On Grace Karskens’ The People of the River. A remarkable story of settler and Indigenous co-existence

Dec 27, 2020

 The Nepean-Hawkesbury – Dyarubbin – witnessed a remarkable story of settler and Indigenous co-existence. In her recent tome, Grace Karskens uncovers this story while shattering many myths and setting new standards for interpretation of historical records.

Almost half a century ago I might have played a tiny part in the education of Professor Grace Karskens. On the other hand, I admit that bright students learn less because of their teachers than in spite of them. Nevertheless, reviewers should be open about any interest they have in a book. We remain friends.

Grace Karskens practises open history, in which she does not attempt to hide her own role in the research and writing to create a faux objectivity. She is entirely involved in her work and sees it as a personal journey. And what an enormous trip this 678 page book takes us on! Many historians would happily regard a book of this magnitude as the work of a lifetime, but Grace has other epics behind her including The Rocks and The Colony, both multi-award winners. She dedicated those earlier books to her parents who encouraged her career and this latest book is for her grandchildren.

This inter-generational, personal investment in Australia’s history is appropriate, given that much of Karsken’s writing deals with the history of families, both Indigenous and settler. Without this generous and open approach, some people might feel that a researcher who delves into such minute detail about their ancestors could be intruding, even trespassing.

The cover of the book shows what the reader can expect. Indigenous motifs feature as holograms, an overlay suggesting Indigenous presence. The people of the Nepean-Hawkesbury or Dyarubbin have survived invasion and colonisation. Naive histories of contact between Indigenous peoples such as the Dharug, Darkinjung and Wiradjuri and the settlers assume that when the cultures met, they came into conflict and the new – sometimes gradually, often very suddenly – replaced the old. Massacres, frontier wars, dispossession, disease, inter-marriage and assimilation certainly threatened the original inhabitants.

But Karskens shows that Indigenous peoples adapted, survived, and even flourished. Indeed, her next project involves mapping the Aboriginal names for places in the Dyarubbin region, in co-operation with Indigenous people. Fortuitously, she discovered that an early missionary named McGarvie recorded many of these names. Naming is the beginning of acknowledgement.

Within the book, the reader finds not only Grace’s highly readable prose but also many aids to understanding. There are maps of the catchment, its various creeks, reaches and landmarks. Appendices show the areas of land granted to settler families and the dates of floods and freshes. There are historic photographs, artworks and sketches made by early anthropologists of rock art. There are a dozen pages of colour plates of the river and its characters. And as an academic work the endnotes and bibliography are broad and meticulous.

The book tells of the region’s geology, flora and fauna and the ecological practices of the Indigenous peoples. It describes the strains in British colonial administration, between the cynical view that New South Wales was merely a penal dumping ground and a vision of an independent. self-sustaining settlement. It notes the specific milieu on the Dyarubbin and shows the various ambitions of convict, emancipist and ‘currency’ sections of society as well as the free settlers, who were often more prosperous.

These prosperous settlers created most of the documentary evidence and records left by women are as rare as those left by struggling families. Anyone who notices this kind of bias in the record is well aware that written reports largely exclude the experiences of Indigenous peoples with their oral transmission of knowledge, which is also strictly bound by Lore and Law.

Such difficulties did not deter Karskens. Indeed in responding to the challenges she has seen and heard things which have hitherto remained hidden. Such insights have enabled her to interpret events in unique ways. So who would have imagined that a chapter on ‘The People’s Pleasures’ could be so informative about intercultural contacts?

In examining the role played by religion and churches along the river, Karskens speculates about the attitudes of many settlers, especially ex-convicts. Perhaps the pragmatism revealed in the plainness of their chapels and the speed with which they established cemeteries shows that they had their own interpretation of salvation. They had erred and been condemned, undertaken a perilous, purgative journey and now were enjoying their time in this promised land, where their children grew like ‘cornstalks’.

While the speculations in this book are creative, you do not feel that the author jumps to unwarranted conclusions. For example, there is a very interesting exposition of the ways in which settlers interrogated Aboriginal people about their belief systems. Understandably perhaps, these Christians tried to elicit some observations about a God, heaven and hell. These concepts were alien to Aboriginal people who declined to explain their spirituality.

There are also stories about individuals such as the remarkable Nah Doongh, and about Macquarie’s attempt to separate children from their parents. But always, Karskens’ purpose is to learn, respect and entertainingly share the truths she discovers. People of the River deserves to be widely read.

Dr Tony Smith is a former political science academic with interests in elections, parliament and political ethics.

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