Dark Deeds in a Sunny Land – a poet’s memorial to a forgotten crime

… they were standin’ on the shore one day
Saw the white sails in the sun
Wasn’t long before they felt the sting
White man, white law, white gun
Solid Rock, Goanna 1982

The Great Australian Silence

Archaeologist WEH Stanner wrote in 1968 of “the great Australian silence – it was almost as if there was a “cult of forgetfulness”. And indeed, white historical memory is like a sieve. Give it a good shake and only the big chunks are left. For a long time in Australia, the story of our frontier wars was not one of those. But in recent decades, an ever-widening crack has let the light in.

The first hairline fissures appeared in the early years of settlement as a small number of humanitarians voiced their concerns, although not with enough impetus to cool our pioneer fervour. Henry Reynolds, acclaimed historian of the frontier wars, quotes one such: ‘How is it our minds are not satisfied? What means this whispering in the bottom of our hearts?’

I touched upon this paradox in a review I wrote of historian Peter Cochrane’s novel The Making of Martin Sparrow: – Martin Sparrow’s Blues:

“The country into which most characters venture is not, as we now acknowledge, an empty land. It was a peopled landscape, a much revered, well-loved, and worked terrain, its inhabitants possessed of deep knowledge, wisdom and respect for “country” … 

… Whilst many colonists, particularly the soldiery, regard the native peoples as savages and inflict savage reprisals upon them for their resistance to white encroachment, others, in the spirit of the contemporary ‘Enlightenment’ push back against the enveloping, genocidal tide with empathy and understanding …

… “It’s the first settlers do the brutal work. Them that come later, they get to sport about in polished boots and frock-coats … revel in polite conversation, deplore the folly of ill-manners, forget the past, invent some bullshit fable. Same as what happened in America. You want to see men at their worst, you follow the frontier”. “I don’t reckon we’re the Christians … We’re the Romans. We march in, seize the land, crucify them, stringing ‘em up in trees, mutilate their parts”.

… They knew in their hearts that this ancient people and its ancient ways are helpless against the relentless tide of the white man’s mission civilatrice. “It might be that the bolters have the ripest imagination, but sooner or later, an official party will get across the mountains and find useful country, and the folk and the flag will follow, that’s the way of the world. It’s a creeping flood tide and there’s no ebb, and there’s no stopping it. No amount of … goodwill”. 

At Bellingen’s  Readers and Writers Festival in July 2019, we attended a powerful “conversation” between Reynolds and indigenous activist and academic Marcia Langton. Reynolds reminded us that these wars raged for decades from Tasmania in our far south  to Queensland’s far north. It was a story of vicious raids and reprisals.

In August 2019, in a piece called The Frontier Wars – Australia’s heart of darkness, I wrote:

“Australia at the time of first settlement, and particularly on the frontier, was a brutal, violent place. It was colonized by soldiers and convicts, most of them young men chock-full of testosterone and aggression, bitterness and prejudice, greed and ambition. The conflict, which in Queensland, endured  into the last decades of the 19th Century, was a war of conquest and extrajudicial killings – or more bluntly, murders. The subdued territories were patrolled  by the native police – effectively paramilitary forces. The wars were waged by an outgunned people on the one hand, and, on the other, what were effectively robber bands raised and provisioned by the local magnates and squatters intent on seizing, holding and expanding their often enormous landholdings. There were to be no ceasefires, no parlays and no treaties. And no recognition of indigenous rights. None were ever on offer – not that that would’ve made a difference”.

We have come a long way in a short time; but we’re not there yet. There exists still a darkness at the heart of our democracy that we struggle to come to terms with; and in these divisive days, it doesn’t take much to reignite our “history wars” as we negotiate competing narratives and debate the “black armband” and “white blindfold” versions of our national story.

‘A sorry place’

We live in heart of the Tarkeeth Forest which lies between the Bellinger and Kalang Rivers in Bellingen Shire the mid north coast of New South Wales. Traversing the ridge just north of us is the east-west Fernmount Range Trail. In the days gone by, it was an ancient highway called the Yildaan Dreaming Track and Trade Route  which linked the plains beyond the Dorrigo massif to what is now the seaside town of Urunga, known then to the Gumbaynggirr people as a “place of plenty”. The first people would descend the spurs on the north and south flanks of the range for fishing and ceremonies on the riverside. The Tarkeeth Forest contains areas of significant indigenous culture, recalling song lines and stories of the Dreamtime, places of ceremony, of birth and burial, and of atrocity.

We have been told that the Gumbaynggirr regarded Bellingen and its environs as a “sorry place”, one of discrimination, expulsion and worse. But Bellingen Shire is just one of many places that have a dark history of which most  residents are unaware.

Three historic massacre sites committed against Gumbaynggirr and Bundjalung people of the Coffs Clarence region have been recorded on the Aboriginal massacres map, created by University of Newcastle researchers. have been listed near Bellingen, modern day Coutts Crossing and near Seelands and Ramornie. [See below]

The scenic Waterfall Way linking Armidale to the coast is a drive we never get tired of as it winds along riverside meadowlands and climbs through world heritage rainforests to the Dorrigo Plateau with its windswept escarpments, clear creeks, and just off the beaten track, magnificent waterfalls, landmarks like Cathedral Rock, and stunning views. But, in the words of activist and academic and Ambēyang man Callum Clayton-Dixon, this highway conceals signposts to a bloody past. [We republish his article below]

One of these signposts points the way to north of Point Lookout on the New England Tableland, where, jutting out from the plateau and dropping in sheer cliffs into the thick rainforest below, is a place once known as Darkie Point.

Judith Wright was the first white Australian poet to publicly name and explore the experiences of its Indigenous people. Through her poetry, and especially in her later histories, Wright sought to confront the violence in Australian settler history and to re-imagine it through the eyes of the first Australians. Her words breathed sorrow and compassion into the early encounters between settlers and Indigenous people, evoking the tragedy of the Australian frontier. Her love of the New England highlands was bound to a creeping uneasiness about its past. As Billy Griffiths wrote in in his story of archaeologist Isabel McBryde, she lived in “haunted country.” In an early poem, Bora Ring(1946), she mourned the passing of a dynamic world:

The hunter is gone; the spear
is splintered underground; the painted bodies
a dream the world breathed sleeping and forgot.
The nomad feet are still.

She lived on New England  tablelands and camped at Point Lookout with her father, as he had with his mother. “She remembered being mesmerized by the splendour of the cliffs, the mystery of the thickly forested valley and the “the great blue sweep of the view from the Point to the sea.” But she saw a darkness here, too. To the north of Point Lookout, jutting out from the plateau and dropping in sheer cliffs into the thick rainforest below, is a place once known as Darkie Point. It is just north of Ebor and the scenic Waterfall Way linking Armidale to the Coast via Dorrigo and Bellingen.

