Grace Karskens’ Colony

Grace Karskens, The Colony: A history of early Sydney (Allen & Unwin 2009)

The Colony won the Prime Minister’s Literary Award for non-fiction in 2010. You can read the judges’ comments at this link.

The book is nothing less than a rewriting of the origin story of New South Wales.

It’s been on my TBR shelf ever since I read Tom Griffiths’ account of it in The Art of Time Travel (my review here) four years ago. The delay is probably due to the sense instilled by my primary-school education that Australian history is either boring or hard to face, but if a similar whiff hangs around Australian history for you, I encourage you to plunge through it. The book is a marvel and a delicious treat for the mind. It will probably speak most directly to Sydney dwellers, as it bring to life the rich history of Warrane / Port Jackson / Sydney and the hinterland, but the tale it tells of colonisation and the wars of resistance is a powerful rewriting of received versions that will resonate much more widely.

The book engages with other infuential writers about the beginning of the Sydney colony. In his hugely popular The Fatal Shore, Robert Hughes failed to recognise that many of his sources were written as polemic, exaggerating and inventing for political purposes, and took them at face value. Inga Clendinnen’s Dancing with Strangers downplays the figure of an armed soldier standing amid the early scenes of apparently friendly dancing. Kate Grenville’s The Secret River cherry picks incidents from different times and places and as a result distorts the historical reality. Keith Windschuttle: well, anyone who accepts official records as the only source of information about the past just isn’t a historian.

A number of the basic, emblematic ‘facts’ of my early education disappear here like a magician’s coins. For example, everyone now knows that Blaxland, Lawson and Wentworth (remembered by the mnemonic LBW) weren’t the first to cross the Blue Mountains as we were taught. They followed the tracks made by First Nations people. But it turns out they weren’t even the first settlers to do it. That honour actually belongs to an ‘extraordinary convict explorer’, John Wilson/Bunboee, who lived with Aboriginal people for a couple of years, underwent ritual scarifying, and later – but 14 years before the LBW team – went on a journey over the mountains and reported back in detail to Governor Hunter. The orgy on the arrival of the second fleet just didn’t happen. The holey dollar, which we loved as nine-year-olds, barely rates a mention; instead, there’s a brief discussion of the consequences of an early decision to have no money in the colony. The Rum Rebellion likewise fades into the background. James Ruse, touted as the colony’s first farmer, is demoted to a minor opportunist. Lachlan and Elizabeth Macquarie emerge as effective self-promoters, and so on. Instead, we have a portrait of a town where naked First Peoples know everyone’s business and actively negotiate the terms of co-existence; where nowie, the tiny fishing craft of Eora women, dot the harbour for decades after the First fleet’s arrival; where what is now Hyde Park is the site of frequent ‘contests’ among Aboriginal men, probably payback sessions, treated as a spectator sport by settlers; where convicts live in neat cottages from which many ply a trade or conduct a business.

The big difference from the history I was taught is in the account of the First Nations people. Their dispossession and resistance replaces the ‘savage yoke’ borne by the convicts at the centre of the story. Like Inga Clendinnen, Karskens reads settler documents with an eye to what can be divined of Aboriginal perspectives. Her account of the violence and bloodshed on the Cumberland Plain doesn’t shy away from the word war, and she quotes contemporary documents using that word. This book leaves its readers in no doubt that at its heart the settlement of New South Wales was a genocidal project, acknowledged as such at the time in all but the actual word.

A number of Aboriginal men and women emerge from the pages as individuals, not least visually, in portraits that sit in counterpoint to the images meant to meet the needs of the curiosity-seekers back in England. Partly because I had a small hand in a children’s graphic novel in which he played a part (link here), I was struck by the representation of Bungaree. In the block of colour prints between pages 338 and 339, there’s Augustus Earle’s famous portrait showing him dressed in borrowed military gear, doffing his cap as he welcomes new arrivals to the settlement – an assertion of custodianship of the land that was tolerated because it was seen as vaguely comic (and Bungaree was by many accounts an accomplished comedian and mimic):

Augustus Earle, ‘Portrait of Bungaree, a native of Australia’ (National Library of Australia)

This is often paired with a later painting of him in a similar pose, but surrounded by evidence of his descent into alcoholism and misery. Instead of that painting, Grace Karskens gives us this, painted by a visitor who had less vested interest in the British colonisers’ point of view:

Russian visitor Pavel N Mikhailov’s portrait of Bungaree (Russian State Museum)

This is not a man who can be treated as an ethnographic curio. If he came onto your ship, even barefoot and wearing military cast-offs, and said, as he did regularly, ‘This is my shore,’ it would carry weight.

My copy of the book is bristling with Post-its, but I’ll leave it at that. If you live in Sydney, read it. It will change your sense of the place. I’ll give Grace Karskens the last word. This is from her Acknowledgements:

I hope this book will also be a gateway to the wider world of Sydney writing: it is in part a tribute, a celebration of the restless, exciting spirit of inquiry, the tireless work that Sydney scholars of all stripes and inclinations do, and the joys of discovery and of telling new stories as well as old ones.


The Colony is the 13th book I’ve read for the 2020 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

4 responses to “Grace Karskens’ Colony

  1. This sounds excellent…
    It would be good to have a while series of these, one for each of the early settlements in the other states.

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    • I had that thought too, though I expect the other colonies won’t have such extensive documentation and coverage. I’ve just finished Cassandra Pybus’s Truganini, which does a bit of a sketch of Port Phillip. Batman was a much worse figure than I ever knew.

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  2. kathyprokhovnik

    I love this book, for all the reasons you mention. Seeing our ‘history’ through a much more thoughtful lens is very welcome. I loved her essay that won the 2019 Calibre prize as well, and am looking forward to reading her new book, People of the River. I wish The Fatal Shore would be consigned to the rubbish bin!!

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