Books and reading,  History

Tragedy & survival: ‘Benevolence’ by Julie Janson

The title of this book is a subtle reflection on its theme: the nature of dealings between Aboriginal people and white settlers in the early decades of the colonial experiment that eventually became the nation of Australia.

The story is told from the perspective of a young woman from the Darug Nation, in part inspired by the experiences of the author’s own ancestors on and around the Hawkesbury- Nepean River, Parramatta and Sydney Town.

We meet Muraging as a child in 1816, being taken by her father to live at the Parramatta Native Institution. This was a boarding school set up by Governor Macquarie, to educate Aboriginal children in the language and ways of the English. Muraging’s father takes her there in the hope that if his daughter can learn to understand the settlers’ ways, she may be able to help her people. He promises to return for her.

What follows is a tangled series of events in which Muraging, now known as Mary James, experiences some kindness, but also many instances of heartlessness and misunderstanding by the people who are meant to help Mary and others like her. Mary excels in her English education but longs for her own home and her own people.

This longing permeates the novel and it drives Mary throughout her life, through tragedy, danger, periods of freedom and happiness, horrific episodes of abuse at the hands of some English. As Mary grows and matures, so does the colony, bringing further encroachment of settler farms and towns on Darug lands and livelihood.

The conflicts that arise from misunderstandings are illuminated:

Through the cracks in the wall, the children look out and see a row of warriors with spears high on the hill near the town. They are silhouetted against the light. Mr Shelley is terrified. He sweats and paces, mumbling.
‘Why you lock us in, Mr Shelley?’ asks Mary.
‘Sweet innocent girl! Can’t you see that the heathen perpetrators of murder want to break down the doors and kill us and eat our hearts?’ says Mr Shelley.
‘They dancing, Mr Shelley. They not hurt us; don’t be frighten,’ says Mary.

Benevolence p32

I found the narrative spare and sometimes disjointed; however it occurred to me that the novel’s style can also represent Mary’s life: this is no ‘happy ever after’ historical fiction, but a portrayal of turbulence and upheaval as a society and culture are taken apart. Mary’s life can not have a smooth trajectory or a satisfying story arc, because the colonial and religious authorities do not allow for that.

Muraging’s growing defiance of the people who mistreat her leads her into some perilous situations and much heartache, as she endures the agony of trying to live in two worlds. But it is also her salvation and allows her to find a way to survive and to live on her own terms.

At the heart of this novel is the enormous injustice dealt by the colonisers, personified in one girl. As Muraging/Mary matures, the injustices grow:

In Windsor Prison, Mary wears a grey blanket with a red stripe and the printed words ‘New South Wales Aborigine’. Just in case she forgets. Mary has many hours to ponder the injustice of being locked up for taking a few birds while the English take everything from her and her people.

Benevolence p232

I found it especially engrossing to read about the Darug experience in the region where I grew up and was educated, because I’d learnt nothing back then about the area’s first inhabitants. This novel also challenges the myth that the Darug and other indigenous peoples around the greater Sydney, Hawkesbury, Blue Mountains, Broken Bay and Hunter regions, largely vanished soon after colonisation.

Muraging’s story shows the many ways in which they stayed and survived: sometimes living side by side with settlers, or working on farms or in towns, or gathered in small communities in the bush or isolated spots along rivers and creeks.

Benevolence is a welcome and timely addition to fiction which tells a more honest version of the story of our origins as a modern nation, and shows the strength of Australia’s first people.

Benevolence was published by Magabala Books in 2020.

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