Wright’s father told her the story of how it got its name: how, “long ago,” a group of Aboriginal people were driven over those cliffs by white settlers as reprisal for spearing cattle. Their sickening plunge was re-imagined in one of Wright’s early poems, “Nigger’s Leap, New England”, published in her first collection The Moving Image (1946). The story was later revealed to be an “abstracted and ahistoricised” account of a documented event. It was, in fact, August 1852, that scores of Aboriginal people were chased to the edge of a cliff, shot and pushed over. Some in this day and age may be offended by the use of what is now a forbidden word – but Wright chose it specifically for its shock effect, commemorating as it does what was then a forgotten crime. “Did we not know”, she asks, “their blood channelled our rivers, and the black dust our crops ate was their dust?”

In her short story, On Reading Nigger’s Leap, Teacher and writer Anne Vince asks her class – and  us, her readers – to imagine what Wright did describe in words words:

‘Local aborigines were driven over the falls. Stockmen from neighbouring stations rounded them up like cattle and beat them to the cliff’s edge. Mothers leapt, leaving their babies clinging to shrub roots. Some tried to hide their children in the burnt out husks of the giant gums that used to grow around here. After a while the riders would release their dogs…There is such a silence my words falter before tumbling forward. I have to breathe deeply to continue, to remember … How do we know this? Hard evidence. Skeletal remains at the bottom of the cliffs – and, yes – they are human remains. And, of course, oral history… Judith Wright had heard these stories.’  [We republish Vince’s story below]

© Paul Hemphill 2021 All rights reserved

Nigger’s Leap, New England

The eastward spurs tip backward from the sun.
Nights runs an obscure tide round cape and bay
and beats with boats of cloud up from the sea
against this sheer and limelit granite head.
Swallow the spine of range; be dark. O lonely air.
Make a cold quilt  across the bone and skull
that screamed falling in flesh from the lipped cliff
and then were silent, waiting for the flies.

Here is the symbol, and climbing dark
a time for synthesis. Night buoys no warning
over the rocks that wait our keels; no bells
sound for the mariners. Now must we measure
our days by nights, our tropics by their poles,
love by its end and all our speech by silence.
See in the gulfs, how small the light of home.

Did we not know their blood channelled our rivers,
and the black dust our crops ate was their dust?
O all men are one man at last. We should have known
the night that tidied up the cliffs and hid them
had the same question on its tongue for us.
And there they lie that were ourselves writ strange.

Never from earth again the coolamon
or thin black children dancing like the shadows
of saplings in the wind. Night lips the harsh
scarp of the tableland and cools its granite.
Night floods us suddenly as history
that has sunk many islands in its good time.

‘On Reading “Nigger’s Leap” by Judith Wright’ by Anne Vince

Judith Wright knifes the scab off an old, unhealed wound.

In the classroom I explain that this poem is set in their own backyard – at the local falls – where three generations ago white men, squatters and landowners alike, regularly went ‘hunting’ and it wasn’t for kangaroos.

A snarl sweeps across the pig-shooter’s son.  ‘Supposedly,’ he interjects.

I’m stunned. Not because it’s the first time I’ve heard four consecutive syllables from this boy – it’s the ferocity of the denial. There’s a history here, a hint of blood knowledge.

Under this remark I can hear the lazy slam of a fly screen door, the indignant scrape of a chair rasped over cracked, worn lino.

‘Yeah…’ drawls another student. Then another. The heat in the room builds. Even the incessant flies hesitate. ‘Well…?’

A sea of sun-scorched faces, eyes ready to pass judgment, stare.

To gather my thoughts, I glance outside. Massive cumulus clouds the colour of dark bruises roil and tumble over each other, mocking the scrubby horizon, piling higher and higher in the expectant sky.

I have to be careful. These are children well versed in suspicion. I know anything I say will make it back to shoddy verandahs and the town’s single, stainy-tiled bar.

I want to tell them their disbelief makes them complicit but that would mean slipping a fingernail under that lino, scraping at the decades of dirty reasoning and the trampled effort of surviving in a place like this.

The class waits – a collective held breath willing the relief of a reply.

I look at their hands. Some of them are men’s hands, thick-knuckled from weekend labour or cutting horses in low rent rodeos. Most of these students are already helping shoulder the burden of overgrazed, drought-stricken farms, riddled with dieback. They are tough kids from decent families who believe they’ve been given the whole country for their own.

‘No,’ I finally say. ‘Local aborigines were driven over the falls. Stockmen from neighbouring stations rounded them up like cattle and beat them to the cliff’s edge. Mothers leapt, leaving their babies clinging to shrub roots. Some tried to hide their children in the burnt out husks of the giant gums that used to grow around here. After a while the riders would release their dogs…’

There is such a silence my words falter before tumbling forward. I have to breathe deeply to continue, to remember.

‘How do we know this? Hard evidence. Skeletal remains at the bottom of the cliffs – and, yes – they are human remains. And, of course, oral history… Judith Wright had heard these stories.’ This is what I tell them.

I don’t tell them that swimming one afternoon in the dark pools of the falls, just as the sun slanted shadows through saplings at the water’s edge, I met those shrill, anguished spirits. I don’t tell them of the high-pitched keening and tortured wailing that filled my ears each time I dived, or of the roaring bush silence that greeted me when I emerged, clean-skinned and gutted. I don’t tell them how I choked, sick with sudden comprehension as I lay on the hard granite, resisting the pull of those blood channelled ghosts to join their sway and wander in the waters far under.

Now, Slessor they will understand. White man’s words. White man’s war.

They are excused by the bell.

To me it is the sound of alarm

Myall Creek, New England

At Myall Creek Station near Inverell, in 1838, twelve armed and mounted stockmen rounded up 28 unarmed Wirrayaraay people – largely women and children – and, without provocation, hacked them to death. This story, the Myall Creek massacre, is relatively well known because of John Plunkett’s heroic prosecution of the stockmen – several were hanged for murder – but numerous other, similar incidents in the area are less well known. These include the follow-up murder of thirty or so remaining Wirrayaraay men and killings of sometimes hundreds of people at sites such as Slaughterhouse Creek, Waterloo Creek and Terrible Creek.

Few locals know that Dangar Falls in Dorrego,  Dangarsleigh, and Armidale’s Dangar Street were all named in honour of Henry Dangar, a squatter known for his role in the attempted cover up of the atrocity, and for trying to pervert to course of justice in the subsequent trial.

We recently republished extracts for William Lines’ Taming of the Great South Land regarding the eradication koala and other wildlife in the earthy twentieth century. Here is what he had to say about Myall Creek and other massacres.

The Myall Creek Massacre

Most squatters abhorred the Aborigines. They resented their “wandering propensities”, their independence, their pride and their unwillingness to accept the hierarchical authority Europeans equated with enlightenment. For 50 years Aborigines the civilisation Europeans

had sought to impose on Australia, Their inclination towards independence of action and refusal to accept the values of the invaders invaders greatly exasperated the British. Their disdain for European habits marked them as barbarians and supplied the Europeans with an antithesis – civilisation versus barbarism – highly useful as a rationalisation for aggression. To counter aboriginal resistance, the squatters appealed to the government to clear the land. When the colonial authorities equivocated,  the squatters adopted at their own solutions.

