New view is closer to reality
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