Esther, ‘the extraordinary true story of the First Fleet girl who became the First Lady of the colony,’ is about one of those largely unknown figures from Australia’s past. When told well, stories such as this can bring our history to life.
This meticulously researched account, written in narrative non-fiction style, recreates the conditions of London in the late eighteenth century, the journey of the First Fleet ship Lady Penrhyn, the stark reality of the first years of the fledgling English colony perched on the edge of the world – all from the perspective of a young Jewish woman, Esther Abrahams (also known as Esther Julian). She was just sixteen and pregnant when convicted of the theft of some lace and sentenced to transportation to NSW. On arrival she became servant to First Lieutenant George Johnston of the British Marines. Together they spent a short period on Norfolk Island before returning to Sydney. She bore him children and along with her own young daughter Rosanna, they made a life together in Sydney.
Interwoven with her story are characters from the fledgling British colony (Watkin Tench, Major Ross, Captain Arthur Phillip, D’arcy Wentworth, the Macarthurs, and Lachlan Macquarie among others) and Indigenous people such as Bennelong and his wife Barangaroo, Arabanoo and Colbee.
Esther was witness to the dramatic events that played out in the early colony. The near starvation of the first years, the brutality of English punishments, the deaths of so many of the Dharug around Sydney Cove due to disease (very likely smallpox), the incredible escape of Mary Bryant with her husband, small children and a boatload of other convicts, the Rum Rebellion that removed the unlikable Governor Bligh from office. These were formative events that shaped the future nation of Australia. For me, seeing them through Esther’s eyes brought them to vivid life.
But it is Esther’s story that is most remarkable. During the course of her life she moved from the shame and powerlessness of life as a convict, to become the wife of the most powerful man in the colony, after George Johnston led the Rum Rebellion and became for a brief time, Lieutenant-Governor of NSW. In doing so she had to navigate the many perils of convict life, maintaining her dignity in the face of a system that seemed determined to strip it away and later, enduring the entrenched elitist attitudes of those who saw convict beginnings as a stain on the colony. Esther proved her worth by raising her family, managing Johnson’s large agricultural estate at Annandale in Sydney’s west, and earning respect from some of the most influential people in the colony.
I very much enjoyed learning about Esther. Jessica North tells the stories of the early years of Australia in a vivid new way. It’s an absorbing and accessible history read.
Review of ‘Paris Savages’ by Katherine Johnson.
Published by Ventura Press 2019.
I alternated between feelings of horror, anger, shame, and sorrow, reading this new work of fiction. Through a reimagining of the fate of three Badtjala people from K’gari (Queensland’s Fraser Island) who travel to Europe in the 1880’s, the author explores the phenomenon of ‘ethnic shows’ (also known as ‘human zoos’.) In doing so, she uncovers dark stories and tragedies and prompt the question: Who were the savages?
The late nineteenth century was a period of immense excitement in the scientific world. Darwin’s theories of evolution were still being hotly debated. Naturalists, botanists, anthropologists and physicians were clamouring for opportunities to explore and examine evidence to prove various theories about race and human development. The general public was agog at stories about the people and lifestyles of those in Europe’s far-flung colonies. This curiosity and excitement, combined with an opportunity to make money, resulted in the mounting of travelling shows in which people from various ethnic groups and cultures were ‘displayed’, often alongside exotic animals and birds, exactly as we would today imagine a zoo. The human ‘exhibits’ were usually required to perform – everyday tasks such as cooking and eating food, building a shelter, or dancing and singing.
It is in this context that we meet the main characters of Paris Savages. The three Badtjala people (Bonangera/Bonny, Jurano and his niece Dorondera, are taken to Europe by German engineer Louis Muller and his daughter Hilda. The Mullers have spent six years on the island with the Badtjala, learning their customs and language. Hilda’s mother Christel has died, although she appears throughout the novel as a ghost-like presence, an omniscient narrator, a device which allows the reader to see and understand events from the Badtjala people’s perspective.