At mile Creek, 650 km north of Sydney, shortly before sundown one day in June 1838, a group of mounted stockmen with muskets, swords and pistols, rounded up 30 or 40 aboriginals encamped at a sheep station. The Horseman roped the men, women and most of the children together and force them to march 4 kilometres into the bush. The untied children, crying, followed their mothers, who carried those too young to walk. One of the stockmen snatched up an untied boy of about seven ( a favourite of his), placed in behind a tree and told him to remain there until later. The child, however, ran back, crying “no, I will go with my mammy”. He was then fastened with rope to the adults.

A few days later the station manager became curious as to the whereabouts of the Aborigines previously camped in the area. The hovering at Eagles, hawks and other birds of prey, directed him to a spot where he discovered the mangled and half burnt remains at least 28 people. For the most part, heads was separated from bodies, and fire marks appeared on the disjointed limbs. Charcoal and burnt logs indicated an attempt to efface all evidence. The manager, however, recognise 10 to 12 small heads he took to those of children, and a large body which he believed belonged to “Daddy”, an Aborigine know for his remarkably large frame.

When the government laid murder charges against the men responsible, squatters and the press screamed in outage at the absurdity of indicting civilised man for the deaths of creatures on the lowest rung of creation. A few of those associated with squatting have not killed aboriginals and they continued to declare their right to clear the land of an inferior race. One squatter boasted that he “would shoot a Blackfellow whenever he met him as he would a mad dog. The jury returned a verdict of not guilty. Once juror explained:

“I look to the blacks as a set of monkeys and I think the earlier they are exterminated, the better. I know well [the accused] are guilty of murder, but I, for one, would never consent to see a white man suffer for shooting black one”.

The government eventually obtained a conviction at a second trial. Before their execution , the seven condemned men acknowledged their guilt but stated in their defence “that in destroying the Aborigines, they were not aware that they had violated the law, or that it would take cognizance of their having done so, as it had been so frequently done in the colonies before”.

The Myall Creek massacre became notorious, , Not because of the murder of the aboriginals but because of the conviction and punishment to the murderous. It was only the second and the last time in Australian history that Europeans were executed for the murder of aborigines. Henceforward squatters acted with impunity; the Myall C Creek trial only encouraged them to be more secretive and thorough. One recommended that, where the firearms failed or became too obvious, poison in the form of strychnine or arsenic mixed with flour be given to the aborigines.

Squatters believed that the £10 license fee and entitled them to the exclusive one of their use of the runs – a right which justified the violent expulsion of the original residents. In February 1840 the Whyte  brothers took up their Kooning-wootong run in the Western District. A month later they hunted down an aboriginal group suspected of stealing 127 sheep and killed between 20 and 30 of them. Although the Whytes admitted to the killings, the government failed to prosecute, and a month later the brothers pursued and killed members of another group of aborigines. In 1841 a party of seven settlers shot dead 51 aborigines on the banks of the Glenelg River near the South Australia-Victoria border, for abducting 50 sheep. Long after, according to a local squatter, the bones of the men and sheep lay mingled together bleaching in the sun at the Fighting Hills.

Taming The Great South Land – a history of the conquest of nature in Australia, William J Lines (Allen and Unwin 1991) p78-79

What to do with  signposts to New England’s bloody past?

View at Medium.com

By Callum Clayton-Dixon: The names of various creeks, streets, parks, and pastoral properties across the Tableland hark back to New England’s violent colonial origins. In this unprecedented time of truth-telling, is taking down these symbols of past injustices enough?

Majors Creek, near the village of Ebor, named for squatter Major Edward Parke.

Travelling along Waterfall Way, not far from the village of Ebor, you’ll drive across Major’s Creek, and nearby there’s a signpost for Major’s Point Road which takes you towards Major’s Point bluff. These places were named after Major Edward Parke, who took up Guy Fawkes Station in the mid-1840s. Ebor itself has a Major Street, and a Parke Street. Parke, an ex-military man, acquired a reputation for his brutal treatment of local Aboriginal people. A profile of the New England district published by the Singleton Argus in 1883 referred to how Parke “established such a reign of terror…that for twenty-five years no Aboriginal would approach his run, although through it ran their favourite and most prolific fishing streams”.

“The name of the gentleman in question is held in awe by the darkeys till the present day, and to mention it is sufficient to induce any stray Aboriginal to make back tracks to the nearest shelter.” — Singleton Argus, 12/12/1883, p2

The Darkie Point Massacre illustrated by Narmi Collins-Widders

Just east of Major’s Point is Darkie Point. According to the well-known pastoralist P.A. Wright of Wallamumbi Station, this particular bluff was the site of a massacre —in August 1852, a large group of Aboriginal people were chased to the edge, shot and pushed over. An article about the history of the Dorrigo Plateau printed in the Dungog Chronicle in 1932 talked of Edward Parke’s involvement in this atrocity: “A great number of them were shot by Major Parke and other residents of the district who had joined the chase”. It’s likely that Michael Clogher of Bostobrick Station, a former convict and constable with the New England Border Police, was involved in the Darkie Point massacre as well. That same month, Clogher led a posse of settlers “in pursuit of the natives” on the Aberfoyle run, and “followed them to Paddy’s Land, where they shot down as many as they could”. Joshua Scholes’ account of this incident appeared in a 1923 issue of the Uralla Times; Scholes was a long-time resident of the Tableland “with a wealth of knowledge of the early days”. I suspect Clogher’s Creek at Nymboida is named after Michael Clogher, who was also notorious for terrorizing Aboriginal people; he would ride into camps brandishing his cavalry sword, and apparently didn’t hesitate to use his pistol or carbine.

“The name [Terrible Vale] was derived from one of the men working on the place in the early days and known as ‘Terrible Billy’, being a terror to the blacks.” —Uralla Times, 03/05/1923, p2

Terrible Vale, south of Uralla, took its name from William ‘Terrible Billy’ Stephenson, the head stockman during the mid-1830s. Elizabeth Gardner’s history of the Station documents a story “passed down through some people who worked on the station…that a large number of Aborigines were killed near the creek on Terrible Vale”, and it was Terrible Billy who shot a great many Aboriginal people there. Then there’s Macdonald Park in Armidale, which is named after the district’s first Crown Lands Commissioner George James Macdonald. Commissioner Macdonald commanded the New England Border Police, and over the course of two days of skirmishing on the Beardie Plains in March 1840, his troopers shot dead nine Aboriginal warriors and wounded a tenth. In reporting this to his superiors, Macdonald justified the slaughter, claiming that it had been “absolutely necessary…to check the boldness and daring of their attacks”.

Dangar Falls, Dangarsleigh, and Armidale’s Dangar Street were all named in honour of Henry Dangar, a squatter known for his role in the attempted cover up of the infamous 1838 Myall Creek Massacre, and for trying to pervert to course of justice in the subsequent trial. On the Macdonald River run — named after Henry Macdonald, Station manager there in the mid-1830s — colonists poisoned local Aboriginal people by giving them milk containing arsenic. This is, in all likelihood, why a waterway on the outskirts of Bendemeer is called Poison Swamp Creek.

