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Two Cultures in Kate Grenville´S the Secret River Essay

The aim of this essay is to analyze the conflict emerging after the arrival of British convicts to Australia, which is portrayed accurately in Kate Grenville´s The Secret River. “It explores the collision of cultures that occurred between these groups, raising questions of identity and belonging, and writing the violence back into the story of early frontier contact.” (Crawford 236) In this novel the idea of a conflict is observed from the point of view of cultural differences. The author shows that the conflict occurred because of inability and unwillingness of the characters to communicate – both verbally and also in terms of understanding each other´s different world views.

The main reason of the disconnection between these two worlds is fear each one has of the other. The heightened emotions that result from this fear lead to behaviour that is impetuous and at the end of the novel even horrific. Through the novel Grenville suggests that it is impossible to judge who caused the conflict; there is not only one side to blame. She attempts to show that there are links and similarities between the characters that are transcending their cultural differences. There are no winners or losers; this conflict has negative consequences for all the participants in these dramatic events.

“The different approaches of the Aboriginal people and the colonists to the land ownership inevitably lead to misunderstanding and conflict, escalating to a massacre in which Thornhill is implicated.” (Crawford 236) The sense of ownership appears in the novel in two dimensions. First there is Thornhill´s personal desire, a sudden urge of a man who owned only a coat during his lifetime, to own at least a small piece of land and when this opportunity comes, he does not let it go. However, his attitude toward the land he wants to own is quite ambiguous. He claims that the land does not belong to anyone while there are no fences, roads or recognised houses; however, the Darug people live on this land for approximately forty thousand years and use the land for living. “There were no signs that the blacks felt the place belonged to them. They had no fences that said this is mine.

No house that said, this is our home. There were no fields or flocks that said, we have put the labour of our hands into this place.” (Grenville 96) Thornhill is much aware of the presence of the Aboriginal people while he feels that he is being watched all the time and also according to the “yam daisies”, the indigenous people´s food crop on the Hawkesbury River banks, which is an obvious metonym Grenville uses to claim that this particular land is already owned by Darug people. Thornhill´s longing for the land is so strong that he does not hesitate and he even puts his wife and children in danger while leaving them on the “Thornhill´s Point” for the first time without any protection when he sails for new convicts to help him harvest the land and other things. The theme of the gaining and occupying of this particular place, the estuary of the river, bears more possible connotations. One of them presented by the author is that it should evoke a birth of something new coming to this world.

However, there is another point of view referring to a different meaning based on sexual connotations from the text, for instance, when Thornhill mentions that the beauty of the land is “as sweet as woman´s body” (Grenville 125) or later in the book Thornhill in his boat ‘Hope’ makes his way “into the very body of the land.” (Grenville 129) “The conflation of the landscape and land with Indigenous bodies becomes further problematised by Thornhill´s drive for ownership of the land. This desire is consistently conceived in hypersexualised imagery of compulsive possession.” (Kelada 9) In the text, Thornhill´s arrival is described in a rather ambiguous language: “. . . the shadows lying purple in the clefts between the ridges, Thornhill saw it ahead: the high ridge, square like a sperm whale’s head and the river below, which swung around the low point of land that was about to become his.” (Grenville 135) “This piece of land he craves so lustfully becomes ‘Thornhill’s Point’.

The implication I contend, of this Aboriginal body/land conflation is that, if Aboriginal people are the land and Thornhill is possessing the land in a sexualized manoeuvre, this constitutes a metaphorical rape. Even while Thornhill is ultimately characterized as an average man, and it is demonstrated in the narrative that he would never rape an Indigenous woman, this ‘possessive’ violation occurs on a subliminal . . . textual level.” (Kelada 9) Up to this point, Thornhill still keeps his Christian nature within. When he obtains a gun as one of the privileges of a pardon, he shoots for the first time and cannot believe that “he would be able to send a ball of red-hot metal into another body.” His inner conflict emerges for real when Thornhill has to take a certain side and decide how he is going to behave and how he will deal with the continuously appearing Darug people. At the beginning he seems he would like to avoid any contact or even conflict. Sal proceeds with the indigenous people living in the forest round Thornhill Point similarly as she did with Scabby Bill, giving them something from time to time.

