A review of The Roving Party, Rohan Wilson

There has been a run of books winning major literary awards in Australia that are about massacres of Aborigines. These are not non-fiction books, they are narratives based on true events. The most recognisable book is The Secret River by Kate Grenville, which details a massacre on the Hawkesbury River. Grenville has followed it up with Sarah Thornhill, which replays the consequences of that event.

The Secret River won multiple awards: the Commonwealth Prize for Literature; the Christina Stead Prize for Fiction (the NSW Premier's Prize); the Community Relations Commission Prize; the Booksellers' Choice Award; the Fellowship of Australian Writers Prize and the Publishing Industry Book of the Year Award.

Rohan Wilson’s The Roving Party has won The Australian/Vogel's Literary Award, and the Sydney Morning Herald Best Young Australian Novelists Award. Set in 1829 in Tasmania, it details a particularly bloody part of White-Black relations when the government put a bounty for every Aboriginal head brought in.

Wilson focuses on a well-recorded story of John Batman (founder of Melbourne six years later), who gathered together a roving party of convicts and mainland Aborigines and fired upon a family group of 70 Aborigines in the Ben Lomond district of eastern Tasmania. The records show that fifteen were killed, and two badly injured men, and a woman and her infant, were captured.

Wilson’s book is difficult to read: the acts are beastly, the writing is direct, all the horror and gore are laid bare. It is not described gratuitously, but it is disturbing in its detail, some of which feels unnecessary, especially a scene when the dogs of the natives are slaughtered.

What comes home is the different value placed on lives along racial lines. One young convict in the story is horrified by what they are doing and asks whether there will be consequences. The response from an Aboriginal member of the group is: “You can’t murder a black… any more than you can murder a cat.”

However, Batman’s wife suggests that it is not only white man’s justice Batman should fear: “God’s mill may grind slowly, John, but it grinds finely. You won’t be forgotten when he tallies what’s owin (sic).”

What is interesting is that Grenville and Wilson are using fiction as their means of conveying the early history of our relations with Aborigines. Grenville came under fire for disputed facts of her story, but points out that everyone knew it was fiction, not a record of history. Wilson spent six years researching his book.

However, the success of their novels has guaranteed a much wider audience for the story.

Secondly, it is white people writing the story; and the stories are getting bloodier. In The Roving Party there are many references to being beyond forgiveness, and justice and judgment. In Sarah Thornhill the characters have no means of undoing the horrible acts of their father, which continue to have consequences on succeeding generations.

Australian researcher John Harris writes of the genocide in Tasmania in One Blood: “Where was the church, my church in this? …the church almost totally ignored the Aborigines.” He does point out that there were some controversial Christian characters who befriended the Tasmanian Aboriginals and championed their care, including George Augustus Robinson who was fluent in their language and suggested a plan of a safe place (eventually Flinders Island) and Robert Clark who was a chaplain to them on the Island, and then continued living with them on their final settlement on the Derwent River.

The reality is that having these stories of human depravity spoken to a wider audience is healthy; especially if it shows us how thin is our veneer of “civilisation”, and how easily we can justify ignoring glaring injustice.

In reference to the Holocaust, there is an acceptance that those in the present cannot be held responsible for the horrors of the past, but they can be held responsible for preserving the memory and ensuring the horror is not repeated.

Telling these stories keeps the memory alive, and make us question what injustices we are currently ignoring.

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