To an Australian growing up in the sixties, the invention of the stump-jump plough could have seemed our greatest achievement. We were told of the explorers, dogged and dying in search of their inland sea, the convicts, the gold rushes. But unlike lucky countries such as Britain, we had no real history: no kings and queens, no invasions, no wars. Except that we did, of course. We’d had an invasion and a war, one that lasted a hundred years or so. But we called the invasion of Australia by Europeans “discovery” or “settlement”. We called the guerrilla war waged by the Aboriginal people “attacks” – or, as 19th-century newspapers put it, “outrages and depredations by our sable brethren”. By calling them other names, by a sleight of hand of semantics, it was possible to erase these events from the record.
In December 1790, Governor Arthur Phillip’s gamekeeper was speared to death and the Governor decided to retaliate. Here is how he described what he thought should happen:
The Governor, in order to deter the natives from such practices in future, has ordered out a party to search for the man who wounded the convict in such a dangerous a manner on Friday last … in order to make a signal example of that tribe …
A party consisting of 2 captains, 2 subalterns, and 40 privates from the garrison, (with a proper number of non-commissioned officers), with three days’ provisions, is to be ready to go out tomorrow morning at daylight, in order to bring in six of those natives who reside near the head of Botany Bay, or if that should be found impracticable, to put that number to death.
This is better than the stump-jump plough. It’s pretty dramatic stuff. But look at how hard the Governor has worked to leach the interest out of it. That last paragraph lulls the reader with its punctilious enumerations: the captains, the subalterns, the privates, the proper number of non-commissioned officers, the provisions, the leaving at daylight. It sounds like the dullest kind of school camp. The men are to “bring in” the natives, as if they might bring in the washing while they’re there too. Then comes the word “impracticable”, such a reasonable little word, a sensible shoes and cardigan sort of word. How can you argue with it? Finally, almost as an afterthought, the Governor gets to the point of all this: “or … to put that number to death.” To put to death – how beautifully impersonal it is, in its passive voice, what a fine quasi-legal loftiness it has.
Beyond these bland words, think of the pictures. About 50 armed men are going to the head of Botany Bay to capture six Aboriginal men. There is no way of identifying the one who speared the gamekeeper, so any ones will do. The soldiers would have had to try to surround them, and perhaps chase them through the bush: 50 soldiers galumphing through the bush with their three days’ provisions bumping up and down on their backs. Once they caught the men they’d have to tie them up. At least two men would have to hold each Aboriginal man while another couple of men got the ropes around him. To get the job done, the soldiers would have to more or less embrace the black men. There would have been biting and clawing, violence eyeball to eyeball.
If that didn’t work – if it wasn’t practicable – the soldiers would have to kill them. Shooting from a distance, with those hopeless old muskets, would have only winged them at best. In order to “put them to death”, the soldiers would have had to come in close and shoot again at point-blank range. That meant they’d have to shoot wounded men who were lying on the ground looking up at them. Even then they wouldn’t all die instantly. The soldiers would have to watch, and listen, as the six Aboriginal men died more or less slowly.
The Governor’s language is also a triumph of mathematical smoke and mirrors. The soldiers are “to search for the man who wounded the convict” – that is, one man. By the end of the sentence the aim is to make “an example of that tribe” – the whole lot of them. Eventually it emerges that “six” people are to be brought in. The fine language fudges the reality. One dead European was considered to be worth six dead “natives”.
Watkin Tench was the captain put in charge of this operation. He left behind his own account of his orders, which allows us to know a little more about the real meaning of the Governor’s intentions. Tench tells us: “We were, if practicable, to bring away two natives as prisoners and to put to death ten.” He haggled with the Governor and got that number reduced to six. Then, quite casually, he tells us something the Governor didn’t mention in the official account. After killing the men, Tench says, “we were to cut off and bring in the heads of the slain: for which purpose hatchets and bags would be furnished”.
Tench’s language, like the Governor’s, makes a moment of high drama sound about as interesting as the instructions that come with the toaster. It is scrupulously grammatical (“for which purpose”), splendidly bland (“cut off and bring in”) and exquisitely impersonal; no one was actually furnishing the bags, it was simply that they “would be furnished”. It’s the language of a good quartermaster, making sure the troops have everything they need. Socks, food, water, bags for severed heads. The words reveal but also obscure, so that you are left searching for a tone of voice, and wondering how hard Tench really did try to creep up on the Aboriginal people so he could use those hatchets and bags.
