Sunday, October 18, 2009


The past may be a foreign country, but we can all try to learn its language, says KATE GRENVILLE

IN 1788, A FLEET OF BRITISH SHIPS arrived in Australia to establish a penal settlement: around 800 prisoners and some 200 marines to guard them. One of those marines was a young lieutenant called William Dawes. Although nominally a soldier, he seems to have been a scholar rather than a fighting man—an astronomer, a mathematician and a linguist. He set up an observatory on an isolated point of land, and the local indigenous people—the Gadigal—visited him there. He began to learn their language, recording what he learned in two small notebooks.

When I came across an extract from these notebooks in 2003, I was galvanised by the amazing story they suggested. Dawes seems to have begun his language studies with scientific precision, listing verb forms (“I eat, thou eatest, he, she or it eats ...”) and pages for alphabetical word lists. But these grids remain largely blank. What happened instead is that he began to record entire conversations between himself and the Gadigal people, and particularly a young girl named Patyegarang. Scientific detachment was swept away in something much more personal.

Between the lines of those conversations, an astonishing and perhaps unique relationship is recorded. Dawes and Patyegarang clearly enjoyed each other’s company and the play of each others’ minds. Across gulfs of culture, language, age and perhaps even personality, they forged a friendship that was affectionate, playful and witty.

The emotional intensity that emerges between the lines of the conversations is so powerful that some have thought that their relationship must have been a sexual one. For various reasons, my own feeling is that it was not. Dawes was in his middle twenties: Patyegarang’s age is uncertain, but she was probably between about ten and fifteen. My reading of their conversations is that they enjoyed the kind of friendship that sometimes happens between a clever, subtle, confident child and an adult.

At some point in their friendship, one of the settlement’s ‘gamekeepers’ was fatally speared. The governor sent a party of soldiers out to punish the tribe from which the attacker was said to come—neighbours of the Gadigal. Their orders were to capture and bring back six indigenous men, but if this proved ‘impracticable,’ then six were to be killed and their heads cut off and brought back. Hatchets and bags were provided for the purpose.

Dawes was one of the soldiers ordered out on this expedition. He refused to go; was warned of the consequences of disobeying, and agreed to go; but on his return (the party having not made a single capture), he announced that he would refuse to obey any similar order if it were given. For this insubordination he risked court-martial and severe punishment.

He had earlier expressed a wish to stay in the settlement beyond his tour of duty, but he was sent back with the rest of the marines and never returned to Australia. He spent the rest of his life working for the Abolition movement in London, Africa and the West Indies. When slavery was abolished he set up schools for former slaves and died in Antigua.

So much for the historical record, sketchy and partial as it is. As a novelist, I was gripped (as Jane Rogers and Paul Carter had been before me) by the human drama of what’s suggested by it. The rapport between a young indigenous girl and one of His Majesty’s marines was an extraordinary one—reading about it, it’s impossible not to wonder what these two people were like. They spring off the pages of the notebooks not as historical figures but living, breathing human souls.

The choice that Dawes made when ordered on the punitive expedition—a choice between his future prospects and some emotional or moral imperative—is richly enigmatic. Why did he risk severe punishment and disgrace, when doing so made no difference to anything?

Reading the notebooks, there’s a strong sense of a person being transformed before our eyes. A man of science discovers another, more fluid way of engaging with the world; a detached observer becomes deeply involved not just intellectually but emotionally; a lieutenant in His Majesty’s service decides he can no longer be part of the imperial machine. In coming to know the Gadigal people, Dawes was irrevocably changed.

All this, then, was the raw material I had to work with in writing a novel. Without the notebooks I would never have thought to imagine a friendship like the one between Dawes and Patyegarang. Even if I had thought such a thing might have happened, I wouldn’t have attempted to write it. How would you even begin to invent those unimaginable conversations?

The notebooks excited me because, for all their gaps and mysteries, they recorded, verbatim, conversations around which I could build a story. I’d have to invent the context for the conversations, and I’d have to speculate about the people who spoke the words, and I was uncertain about how appropriate it was to do that. But in the end I felt it was important to try, because this story was one that recorded an aspect of our past—shared between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians—that was hugely important. It records a moment in that shared history where mutual goodwill and generous curiosity created real understanding.

