Masthead graphic based on a painting by Gudrun Thriemer.

Monday, June 04, 2007

"Black land, white lies," June 2, 2007.

The climax of Katherine Grenville's, The Secret River, makes it clear that something about Australia's blacks is central to this novel. In much the same way it has been suggested the main character of Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn is the Mississippi River.

Such a notion may seem far-fetched at first. None of the novel's aboriginal characters is named. For most of two lengthy chapters, situated first in London and then in Sydney, they do not even appear.

They have several important conversations with William Thornhill, who is clearly the narrative's central focus. But Thornhill and the blacks do not speak one another's language. “A conversation had taken place,” the narrator tells us. “There had been an inquiry and an answer. But what inquiry, which answer?” (197)

Even so, the failure to communicate is a high point in their relationship that takes some getting to. Fifty pages earlier we are told of William and his wife Sal that quote “Neither of them ever mentioned the blacks. They had not been seen since the first day. He felt sometimes that they might not exist if no one said the words: the blacks” (152).

The children are not tempted by the same denial. On the way to their new home up the secret river, we hear this exchange between Thornhill and his son.

“There be any blacks where we're going, Da?” Dick asked.

“No son, I ain't never seen a single one.”

Strictly speaking this was true, he reminded himself, but in Sal's silence he heard her knowledge that the blacks did not have to be seen to be present” (128).

The adult Thornhill is more drawn to the land as “a place of promise to him now, the blank page on which a man might write a new life” (130).

Grenville could easily have succumbed to the stereotype of British criminals, exported to Australia where they continue their lives of crime, stealing from the aboriginals.

But it isn't about guilt. Although Thornhill is a convicted London thief who works his way out of bondage in the New South Wales penal colony, Grenville uses the magic of narrative to go beyond the stigma of that early crime.

The “something about Australia's blacks” I referred to at the beginning, as central to the theme of the novel, may really something about Australia's settler society that is not exactly about guilt.

The difficulty of talking about this projection of the settlers' loneliness and feelings of emptiness testifies to the remarkable achievement of Grenville's book.

As a reader, I found it enriching to recall the Australian High Court's landmark decision that 15 years ago this week overthrew the 17th century idea that Australia was empty at the time of white settlement.

Here several other narratives intersect with The Secret River. First is the story that Gail Mabo tells about her father Eddie Mabo whose name is associated with that High Court decision.

My first impressions of the struggle for social justice and human rights was of my father sitting at the kitchen table in a blue haze of cigarette smoke, writing. I was eight and at the time I did not understand what he was trying to achieve. All I wanted to know was why he was awake at 2 o'clock in the morning and why he wasn't tired.

As I grew older I used to sit with my father and he used to explain what he was doing and why he was doing it. He always talked about his home, Mer, and how the land on the island would be ours when the time came. My father believed in fighting for his rights through the help of his family, the indigenous communities and the legal system. His political struggle and fight for recognition was reflected in the projects he undertook and the goals he set for himself.

His fight for the rights of Torres Strait Islanders was to involve him in a range of activities and representing Torres Strait Islanders in the islands, including Mer, and on the mainland of Australia.


In 1967 my father began work as a gardener at James Cook University. While working there he meet Professor Henry Reynolds and was given the opportunity to present lectures on Torres Strait Islander culture and political issues.

My father used to talk with Professor Reynolds about the land that his family owned on Mer. During one of their talks Professor Reynolds said to my father "Look, you do appreciate, don't you, that although in your view this is your land, it's actually all Crown land. According to white Australian law, you don't own any land on Murray (Mer) Island".

This was the turning point for my father when he realized that his ancestral land no longer belonged to his family under Australian law. Imagine if the government told you that the house your family live in and the land they live on does not belong to you.

In fact a similar discovery is what leads to Thornhill's crime while he and his wife Sal are in London.

It doesn't matter, Gail Mabo continues, “that your family has always lived on that land. It doesn't matter that you know the land is yours. Your land is owned by the government because the law says so. What would you do?

[In the novel, settler Thornhill ends up stealing, not out of anger, but out of need to provide for his family. -jlt]

In reality, Eddie Mabo and two other men from the same island mounted a test case against the state of Queensland.

Ten years of litigation later and five months after Eddie Mabo's death in 1992, the Australian High Court ruled that the continent was not unoccupied at the time of white settlement, that Australia was occupied by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples who had their own laws and customs, and whose 'native title' to land survived the Crown's annexation. The court denounced the doctrine that the land belonged to no-one known by the Latin phrase terra nullius which was contemporary with the events of The Secret River.

The judges referred to a “national legacy of unutterable shame” and said that use of the terra nullius to “dispossess, degrade and devastate Aboriginal peoples” was “the darkest aspect of the history of this nation,” adding that quote “the nation as a whole must remain diminished unless and until there is a acknowledgement of and retreat from those past injustices.”

