New view is closer to re­al­ity

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Ba­bette Smith Ba­bette Smith’s next book, De­fi­ant Voices: How the Fe­male Con­victs Chal­lenged Author­ity, will be pub­lished in April 2021.

By Grace Karskens

Allen & Un­win, 688pp, $39.99

Peo­ple of the River con­firms that Grace Karskens is lead­ing a new school of history in her own work and through her doc­toral stu­dents. She is one of the few his­to­ri­ans who has taken on board rev­e­la­tions that our un­der­stand­ing of early colo­nial history, white as well as black, does not re­flect re­al­ity but was mainly cre­ated by later mi­grants whose nar­ra­tive was not ques­tioned.

Against this back­ground, she is now writ­ing Aus­tralian history afresh, from ‘‘ground zero’’ as it were. And with great suc­cess. Peo­ple of the River is a book of ma­jor sig­nif­i­cance to Aus­tralian history.

Like her ear­lier work The Colony, this book ranges from an im­mense over­ar­ch­ing nar­ra­tive to the tiny de­tails of hu­man ex­is­tence. The fo­cus this time is the Hawkes­bury-Ne­pean, or Dyarub­bin as the Indige­nous peo­ple call the river.

Karskens, pro­fes­sor of history at the Univer­sity of NSW, draws dis­ci­plines such as ge­ol­ogy and ar­chae­ol­ogy into her his­to­rian’s net, to de­scribe the cre­ation of the land it­self, along with the peo­ple who lived here be­fore and af­ter 1788.

Her vivid prose il­lu­mi­nates ‘‘the in­finites­i­mally slow crack and rise of the western part of the Syd­ney Basin and the cor­re­spond­ing sink and sag of the Cum­ber­land Plain’’.

Up went the rock strata laid down by the river, ris­ing to form the plateau we call the Blue Moun­tains. When we look up at those great yel­low cliffs of shale-capped sand­stone, we are look­ing at what lies be­neath our feet on the Cum­ber­land Plain.

And how do we know this? River gravel, she ex­plains. In a break­through mo­ment, Karskens found a list com­piled in 1829 by Rev­erend John McGarvie that en­abled her to match Indige­nous names to Hawkes­bury lo­ca­tions today.

Just as valu­able, the list also re­veals that Abo­rig­i­nal knowl­edge of place was alive and spo­ken about by Indige­nous peo­ple more than 40 years af­ter the in­va­sion, de­mol­ish­ing ideas they were cul­tur­ally de­stroyed im­me­di­ately af­ter the Euro­peans ar­rived.

On the con­trary Karskens demon­strates that Abo­rig­i­nal peo­ple showed ‘‘an as­ton­ish­ing cul­tural dy­namism’’.

Why de­vote at least a decade to the Hawkes­bury? Karskens ex­plains, ‘‘Dyarub­bin, the Hawkes­bury-Ne­pean, is where the two Aus­tralias — an­cient and mod­ern — first col­lided and were for­ever trans­formed ... By fol­low­ing the river and pay­ing close at­ten­tion to its history and geog­ra­phy, the deep past and present may be re­con­nected and seen in one an­other’s light’’.

Peo­ple of the River in­cor­po­rates mul­ti­ple points-of-view. We learn how the Euro­peans dis­cov­ered Dyarub­bin, how at first they thought the Hawkes­bury and Ne­pean were two dif­fer­ent rivers, how ex-con­vict cou­ples were al­lo­cated land there to farm the rich soil.

The first in­cur­sion of white hu­man­ity was so small and tied so closely to the river, it prob­a­bly seemed tem­po­rary to Indige­nous peo­ple. The small clear­ings, the lack of fences, al­lowed their life and cul­ture to con­tinue un­in­ter­rupted. ‘‘ ... [I]t took some months or even years, for the true im­pact of the strangers’ pres­ence to be­come ap­par­ent”:

the loss of ac­cess to Coun­try, foods and sa­cred sites; the gun­fire; the con­stant pre­da­tion of white men af­ter Abo­rig­i­nal women; and the steal­ing of in­fants ... By 1816, how­ever, it was plain that for ev­ery set­tler Abo­rig­i­nal peo­ple killed in Law or war, the white par­ties with their Abo­rig­i­nal al­lies would kill many more in re­sponse ... and would not cease ...

Karskens de­mol­ishes our too ready as­sump­tion that the mas­sacre by sol­diers at Ap­pin in April 1816 marked the end of early con­flict. In fact, the af­ter­math was in­flamed with vi­o­lence. The mil­i­tary had failed to cap­ture Indige­nous lead­ers and in the eight months af­ter in Ap­pin, ‘‘More farms and out­posts were raided, more set­tlers were killed, and more war­riors’ names were added to the ‘most wanted’ list’’.

Gov­er­nor Lach­lan Mac­quarie ban­ished Abo­rig­i­nal peo­ple from all set­tle­ments un­til the lead­ers were given up. Meanwhile, Hawkes­bury mag­is­trate Wil­liam Cox or­gan­ised re­lent­less and bru­tal raids against them un­til, fi­nally, they sur­ren­dered.

