review: people of the river by grace karskens

Grace Karsken’s People of the River is an account of the early years of the colony of Sydney’s farming communities along the Nepean-Hawksbury River (Dyarubbin). There’s a Latin saying, the wise man discerns things which the ass confuses*, and I have to admit that after reading this book we Australians have been a bunch of asses for a long while now.

The kindest way to say it is that the history about colonial Sydney I learned at school in past decades was badly out of focus. Karsken’s book is such a journey of discovery, a wonderful summing up and bringing together of a wide range of research into original records which brings us to a much more balanced picture of life for our first British arrivals and the nature of their relationship with the indigenous people of the Sydney region. As a reader who is Sydney born and bred, it helped me to see my present world with a much clearer focus. That’s often what happens when rusty old myths are dismissed.

The book resolved one basic misunderstanding for me: I grew up and went to school in Campbelltown and I have to say I was only vaguely familiar with the Nepean River, even though I often crossed it over Cowpastures Bridge and Macarthur Bridge at Camden, as well as the Menangle Bridge, Douglas Park Bridge, Maldon Bridge and Pheasant’s Nest Bridge as my grandparents lived at Picton and Tahmoor. And now I find out that Nepean River is directly connected to the Hawksbury River, with the name changing only to suit the differing geographical features for each section.

But while this book touches on the area’s geography, it’s really about the people of the river, as per the title. The most dramatic take from the book must be the argument for evidence that our indigenous people have been living along the Nepean-Hawksbury River continuously for 50,000 years, and their activities included farming (yams) well before the arrival of the colonialists.

I’m not a big fan of history for its own sake. It can get heavy and not necessarily lead us anywhere new. But this book is written in a way that addresses a lot of the conceptions and assumptions about where we think we have come from even today. For example, we think that a lot of the convicts brought to Australia were from the big cities in England, people driven to crime as an alternative to, or supplement to, working in factories or on other sites of heavy industry. Karskens points out that a lot of our earliest arrivals were people fresh from rural areas who knew farming and traditional agricultural practices and so they relished the opportunities presented by the rich soils along the Hawksbury River. These people also brought many traditional rural beliefs about life (code for pagan) and the first few generations of the new settlers in this region felt little need to engage in organised religion, although many did follow a sort of Christianity drawn from Bible sources. These people were closer to the godly power of nature in their new place than what could have ever been preached at a pulpit, and this deeply felt love of the land may have led to a type of ‘religious’ resonance with the local indigenous people which influenced their immediate relationship with them.

These early people interacted with the natives in ways that we have not previously assumed. There seemed to be a lot more respect and thoughtful sharing than comes through in the stories we have been handed down. For example, we have evidence that the Aborigines gave advice to first settlers in the design of the huts they built. And there are numerous examples of how the Aborigines served as guides as the new arrivals moved from one place to another, along paths which later became roads.

There is no denying the cruelty and the brutishness at the hands of the government and many colonialists in the early days, but the intercultural space was larger than we have been led to believe. This book is not shy about detailing unsavoury incidents such as the massacre at Appin (which played a key part in the later founding of Black Town), but there is also well documented coverage of many instances where there was a much more positive relationship between the locals and the newcomers.

These few hundred words here can’t really capture the enormous detail contained within this book, but I enjoyed immersing myself in its pages and uploading a better understanding of the Sydney and its surrounds I know today. I commend the author for her sharp eye for a good story and also for the details that bring the story to life, and also her strategy to write history from the ground up. This book is also a good model for how the truth telling and reconciliation process is one that is best taken one step at a time.

* res discernit sapiens, quas confundit asellus

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