At first the little group are pleased and excited to be going, and Bonny and Hilda believe it will be an opportunity to educate Europeans about the Badtjala people and the need for better treatment of the First Australians – Bonny especially, wants to meet the Queen of England to plead his people’s case, and Hilda wants to fulfil her mother’s desire to see K’gari become a reserve to allow the Badtjala to live in peace. Hilda writes in her journal:
…why we are in Europe, not just for people to discover the humanity in our friends through their beautiful music and dance but to search for the truth and humanity in themselves.Paris Savages p.238
Hilda and her friends are to be sadly disillusioned. There are glimpses of past atrocities against the Badtjala, mirrored in the unkind or cruel treatments that begin from the moment the trio board the ship chartered to take them to Germany where their tour will begin.
Their situation hardly improves once they arrive. They are shown very poor hospitality by their hosts, housed very like the animals they are displayed beside, stared at, touched and sometimes insulted by the crowds who press in around them during the ‘shows’. Even worse, they are subjected to demeaning and intrusive measurement of their persons, in the name of science and so that ‘certificates of authenticity’ can be issued. The direct links between these behaviours by members of Europe’s scientific community and racist terms such as ‘full-blood’ and ‘half-cast’, as well as theories of Social Darwinism and the idea of Indigenous Australians being a ‘dying race’, are clear to see. It was during these parts of the novel that I felt my shame and anger rise.
Hilda, too, feels shame at the behaviour of her fellow Europeans. Her view of her father Louis begins to change, as she observes his complicity in the abuses meted out to her friends. She wonders, “Perhaps I do not know my father at all.” (p. 297) And her mother’s ghost voice adds:
I would like to tell you what I feel about Louis, this man I once knew, but I will not be distracted from my task of relaying this version of Bonny’s story, which I fear otherwise will not be told….
…I whisper the tale directly into the air so that it might reach the ears of those who are listening, now and into the future. Shhh, listen, I say.Paris Savages, pp. 250 & 285
This is a powerful and beautiful book. The language is lyrical while it also conveys unpleasant truths. There is a lengthy author’s note in which she outlines her considerable research and historical sources. The re-telling of this period of disgraceful behaviour by some Europeans can only evoke a strong emotional response and, I hope, a vow to do better into the future.
Thank you to Sophie Hodge at Ventura Press for a review copy of the book.
‘Australia rides on the sheep’s back.” So I was taught in primary school social studies classes in 1960’s Australia. Wheat was also at the heart of our national agricultural economy, until a decade or so later when mining took number one place in the commodity pecking order.
Bruce Pascoe’s ‘Dark Emu’ suggests that it is time we dismounted from that metaphorical sheep and stepped aside from the wheatfields, at least in part, and consider transitioning to an agriculture that is more sustainable and in harmony with this continent’s often harsh environment. With crops and livestock that the original occupants and custodians of this land were long familiar with.
I’m a relative latecomer to this book, and I’m aware that since it’s publication there have been some criticisms of the author’s research and arguments. None of those criticisms detract from the overall power of the book’s message, which is that our nation has not had an honest account of our history – both pre and post invasion/colonisation. Not only that, but the history that has been disseminated about Aboriginal people’s lifestyles and cultures has often been inaccurate. Pascoe argues that there is compelling evidence that contrary to the ‘hunter/gatherer/nomad’ stereotype, pre-invasion Aboriginal nations practiced forms of agriculture, aquaculture, harvesting and storage of various grains and seeds, and built dwellings. Not to mention the complex systems of law, justice and spirituality.
While the latter has been recognised to some extent in recent decades, Pascoe argues that Aboriginal people engaged in practices that the European colonisers, settlers and explorers should have recognised, but usually didn’t. Instead, permanent dwelling structures were dismissed as ‘humpies’, careful management and harvesting of resources described as ‘hunter-gathering’ activities. He asserts that:
‘Settlers and explorers were united in their assumption of superiority and entitlement… ‘
‘Colonial Australia sought to forget the advanced nature of Aboriginal society and economy, and this amnesia was entrenched when settlers who arrived after the depopulation of whole districts found no structure more substantial than a windbreak, and no population that was not humiliated, debased, and diseased.’Dark Emu p. 11 & 114
One of the most interesting aspects of this book is that Pascoe draws heavily (some have argued, selectively) from the writings of early European settlers and explorers. Accounts from well known figures such as Sturt, Mitchell, Burke and Wills, describe the lifestyles and practices of indigenous people they encountered in ways that contradict the ‘hunter-gatherer’ images of First Australians.