The idea that the land was unoccupied was not unique to Australia. More than half a million square miles of Kenya was sold off to Europeans on the premise that no one lived there. Many early Zionists viewed mandatory Palestine as a “land without people for a people without a land.” Many people to this day view Canadian land north of sixty as essentially empty.

Grenville herself has said, quote “The subject matter of The Secret River is so important, and so politically charged, I didn't want readers to be able to say oh, it's only a novel - she just made it all up. The events and characters in the novel are adapted from the historical record. These things really did happen on our frontier, even if at a slightly different time and in a different place.”

A measure of Grenville's accomplishment in The Secret River is that she has made this exotic legal doctrine as palpable as a character. But don't take my word for it. Here is an episode that takes place after the Thornhill family has arrived at it's new homestead and a life of freedom.

“The hundred acres Thornhill had decided to call his own encompassed all the fertile soil near the river and ended where the ridge began. It tilted up from the gentle slope of the point as sudden as the side of a roof, bristling with canted shards of rock and thick with trees that twisted into the sky.

“The first few weeks of their residence were taken up with backbreaking labour: digging, scrubbing out bushes, hacking at saplings. Under the daily ministrations of the boys, the corn was coming on apace. Thornhill thought this farming was turning out to be a simple business. Food grown from his own hand! He laughed aloud at the idea, bent to feel the leaves, smooth and cool between his fingers.

“It was not until he had Willie at work on the new corn patch and had cut the twenty saplings that he calculated were the minimum to start the hut, that he allowed himself to climb the ridge. He was looking forward to it: Thornhill's spread out under him, the corn patch stamping a square on the wildness. It would be another way to posses the place, to look down and think everything I see, I own.

“But the way up was blocked at every turn by great bulge or overhang of mouse-grey stone. A man set against that was nothing more than an ant toiling up and down until he was swallowed. He began to feel too small for the place but forced himself on, climbing over rocks and through bushes and sprays of tough trass. He could hear himself wheezing. His hand was wet with blood where he had taken ahold of that grass to pull himself up a steep pinch.l Its leathery blade had cut him as clean and private as a knife.

“In the end he had to turn back and settle for the platform of flat rock that ran around the base of the ridge like a step. Above him the page of the sky opened out, scrawled with cloud. The cliffs glowed orange in the late sun. Below him the thumb was laid out plain, the river to right and left of it. He could see Sal, made small by distance, bending over the washtub on her makeshift table, and Willie leaning on his pick when he should have been digging another yard of corn patch.

I see you, Willie, Thornhill said out loud. By God, lad I see you there.

His voice had no resonance in this air. He cleared his throat to cover the puny sound.

“An enormous honey-coloured ant ran out of a crack in the rock near his feet and zigzagged over it as if stitching it together running fast and high on its thready black legs, carrying along the shiny bulb of its body. It was the ant that made him notice that there was a line freshly scratched into the surface of the rock. At first he thought it a flaw formed by some natural action of water or wind. But the line joined another a little further along, and then another. Even when he saw that the lines formed the outline of a fish, his first thought was to admire the way nature could mimic a picture. It was only when he saw the spine on the fish's back, the exact fan of spikes of a bream, that he had to recognise a human hand at work.

“He walked the length of the fish, four or five yards. The lines were more than scratches: they had been grooved to a depth and width of an inch, standing out as bright against the grey skin of the rock as if carved that same morning. A bulge in the rock surface made the fish seem to be bending itself against a current, and its long frowning mouth could have been just about to open on its row of teeth.

“Towards the tail another cluster of straight lines and triangles half-overlapped the fish, a pattern that made no sense until he came around to look at it from the other side. Then he saw it was a picture of the Hope. There was the curve of the bow, the mast, the sail bulging in a good breeze. There was even a line that was the tiller, bending in over the stern. All that was lacking was William Thornhill holding that tiller, listening to the creak of the ropes and staring out into the forest on his way up the r4iver.

He heard himself exclaim, a high blurt of indignation. It was the same tone he had heard from a gentleman in Fish Street Hill when William Warner had lifted the watch out of his pocket.

The sound was swallowed up by the watching forest as if it had never been. With his foot scraped over the lines, but they were part of the fabric of the rock.

He looked around, but no one was there watching him, nothing but the eternal trees, and the air under them where the light was full of shadows.

It came to him that this might look an empty place, but a man who had walked the length of that fish, seen the tiller and tail of the Hope laid down in stone, had to recognise otherwise. The place was no more empty than a parlour in London, from which the master of the house had just stepped into the bedroom. He might not be seen, but he was there.

Far below him Sal straightened up from the dish and went over to the rope she had strung up by way of drying-line. He could not see the line itself, only the way the squares of the baby's napkins danced as she put them up one by one, and then hung still after she went back into the tent.

He would tell her about the fish, even bring her up to see it. But not yet. She was content enough in her little round of flattened earth: what was the good of showing her the other world beyond it?