Like Governor Phillip, he did not record the reality of what was being proposed. Again we have to use our imagination. Let’s say the six Aboriginal men are finally dead. The flies are starting to get bad. Someone – one man – is picking up one of the hatchets. He has to line himself up and get up close, to get a good go at the neck. This is a hatchet, not an axe, so he’d have to get down very close. Necks are tough things, all that bone and muscle – he has to hack away. How many times would he have to chop at that still-warm human body? Blood fountains out of the arteries, gets all over his hands, his boots, his legs, sprays up onto his face.
Then someone would have held the bag open while he picked up the head – by the hair would be most practicable – and stuffed it in. After that someone would have had to carry the bags on the long walk home. How would you do that exactly? Would you hold it in your hand by the drawstring, like a bag of shopping, swapping from hand to hand as your arm got tired? Or would you tie it onto your knapsack and feel it bumping against the backs of your legs all the way home?
Two accounts of this proposal have been left in the record. The careful, precise, neutral, seemingly reliable language of both versions draws us into accepting the unacceptable. It all sounds perfectly reasonable, until you tear through the screen of words and see what’s behind it. This is where fiction, in Australia, can come in. The voice of debate might stimulate the brain; the dry voice of “facts” might make us comfortable, even relaxed. It takes the voice of fiction to get the feet walking in a new direction.
When Thea Astley, who died last year at 78, started writing, Aboriginal people didn’t have the vote, weren’t counted in the census and were hardly ever referred to, except on the odd tea towel. Astley wrote with the oblique voice of fiction into that great silence. She could put the heads back on the bodies and she knew how to put the heart back in too. In her 1974 novel A Kindness Cup, which she called a “cautionary fable” inspired by an “actual incident”, she gave voice to the reality that Phillip and Tench wouldn’t articulate:
The light was dry and brilliant. Nothingness was scarred by crow-cry, distant and sad. Only rock, scrub and the long line of fox-faced men moving in towards a massacre. They were only ten yards apart now as the cone of the mountain narrowed and could hear one another’s snorting breaths and the clink of boot on rock …
“Now!” Fred Buckmaster cried. And they broke into a run, whooping as they went towards a cleft in the boulders.
The world narrowed to a horror of shots and shouts and screams as they burst in upon the score of blacks herded into the inner circle of rocks. They cringed against rocky shields. One old man made a break for the side of the rock circle, but Benjy Wilson brought him down with a bullet neatly placed in the centre of his spine. He lay moaning and twitching.
The men went forward and in, shooting steadily and reloading and shooting until the ground was littered with grunting men and there was blood-splash bright upon the rocks … Words, at this point, failed. Freddie Buckmaster kept thinking, “Oh, my God! What now, what do I do now?”
The blacks moved back before him till they made a pitiful knot against his advance. He could see this pitifulness and the wretchedness of their defence so that some gland in him was disturbed to the point of his wanting to cry with shame.
Gland! It’s the wrong word. Its wrongness pulls us up short so we’re forced to imagine what lies behind it. There’s something a bit revolting about the word “gland”. It makes us feel the moment not in our brains or even in our hearts, but in our guts. It’s the wrong word, and it’s absolutely, precisely, the right word.
There is nowhere quite like The Monthly. We are told that we live in a time of diminished attention spans; a time where the 24-hour-news-cycle has produced a collective desire for hot takes and brief summaries of the news and ideas that effect us. But we don’t believe it. The need for considered, reflective, long-form journalism has never been greater, and for almost 20 years, that’s what The Monthly has offered, from some of our finest writers.
That kind of quality writing costs money, and requires the support of our readers. Your subscription to The Monthly allows us to be the home for the best, most considered, most substantial perspectives on the state of the world. It’s Australia’s only current affairs magazine, an indispensable home for cultural commentary, criticism and reviews, and home to personal and reflective essays that celebrate and elevate our humanity.
The Monthly doesn’t just comment on our culture, our society and our politics: it shapes it. And your subscription makes you part of that.
Select your digital subscription