Something else I enjoyed was his descriptions of the yam daisy, or murnong, (Microseris lanceolata) a staple of the First People’s diet, which grew in abundance along river banks and was carefully managed and harvested for thousands of years, but which quickly became extinct in areas settled by Europeans. I recalled Kate Grenville writing about this plant and its importance to indigenous diets in The Secret River and In Search of the Secret River. Until then, I had no knowledge of this plant, and the important role it played in pre-invasion Australian life. So it was with pleased recognition that I read Pascoe’s account of it in Dark Emu.
For me, the power of this book lies in the argument that our nation must move past the collective amnesia and blindness of the true history of our continent and its inhabitants. As Pascoe concludes:
‘To deny Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander agricultural and spiritual achievement is the single greatest impediment to intercultural understanding and, perhaps, to Australian moral well-being and economic prosperity.’Dark Emu, p 229
Melissa Lucashenko has just been awarded the 2019’s Miles Franklin Award, one of Australia’s premier literary prizes, for Too Much Lip. It’s the first novel from this author that I’ve read and I’ll be looking to read more of her books, such is the quality of this one.
The story revolves around the Salters, a Bundjalung family from a fictional small town in northern NSW. I know this region as a holiday destination, with rolling green hills inland and beautiful beaches along the coast. So it was sobering to read about the other side – the darker side – of places like this.
Kerry Salter had escaped the hopelessness and despair of the area to live in Queensland. She’s back – briefly she hopes – to say goodbye to her proud grandfather, a respected elder of the family and community, whose own life has its darker corners. Pop dies and Kerry longs to get the hell out of there again, but family business and conflicts get in the way. Secrets are revealed, the long threads of inter-generational trauma untangled, and wounds are healed, made afresh and healed again, before the story concludes.
There is a plot by a local corrupt real estate agent and town mayor to sell off a piece of ancestral land to be thwarted, arrest warrants to be dodged, and a long lost sister to meet again. Not to mention sorting out her feelings for Steve – a school friend from long ago who is now the local gym manager and boxing trainer – and who is not only male, but white into the bargain. As someone who considers herself a lesbian and who has vowed to never get involved with a white fella, this all serves to confuse and unsettle Kerry.
The characters are all complex, not always especially likeable, but compelling. I cared a great deal about this family. And Lucashenko’s skillful revealing of their past and present traumas, their lives lived as outsiders even on the land of their ancestors, helped me to understand more of the experiences of Australia’s First Peoples. I enjoyed the way the author wove in words from the Bundjalung language through the dialogue. This is especially timely as 2019 is the International Year of Indigenous Languages.
(As an aside, anyone living on Dharug land or interested in learning more about Dharug culture and language might want to check out the online language lessons given by Dharug woman Jacinta Tobin through ABC Education)
To finish, here is a beautiful quote from the novel that spoke loudly to me, involved as I’ve been in researching family history and stories:
And that’s what graves are for, the realisation dawned on Kerry. They distilled your family history. They took what your ancestors did and who they were and gave it to you in one place, so you could go there and think about your lives and learn the lessons you needed to learn in order to keep on going.Too Much Lip, by Melissa Lucashenko, page 134
If you have read some of my previous posts, you’ll know that I’m a fan of historical fiction, especially fiction based on or inspired by real historical people and events. Mary-Anne O’Connor’s latest book, In a Great Southern Land, fits this bill nicely.
Set during the Goldrush times in Victoria and NSW (the mid nineteenth century) it follows the stories of two Irish newcomers to the colony: Eve (who arrives on a convict ship) and Keiran (who with his brother, sister and brother-in-law, arrive as free settlers.)
The book is a romance and we see the blossoming of love between the two main protagonists, with inevitable barriers placed in the way of them achieving their heart’s desires. Of course there is a happy conclusion. Because it is historical fiction, the plot complications arise from the times in which the story unfolds: the social, political and economic factors at play at this period of Australia’s history, including the poverty and hardship experienced by poor Irish farmers which drove many thousands to seek a better life elsewhere, the need for workers in the colonies due to the winding down of convict transportation to Australia, and especially, the feverish flocking to the goldfields of NSW and Victoria in search of the sought after ore.