“The thing about having things unspoken between two people, he was beginning to see, was that when you had set your foot along that path it was easier to go on than to go back.”

Camilla Cowley, a retired pastorlist, described her own personal journey of discovery and reconciliation to an Australian conference called Unfinished Business in 2005.

It begins in 1996 when the Gungarri People lodged a native title claim over her family sheep and cattle property, 'North Yancho' in South East Queensland.

"We sought out the Gungarri People,” she says, “because we wanted to find out who they were and you know where they had this idea that they had some connection to the land that we'd owned for 22 years and we'd never seen them. And you know we'd spoken to the previous owners who'd taken up the block in 1912 and they told us they'd never seen anyone either. So they were generous enough to just sit down with us and tell us their history. When Aunty Ethel first came back and told us, actually the words she used were, I feel the presence of the old people but I don't know whose old people they are. And it was a couple of months later that she finally discovered the documentation that her grandmother had been born on North Yancho, and she was so excited because the presence that she had felt was the presence of her own old people. So the program of gathering up and taking away began in the 1920s, 1930s. Some of the families were allowed to stay if the leaseholder said you know, we need them for the running of the property. But the actual living on North Yancho had ended a long, long time ago. But what I came to understand as I listened to, particularly the really older of the elders who have since passed on, they knew the country better than I did, but they hadn't been there in I don't know how many years, maybe 40 or 50 years they hadn't been there but they knew it so well. And they knew the stories that were connected to it. Aunty Ruby was one of the elders who asked me, and is the sandalwood still growing? And she described the area where they used to collect the sandalwood for the smoking ceremonies, and she remembered the last smoking ceremony before she'd been taken away to Cherbourg. The shame of Australia's history is that we had to find the traditional owners and sit down and ask them the history, I mean it's something we always should have known.


The most beautiful part of North Yancho is the flooded country, and the significance of that after the native title claim and the actual sitting down and talking to the Gunggari, was the fact that this flooded country had its headwaters up in the northern area of the Gunggari home country. And having listened to Uncle Gordon and others talk about it you know this idea that you couldn't have been here before white man because there wasn't permanent water and ridiculous things like that that you know just betrays your complete ignorance of the lifestyle of nomadic Aboriginal Australia. You know Uncle Gordon explained to me that we weren't like you, we didn't settle in large communities and completely denude the area. We moved with the seasons and of course they moved with the seasons down that watercourse and it was really interesting that after a lot of the fear had died out of the whole native title debate, and ironically it had died out of the native title debate for all the wrong reasons because they knew it was going to be legislated practically out of existence, people were able to be honest enough to tell me that when they had arrived there many, many years before there had been Aboriginal artefacts everywhere. So with Aunty Ethel and Aunty Ruby's stories, with the knowledge then that the house I was living in was built on a campsite that could have been god knows how many thousands of years it had been a campsite, because they said as they dug deeper to plant an orchard and to build a dam every deeper layer they went the more and more artefacts there were. So as I just rode around the property mustering then I wasn't just seeing the sheep and the landscape as I've seen it before, I was seeing how the Gunggari would have used it, how they would have wandered it. And it was one of the stories that was connected to it that became the theme of and even the naming of the nature refuge that became part of the Co-Existence document - so that was wonderful."

It may have been a cosmic coincidence that this anniversary comes in a week when Commissioner Sidney Linden released The Report of the Ipperwash Inquiry into the death of Dudley George who was shot and killed by an Ontario Provincial Police sniper on Sept. 6, 1995. It has also been a week that finds the Assembly of First Nations calling on all Canadians to stand together on June 29th and “insist that the Government of Canada respond to the crisis in First Nations communities.”

Big changes in the works for us all.

Back in 1969, Gary Snyder had this comment in an essay called “Four Changes:” If we are to remain on earth, we need quote

A basic cultural outlook and social organization that inhibits power and property-seeking while encouraging exploration and challenge in things like music, meditation, mathematics, mountaineering, magic, and all other ways of authentic being-in-the-world. Women totally free and equal....

Since it doesn't seem practical or even desirable to think that direct bloody force will achieve much, it would be best to consider this a continuing 'revolution of consciousness' which will be won not by guns but by seizing the key images, myths, archetypes, esschatologies and ecstasies so that life wont seem worth living unless one's on the transforming energy's side....

The Secret River can be understood in this sense, as a parable that takes possession of the most elemental images and meanings.

Snyder says that it starts with our own heads. Having so much of human culture and previous experience available to our study, and being free enough of the weight of traditional cultures to seek out a larger identity; we are the first members of an urban civilization since neolithic times "to look clearly into the eyes of the wild and see our self-hood, our family, there. We have these advantages," Snyder says, "to set off the obvious disadvantages of being as screwed up as we are...” (Four Changes, 1969).

Something to think about. Something to discuss. And something to do about it.

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