However, Thornhill knows they are of a different kind that Scabby Bill and he is afraid of them. This fear derives from not knowing anything about them as well as not even trying to find out what they are really like. The majority of the white settlers is fearful and distrustful about Aboriginal people as they are of them. They are driven by prejudice spread among the community. The first information or warning Thornhill got was simple: “Look out for the poxy savages, matey.” The settlers believe that the Aborigines spear their livestock and deliberately ignore their fences. The settlers have no problems or bad feelings about shooting the Aborigines or spreading diseases, infections or alcohol among them. The attitude that the white settlers are superior is shared by majority of the white population. Probably morally the worst character is Smasher Sullivan who lives on Broken Bay and who represents the most radical wing of dealing with the Aboriginal people.

From his provocative spoilt behaviour arise many conflicts, while he is responsible for raping and murdering a number of Aboriginal people throughout the book. Smasher Sullivan already lost his sense of what is good and his Christian humanity through his racism. However, after the massacre when he is speared he calls out: “Lord Jesus and Holy Mother of God . . . Jesus Christ Almighty, Jesus Christ Almighty.”(Grenville 321) On the other hand there is Blackwood who is willing to get to know the Aboriginal people better, he learns their language and even starts a family with one Aboriginal woman. He is without prejudices and tries to live in harmony with the indigenous people, in their land and according to their rules. He teaches Thornhill how to make business, always exercising his motto: “give a little, take a little, that´s the only way.”(Grenville 107) The relationship that Blackwood has proves that coexistence of these two worlds is possible, however, this little positive influence is not enough and the phobic white population driven by fear ends up participating in terrible massacre, where Blackwood takes the opposite side against his “own” people.

Thornhill has to fight his inner conflict between his Christian nature and the influence of Smasher. Thornhill occupies a middle position, and is anxious to avoid becoming like Smasher, however, ultimately becomes involved in the climactic massacre. The conflicts emerge also because apart from Blackwood, there is no other effort of the whites put to communicate with the Indigenous people, as it would be expected from the whites, as they are newcomers in this land. Thornhill´s first encounter with Aboriginal man was during his very first night in Australia and it was not near to any exchange of information, it was a simple message “Go to the devil” (Grenville 6), coming out from fear. So it may seem as a comical element in the novel when the other day, Thornhill thinks about the encounter as: “the memory of their conversation – Be off” Be off! – was hard to believe.” (Grenville 84)

From this moment on the communication with indigenous people runs between Sal and Scabby Bill. Sal exchanges a crust of bread for her own peace and Scabby Bill exchanges his rest of pride and dignity for a sip of liquor, while dancing in front of amused and drunk white settlers. “Men came from all the streets around, cheered to watch this black insect of a man capering before them, a person lower in the order of things even than they were.” (Grenville 95) Yet racially-motivated conflict intervenes and divides the two worlds that could benefit from each other so much in such an inhospitable countryside. The Aboriginal people spearing the white settlers and stealing crops and kettle from them, while the settlers do not think twice before shooting Aboriginal people or they poison their water in order to wipe them out entirely. When this pressure culminates, there is no way back, everyone is affected negatively.

The territorial and racial war between the Aboriginal people and the white settlers costs many lives on both sides. On one hand the indigenous people have a terrain advantages and they are in a higher number in this conflict; however, they have no chance with only spears in their hands against settler´s muskets that can reach further distance than spears. Without any attempt to solve this problem differently than by guns and killing each other, the mutual raiding lead to the massacre against Darug people by the settlers. At the end of the massacre Thornhill´s feeling after he shot an old black man and his thoughts gave a true picture of the whole massacre. “Like the old man on his knees he felt he might become something other than a human, something that did not do things in this sticky clearing that could never be undone.” (Grenville 321

) After the violent conflict many things changed. The Aboriginal people were either killed or forced to go further into the outback. Thornhill built a villa, which was however constructed on a stone with a fish drawn on it that was Thornhill once shown by Blackwood. This notion may seem as a symbol of a victory of the white settlers above the indigenous people; however, it is probably the main thing that did not let Thornhill to continue living in peace; it keeps his inner conflict unsolved as it seems toward the end of the story. He is bothered by something as the whole white population nowadays is, and that is the history they are building new values on.

Works cited and consulted:
Crawford, Amanda. “Review of The Secret River.” JSTOR – Labour History (236-237).Web. 29 January 2011. Gall, Adam. “Taking/Taking Up: Recognition and the Frontier in Grenville’s The Secret River” JASAL. Web. 28 January 2011. Grenville, Kate. The Secret River. Canongate Books Ltd, 2006. Kelada, Odette. “The Stolen River: Possession and Race Representation in Grenville’s Colonial Narrative” JASAL (2010). Web. 27 January 2011. McCredden, Lyn. “Haunted Identities and the Possible Futures of ‘Aust. Lit.’” JASAL (2007) Web. 28 January 2011.

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