Forms and Functions of Fictionalizing Australian History in Richard Flanagan's novel “Death of a River Guide”

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2016
19 Pages, Grade: 2,0


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Tasmania's colonial past – the history of a British genocide

3. Tasmania's heritage in “Death of a River Guide”

4. Discussion and conclusion

5. Works Cited

1. Introduction

In his debut novel “Death of a River Guide“ (1994), Richard Flanagan takes the reader on a journey to the history of Australia, the history of Tasmania respectively. Flanagan therefore provides the rather unusual situation of Aljaz Cosini, the protagonist, being about to die over the course of the novel. While drowning in the Franklin River in the west of Tasmania, Aljaz has several visions retelling parts of his biography as well as some milestones of the lives of some of his ancestors. Through these visions, Aljaz seems to gather a lot of truths about himself and his ancestry, which help him understanding where he comes from. Unfortunately, he will, after having got these important insights, not be able to re-arrange his own life, which was marked by misfortune and failure. However, the truth about his origin is at least revealed moments before his death, which might be the reason for Aljaz's quite serene attitude while describing his drowning at the end of the novel.

In this term paper, the plot of “Death of a River Guide” will be analysed, preceded by a brief summary of the (colonial) history of Tasmania, where the novel is set. The analysis of “Death of a River Guide” will be done with respect to its links with Tasmanian history. Reading between the lines of Aljaz's visions namely reveals not only insights into his and his family's past, but also into Tasmania's history, which was marked by a quite difficult encounter between Aboriginals and settlers, especially the many convicts that were sent onto the island. This fictionalization of the country's past is depicted by Flanagan from various viewpoints. Finally, a conclusion will be drawn.

2. Tasmania's colonial past – the history of a British genocide

During the History Wars (public debates of the 1990s and early 2000s), a lot of Australians discussed about whether or not the treatment of the indigenous peoples by the British colonisers could be viewed as genocides or not. In academic writing the answer in the case of Tasmanian colonial history seems to be clear: it is said to be the “perhaps clearest case of genocide in Australian history” (Lawson 2014a: 18). Indeed did the British settlers destruct the vast majority of indigenous peoples between 1804 and 1876 on the island of Tasmania, then called Van Diemen's Land.

With the full approval of the British government, “the indigenous islanders were targeted for extirpation” (ebd.), although initially, in 1804, the first settlers were instructed to treat the population with amity and kindness. There is indeed evidence of some positive relationships and ways to co-operate in the first years of colonisation. However, after the indigenous population in large parts had refused to become British and had not approved that British colonisation would bring a lot of benefits, the colonisers deprived them of their rights and ownerships over the lands of the island. Their vision of the island's future was that the indigenous people should disappear by becoming absorbed into the colonial population, an approach historians nowadays refer to as “ethnic cleansing” (Gordon/Ram 2016: 20).

The indigenous population began to regularly attack the settlers and their farms who were ever-extending in the 1820s. Thereafter, London ordered to defend the colony with lethal force. This ongoing conflict became known as the 'Black War'. However, the colonial frontier expanded further due to a clear superiority of the British. And the Colonial Office in London persisted onto the notion that, “if only colonisation had been carried out appropriately, then the indigenous Tasmanians would have been won round the benefits of 'civilisation' and would have voluntarily surrendered their land and culture to be absorbed into colonial society” (Lawson 2014a: 19). Stuck to this attitude, London founded the Van Diemen's Land Company to establish sheep farming in Tasmania's north. Island communities there were pursued ruthlessly by the colonisers. Their weapons came directly from London. In the 1830s licensed militias were formed in order to search for indigenous communities in the bush. They formed a chain of armed men who literally combed the island. 'The line' captured any remaining islander and expelled her/him. Those who were captured, were sent to Flinders Island, 40 miles from the coast of Tasmania to form a new Aboriginal settlement. By 1835, Van Diemen's Land is said to have been ethically cleansed. On the island this was celebrated by the settlers as well as visitors like Charles Darwin.

Flinders Island, however, was not a success. The settlers tried to Christianize and civilize the indigenous population there by giving them Western names, introducing Western monetary currency and public markets and forcing them to wear Western clothes. But by 1847, Wybalenna[1], the main settlement on Flinders Island, counted fewer than 50 indigenous Tasmanians. Those who had survived disease and hardship, were allowed to return to the Tasmanian mainland to “live out their days” (Berk 2014: 56) south of Hobart at Oyster Cove.

For the British, this contributed to the notion that indigenous peoples, who were seen as savages, across the empire were doomed anyway due to their being out-of-time and not-being-in-zeitgeist. British museums already started exhibiting skulls of indigenous people at that time in London in order to show the public the doomed race of stone-age people that would not have been able to survive anyway. The Times proclaimed the death of the “Last [Aboriginal] Man” in 1864 (Lawson 2014a: 20).