I loved the fact that the characters and story were inspired by the author’s own Irish ancestors. It’s so important these stories of our forebears are told, not only to keep the stories themselves alive, but also to signal our beginnings as a modern nation. In these arguably much easier times, it is hard to imagine life before electricity, clean running water, accessible medicine, education, motorised transport, electronic communication devices and nearby grocery stories. The women and men who lived in the 1850’s had none of these things, yet still managed to love, laugh, establish families, argue, hold grudges, have fun, make music, learn, travel and earn a living. Just as we do today.
A big part of the plot of In a Great Southern Land centres on the story of the Eureka rebellion, when miners banded together against the injustices of the colonial authorities, ultimately facing off at the doomed Eureka Stockade. This battle is up there with Ned Kelly and Gallipoli in terms of iconic Australian history, but I sometimes wonder how many Australians know much about it or about the injustices that sparked the rebellion. Mary-Anne O’Connor has deftly woven these events in and around the stories of her characters and it makes an effective climax for her novel. There are some coincidences that perhaps stretch credibility a little, but all in all this is a satisfying novel, firmly placed in a very Australian context, with deep Irish roots.
This well researched historical fiction for young adults tells the story of Nanberry, a young Cadigal boy who was ‘adopted’ by John White, the Surgeon at the early colony of Sydney. Nanberry’s story is a remarkable one, as so many of the stories to be found in Australia’s history are. Orphaned when his parents and most of his clan died from the smallpox that devastated so much of the First Peoples communities of the Sydney region, Nanberry lived in Surgeon White’s house and learned to speak English, use English clothes and manners, yet maintained strong links with the remaining survivors of the Eora nation. As Jackie French tells it, in adulthood he gravitated between life as a sailor, travelling the seas on board English ships, and returning at times to the Cadigal people.
The novel is told from multiple viewpoints, which I appreciated because it’s an effective way to weave in some of those other stories that we don’t always hear about. The stories of Maria, for example, an ‘ordinary’ convict girl assigned to Surgeon White as servant, and that of Rachel Turner, another convict servant and a real figure from history, who after serving her sentence, became one of the wealthiest and most admired women in the early colony. Rachel’s son by the Surgeon, Andrew, also features—another remarkable life. The ‘white’ brother in the title, Andrew was left as an infant with his mother when White was recalled to England (though White made sure he and Rachel were well provided for.) Andrew later returned to England to attend school and went on to become one of the ‘heroes of Waterloo’, the crucial battle by the English against Napoleon’s army.
We also see the colony, with all it’s vice, filth, disease and despair, through the eyes of the Surgeon whose unenviable job it was to treat injury and illness with few medicines and fewer facilities. I marvel when I read accounts of life in these early days of Sydney. That anyone survived, let alone a settlement that developed into a global city, is something of a miracle.
Of particular note, of course, are the parts told from the viewpoint of Nanberry. Governor Phillip used the boy to interpret for him with Eora people he came across, because of the youngster’s facility with English. Through Nanberry we meet other Eora figures including Coleby, Bennelong and Balloonderry. Writing from an indigenous viewpoint when you are not yourself indigenous is a contested thing nowadays. However, I do think that this book manages to convey multiple viewpoints with skill and sensitivity.
Nanberry: Black Brother White is a terrific way for young people to see Australia’s history through story—the vibrant, tragic, astounding stories that make up the whole of this nation’s history since European colonisation.
Another branch of my research tree: a talk and tour at the NSW State Archives & Records at Kingswood in Western Sydney.
For my current work in progress I’ve made use of the many records that have been made available online and last year, I paid a visit to the Archives centre.
But during this visit on the weekend, I got to see ‘backstage’ – beyond the reading room, to the highly secure and atmosphere controlled spaces where the precious documents are stored.
The technical details of what is kept, and how, were interesting. But I admit to a particular thrill at being up close and personal with books such as the Parramatta Gaol description books from the 1800’s, and the registers of Conditional Pardons from that period. These books would almost certainly contain the names, descriptions and other details of some of my story’s characters, based as they are on real people.
The volumes – faded, torn covers and all – impart a tangible sense of the people named between their covers: the lives they lived, their mistakes and their second chances.
