Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Australians: Origins to Eureka, by Thomas Keneally

In this new history of Australia novelist Thomas Keneally takes the reader from our continent’s origins, some 45 millions years ago, when the landmass that is now Australia broke away from the super-continent known as “Gondwana”. (The southern landmass Gondwana also comprised of India, Africa, South America and Antarctica. The name given to the other, northern landmass is Laurasia.)

Australians ends with the Eureka uprising, that extraordinary event of Australian history, which forged the iron in the nation’s democratic soul. Privilege, authoritarian government, political chicanery, the interests of money, nepotism, all would feel the inexorable, countervailing forces of popular democratic agitation.

“For Australia now seemed,” writes Keneally, “to the vast majority of its people – other than indigenes – a forum where crises could be resolved by constitutional and moral means. What would become an endemic cynicism about politics and the venality and jobbery of individual politicians had not yet possessed the souls of citizens.”

Who would have thought in 1788, when the first fleet arrived in Botany Bay with its cargo of petty pickpockets and forgers, that just a half century later it would hold its head up high as a beacon of political freedom, an exemplar of self rule?

Many of those first convicts who arrived at Botany Bay, having suffered a terrifying and traumatic journey by boat (Keneally’s descriptions of the horrors suffered at sea are dizzying), were victims of a great societal injustice. The enclosure acts, beginning in the 1760s, pushed the poor off the common lands that were used collectively for basic sustenance.

The privatisation of so much land forced the poor into the maw of the industrial revolution, working obscene hours under obscene conditions. Many had to weigh up death by starvation against their chances thieving. The consequences were harsh if caught. Many gambled and lost. The law could also be arbitrary. The innocent were often enough swept up in the law’s roughshod machinations.

“Before enclosure, smallholders and agricultural labourers’ families had the right not only to graze livestock on the common land, but to take from it undergrowth, loppings, peat, fish from lakes and streams, sand and gravel, and acorns to feed pigs. Enclosure put an end to these practices, and was occurring in many districts at a time when the great loom factories were coming into being and cloth spun in cottages was less sought after.”

Spurned by their native country, these convicts and victims of the harsh new capitalism would make their way in a new land. Australia soon became one of the world’s most extraordinary social experiments. The ability to make one’s own future, from a clean slate, seemed to appeal to an innate instinct that favoured creativity mixed with a desire for what was good. Convicts turned industrious capitalists themselves within a couple of generations. Cities were built; flourishing industries created. Not only that, in Australia the worker would have a say in government through their representative in parliament.

We all know of the exhausting ‘culture wars’ of the past decade or so. The debate has been about how the scales should be balanced between good and bad. Does the achievement of European civilisation – parliaments and trade – outweigh the violence and chauvinism shown towards the indigenous population, ending with their dispossession?

Keneally doesn’t enter that unresolvable debate here. Rather he shows a nation slowly creating itself under a bright, clear sun (with the occasional cloud in view). He describes often flawed yet remarkable individuals, situating their characters within the political and cultural winds that prompted, or made inevitable, their actions. Keneally seeks to understand – even sympathise – with the historical figures he studies and brings to life with his carefully drawn and deeply considered portraits.

While the achievements of European settlement were quick and fruitful, the other half of the story is one of loss and devastation. The most comprehensive descriptions of native life come from the 1790s. The well known character of Bennelong, from which we learn much of the Eora language group’s cultural and legal practices, provides a brilliant snapshot of Aboriginal life at the time in the Botany Bay area.

Despite this contact between Bennelong and Captain Arthur Phillip, communication between indigenes and Europeans was not sufficient to resolve conflicts and misunderstanding between the two peoples. As the Aboriginals found their lands usurped, their food supply choked off, they tried to defend their way of life. (Disease would also soon take hold. In 1789 a small pox epidemic ripped through local Aboriginal communities.)

Settlers continued to live in fear of being speared, Aboriginals suffered the rigours of a 19th century European penal code that made no account of their culture or situation. Outright warfare existed between pastoralists and the Aboriginals in some areas. Keneally’s description of the Myall Creek massacre recalls the horrors (for this reader anyway) of the My Lai massacre during the Vietnam war.

Writes Keneally,

“Two kilometres out in the bush near a new stockyard lay a heap of twenty-eight butchered Kwiambal bodies, including Charlie, the three-year old station favourite. Most of the children had been decapitated by sword and the adults had been hacked to death.

The next day the killers seemed in excellent spirits as they breakfasted at Myall Creek, discussed the best features of their horses and made occasional reference to the killings. Anderson [a convict sympathetic to the local Kwiambal people] was particularly appalled to hear them speak of the pack rape of one of the younger women. When they saw Anderson’s disgust, Russell, the leader of the party, asked Ned Foley to stay with Anderson and make sure he did not do anything ‘unwise’”.

Other similar possible events will remain forever unknown. If the Aboriginals had been a culture with the written word, then how different would Keneally’s book have been. In Victoria, before the gold rush, the fate of the Kulin people remains a mystery. Governor La Trobe at the time urged caution:

‘La Trobe warned the regular police to proceed with moderation, but the pastoralists did not like such pussyfooting forbearance, and the extent of both good and bad which occurred in the land of Kulin before the gold manifested itself remains unknown.’

Australians is a grand and absorbing feast of a book. There were many sections that I lingered over slowly, savouring Keneally’s gift for bringing such a wide cast of characters to life, making the book a real experience. Keneally also writes in a witty, almost lapidary prose that is most appealing.

Keneally’s Australians makes for an enjoyable popular history that deserves a wide readership.

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