Most New Englanders would be completely oblivious of the horrific history to which these signpost names point. Why? Wilful ignorance in some cases. Complete denial in others. Most have no idea because they’ve never had the opportunity to learn about it. But the thick fog of the great conspiracy of silence is lifting as the push for truth-telling advances. Bolstered by the global Black Lives Matter movement, calls for the removal of statues and place names honouring those who contributed to the violent colonization of Aboriginal lands and lives are gaining momentum. However, there are a whole raft of questions and issues that arise from this crucial conversation.

What, if anything, should replace these symbols of past injustices? Plaques acknowledging the atrocities committed by the likes of Major Parke? Memorials recognizing the pain and suffering endured by Aboriginal people at the hands of the New England colonial project? Or monuments to the warriors who laid down their lives to protect kin and country? After all, the massacres, the poisonings, and the campaigns of terror were often carried out in response to our ancestors’ fierce resistance to the invasion. Their courage and sacrifice must also be remembered.

And what shall replace names like ‘Macdonald Park’ and ‘Dangar Falls’? One of the most common suggestions has been to use words from the local Aboriginal language (Anēwan) for this purpose, thus paying respect to the traditional owners, and contributing to the revival of our ancestral tongue. But symbolic acts alone aren’t enough, nowhere near in fact. Symbolism has to be, in my view, accompanied by commitments to real change, tangible change.

The savagery of Parke, Clogher, Terrible Billy, and their ilk was foundational to the development of New England as a thriving pastoral district. So were government agents like Commissioner Macdonald, overseeing ruthless police repression, and administering the carving up of the Tableland into hundreds of stations. We have to go beyond statues and signposts to conversations about redress for the protracted dispossession and decimation of Aboriginal communities. Substantial reforms to the education system are, of course, a given. Let’s talk about the return of stolen lands. Let’s talk about reparations. And it’s vital that these conversations (and the actions they give rise to) take place locally, as well as at the state and national level. Truth and justice, from the ground up — a shattering of the colonial status quo, not a tinkering.

Callum Clayton-Dixon is an Ambēyang Aboriginal man whose people come from the southern end of the New England Tableland in New South Wales. He is the author of Surviving New England: A History of Aboriginal Resistance & Resilience through the First Forty Years of the Colonial Apocalypse (2019), and a PhD candidate at the University of Technology Sydney, working to develop a dictionary and grammar of his ancestral language.

The Colonial Frontier Massacres Map

The Coffs Coast Advocate reported  in November 2019, how stage one of the project has recorded 172 incidents across Eastern Australia between 1788 and 1872.  About 97% of people killed in these massacres were Aboriginal men, women and children Massacres became more violent, systematic and calculated over time. The average number of Indigenous deaths increased over time, before declining in the 1900s, but massacres continued up to 1928.  At least 65 massacres of Indigenous people were in retaliation for the killing or theft of livestock, or theft of property

Darkie Point, Bellinger River, near Ebor  

Ten people were killed at Darkie Point on the Bellingen River in May, 1841 with settlers and stockmen using firearms and muskets to attack a local Baanbay Aboriginal tribe in an act of reprisal. The narrative by the Colonial Frontier Massacres research team reads.  “Following the brutal murder of three shepherds on Eldershaw’s outstation in the north eastern part of New England and the taking of 2000 sheep by Bundjalung, Eldershaw organised a ‘pursuing party’ of ten men (including Eldershaw, three neighbours and six stockmen) … ‘Well mounted and accoutred’ and set off with ten days provisions for the south branch of the Clarence. According to Eldershaw they shot the entire group – ‘a great number’ in daylight.’

Orara River, near Seelands and Ramornie

More than 20 people were killed on the Orara River, near Sealands between April 1, 1841 and April 30, 1841. The attackers included colonisers, a government official and settlers and stockmen. “In response to stock theft, from Ramornie station, CLC Oakes of Clarence PD swore in stockmen as special constables to surround a Bundjalung (Ngarabal? speakers) camp at night and at daybreak charged and killed indiscriminately Aboriginal men, women and children.” A man named Lynch was later charged with the stock theft.

Kangaroo Creek, near today’s Coutts Crossing

An estimated 23 Gumabynggnir people were killed on November 29, 1847. “In February 1848, Crown Lands Commissioner, Oliver Fry, was told by a stockman and an Aboriginal man at Grafton that squatter Thomas Coutts had poisoned 23 Aboriginal people by offering them flour laced with arsenic at his station at Kangaroo Creek.” Fry set off for Kangaroo Creek Station to investigate. He found human remains, but they were too decomposed for analysis. Coutts was arrested and taken to Sydney where he was bailed for 1,000 pounds, but was discharged in May for lack of evidence.

The Frontier Wars – Australia’s heart of darkness

Pemulwuy

It was recently announced that Phillip Noyce, Director of the award winning Rabbit-Proof Fence, is to bring to our screens the story of Bidjigal warrior and resistance leader Pemulwuy who lived near present day Botany Bay and who united local tribes in a twelve year guerrilla war against the British invaders of what we now call New South Wales.

As is always often the case with such fearless but forlorn intifadat, Pemuluy came to a sad, bad end. Shot down in a a totally one-sided firefight, his pickled head was sent by Governor Philip King to renowned botanist Joseph Banks in England, a grisly souvenir of Britain’s self-ordained, and, to many in power, god-given, mission civilatrice. 

And thus began Australia’s frontier wars. 

White historical memory is like a sieve. Give it a good shake and only the big chunks are left. For a long time in Australia, the story of our frontier wars was not one of those. But in recent decades, an ever-widening crack has let the light in.  

The first hairline fissures appeared in the early years of settlement as a small number of humanitarians voiced their concerns, although not with enough impetus to cool our pioneer fervour. Henry Reynolds, acclaimed historian of the frontier wars, quotes one such: ‘How is it our minds are not satisfied? What means this whispering in the bottom of our hearts?’ 

I touched upon this paradox in a review I wrote of historian Peter Cochrane’s novel The Making of Martin Sparrow:

“The country into which most characters venture is not, as we now acknowledge, an empty land. It was a peopled landscape, a much revered, well-loved, and worked terrain, its inhabitants possessed of deep knowledge, wisdom and respect for “country” … 

… Whilst many colonists, particularly the soldiery, regard the native peoples as savages and inflict savage reprisals upon them for their resistance to white encroachment, others, in the spirit of the contemporary ‘Enlightenment’ push back against the enveloping, genocidal tide with empathy and understanding …

… “It’s the first settlers do the brutal work. Them that come later, they get to sport about in polished boots and frock-coats … revel in polite conversation, deplore the folly of ill-manners, forget the past, invent some bullshit fable. Same as what happened in America. You want to see men at their worst, you follow the frontier”. “I don’t reckon we’re the Christians … We’re the Romans. We march in, seize the land, crucify them, stringing ‘em up in trees, mutilate their parts”.

… They knew in their hearts that this ancient people and its ancient ways are helpless against the relentless tide of the white man’s mission civilatrice. “It might be that the bolters have the ripest imagination, but sooner or later, an official party will get across the mountains and find useful country, and the folk and the flag will follow, that’s the way of the world. It’s a creeping flood tide and there’s no ebb, and there’s no stopping it. No amount of … goodwill”. 

