doubts. The three young men return from their adventures, preparing their stories for telling.

So what has McKinnon been saying with all these stories. That there were people on this land when we got here, they are still here, they never went away, and, I think, that we must learn how to be with them. And, maybe, slowly, we must learn to tell stories, earn the right to tell stories, to live stories, where the first people are Us or part of Us, and not Other.

 

Catherine McKinnon, Storyland, 4th Estate (Harper Collins), Sydney, 2017. My copy received from the publisher for review.

See also Lisa at ANZLitLovers’ review (here)

 

 

The Savage Crows, Robert Drewe

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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)

A Kindness Cup, Thea Astley

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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)

see also reviews of the recent Astley biography: Karen Lamb, Thea Astley: Inventing her own weather, UQP, St Lucia, 2015; by Sue/Whispering Gums (here) and Lisa/ANZLitLovers (here)

Ten Creeks Run, Miles Franklin

Brent of Bin Bin #2

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The Search Party (Talbingo), (c) Kevin John Best

Ten Creeks Run (1930), is the second novel in the saga based loosely on Miles Franklin’s mother’s family and their neighbours in the upper Murrimbidgee and Monaro alpine regions of southern NSW, and published under the penname Brent of Bin Bin.

It follows on from Up the Country with a lapse of about 30 years, putting it in the 1880s and 90s, which has the interesting consequence that John Franklin and Sussanah Lampe are already married and their first child Stella Maria Sarah Miles Franklin (1879-1954), who is of course the author, is alive and kicking. MF’s principal reason for withholding My Brilliant Career from republication was the embarrassment she felt it caused her parents. As they were still alive in 1930 (they died in 1931 and 1938 respectively), it will be interesting as I make my way into Ten Creeks Run to see if and how they are portrayed.

Miles was born in her maternal grandmother’s house in Talbingo after Susannah famously “rode seventy miles two months before I was born” from the Franklin property, Brindabella, to Talbingo. “She went by impossible tracks negotiable only by a mountain-bred horse, at such angles that those unaccustomed could not retain a seat. For miles the horse plunged to the girths in snow.” (1963, p.19)

Brindabella is east of Talbingo (towards Canberra and Goulburn) and outside of the real high country which is the territory of the first two novels. Towards the end of the period covered by Ten Creeks Run, John moves his family further away again, leaving the family properties, to become a humble ‘cocky’ at Thornford near Goulburn. A few years later, in the mid 1890s Miles’ alter ego Sybylla, in My Brilliant Career, goes to stay with her widowed maternal grandmother who has living with her her son Jay-Jay and daughter Helen. Sybylla is re-written as Ignez in Cockatoos, the next in this series, and John’s family’s story is fictionalised in All That Swagger (1936), published under Miles’ own name. So are all MF’s stories intertwined.

Ten Creeks Run begins with a horse muster at Bool Bool, with all the surrounding families gathered to sort out their herds –which mostly run free in the bush – demonstrate their horsemanship, socialise and celebrate the opening of a new bridge over the Tumut River. Oh and of course to introduce the new cast of players and farewell the old. The central figure once again is Bert Poole, now in his 50s but still single. Old Mrs Mazere is still around and her daughter, the beautiful Rachel Labosseer, now a widow and a grandmother, is no longer the centre of Bert’s attentions. The Healey’s and Stantons are represented by younger generations and Milly Stanton and Aileen Healy in their teens and early twenties respectively, are the cynosure of all eyes.

Interestingly, in the context of the dying out of the old hands, is that one ‘feminist’ innovation introduced by old Mrs Mazere is her attendance at funerals “against the usual custom for women”. This was probably told to MF by her mother, but while the basis of these first two books is family legend, it would be interesting to know at what stage MF began accumulating stories, and what steps she took to refresh both her history and her geography, given that by the time she began writing she had been out of Australia for 18 of the preceding 20 years*. Walter Scott says in his General Preface to Waverly (1814), “I had been a good deal in the Highlands at a time when they were much less accessible, and much less visited, than they have been of late years, and was acquainted with many old warriors of 1745, who were, like most veterans, easily induced to fight their battles over again for the benefit of a willing listener like myself.” It is unlikely that MF had access to any similar sources, at least after 1906, and likewise her descriptions of country must come from childhood memories. However, by fictionalizing her stories she has, like Scott: “like a maiden knight with his white shield, assumed for my hero, Waverley, an uncontaminated name, bearing with its sound little of good or evil, excepting what the reader shall hereafter be pleased to affix to it.”

Franklin clearly loves the high country and always regarded Talbingo as home. I am not going to explain how squatters used ‘dummies’ to secure land otherwise available to new selectors, but here is a typical description:

Stanton turned back from Wamgambril Flats where the lone selection of his dummy secured the eye of a mountainous horse and cattle run. He retraced his way across creeks and ferny gullies through the cool depths of thousands of square miles of timber broken only by the tiny spring-head flats of the plateaux amid the ranges.

