Stephen Gapps comments on the first episode of the ABC TV’s The Secret River
Last summer I sailed my dodgy old 23-foot yacht for the first time out of the heads up to Broken Bay. I’d been sailing on the harbour for a while and it was time to go blue water adventuring. Sneaking up the coast to Broken Bay – while an easy day trip for many – was a six-hour struggle for us. But we took our weather window of opportunity and rounded Barrenjoey, safe from that all too big rolling ocean swell, and then spent a few days pottering around Broken Bay.
Sailing the Hawkesbury has long been on – and in – my mind. For years I have wandered the river as a history tourist, going to the eerie upper reaches of Sackville and Ebenezer, the forgotten valleys around Wiseman’s Ferry, the silent walled stretched down to Spencer, the gravestones at Bar Island, shipwrecks at Milson’s Passage and mangrove creeks such as Patonga. [Click here for a map of the area.]
So it was with interest I watched the first episode of The Secret River, the much vaunted television adaptation of Kate Grenville’s historical fiction based around the settlement of the Hawkesbury in the early 19th century.
As professional historians we take on projects across many regions, wandering into other people’s histories, trying to piece them into heritage reports or stories of place. We deal with the machinations and effects of frontier conflict and violence. These always seem to have been played out to a familiar pattern but also always with quite surprising local inflections.
We also take a keen interest in history as it is played out in the public sphere – sometimes bemoaning the lack of consultation with ‘real historians’, sometimes working with film and television to insert at least a semblance of historical accuracy. The work we do is often shaped by what histories people want to hear. What they want to hear is shaped by where and how they gather or receive their versions, their topics, their boundaries, their markers of what is their history, and what is not.
In The Secret River, the frontier and popular history collide — with rather unspectacular results. In fact, watching the first 20 minutes or so I was flitting between absolute boredom and being incensed about the conflation of 20 years of early colonial history into one.
I might be able to forgive a television producer suggesting that ‘international audiences’ might not get the background to a family of English convicts being plonked on Aboriginal land, miles from anywhere, and therefore thinking they must include every cliché of the first years of settlement, every myth, and every historical inaccuracy to fill the audience in on events prior to 1805.
Perhaps an historian, if consulted, may have had a quiet word in the script writer’s ear and said a few things such as: ‘What they are saying here is from the future. Why not use the terms your characters would have spoken?’ ‘They would not have said ‘Rum Corps’ (a term not coined until the mid-19th century) , and are you sure they would have thought, as is now assumed, the privates were evil, drunk and hostile to everyone except themselves?’
In the film, the streets of Sydney are made out to be a scene of debauchery more akin to 1791 than 1805, by which time visitors were describing Sydney Town as a rather quaint settlement. But we need to have established – and reinforced in our minds – the hardship of the convict thrust upon these shores. The poor unknowing convict who will gain a land grant, start to farm it and come into contact with his land’s original owners. This is when we come in. Armed with this short history of harshness we can turn complicity into drama and tragedy.
But I forget – this is fiction. Yet I recall when reading the book and getting a little antsy with some minor and some glaring historical errors, they didn’t grate with me enough to stop reading. However after 20 minutes of the first television episode, I was just about ready to switch off. Normally, I would carry on regardless, thinking that as a public historian I must watch the good, the bad and the ugly.
But then things turned a corner. Literally. William Thornhill sailed and rowed up from Sydney with Thomas Blackwood on his small cargo boat (probably around 23 feet, just like mine), rounded Barrenjoey headland and entered the Hawkesbury. All too suddenly, an epiphany occurred (collapsing what I recall was a slower enchantment in the book) as the silent banks of the Hawkesbury and their possibilities of ownership dawned on William.
I became interested again. We had reached what is arguably the political heart (albeit couched as a moral one) of The Secret River – the taking of someone else’s land, by someone who is deprived of theirs.
This action, unlike the first 20 minutes, did not have to be filmed in the decrepit backlots of the defunct Old Sydney Town theme park, and there was no need for cheap computer-generated imagery. The river and the main protagonists were now the focus, not the conflated, mythological history of the early colonisation of New South Wales.
This is where historical fiction can be at its best – people acting out the minutiae of invasion and settlement and encounter, negotiation and resistance. And here, The Secret River moved up a gear.
I don’t want to get into the history versus fiction wars. There are other professional historians and academics talking about that here. While the Thornhill family’s travails and encounters with the local landowners were in many ways quite flawed, the burning (and ultimately ignored) question of dispossession comes into focus. After having rudely cursed the history television industry (yet again), I’m now going to watch the second episode.
See also Historical fiction, fictional history: stories we tell about the past, a series in The Conversation examining the links, problems and dynamics of writing, recording and recreating history, whether in fiction or non-fiction.