No ceasefires, no parlays and no treaties

At Bellingen’s recent Readers and Writers Festival, it was our pleasure and privilege to attend a powerful “conversation” between Reynolds and indigenous activist and academic Marcia Langton (and, by fortunate serendipity, to share a meal with them at the Federal Hotel afterwards). One of many discussion points was that old conundrum: are those who rebel against authority and resist oppression and dispossession terrorists or freedom fighters? The festival event’s tight schedule precluded what was shaping up to be a very lively question time. 

Australia’s frontier wars, Reynolds reminded us, raged for decades from Tasmania in our far south  to Queensland’s far north. It was a story of vicious raids and reprisals. 

Australia at the time of first settlement, and particularly on the frontier, was a brutal, violent place. It was colonized by soldiers and convicts, most of them young men chock-full of testosterone and aggression, bitterness and prejudice, greed and ambition. The conflict, which in Queensland, endured  into the last decades of the 19th Century, was a war of conquest and extrajudicial killings – or more bluntly, murders. The subdued territories were patrolled  by the native police – effectively paramilitary forces. 

The wars were waged by an outgunned people on the one hand, and, on the other, what were effectively robber bands raised and provisioned by the local magnates and squatters intent on seizing, holding and expanding their often enormous landholdings. 

There were to be no ceasefires, no parlays and no treaties. And no recognition of indigenous rights. None were ever on offer – not that that would’ve made a difference. 

Reynolds observed how we as a nation celebrate war and warriors, but do not recognize, and indeed, forget our foundational wars of martial conquest. We commenced our national journey with a declaration that our land  was terra nullius, an empty land that was “ceded and  conquered”. There is still no proper explanation at law of how sovereignty passed from the indigenous people to Britain and thence the Australian State. 

Waterloo Creek Massacre, January 1838

Until the momentous Mabo decision of 1992 when the High Court held that the doctrine of terra nullius, which imported all laws of England to a new land, did not apply in circumstances where there were already inhabitants present – even if those inhabitants had been regarded at the time as “uncivilized”, and that as such, any indigenous land rights which had not been extinguished by subsequent grants by the Crown continued to exist in Australia. The concept of indigenous land title was thus born.

And today, at public gatherings and meetings, at carnivals and ceremonials, at conferences and conventions, many of us now recognize and acknowledge our first peoples as the traditional owners of this land and acknowledge elders past, present and future. 

We have come a long way in a short time; but we’re not there yet.

There exists still a darkness at the heart of our democracy that we struggle to come to terms with; and in these divisive days, it doesn’t  take much to reignite our “history wars” as we negotiate competing narratives and debate the “black armband” and “white blindfold” versions of our national story. 

© Paul Hemphill 2019.  All rights reserved

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                            Solid Rock
They were standin’ on the shore one day
Saw the white sails in the sun
Wasn’t long before they felt the sting
White man, white law, white gun
Don’t tell me that it’s justified
’cause somewhere, someone lied
And now you’re standing on olid rock
Standing on a sacred ground
Living on borrowed time
And the winds of change are blowin’ down the line

Martin Sparrow’s Blues

You cannot stop the birds of sadness from passing overhead, but you can sure as hell stop them nesting in your hair. 

It is late summer in 1806, in the colony of New South Wales. After he loses everything he owns in a disastrous flood, former convict, failed farmer, and all-round no-hoper and ne’er-do-well Martin Sparrow heads into the wilderness that is now the Wollemi National Park in the unlikely company of an outlaw gypsy girl and a young wolfhound.

The Making of Martin Sparrow, Historian Peter Cochrane’s tale of adventure and more often than not, misadventure, is set on the middle reaches of the Hawkesbury River, north of Windsor, and the treacherous terrain of the picturesque Colo Gorge.

But first, some background history …

Between 1788 and 1868, about 162,000 convicts were transported by the British government to various penal colonies in Australia. It had began transporting convicts to the American colonies in the early 17th century, but the American Revolution had put an end to this. An alternative was required to relieve the overcrowding of British prisons and on the decommissioned warships, the hulks, that were used to house the overflow. In 1770, navigator Captain James Cook had claimed possession of the east coast of Australia for Britain, and pre-empting French designs on Terra Australis, the Great Southern Land was selected as the site of a penal colony. In 1787, the First Fleet of eleven convict ships set sail for Botany Bay, arriving on 20 January 1788 to establish the first European settlement on the continent. Botany Bay, named by Cook for its abundant and unique flora and fauna, was deemed unsuited, and six days later, the fleet hove to in the natural harbour to its north and established Sydney, named for the fleet’s commander.

Other penal colonies were later established in Tasmania – Van Diemen’s Land – in 1803 and Queensland In 1824, whilst Western Australia, founded in 1829 as a free colony, received convicts from 1850. Penal transportation to Australia peaked in the 1830s and reduced significantly in succeeding decades. The last convict ship arrived in Western Australia in 1868.

Convicts were transported primarily for petty crimes – serious crimes, like rape and murder, were punishable by death. But many were political  prisoners, exiled for their participation in the Irish Rebellion of 1798 and the nascent trade union movement. Their terms served, most ex-convicts remained in Australia, and joining the free settlers, many rose to prominent positions in Australian society and commerce. Yet they and their heirs bore a social stigma – convict origins were for a long time a source of shame: “the convict stain”. Nowadays, more confident of our identity and our national story, many Australians regard a convict lineage as a cause for pride. A fifth of today’s Australians are believed to be descended from transported convicts.

A wise man doesn’t burn his bridges until he knows he can part the waters

In the young colony, for free and unfree, men and women alike, life  could be nasty, brutish and short, beset by hard labour, hard living and for many, hard liquor, cursed with casual violence, and kept in order by a draconian regime of civil and military justice. Particularly so for the felons, formerly of the convict transports, and only moderately less for free settlers and the expirees, former convicts endeavouring to make a living on hard-scrabble blocks on the outer fringes of the Sydney Basin, far from  young and barely civilized Sydney Town.

Sydney Society 1800

Cochrane’s history credentials are evident in his feel for the time and the place, the lifestyle and its accoutrements. And it’s a good pitch for a motion picture. A colonial “western” indeed, for the book echoes those fine films that portray the sordid and seedy side of the pioneer story, like Altman’s chilly McCabe and Mrs Miller, and latterly, the magnificently decadent Deadwood, with less brutal elements of Alexandra Iñárritu’s The Revenant. I noted at least two lines borrowed from classic westerns – Clint Eastwood’s avenger tale The Outlaw Josie Wales, and Arthur Penn’s  frontier drama The Missouri Breaks – and there are probably more.

Cochrane has assembled a cast that is as representative and as colourful of the transplanted populace as it undoubtedly was, although some may come across to readers as a tad stereotypical and over-the-top. Loyal and honest servants of the crown like dour, Scottish Chief Constable Alister Mackie and his erudite sidekick American Thaddeus Cuff, who is never lost for bon mots and folk wisdom; whores that would not be out of place in Deadwood’s seedy Gem; cruel; corrupt soldiers who are a law unto themselves; and veterans of the Indian wars (waged by the East India Company, that is). Some are soberly righteous and others less so, given to either producing or consuming in excess a hooch named for its after effects: “bang-head”); unscrupulous and violent sealers, hunters, bushmen, and escaped convicts; and a wise and inquisitive doctor and an eccentric and obsessively peregrinating botanist intent on determining how the platypus produces its young. And, that unlikely trio at the commencement of this piece.