 Franklin basically uses her people/locations as an excuse for a romantic romp, very much in the style of Georgette Heyer (wouldn’t she hate me for saying that!). The last GH I read, ‘The Quiet Gentleman’, had the back cover blurb: “There are sub-plots and counter plots, a delightfully practical heroine, a fair charmer, and various villainies, all engagingly sustained on a diet of humour and excitement.” And that pretty well covers Ten Creeks Run too.

I won’t tell you who ends up with whom, though you’ll see soon enough when I progress to Cockatoos, but one young girl is ‘sold’ to an older suitor who has got hold of the family mortgages, a dashing young woman gets pregnant and requires an extended stay in Sydney, there is a child lost in the bush (of course!), the melodramatic rescue of a stolen horse, and a young man attempts rape to force marriage.

In a familiar MF trope, Milly grows from schoolgirl to young woman, is kissed, and then suffers terribly until she is reassured that she is neither pregnant nor automatically betrothed.

Some interesting historical points arise: travellers not only changed trains at Albury, but went through Customs; Canberra was already a place (I thought it was just a paddock until 1912), “Over the nearer rolling widths the spire of Canberra church came to view in its Plain, and Mount Ainslie”; MF airs allegations of cannibalism: “ould Bowes saw wan of the gins with a white child’s arrum [arm] in her dilly bag”, and also has station hands recounting hunting parties “in Queensland” where the Blacks were shot and the “gins” raped. I don’t think MF was racist, rather the opposite; perhaps she thought the best way to illustrate the race problem was to present accurately what men say. During the period of this book there was a Depression caused by the general failure of the banks. This comes up from time to time, here for instance:

The Isaacses [storekeepers], for example, had their hands full in standing to the district with liberal credit till money should circulate again, and dispensed it with a friendly generosity that gave them first place with the old inhabitants till the end of their days.

Mrs Isaacs and Mrs McHaffety, the publican’s wife, are used by MF effectively as a Greek chorus, with interludes throughout where they comment on the action and exchange gossip for the general advancement of the plot. Although stockmen are also very good at disseminating rumour, and are likewise used to good effect.

And so, do young Stella (MF) and her parents make an appearance? In two ways. Firstly Milly is a ‘Sybylla’ clone, which is to say an idealised version of Miles herself – independent, chaste, determined and a fine horsewoman. And then, Ignez Milford, who is the central character in Cockatoos, which at its core is autobiographical, makes a small appearance, along with her parents, in the search for the lost child. Interestingly, Ignez’ maternal grandmother, who is so important in My Brilliant Career, is not old Mrs Mazere, whose death marks the conclusion of this story, but Mrs Mazere’s widowed daughter Rachel Labosseer.

The writing in Ten Creeks Run sparkles, and the action proceeds at a cracking pace. This is a fine book, not literary of course in the way that Christine Stead’s writing is, but also not deserving of its present obscurity.

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Talbingo Hotel circa 1905. Henry Pether propr. (Terence McHaffety in the novel)

Miles Franklin, Ten Creeks Run, Blackwoods, 1930. Reissued by Angus & Robertson, 1952

Miles Franklin, Childhood at Brindabella, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1963

Georgette Heyer, The Quiet Gentleman, Pan Books, London, 1971 (first pub. 1951)

Illustration: Kevin John Best’s paintings for sale here. (My book had no dust jacket)

For other Miles Franklin posts and reviews go to:

An overview of the Brent of Bin Bin series (here)
Miles Franklin Central (here)


* Added 14 Dec 2016. MF visited the high country for 10 days in 1924, staying with her mother’s people, the Lampes (Roe, 2008, p.258); and again, for 2 months in 1928, after completing the first draft of Ten Creeks Run (p.296).

Here Where We Live, Cassie Flanagan Willanski

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I came to Here Where We Live via Sue’s review at Whispering Gums a couple of months ago and bought it straight away. My dilemma then was that although I saw it, and bought it, as part of the project that quite a few of us are undertaking, to better understand the representation of Indigenous people in Aust. Lit, I didn’t want my review to come out on top of (be overshadowed by!) Sue’s. Still, I’ve read it now, and thoroughly enjoyed it, so here goes.

Willanski says, and yes I’m one of those people who reads the Foreword, or in this case the Author’s Note first, that her project was to “reflect some of the attitudes I discovered in my research”, for her MA, into changing representations of Indigenous people by white authors. Interestingly, to my mind that’s not quite what she has written. And this is presented as a book of short stories, and I’m not quite sure that is what she has written either.

