The 16th – 20th centuries represented an era marked by European colonialism. This included the forcible occupation of foreign lands and the control of these lands through various mechanisms of power. In Australia, this expansion involved the deliberate separation of the colonialists form the natives due to their belief of ‘European superiority’. Mirroring our infamous past, Andrew Bovell’s stage adaptation of The Secret River tells the story of two families; one settler, one Indigenous, and explores the binary opposition that exists between the two. Interestingly, the play shows that at one point in Australian history a harmonious relationship between these cultures was possible. However, the text reinforces the fundamental notion that differing perspectives, shaped by an individual’s historical and social context, have prevented a peaceful coexistence, resulting in a history marked by a sense of tragedy and despair.
During the 18th -19th centuries a social hierarchy was prevalent in British society. Influenced by this contextual factor, Captain Suckling (constructed to represent the elite in society) is of the view that class is ‘pre-destined’ rather than ‘self- determined’. Upon docking at the Sydney Harbour, Suckling comes into contact with ex-convict William Thornhill; “stand back for god’s sake man you harbor the flies (Thornhill steps back)…a gentleman you pretend to be.” (Act 1, Scene 11) Here, Suckling’s condescending tone towards Thornhill reveals the denigrating attitude of the upper-class towards the lower-class. Also during the 18th century, the British Government had ‘raised the flag’ on Australian soil and ignorantly declared the land as ‘Terra Nullius’. Convicts were urged to inhabit the land and form a colony. William Thornhill arrived in New South Wales as a convict from the ‘slums’ of London. “We were nothing in London. Nothing to London. Place spat us out like it spat all them others out.” (Act 2, Scene 16) This discourse of bureaucracy, reveals that to Thornhill Australia was a life-line; an opportunity that symbolized a change of fate. From Thornhill’s perspective owing land symbolized success; a privilege reserved for the elite. Upon arrival, Thornhill makes his way around ‘his’ 100 acres of land and exercises ownership by physically touching certain objects; “with each tree he touched he said this is my tree and with each rock he climbed he said this is my rock.” (Act 1, Scene 2) This action reinforces Thornhill’s perspective, one in which physical possession is a measure of success.
Shortly after his arrival, Thornhill reluctantly comes to the understanding that ‘his’ land is inhabited by the Dharug people; a group that he views with disdain. Blinded by the belief of ‘European superiority’ Thornhill’s perspective of the Indigenous people reflects this social context. ‘European superiority’ has set a precedent for all aspects of white society to be considered the norm and anything that differs to be uncivilized. As a result, Thornhill makes no attempt to communicate with or to develop an understanding of how the Dharug people have inhabited the land. As the plot progresses, Thornhill perceives the Indigenous people as a threat to his newfound ‘success’. The climatic scene reveals how Thornhill dealt with the situation; “In the first dim light they waded to shore…In low and trembling voices the men started to sing [London Bridge is Falling Down] as they advance forward with their guns raised…puffs of smoke raising with each shot.” (Act 2, Scene 18) In this scene, music and sound effects have been used to turn a nursery rhyme into a terrifying song of war. The deliberate decision to utilize dim lighting creates a dire ambiance. Props (i.e. guns) are used to symbolize Western power, control and destruction. These stage directions reveal how Thornhill’s self-proclaimed superiority has allowed him to justify the most abhorrent cruelty. Social and historical context have turned a humble pursuit for material wealth into an act of dispossession and massacre.
The Secret River shows a contrast between the colonial and Indigenous perspectives on land ownership. As established above, the western understanding of ownership is centered around material possession, however, the Indigenous view is that they and the land are one. Until the colonists arrived, the question of the ownership of the land irrelevant. As the oldest living civilization, the Indigenous people lived in harmony with their environment; the belief was that the land belonged to them and that they belonged to the land. This contextual factor is reinforced when Thornhill confronts one of the tribes elders Buriya, who “Without haste rises and stands her ground, the way a tree stands on a piece of earth.” (Act 1, Scene 7) This metaphoric stage direction reinforces the notion that the Indigenous people have more than a materialistic connection to the land; it is a part of their identity which they are not afraid to defend. For over 60,000 years Aboriginal people lived in peaceful co-existence with the landscape4. They had developed their own pioneer behaviors which proved to be more conducive to the landscape than those of their Western counterparts, for example the burning of the land to enhance soil fertility. The narrator describes the flame as “a small tame thing that slid from tussock to tussock, pausing to crackle and flare for a moment and then licking tidily on.” (Act 2, Scene 8) In this scene, personification is used to show how the Indigenous people are working their flame; it is slow, controlled and deliberate. This action challenges the colonial perspective of Indigenous people as being unintelligent and primitive. Maintaining a dichotomy with the Indigenous people remained an important colonial belief, as the ‘failure’ of Indigenous people acted as an affirmation for the superiority of settler society. By exercising their traditional behaviors, the Indigenous people had hindered this dichotomy. The intelligence of another race was seen as a threat to the settlers; a treat to which they responded with brutal force.
In its original form and in adaptation, The Secret River aimed to explore the settlement of Australia. Throughout the play it is evident that differing perspectives, shaped by an individual’s historical or social context, has resulted in a history marked by tragedy and despair. The settlers, comprised mostly of convicts, were people who saw Australia as an opportunity to change their fate and achieve success through the acquisition of land. Already inhabited, the Dharug people were of the perspective that the land was a part of their identity. Their traditional behaviors were seen as threat by the settler society. Unfortunately, the settlers were blinded their own context; materialism and the false belief of ‘European superiority’ saw a humble pursuit for wealth turn into an act of dispossession and massacre.