I was born and grew up in the Hawkesbury region and returned to live there and in the nearby Blue Mountains in my thirties. I have at least four ancestors who arrived in the Hawkesbury and Nepean region after serving their sentences, to take up land as settlers. Despite this, and despite attending high school in Richmond, not far from the river itself, I had learnt little of the early history of the region – which is rather sad, when you consider that it was an area rich in stories of the people who lived here before and after British colonisation.
In People of the River, historian and author Grace Karskens brings those stories to life, digging down into layers of history, back to what she calls ‘deep time’, tracing the ways in which the First People of the river and its surrounds lived before the English arrived, and the subsequent interactions between and among Aboriginal and settler communities.
This is no lightweight or dry history text. It’s an incredibly comprehensive account, though the impeccable research is always conveyed with a deft touch. The book includes chapters about the Hawkesbury-Nepean’s ancient geology, geography, earliest human habitation, the cultural and spiritual lives of its people (both Dharug and settler), the economic, political and social contexts of the colonial era, as well as the tragedies endured by the First Peoples, such as disease, family and community dislocation, child stealing, and violence.
However, we also learn of the many ways in which the First Nations communities adapted to and survived British colonisation and the many, sometimes surprising, ways in which they interacted with settlers. Referring to artefacts discovered, some held in museum collections, she writes:
These are the poignant ‘small things forgotten’, the scattered, silent, yet insistent record of a vast and extraordinary human experience: the enforced creation of new worlds and lives, woven from the old. Despite the terror and violence, the determined campaigns, the loss of so many of their kin, the disruption to their food sources and their social and sacred places, the people of Dyarubbin survived, and remained in their Country.People of the River p175
Ms Karskens is a gifted writer and her histories are engaging, lyrical and deeply moving – if you have read her earlier work, The Colony, about the history of the Sydney region, I am sure you will agree.
Along with her research for this book, the author has also been involved in a project with Dharug knowledge holders and fellow historians, that aims at re-discovering and reinstating the Dharug place names of the region. I am so glad to learn that the town I lived in for ten years, Richmond, has a much older name: Marrengorra.
I struggle to keep this post about People of the River brief – there is so much to enthuse about and so many amazing stories here. If you, like me, enjoy learning more about the real history of our country, this is a must-read. I lingered over it for several months – it’s a hefty book at 525 pages (not including appendices) but such a joy. I finished it with a satisfying sense that I now have a better understanding of the corner of Australia that has been so personally meaningful to me.
People of the River was published by Allen & Unwin in 2020.
How can someone be raised in a district and know so little about the stories of the people and places in its past?
I was born and raised in the Hawkesbury, arguably one of the most historically rich regions in Australia in terms of European settlement and early contact with our nation’s First Peoples. I learnt the basics in school of course, about Governor Macquarie’s ‘Five Towns’, of which Richmond was one.
Margaret arrived on the Nile in 1801, transported for escaping from gaol, after being imprisoned for stealing a horse (while dressed as a boy). Remarkably, she was one of the relatively rare convicts who could read and write, and exchanged many letters and gifts with her old employer in Sussex – from whom she had stolen the horse! There must have been a warm relationship between these two women, for the ostensibly wronged one to continue to write to an ex-employee who had stolen from her family. Even more remarkably, she kept Margaret’s letters, so historians have had the opportunity to learn about convict life and experiences at this time.
On a recent tour organised by the Hawkesbury Historical Society, I had the opportunity to discover Margaret and walk around the spots where she lived and worked.
You can check out the Historical Society’s website here: https://www.hawkesbury.net.au/
Margaret worked for some of the most prominent English settlers around the Hawkesbury, for whom many roads and other features are named: the Dight, Pitt, Faithful, Skinner and Wood families. She delivered babies, cared for small children, cooked, nursed sick family members, and performed many other tasks for her assigned masters and mistresses. She apparently made several trips into Parramatta or Sydney from the Hawkesbury – on foot. No mean feat considering the distance, the dangers and the isolation at that time.
She also helped save several members of the Dight family, helping them to the roof of their cottage on the Richmond lowlands during the devastating flood of 1806.
She eventually received a pardon in 1814. She was 58 years old by then and sadly only lived another five years as a free woman. She is buried in the first cemetery established in Richmond, across from St Peters church. The mystery surrounding her actual burial site is another aspect of her story, one that continues to intrigue today.
I have a sneaking suspicion that Margaret (or someone very much like her) might become a character in my next fiction project, which will be set in the Hawkesbury district.