In Novem­ber, Mac­quarie par­doned war­riors who had been caught. Shortly af­ter, for the first time since he started his an­nual feasts, Abo­rig­i­nal peo­ple at­tended in sig­nif­i­cant num­bers.

Writ­ing Abo­rig­i­nal history af­ter the in­va­sion is not straight­for­ward. Karskens achieves it by ‘‘read­ing against the grain’’ of long­stand­ing set­tler texts, a method­ol­ogy that also proved ef­fec­tive in un­cov­er­ing con­vict re­al­ity.

Mac­quarie’s Na­tive In­sti­tu­tion is a good ex­am­ple of what you can find. Es­tab­lished in 1814 at Par­ra­matta, it was a di­rect in­ter­ven­tion in Abo­rig­i­nal fam­i­lies that in­volved ‘‘tak­ing chil­dren by force or per­sua­sion’’. Mac­quarie imag­ined that these chil­dren would form the nu­cleus of a new Euro­pean style of Abo­rig­i­nal fam­ily.

The Na­tive In­sti­tu­tion ‘‘al­ways strug­gled and ul­ti­mately failed’’ for which com­men­ta­tors blamed Abo­rig­i­nal peo­ple’s in­abil­ity to be­come ‘‘civilised’’. But, as Karskens writes, if the per­spec­tive is re­versed ‘‘a very dif­fer­ent pic­ture emerges: re­peated ev­i­dence ... of Abo­rig­i­nal par­ents’ stead­fast re­fusal to give up their chil­dren. The ex­per­i­ment was sab­o­taged not by ig­no­rance, but by strong fam­ily bonds and an un­wa­ver­ing de­ter­mi­na­tion to bring up chil­dren prop­erly — that is, within Abo­rig­i­nal cul­ture’’.

Con­vict set­tlers also need to be ‘‘read against the grain’’, in their case to de­con­struct the moral prism through which they were judged. Like the Abo­rig­ines, the Hawkes­bury set­tlers have come down through history as a drunken, lazy lot who did not ap­pre­ci­ate the land they were given and did not ap­ply them­selves se­ri­ously to farm­ing.

The first judge-ad­vo­cate, David Collins, de­scribed them as end­lessly ca­vort­ing ‘‘con­sum­ing their time and sub­stance in drink­ing and ri­ot­ing”. Of­fi­cials were al­ways try­ing to bring them to or­der, from pre­vent­ing il­licit dis­till­ing to in­sist­ing they work ev­ery day­light hour rather than just when there were jobs to be done.

The fact they were feed­ing the colony by 1795 was over­looked. Karskens delves deep into set­tler life with its strong sense of com­mu­nity, the im­por­tance of agri­cul­tural sea­sons and the shared rit­u­als of births, deaths and mar­riages that bound peo­ple to­gether.

She ar­gues that the river com­mu­nity laid the ground­work for Aus­tralian cul­ture in an ‘‘en­er­getic flow­er­ing of the pas­times and sports of com­mon peo­ple ...’’ but one whose spirit was ‘‘re­sis­tant’’. They were no­to­ri­ous for re­fus­ing to be told what to do, or how to do it. For dis­re­gard­ing judg­men­tal pro­nounce­ments about their plea­sures and con­tin­u­ing to gam­ble and drink and cel­e­brate how­ever they chose.

Euro­peans and Abo­rig­ines shared a love of sing­ing and danc­ing and bois­ter­ous cel­e­bra­tion. They were all ‘‘sports-mad’’ and some of their sport­ing ac­tiv­i­ties were cross-cul­tural and held in ‘‘re­cy­cled’’ lo­ca­tions. The se­cluded Abo­rig­i­nal re­treat at Yar­ra­mundi (used also as a bushranger’s hide-out) hosted il­le­gal bare-knuckle prize fights and cock­fight­ing, as well as Indige­nous cer­e­monies. Horserac­ing drew huge crowds of set­tlers and Indige­nous peo­ple.

Karskens’s in­tro­duc­tion to the book is a pow­er­ful med­i­ta­tion on coloni­sa­tion. Worth read­ing as an es­say in its own right, it ex­plains how the image of ‘‘set­tlers’’ has done ‘‘a com­plete about-turn’’.

Once revered as ‘‘hardy, in­de­pen­dent, coura­geous men and women’’ who were the founders of the na­tion, today they are usu­ally cast as ‘‘spir­i­tu­ally hol­low’’ and ‘‘spoil­ers’’ of a land in which they are ‘‘alien’’. At its most ex­treme they are re­garded as a ‘‘world­wide plague’’ and, specif­i­cally in Aus­tralia, as ‘‘in­vaders, dis­pos­ses­sors and killers’’.

The view has be­come as one-sided in re­verse as it once was the other way. Peo­ple of the River re­bal­ances the scales. Over­all the work is un­der­pinned by rig­or­ous schol­ar­ship. Per­haps Karskens’s great­est achieve­ment is com­bin­ing em­pa­thy with the dis­pas­sion nec­es­sary for a reader to have con­fi­dence in her anal­y­sis.

I have one quib­ble: the book is too long. Hope­fully, Karskens will pub­lish an abridged ver­sion for use in schools.

Wise­man’s Ferry in 1838, by Con­rad Martens

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