Unsettling the Settler:history, culture, race and the Australian self

I’ve spent the last five years writing a book about “settler” Australians. It’s a novel about a representative settler, William Thornhill, who comes to Australia as a convict - and at the end of his life recognises that this foreign place has become his home. It’s a complicated sort of home, though, because in some ways it’s still foreign.

What I’d like to talk about today is not so much the content of the book as the journey of writing it. As I wrote I found myself caught up in questions I’d never asked before - questions about what it means to call Australia home. Can your own place still also be a foreign one? What does it mean to be descended from that first generation of settlers, and what happens when you immerse yourself in the documented history of this place?

What draws a writer to one subject rather than another? This book started as an exploration of family history. My mother had told me about our convict ancestor, Solomon Wiseman. He’d worked on the docks in London, committed some offence, and was transported in 1806. By 1812 he was a free man and by 1817 he had “taken up land” on the Hawkesbury River. He made a bucketload of money and died rich & respectable.

For years this was just a family story – a kind of sealed capsule, its telling a ritual always in the same words. You either swallowed it whole or you refused it, but you didn’t take it apart and examine it.

The Reconciliation Walk in 2000 was the thing that burst the capsule open for me. During that walk I met the eye of an Aboriginal woman and we smiled at each other. But even as we were acknowledging each other I had a shocking thought – shocking because it had never occurred to me before. My great-great-great grandfather had been right here, underneath the bridge, when he was landed off the boat in 1806. Her great-great-great grandfather might have been there too. They might have glanced at each other, the way she and I just had. Would they have smiled at each other in mutual acknowledgement, as we had?

I didn’t know a lot about early Australian history, but I didn’t think so. There’d have been distrust, perhaps open hostility. And what about when Wiseman went up to the Hawkesbury and “took up” land? What about the Aboriginal people whose land it was – how had Wiseman persuaded them to give it up?

It was the time of the history wars – historians at each other’s throats over what kind of violence might have taken place on the frontier - how much there’d been, or even whether there’d been any at all. In the moment of smiling at that woman, the history wars became something more than academics bad-mouthing each other. Suddenly, history had a very personal face, the face of my own ancestor. I needed to know more.

I started with research in the archives, and began with that “unknown offence” that Wiseman had committed.

Four generations of my family had repeated the statement that we didn’t know what that offence was. And yet, when I went looking, I found it in a quarter of an hour. The family story had denied knowledge of the crime, but had kept alive the two facts that made it easy to find out: the date of Wiseman’s arrival here, and the name of the ship he came on. If you know those two things, you can just go straight to the transcripts of the Old Bailey trials, on the open shelves of the Mitchell Library.

He was just the most ordinary sort of crook – nothing very exciting or glamorous about stealing a load of timber. But that search for his crime told me something much more interesting than the nature of his crime - something about stories and the people who tell them. The family story pretended it didn’t know. But at a deeper level it knew that it knew - and made sure that the key to that knowing was there for anyone who went looking. It was revealing, even in the act of concealing.

The idea of concealing and simultaneously revealing became something of a motif in the journey I had begun.

For a start, I realised that I knew much more about the frontier and its violence than I’d ever let myself know that I knew. I may not have known the details, but I’d always known the broad outline of the story. A simple one, really. We – Europeans - had arrived and displaced the people who were already living here. Some of the dirty work had been done by smallpox and measles, but we all knew there’d been violence as well. In my own family it took the form of a vignette of my great-grandmother: the story about her was that “she always had a gun loaded in the corner of the hut – not to use, just to show them she had it.”

It also dawned on me how the language itself was an accomplice in this knowing and not-knowing. There was a of linguistic sleight of hand going on – the land wasn’t really “taken up”, it was just “taken”. The word “dispersed” that I came across so often in the sources - as in “we dispersed them in the usual manner” - this bland little word often meant shoot.

This sleight of hand wasn’t a conspiracy, there was no conscious intent to deceive. “Taken up land” or “disperse” weren’t words that lied, exactly. They were sort-of true, so that the people using them didn’t have to acknoeldge to themselves that they were fudging.

I started to wonder where my own sense of “being Australian” came from. To do that I found myself going back to childhood.

I grew up in the city but with a sense of the bush as the real Australia. I loved the bush – my family did a lot of camping. I’d go off for the whole day with a knapsack of food and a penknife ( and Condy’s crystals in case of snake bite). Later as a uni student I went on week-long canoing trips with friends, out of touch with anyone, no mobiles, just us & a map. We took pride in foraging for what these days we’d call bush tucker. We’d try to go barefoot (though not for long). On one memorable occasion I killed, cooked and ate a snake.

This was all in the context of assuming that the Aboriginal people were “all gone” as the family story had it. On our family picnics Mum would always look around at some creekside or beachside spot and say, “The blacks must have done well for themselves here.” So there was a sense of them having been there, underneath our own lives, but somehow – blamelessly – now vanished. The bush was ours to inhabit.

What I now see as revealing is the way I chose to inhabit it. All that barefoot stuff, all that going feral and eating snakes - I was mimicking what I thought of as Aboriginal ways.

What I was declaring, I think, was that I had a right to be there because I had taken over the bond with the land that they had had. They had disappeared, and passed the baton to me. It was as if I was saying, “I am the “native” now – look how I fearlessly I kill and cook and eat that snake! So this is truly my place.”