To start with, Willanski is, says she is, a white woman, probably in her 30s (I did google a biographical piece but I found it distracting). Towards the end of the Author’s note she writes that the first story derives from a trip she took “out west”. The story begins: “This is my daughter’s country./That mallee sea with the undulating dunes and the rockholes where we take her back to camp.”

My immediate thought is that she’s in Kim Scott country, on the south coast of WA, but she’s not, and it slowly becomes clear, she’s in South Australia and ‘west’ for her is west of Port Augusta, or in this case more probably, west of Ceduna, where the mallee forests on the edge of the Nularbor meet the Southern Ocean.

I’ve lived in SA, and worked there off and on most of my life, and it’s different. Adelaide is not as cosmopolitan as Melbourne or Sydney, nor even Perth, and not as redneck as Queensland. It is a little pocket of homogeneity that keeps itself to itself. And so when Willanski describes the world, the world she is describing is South Australia.

In that first story, My Good Thing she imagines having a child with an Indigenous husband and visiting his, and her daughter’s, country. In Stuff White People Like the pov is that of a guy, Oliver, a white teacher who decides to work with Aboriginal kids in Ceduna. He and his wife, Clay attend a corroboree and his and white people in general’s awkwardness mixing with Indigenous people is closely and hilariously observed. Stuff White People Like, a satire on white liberal attitudes, is also the name of the book they are reading and they use it to good effect to poke fun at each other:

‘I think that book’s kind of offensive’, Oliver said after a five minute silence.

‘You’re only meant to be offended on other people’s behalf, not your own. Proper white people hate themselves.’

They laughed again, but the laugh was tired.

Importantly, Willanski describes the husband’s pov but I don’t think she ever stops imagining the woman’s. Obviously, this is not a book of polished ‘gems’, self-contained, each with a beginning and an end. Neither is it like, say Henry Lawson, a collection of yarns, sufficient unto themselves. It’s more the journal of a woman imagining herself in different situations and from different perspectives, but in the end always the same, underlying, thirtyish, South Australian woman.

In other stories, she imagines a divorce, from the pov of a mother with children and then from the pov a young girl whose father leaves. She imagines an 8 yo boy, Oliver, a ‘difficult student’ who may be the Oliver, the teacher, in Stuff White People Like, on a school excursion. She takes up Oliver and Clay again, but from Clay’s pov. Clay would like to get pregnant but she’s stuck on the fact that she has previously had an abortion. Until she accepts that a life has been lost, and begins to grieve, she can’t find her way forward.

She becomes an old white woman, whose husband was involved in the British atom bomb tests on Aboriginal country at Maralinga, in a delegation with two Indigenous women to a conference in the US desert of women against the storage of nuclear waste on Indigenous land; she’s ‘herself’, rejoining conservation activists on a trip north to blockade a uranium mine; and finally in a tour de force, she writes a story from two povs at once – an old woman living in a shack in the dunes behind the beach whose (female) partner has recently died, and a 17 yo girl trying to be a woman tagging along with her boyfriend who wants to snorkel on a wreck, a story interrogating the way that relationships begin or don’t begin, work or don’t work.

All the while we’re working with the fact, or facts, that this is someone else’s land, and that we are destroying it. Over the years, the water level of the Murray at Hindmarsh Island drops [as it is stolen by the Barnaby Joyces*]; we look again at the unresolved scandal of the tests at Maralinga; and in passing, the enormous amount of ground water sucked up by the uranium mine at Roxby Downs. Oliver’s school excursion is to Aboriginal sites, one of which they damage; the divorced woman moves to the (greener) south east, driven out of Adelaide by years of drought, and finds herself in a house with Aboriginal neighbours and with Aboriginal ghosts; the boyfriend in the final story is researching a thesis on the survivors of a wreck, who swam to shore only to be captured and eaten. And yet survivors of an earlier wreck had been aided by locals and escorted along the coast to Victor Harbour. One more quote:

We will drive right out the top of South Australia onto Aboriginal land. There will be the old activist faces from across the country, transforming the grief and outrage into smirks of shared intent. There will be our hosts, the humour and dignity of the Traditional Owners strategising with the big-shot campaigners against the blank grey faces, the plastic simulations, the grey site hidden from the highway so as not to appear real. We will camp every night with fifty others. Our campfires will make patterns, maps of our families. People weren’t meant to live separately in houses.

The kids will be baptised in red earth. (Her Thoughts Heading North)

This is a stunning, beautifully written and original work and I advise everyone to read it.

 

Cassie Flanagan Willanski, Here Where We Live, Wakefield Press, Adelaide, 2016


* Barnaby Joyce, the Federal Minister for Agriculture and Water Resources, is from and still effectively represents St George in Qld, the home of Cubby Station which is licensed to take 460,000 megalitres of water per year from the upper Murray-Darling system, the equivalent of all irrigation entitlements downstream in north-western NSW.