The relationship between this novel and the real events that inspired it is complex—as the relationship between any work of imagination and the world must always be.

For the first several drafts, I stuck closely to the historical sources and used the names of the real people. This was partly because the real story was more intriguing that anything I could have invented, but also out of a sense of respect for the real people and the real events. It was important to me to go as far as I could in understanding what had been recorded before branching off into speculation.

I found as many references to Dawes as I could in the historical record, and researched his life as far as I could. I read his meteorological journal and his letters to the Astronomer Royal in which his voice could be heard. I researched 18th-century telescopes and rain-gauges, examined engravings of marines’ uniforms, read a blow-by-blow account of the Battle of Chesapeake Bay.

While in the UK on other business I spent time in Portsmouth, where Dawes was born, and at the Greenwich Observatory. I spent a great deal of time on the point in Sydney where Dawes had his observatory (long since vanished, but an archaeologist showed me the rock wall where it had once been). I retraced on foot most of the path the punitive expedition had probably taken, and spent time by night as well as by day on the shores of Botany Bay, where the soldiers had tried to ambush “the Botany Bay tribe.”

To try to feel something of the texture of life for the First Fleet, I pored over objects in museums—a pencil repaired with string, for example, or a chipped enamel basin—and asked a botanist friend if he could find the plant called “sweet-tea” by the first settlers. Drinking the tea I made from the leaves he sent me, with its delicately astringent aniseed flavour, made 1788 very real.

But ‘real life’—whether in 1788 or 2088—is not the same as a work of literature. Life is full of gaps of time in which nothing much happens; events which lead nowhere; events which are woven in with other events in a dense inseparable mass. To make this story work as a novel, it would be necessary to streamline, focus, and omit. It would also be necessary to go beyond the record, inventing events and imagining characters.

In moving from the historical record into a work of the imagination, I set myself two broad guidelines. The first was not to invent any dialogue between the Gadigal people and the lieutenant. I would use only what was recorded in the notebooks. The second was—as far as my knowledge went—not to invent out of nowhere. I would omit events that had really happened, I would adapt and alter real events, and I would invent beyond what was recorded, but I would—as far as possible—take the historical record as a starting-point.

So, for example, I telescoped time considerably (the main story in the novel takes about two years while in reality it took about four; the real expedition took three days where in the novel it takes two). I made no mention of important historical moments (the spearing of the Governor or the arrival of the Second Fleet, for example). I moved events that had happened at one time or place to another (the first encounter between black and white is based on an encounter that happened in Botany Bay, not in Port Jackson). I speculated about characters, taking what was known about them as a starting-point but imagining beyond what was recorded. Readers familiar with the accounts of first settlement may recognise aspects of real people in many of the characters and will recognise some recorded events.

As a novelist I have latitude to speculate, to add, to omit, to guess and even to invent. But I also have available to me all the richness of the historical record. In a tradition that goes back to Homer and beyond, I’ve taken events that took place in the real world and used them as the basis for a work of imagination.

This is a novel, then, not history. But I hope that it might encourage readers to seek out the history of those extraordinary years of first settlement, and to see the continuities and discontinuities between that time and our own. The past may be a foreign country, but we can all try to learn its language.

KATE GRENVILLE, one of Australia’s leading contemporary novelists, was born in Sydney, Australia, in 1950. She worked as a journalist in London and Paris and studied creative writing in the US before becoming a full-time novelist. The Secret River, her story of early Australian life through Aboriginal history, was based on the life of her ancestor, a Briton transported to Australia as a convict. It won the 2006 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize and was shortlisted for the 2006 Man Booker Prize for Fiction. She won the Orange Prize for Fiction for The Idea of Perfection in 2001. Grenville, whose latest novel is entitled The Lieutenant, is also the author of Dark Places and Lillian’s Story.

Reproduced from the Ubud Writers & Readers Festival 2009 issue of Quill magazine


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