David Denholm, The Colonial Australians (Penguin Books 1979)
David Denholm (1924–1997) wrote fiction as David Forrest. One of the ‘living Australian authors’ profiled in John Hetherington’s 1962 collection, Forty-Two Faces, he is remembered mostly for two novels and a number of short stories. Under his own name, he had a second career as a historian, which, though productive in other ways, produced just this one book and a pamphlet on land use in New South Wales.
It’s a strange book, not – as the title might suggest – a survey of the population of the Australian colonies, but a series of enquiries into what Denholm describes as ‘odd trifles’ to see what general light they might shed on the those people. Many of the trifling questions are conveniently summarised in the Introduction:
How long would it have taken to reload a musket? What on earth possessed surveyors to divide up much of Australia with little regard for the shape of the land and its resources? Why does this brick wall not look like that brick wall? In a land of cheap horses, why did not everybody ride a horse? Why do some Presbyterian churches have steeples? Why is the Monaro in ‘Banjo’ Paterson’s ballads not the real Monaro? Why did some people stack their plates while others had them taken away one at a time?
He does indeed go on in great detail about how to load a musket, about three different bricklaying patterns, and about surveying practices, in each case using them as evidence for persuasive argument against received versions of our history. He also paints an idiosyncratic version of the kind of religion (ie, of Christianity) that dominated the first century and a half of settlement, what he calls determinism as opposed to free-will based orthodoxy – it’s idiosyncratic but rings true and has quite a bit of explanatory power when applied to the Pell and Jensen phenomena. He turns a bit of a blowtorch on romantic versions of ‘the bush’ and writes interestingly about what happened to the idea of a gentry – ‘an historically based manner in which power was projected upon society’ by a class of people possessed of wealth, education and leisure (hint: it was destroyed but lives on).
The chapter ‘Men Bearing Arms’ – about the ‘mutual impotence’ of Aboriginal Australians and their invaders, whose slow loading muskets were far from making them invulnerable – is a revelation, especially in its discussion of the extent of ‘fraternisation and appeasement’ between the two populations, so that all too often brutal murders and massacres had an element of personal betrayal.
But it’s November, so I have to lapse into rhyme:
Sonnet 3: On reading David Denholm’s The Colonial Australians
How can we know what really happened
a week ago, two hundred years?
Vile things are misnamed on the map, and
victors’ tales besiege our ears.
Historians must play detective,
sniff ash trays, challenge the selective
versions, shift perspectives, ask
what hid behind the public mask.
We want to honour our ancestors:
with courage, ingenuity and toil
they named the land and turned the soil.
But there’s another truth that festers:
a brutal war of conquest here,
sword and musket, club and spear.