For many of the characters, and particularly the melancholy Martin Sparrow, it is a tale of hope and renewal, survival  and redemption – again like those iconic westerns. There is something about “the frontier”, on the lawless and dangerous edges of civilization, that tries and proves a man or woman’s soul. Cuff declares that “all life turns on a pitiless wheel”, but, he adds, “we ain’t stuck in brutishness. We got a choice”.

Damnation and redemption walk hand in hand. It is perhaps no coincidence one of the river’s most righteous settlers, the former Redcoat Joe Franks, has a passion for seventeenth century Puritan preacher John Bunyans A Pilgrim’s Progress, that allegorical saga of faith in adversity written whilst the author was doing a twelve year stretch for his religious beliefs. Hope springs eternal on the Hobbesian frontier, and we are constantly reminded of this by the sardonic constables: “hope is the poor mans bread”, but he who lives on hope dies fasting.  Whilst hope might be “the mainspring of faith, it is also “physician to misery” and “grief’s music”. And yet, to the irrepressible Romany girl, who has seen and suffered much, it might also be the “little songbird in the well of our troubled soul”.

… the search for happiness can be like the search for your spectacles when they’re sittin’ on your nose. 

The country into which most of the cast venture is not, as we now acknowledge, an empty land. It was a peopled landscape, a much revered, well-loved, and worked terrain, its inhabitants possessed of deep knowledge, wisdom and respect for “country”. Cochrane acknowledges the traditional owners as they roam the fringes of his story and often venture into it, mostly as a benign presence, aiding and advising the protagonists in the mysterious ways of the wilderness.

Whilst many colonists, particularly the soldiery, regard the native peoples as savages and inflict savage reprisals upon them for their resistance to white encroachment, others, in the spirit of the contemporary ‘Enlightenment’ push back against the enveloping, genocidal tide with empathy and understanding. “It’s the first settlers do the brutal work. Them that come later, they get to sport about in polished boots and frock-coats … revel in polite conversation, deplore the folly of ill-manners, forget the past, invent some bullshit fable. Same as what happened in America. You want to see men at their worst, you follow the frontier”. “They don’t reckon we’re the Christians, Marty … We’re the Romans. We march in, seize the land, crucify them, stringing ‘em up in trees, mutilate their parts”.

But they know in their hearts that this ancient people and its ancient ways are helpless against the relentless tide of the white man’s mission civilatrice. “It might be that the bolters have the ripest imagination, but sooner or later, an official party will get across the mountains and find useful country, and the folk and the flag will follow, that’s the way of the world. It’s a creeping flood tide and there’s no ebb, and there’s no stopping it. No amount of … goodwill”. To paraphrase Henry Reynolds, acclaimed chronicler of the frontier wars, they can hear that uneasy whispering in their hearts.

It is Cochrane’s description of the landscape that makes an otherwise entertaining but derivative “quest” narrative soar to literally panoramic heights:

“They heard the sound of frogmouths and boobooks and night birds unknown to them, and heard the whoosh and splash and smack of fish jumping in the shallows and the constant sound of the tide chafing the banks and far off a dingo howling, and they saw the river rats scurrying for cover and myriad shapes in the dark recesses of the forest, and higher up they saw great bands of ancient sandstone, moonlit, cracked and fissured by the chisel work of ages”.

“They stood atop a cliff wall that ran north to the dense green line that marked the horizon, above a point where the valley was lost in the braided folds of mountain spurs and  patches stone and a wash of the darkest forest green … The far cliffs were fractured by heavily forested gullies and slot canyons carved deep through stone. To the north he could see open patches of grassland on the valley floor, the lumpy shapes of marsupials grazing, smaller things foraging, clustered together, wood ducks and a flock of black cockatoos in full flight following the line of the far wall, the stone there fissured and scarred like the hide of a dragon”.

“Soon they were there, standing four in a line atop the stone cliffs, a sheer drop to the thickly  timbered slopes that flattened to a valley floor perhaps a mile away, the river there flanked by irregular patches of forest and grass meadow and game feeding on the grasses – emu and wallaby, a wild dog loping along, and wildfowl breaking from the reeds. They saw a flock of parrots skimming the canopy, their colours coursing down like windswept rain. They saw a wedge-tailed eagle, those ragged wings, wheeling, slow, hypnotic, in the heavens above”.

Landscapes such as these are familiar to me. I view them from high places and walk the forests, and I have seen and heard the myriad birds and animals that inhabit the lands east of our Great Dividing Range. Indeed, many of them I view from my home in the forest. I felt the thrill of recognition as Cochrane’s adventurers ventured forth.

Breathtakingly beautiful it might be, but, then and now, it’s a hard and dangerous land. “… deadly cruel if you’re lost in there. I tell you both this: the wilderness in the west begs a certain reverence and demands a certain humility”.

The weather swings from searing heat to devastating floods – it is such a deluge that propels Martin Sparrow on his odyssey. The terrain in treacherous – one careless misstep and a fall can be deadly. The flora and the fauna might be exotic and magical to behold, but not everything is benign. There are snakes, funnel webs, wild dogs, eels, and bull sharks, and a particularly unpleasant wild pig. The travelers are constantly checking for mosquitoes, leeches and ticks. And the deadliest of all, the humans.

Well, these days it seems all the wilderness does is abet a multitude of crimes and occasionally a smidgen of restitution I suppose. Small mercies. 

A perilous place the bush may have been, but that did not deter those who sought to venture there and indeed, find a path through the Great Dividing Range. In ensuing decades, many explorers would weave their way westwards to view that “vision splendid of the western plains extended”, as our national bard described it. But in convict days, the vision splendid was one of freedom, from slavery’s metaphorical chains -actual irons were not required in the colony because the dense and impenetrable forests that covered the lowlands and the slopes of the ranges were as “iron bars all the way to the sky” and the nomadic “savages”, de facto guards, so to speak, and for freedmen, from backbreaking toil of the their meagre farmsteads. “… it’s the misery of this mercantile tyranny … or the sovereignty of the commonweal, fire of the brutish parties that govern us here”.

Tales of an inland haven, a sanctuary from the military despotism and the rigours of pioneering  were part of the convict “dreaming”.  Some say this was a rhetorical ploy to throw the Law off the scent as the real escape route was by boat along the coast. The authorities dismissed it as a fantasy, a fable, or, to quote Robbie Robertson, “a drunkard’s dream if ever I did see one”. All that lay out yonder was trial and tribulation and death by a thousand stings, bites, or spears.

And yet, the magical thinking of a happy land far, far away is part of our human storytelling. “Somewhere over the rainbow, skies are blue, and the dreams that you dream of really do come true”. Even Westworlds androids, who yearn, like Pinocchio, to be human, roam relentlessly towards the freedom of “the valley beyond”.