I’ll talk in a moment about where the “going native” illusion has gone for me, and what I think it’s about, but it’s still alive & well. When I was writing The Secret River and I’d tell people what it was about – a questioning of what happened on the frontier - a frequent response was to fire up with instant indignation and say something to the effect that “I love this place as much as the Aboriginal people do.” Now that the book’s published, one of the most common questions is about the Aboriginal connection to the land – I’m often asked what that is, and how it’s different from the love of the place felt by non-indigenous Australians.

The implication behind these questions is that Aboriginal people may claim a special bond to the land but in fact non-indigenous Australians can have just as strong, even spiritual a bond. We can be white blackfellers.

Of course it’s true that we settlers can have a powerful and genuine love for this place of ours. But I’m interested, for the sake of exploring, to question that feeling of belonging.

It intrigues me, for instance, what happened to the word “native”.

The first settlers called the Aboriginal people “Indians” or “the black natives”. But within a very few years, the word “native” had shifted its meaning 180 degrees – it came commonly to mean not an Aboriginal person, but a white person born in Australia. A kind of linguistic appropriation, if you like, echoing the appropriation of the land itself that was going on.

In metaphorically leaping off the boat and calling ourselves natives, we short-circuited something important in the settler experience. An immigrant becomes a native through a process, not a moment. It has to start with a kind of mourning. Whatever they might later gain, immigrants first of all suffer a loss - of homeland, of the identity with living in the place that’s home. Once that mourning has been lived through, the next part of process can take place - a series of adaptations, a gradual process of putting down roots. The end of that process is a real belonging in the new place.

Inheritors of those settlers - that is, us – have a slightly different journey to go through, but it also begins in loss. The loss is our sense of ourselves as blameless. The mourning has to involve the acknowledgment that we have a home because other people were turned out of it.

What our ancestors did, and from which we benefit, was a bad and sad thing, but also a fairly normal human act. The history of the human race is, by and large, the history of one set of people displacing another set. What’s useful is not either to criticse or defend what those settlers did, but to think about the traces of their actions on our present psyche.

If we can’t acknowledge that we are, in some sense, interlopers, we live with the anxiety that the reality of that fact will break through the crust of belonging. We might have to work a bit too strenuously to be a true blue Aussie fair dinkum mate out in the bush going barefoot and eating snakes.

So no wonder the moment with that Aboriginal woman on the bridge was so disorienting to me. A complicated grief happened, a grief with a kind of outrage tangled up in it. It felt as if something had been taken from me, and it had been. What was gone was my thoughtless taking for granted that this was my place.

I did a huge amount of research for the book – more than any sane person would really have to do to write a novel. It was as if I wanted to go back to that founding moment and live through it for myself, detail by detail.

I was writing about a family of settlers – their story was the literalisation of my own new sense of “outsiderdom”. To them, this was the most foreign place on earth. In order to write about them, I had to share that feeling.

I spent many days and a few nights in the bush on my own. The place itself – the landscape of the lower Hawkesbury – is frightening. The bush is as crumpled and intricately folded as a piece of scrunched up cloth. When I took a few steps off the track one day – just to get the feel of not being on a track – it was terrifying how quickly I felt lost. The place swallowed me, disoriented me, got to me in some way so that it was a huge intellectual effort to remind myself that the track was behind me, and I had only to turn take six steps and I’d be back on it.

Trees gestured at me from the corner of my eye and I whirled arounded, sure it was a person. These days there was no one there with a spear poised to throw, but 200 years ago there might have been. Thornhill would have seen – or thought he saw – fleeting black figures everywhere, flickering among the light and shade. He’d always have felt watched.

I began to understand that fear, and I could see how it could make you do things you might not otherwise do.

The bush at night makes you feel very small, very alone, very vulnerable. The wind in the trees is speaking a language you don’t understand. The weird little night-noises – the cracklings and snappings, the hums and ticks - all tell you that there’s a life going on here that you have absolutely nothing to do with.

Lying there in my sleeping bag trying not to think about snakes and funnelwebs was uncomfortable but it was also rewarding. Once I could drop all that barefoot in the bush stuff, it was amazing how easy it was to accept that the bush had always felt eerie. You can live with eeriness. You don’t have to pretend it isn’t there.

I’d expected resistance to this book, even anger. What I’ve found is a huge hunger to know – the same hunger that drove the writing. For many people the book is really just a lever with which to open the can of worms about their own feelings. There are a lot of questions, a lot of anxiety. What should we feel about the stolen gift that our forebears have made to us? But there’s also a willingness to voice the anxiety.

Fiction is a good medium for entering anxiety-producing situations and being able to stay with them for long enough to learn from them. It’s a vicarious experience, and one that’s under your own control - you can identify only as closely as you want to with the characters. You can close the book any time it gets too much. And fiction offers a compensatory pleasure that offsets the discomfort – the satisfactions of narrative and the sensual pleasures of language.

At the end of The Secret River, Thornhill has made good, made lots of money, has driven the Aboriginal people away. He’s won. But he’s infused with a kind of melancholy, some gnawing feeling of something not being finished, not right. His trouble is that things have happened that can’t be talked about. Violence has created a no-go area around itself. There’s a silence, a gap, where there should be acknowledgement. Thornhill knows the gap is there, but can’t let himself feel it. Knowing, but not-knowing, he’s suspended in an emptiness that he seeks to fill without knowing how.