I’ll be back to find more details about my characters’ lives, so today was a good taster and a reminder that, while the ease of access to historic documents via digital sources is wonderful, there’s nothing quite like the original paper, book or map to create a link between now and then.
If you’d like to check out the NSW State Archives website, go here
This weekend I enjoyed a two day blitz of exploring local heritage. All in the name of research, of course. From a curated tour of the history of medical care in Parramatta, to an Open Day at Australia’s Pioneer Village at Wilberforce, one of the towns proclaimed by Governor Macquarie in 1810, I was able to absorb the sights and stories of colonial times.
While it’s hard to create completely authentic replicas of how settlements might have looked and felt in the nineteenth century, the Pioneer Village comes close, in part because most of the buildings there were not fabricated, but original cottages and businesses from around the historic Hawkesbury. They were brought to the site to create what looks and feels like a real nineteenth century village streetscape.
Adjacent to the Village is Rose Cottage, built in 1811 by Thomas Rose who, with his wife and family, emigrated to the colony. It still stands on its original site and was occupied by members of the family for 150 years.
For someone writing about people and places of our past, the Pioneer Village and heritage sites such as those preserved in Parramatta, are a real boon.
In last week’s post I mentioned being at the Cobargo Folk Festival recently, and having the pleasure of meeting Gabrielle Stroud after reading her book ‘Teacher.’
At the same festival, I had another of those wonderful moments of serendipity. Also on the festival program were several performances of “The Good Girl Song” Project. A song cycle called “Voyage”, it was written by Helen Begley, based on research by Liz Rushen and eyewitness accounts of the voyage.It presents in musical and theatrical form the story of young single women who emigrated from England to Australia, in the 1830’s. The show was performed by Helen, Penny Larkins, Penelope Swales and Jamie Molloy.
I just loved this presentation. It was Australian history, brought to life. The hopes and dreams of poor women searching for a better life, who sailed halfway round the world to be met by several thousand men on the Sydney dock. The colony was starved of eligible young women, at that time in it’s history. So did the women receive a warm welcome? Hardly. They were greeted by jeers, catcalls and filthy remarks from the assembled men. Imagine the women’s distress and disappointment. And the resilience they needed, in order to lift their heads, endure the humiliation and jeers that their ship was a “floating brothel” and walk down the ship’s gangway, to somehow make a new life in this strange land.
The show brought me to tears. It evoked thoughts of my own ancestors, some of whom I am writing about in my current fiction project. Some arrived as convicts, others as free passengers, but all of them would have experienced the hardships of the voyage here, and the same trepidation as they stepped ashore.
To hear more about the project go here:https://vimeo.com/130713977
or visit their Facebook page:https://www.facebook.com/thegoodgirlstory/
This is the debut novel from Claire Coleman, a Noongar woman from southern Western Australia. The book was published in 2018 by Hachette Australia and it won the black&write! Fellowship in 2016, from the State Library of Queensland.
It’s a hard book to describe, being one of those books that bend or fuse genres. The first half reads as historical fiction, based on all-too-real stories of the invasion and colonisation of Australia by Europeans, the bloody frontier wars, the massacres, the church run Missions and the Stolen Generations. It’s hard going, difficult and uncomfortable reading, but important reading for all Australians.
Given that these awful events in our nation’s history have been told through story and in non-fiction works, in films and songs, it is astounding to me that so many non-indigenous Australians can still plead ignorance, or worse, disinterest, in these darker parts of our history. While many of us are now proud to acknowledge our connections to other challenging periods of the Australian story, for example, our convict heritage, it does seem strange to me that some remain unable or unwilling to acknowledge the reality of what happened to indigenous people in this country. Let alone to respect the resilience and tenacity that enabled Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders to survive.
Halfway through the book, we realise that what we are reading is, in fact, speculative fiction. It switches our viewpoint in a way that feels quite disconcerting, at least to begin with. It is cleverly done.
The writing is at times clunky, with some repetition and laboured sentences. But the overall effect of this book is to leave you thinking and wondering. What if? What would that be like? How would that feel?
Which is, I believe, one of the best things that good fiction can bring: an increase in empathy.
Have you read other fictional works that do this?
Let me know in the comments below.