The notion of becoming a “bolter”is the primary theme of the story, and indeed the “making” of the luckless, lovelorn, indebted and hence perennially, melancholy Martin Sparrow who was ever wont to “stagger from one calamity to another”. A paradisaical village of free folk beyond the mountain fastness and the long arm of the constabulary, on the banks of “a river of the first magnitude” that winds its way to a mighty, whale-splashed ocean far to the west of the unknown continent, as they note, the celebrated  Mr Flinders himself had surmised, their wants satisfied by bevies of copper-coloured women:

“And there it is, the most beautiful grassy woodlands that you are ever to see, and way below, a small village, embosomed in a grove of tall trees, by a most majestic river, flowing west, as far as the eye can see, and small boats gliding the channels between little islands, and women, knee-deep in the  shallows, casting their nets … Olive-skinned, well-favored by nature and most pliable and yielding in all regards”.

Give a man his wish, you take away his dreams. 

And so, amidst Cochrane’s historical and political exposition – and he wears his historian heart on his sleeve – and remarkable scenic descriptions, a mob of folk of widely disparate authority, status, means, temperament and ability head off in twos and threes into the wild. Some are driven by duty; for others, it’s a living; and for our unlikely duo and dog, it’s a quixotic leap in the dark. Some perish, others sicken, and several arrive at their own epiphanies and apotheoses. I recall Paul Simon: “Some have died, some have fled from themselves, or struggled from here to get there”; and also, Robert Lewis Stevenson’s observation that often, “to travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive, and the true success is to labour”.

Till a voice, as bad as Conscience, rang interminable changes
On one everlasting Whisper day and night repeated—so:
“Something hidden. Go and find it. Go and look behind the Ranges—
“Something lost behind the Ranges. Lost and waiting for you. Go!
Rudyard Kipling, The Explorer (1898)

Orphan Girl

This beautiful song was written by Brendan Graham for the Annual Great Famine Commemoration at Sydney’s Hyde Park Barracks in 2012 to commemorate the immigration to Australia of over four thousand female orphans who, between 1848 and 1850, were brought from Ireland during the Great Hunger. It is performed by the celebrated Choral Scholars of University College of Dublin, featuring soloist Abby Molloy


For wider reading about Australian history, I highly recommend William Lines’ challenging Taming of the Great South Land, the late Robert Hughes’ magisterial The Fatal Shore, and David Day’s Claiming a Continent Posts in In That Howling  Infinite include We got them Australia Day Blues and Outside Looking In.

As part of its marketing strategy, publisher Penguin Books, has seen fit to share extracts from the opening chapter of The Making of Martin Sparrow.  I have republished them below.

1.

Sparrow woke on wet sand somewhere downriver with a terrible stink in his nostrils, the smell of death and decay, rot and ruin all about. At first he did not stir, there in the pre-dawn, pale light to the east beyond the river, the tide on the turn, ebbing now, the flow yet a faint murmur in his ears.

Confusion held him still, as did the formidable lassitude in his bones and the damp cold on his skin. The sound of his breathing con­firmed the likelihood that he was alive. He raised his head and looked about, sucked up a wad of gritty phlegm and spat onto the sand. He wondered if perhaps his deliverance was the work of a kindly fate, a chance to make good his miserable existence. Hard to know.

The sand was strewn with muck and wreckage. The hen coop was there, his hens dead, in company with tangles of lumber and thatch, fence posts and scoured saplings, a big, raggedy cut of wagon can­vas and a lidless coffin, the muddied panelling infested with yellow mould that glowed bright in the soft dawn light.

He sat up and brushed himself off, noticed a long cut on the inside of his forearm, but it wasn’t bad. If it was bad, deep, he might have bled to death while he lay there in the dark, half drowned. But it wasn’t and he didn’t. That was lucky.

He studied the coffin; reckoned sooner or later he’d have to take a look, in all probability stare rotting death in the face. A crow alighted on the rim, shuffled one way then the other, then hopped in, keen to join its companions. Sparrow saw a flurry of black wings as the disputatious gathering settled to its work.

There was a blood-soaked tear in his britches and a hungry leech on his thigh, like a small, fat velvet purse. He flicked the greedy little sucker onto the ground, took a twig and pierced it, watching his own blood spill out and colour the sand to russet.

In the shallows he scooped up a fragment of the Sydney Gazette, but the newspaper dissolved in his fingers as he tried to unfold the sodden sheet.

Sparrow surveyed the farms beyond the river, the flooded fields; wildfowl feeding on the flattened corn, flood-wrack washing seawards on the flow. He dropped to his knees and laved water onto the little puncture wound on his thigh and the cut on his arm. Quite why he did that he did not know for he was otherwise layered in muck all over.

Memories washed about inside his head dispelling some of the confusion – the lightning storm, the torrents of rain, the hen coop caught in the violent flow; wheat stacks coursing the river; the unremitting fury of the waters, crops awash, the bottoms gone; the exodus of reptiles; the dismal cries from distant quarters, the sound of muskets dangerously charged.

He got up and turned about, scanned the lowlands to the west, the mountains far off, full of mystery and foreboding, and full of promise too.

The sound: the ebbing tide, the pecking crows.

Sparrow stepped quietly from the water. Stood. Listened some more. He crossed the sand, took hold of the wagon sheet, heavy with wet, and edged towards the coffin until he could see the beaks spear­ing into that shrunken face riddled with wounds, a fledgling on the old man’s chest, pecking at his coffin suit. He did not hesitate, for their pleasure had filled him with an unfamiliar wrath and rendered him vengeful. He hurled the wagon sheet across the coffin. The cap­tive birds panicked and leapt into the cloth and flapped and squawked and leapt again, like hearts beating in some hideous thing.

Sparrow took hold of a heavy stick and began to beat the cloth with all his might. A wing appeared askew the panelling and he smashed at it and heard the creature scream. And he kept on just so, until the canvas lay sunken in the coffin and the birds were all but still, dead or dying, their frames faintly visible. He leant on the stick, suck­ing for breath, awaiting further movement in the coffin, watching as blood seeped into the cloth. The birds made a few pitiful sounds, now and then a ripple or a shudder or the flap of a wing.

Sparrow stood over the coffin until the cloth stopped moving. He looked west to the mountains. Tiredness took hold. ‘Maybe it’s true, maybe I don’t got the mettle,’ he said.

He crossed the sand, stood over his coop, dropped to his knees. His hens in death, his good, sweet, giving birds, were naught but a lumpy pile of dirty feathers and claws.

He reached into the coop and gently palmed his birds apart, set­tling his hand upon a muddied wing; recalled the signs: the lightning storm in that inky blackness over the mountains, the discolouration of the flow and the rapid rise of the river.

But the waters had receded, briefly – a most deceptive interval that filled Sparrow with a false notion of security and he had not then seized his opportunity. He had not got in his crop, not one ear of corn; nor had he got his scarce possessions off the floor of his hut, nor moved the coop to higher ground, thus condemning the hens to a most frightful expiration, such an end as filled Sparrow with dread for reasons he did not care to contemplate. For all that, he was truly sorry.

