Dr Mark’s The Meaning in a Nutshell

Kate Grenville, The Secret River (2005)

In her novel The Secret River (2005) Kate Grenville seeks to reveal the secret history of violence on the frontier of colonial Australia between the white settlers and the black natives.  This violence included the massacre of Aboriginal communities, incidents that contributed to the near extermination of the Indigenous inhabitants. 

The prosperous white civilisation that was established was therefore built over a black culture and at the expense of the black people.  This often involved the violent displacement of the Aborigines from their ancestral tribal lands.  This has bequeathed a legacy of guilt that has compromised the conscience of the Australian nation and provided the basis of a case for reconciliation and the granting of Aboriginal land rights.  To Grenville, whites are to blame for the subsequent sorry state of many of the Aboriginal people.  They consequently have a moral responsibility to face ‘the truth’ about their history and support policies that promote their moral redemption through reconciliation. 

While exploring the clash of cultures and races along the colonial frontier, Grenville acknowledges that there was a spectrum of responses to the Aboriginal presence, ranging from advocating racist violence to the point of extermination, to a policy of ‘give and take’ to achieve peaceful accommodation.  In this context, Grenville examines the reasons why otherwise good men will resort to, or condone, evil acts of violence against the natives.  Grenville cites as the major contributors to the tragedy: fear, ignorance, barriers to communication, conflicting claims for land, and a righteous anger that manifested itself in an escalating cycle of violence and retribution. 

In addition, Grenville takes the opportunity to celebrate, even glorify, tribal Aborigines as living in tune with their natural environment.  They were consequently better able to find food in the bush than the white settlers.  Rather than depicting the blacks as benefitting from their proximity to white civilisation, Grenville suggests that the whites could have learned from the blacks how to better survive in the bush if they were open-minded enough to appreciate the lessons.  Grenville also contrasts the Aboriginal and Western notions of land ownership to establish the legitimacy of the Aboriginal concept of tribal ownership.  This provides a basis to reject the notion of ‘terra nullius’ and give legitimacy to Aboriginal claims to land rights. 

In addition, Grenville invites her audience to regard England at the turn of the nineteenth century as unequal and unjust.  The convicts are, for the most part, portrayed as victims of the British class system.  By contrast, Australia is depicted as a land of opportunity, which is more egalitarian and equitable, and therefore able to provide opportunities for the upward social mobility of the lower classes.  Unfortunately, too often the prosperity of the settlers is at the expense of the original native inhabitants. 

Student resources by Dr Mark Lopez

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The purpose of the concise notes of Dr Mark’s The Meaning in a Nutshell is to provide much needed help to students seeking to unlock the meaning of the texts with which they have to deal.  (More elaborate notes are provided in lessons as part of my private tutoring business.) 

Subject: The Secret River meaning, The Secret River themes, The Secret River analysis, The Secret River notes