More than once Mortimer Craggs had told him to stop being sorry. ‘Sorry for this, sorry for that,’ said Mort. ‘You got to stop being sorry, Marty, you gotta stop forthwith and seize the dream, for therein lies our path to an unfettered liberty, y’foller me?’

Sparrow did not quite follow, but he’d said yes anyway for he did not want further badgering from Mort, who was a fierce badgerer and a most indiscriminately violent man once roused. Mort might well whack a man; or he might take a filleting knife and slit his nose. You never did know what Mort might do.

Sparrow felt the sun on his back at last. Once more he looked west across the water-logged lowlands to the foothills and thence the mountains. He recalled his last conversation with Mort Craggs, before Mort took off with Shug McCafferty, before they bolted for freedom.

‘I just ain’t ready to go,’ he’d said. He was uncertain as to why Mort had invited him to join the bolt, for they were not friends, just acquaintances, a lethal acquaintance dating back to the years of his youth in the village of Blackley on the river Irk.

‘I think you don’t got the mettle, Martin,’ said Mort, fingering the ridge of proud flesh on his cropped ear.

‘I have things to say to Biddie first,’ said Sparrow.

‘Forget the whore, there’s women on the other side, there’s a big river, there’s a village, women aplenty, copper-coloured beauties, the diligence of their affections something to behold.’

‘How do you know that?’

‘Can’t say, not till you commit to the venture, swear a binding oath.’

‘I cannot swear an oath, binding or otherwise, not yet.’

The very idea of copper-coloured women on the other side of the mountains puzzled Sparrow, deeply. He was somewhat lost for a per­spective on this startling infomation. ‘Like the Otahetians?’ he said.

‘No, nothin’ like them and I can say no more Marty, not another word.’

And that was the last conversation he’d had with Mort Craggs.

Sparrow had to wonder if perhaps his yearning for Biddie Happ was a foolish dream. If it was not a foolish dream before the flood it most likely was now. His thirty-acre patch was swamped, his corn crib gone, his corn crop flat in the mud, the wildfowl, the borers and the mould most likely hard at work this very day. His hut might well be gone too, lost to the flood. His hens were dead, he was deep in hock, mostly to Alister Mackie, and would have to beg for seed for another crop and that meant more hock, regardless of the weather to come. In short, it was now most unlikely that Biddie would see any chance of elevat­ing her prospects by joining with him, Martin Sparrow, former felon, time-expired convict, failed farmer on the flood-prone bottoms of the Hawkesbury River. Fool of a man.

He sat on the sand, bowed his head and ran his fingers down his forehead, over the faint indentations that continued onto his eyelids and cheeks, the all but faded scars that folk took to be the remnants of small pox.

He tried to sort his pictorial thoughts. That wasn’t easy with Biddie presenting herself in one instant and the copper-coloured beauties in the next. ‘I should have gone with Mort,’ he said aloud. He thought about the birthmark on Biddie’s face, the mark she tried to hide with that lovely sweep of hair, pinned just so. He wondered if copper-coloured women ever got birthmarks. As to that, he just didn’t know. The mysteries, numberless.

2

Alister Mackie sipped his Hai Seng tea, treading the porch boards by the tavern door, treading to waken his bones as the pale grey light of dawn brought the distant mountains into view and the mass of hud­dled humanity on the village square came to life, the refugees from the flood stirring from makeshift tents on rickety frames, tattered paniers lumpy with tools and keepsakes, waifs bedded in carts and barrows, piglets trussed and tumbled in the mud, game dogs on tethers and crated fowls crooning their disquiet.

He held the mug in his two hands, sniffed at the steam com­ing off the brew, searching the scene: the double guard on the stone granary and the commissariat store; soldiers by the barracks door in various measures of infantry undress; washerwomen in and out of the washhouse; the butcher, busy on his scaffold, a hundred pounds of pork on the hook; the little church, the smithy, the stone gaol. The village they called Prominence.

The drudge called Fish joined Mackie on the porch. He wiped his hands on his apron. ‘You want I take the mug?’ he said.

Mackie handed him the mug.

‘They’re hammered, like castaways, every last one of them,’ said Fish.

‘They are, yes.’

‘I seen floods, but I never seen a flood like this one.’

‘Nor I.’

‘Here and there the tops of trees, otherwise an ocean.’

‘Yes.’

Mackie stepped off the porch. He weaved his way through the bivouac to the commissariat store on the far side of the square and from there he followed the ridgeline past the granary to the top of the switchback path, where he paused by the doctor’s cabin to scrutinise the work of the floodwaters below. The government garden, gone, an acre of greens torn from the slope as if scythed away by some pale rider’s mighty blade; the cottages on the terrace, squat and sodden, the weatherboard swollen and warped. Felons in the shallows, gathering up the ruins of the wharf, the guards perched on their haunches.

Mackie joined his constables, Thaddeus Cuff and Dan Sprodd, at the foot of the switchback path and together they stepped from spongy duckboards into the shallows and clambered aboard the government sloop. Packing away the mooring lines, they drifted into the current and settled at their ease. A light westerly, a port tack, the wind and the tide obliging.

Cuff patted the planking beneath the rowlock, looking up into the big gaff rig as the sail took the wind. ‘This tub reminds me of Betty Pepper,’ he said. ‘Deceptive quickness in stout disguise, charms you’d never guess first off.’

He glanced back at the cottages on the terrace and there she was, Bet, watching them go; her porch strewn with soaked possessions, the high-water mark like a dirty wainscot on the cottage wall. The young strumpet Biddie Happ was there too, squaring a muddied rug on a makeshift line. Cuff raised his hat and Bet responded with a curt swish of her hand and took a broom and set to sweeping the mud off her porch. Biddie patted at the swathe of red hair that covered the birthmark on her face.

‘They’ll miss me,’ said Cuff, ‘they cannot help themselves.’ He grabbed the wicker handles on a gallon glass demijohn, upended it, took a swig, then another, and then he passed the receptacle to Dan Sprodd.

Sprodd took a swig and passed it back to Cuff who took another swig, knowing it would aggravate the chief constable.

‘Hardly underway, you set a fine example, Thaddeus,’ said Mackie.

‘Thank you!’ said Cuff.

‘You should ration that.’ Mackie wagged a finger at him.

‘I don’t go with the shoulds, the shoulds are a tyranny. I see no joy in rationing bang-head, or anything else for that matter,’ said Cuff.

‘Americans take their liberties very seriously,’ said Sprodd, as if Mackie was sorely in need of the information.

‘Indeed, we do!’ said Cuff.

‘As do I,’ said Mackie.

‘I’ll tell you now, spirits put clout and vigour in a man. You’ll get honest toil from a pint of bang-head, miracles of effort from a quart.’

‘That or the fatal dysenteries!’

Cuff quite liked the sound of the chief ’s lowland brogue but it was too early to argue with any persistence. Sleepiness, briefly, had the better of his contrarian temperament. ‘Hear that Dan?’ he said, ‘We are not to be trusted with the drink; we, the meritorious constabulary.’