Meanwhile, the British Government transported about 75,000 convicts to Van Diemen's Land between 1803 and 1853 (Davison et al. 2001: 51). They were seen as sources of labour to develop public facilities (roads, bridges, causeways, courthouses and hospitals). Only six percent of them were locked-up. However, the working conditions for the others were often vicious. Folk songs written by convicts report cruelties like leg-irons and lashing. The vast majority of them were English and Welsh (70%), Irish (24%) or Scottish (5%) (ebd.). Some were sent from other colonies among slaves from the Caribbean and China.

By 1821, more and more convicts were freed and appointed to positions of trust and responsibility. More and more of them were also granted land and could live an honourable life on Van Diemen's Land, which officially became known as Tasmania in 1856. In contrast to the indigenous population, most of them were at least at any point provided clemency due to their European origin. Especially when they had served their terms submissively. That meant that they could be given either a Certificate of Freedom, Conditional Pardon or even Absolute Pardon by the British government and were free men and women.

However, Tasmanian administrative institutions feared that some kind of “hereditary lunacy” (Newman 2005: 42) might persist in the following generations. Therefore, in August 1858, the Parliament of Tasmania claimed

“that the dispersion among this community from time to time of irreclaimable criminals from the penal settlement of Port Arthur [Tasmania] necessarily continues to expose the lives and properties of the inhabitants to danger, and entails increased burthens upon the Colony for the maintenance of Police and the administration of Justice” (Tasmanian Legislative Council 1858).

The Tasmanian parliament was successful and Port Arthur, the harbour where the British fleets arrived in Tasmania, got eventually closed in 1871.

Tasmania's colonial history, therefore, is marked by a lot of criminality and ferocity. Both, the indigenous population and the convicts that were sent, had to face discrimination and harsh exploitation. Still, the indigenous population saw themselves at the 'bottom of the food chain', since they were alleged to be of an inferior race. Hence, the British approach can clearly be counted as a genocide. The convicts, on the other hand, could be granted clemency. Thus, the British colonisers applied double standards on Tasmania.

3. Tasmania's heritage in “Death of a River Guide”

Richard Flanagan's novel was published in 1994 when the 'History Wars' (cf. Chapter 2) emerged and a lot of people demanded some kind of common discernment that especially in the case of Tasmania, it should be acknowledged that the British colonisers did commit genocide and that there is some kind of collective guilt transmitted from generation to generation on the island. The array of opinions in these History Wars is wide-ranging: from for example Henry Reynolds, on the one hand, who published works like “The Other Side of the Frontier: Aboriginal Resistance to the European Invasion of Australia” (1981) and reports on massacres covered up by the colonisers, to, on the other hand, Keith Windschuttle, who in his publication “The Fabrication of Aboriginal History” (2002) questions a lot of evidences that Reynolds and his supporters quote. Flanagan's protagonist Aljaz clearly struggles with exactly this debate, especially because he, over the course of his drowning finds out in his visions that his ancestors are of both, Aboriginal and convict origin.

This becomes once and for all clear in his vision of the rape of Black Pearl, an Aboriginal woman, who turns out to be his great-grandmother and got unwillingly pregnant by a convict, referred to as 'white sealer'. Although Aljaz, the narrator, admits that his “visions are growing shorter and more confused” (River Guide 1994: 311[2] ), he still can see the scene quite clearly: After having drunk (probably too much) alcohol, the sealer and three Aboriginal women he has stolen from a Tasmanian tribe argue about God. When the sealer explains that “The Lord God Almighty walks on water” (River Guide 1994: 313) and Black Pearl replies “He's a bloody platypus then” (ebd.), the mood shifts from cheerfully-humorous to angrily-violent: “you blaspheming bitches!” (ebd.) shouts the sealer before he slaps Black Pearl several times and shows his true colours by stating “'I was made in the image of our Lord.' / Slap. / 'White.' / Slap. / […] 'And God gave me dominion over all his creatures.' / Slap. / 'Including you.' / Slap.” (ebd.). The scene makes very clear what was meant by the “amity and kindness” (cf. Chapter 2) the British settlers should show to the indigenous population: be friendly as long as they do not question your superiority and the superiority of the European culture, values, etc. The sealer eventually rapes Black Pearl which is in itself, of course, a highly degrading action but he takes it to the top by “tak[ing] her from behind, like he does with sheep” (River Guide 1994: 314).

For a moment, the reader might get the impression that the Aboriginal women could be able to defeat the sealer – they are in a three-to-one majority! –, but suddenly the sealer makes use of the colonisers' universal remedy: his pistol, “places the barrel […] in her mouth and [says:] 'This'll fix you [...]'” (River Guide 1994: 315). This key scene for Flanagan's fictionalizing Australian history – Tasmanian history respectively – shows the barbarity with which the British settlers came to Australia. Black Pearl as a symbol for all Aboriginal people is not only taken away her land and culture, but also her bodily autonomy. It might seem surprising or strange at first view that Black Pearl sings a song while being raped, but from what Aljaz tells the reader, it is a song designated to her country: “her brother the […] lizard, her mother the river, her father the rocks, her sister the crayfish” (ebd.). When we take into account that the relationship of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and their country is “described as an area to which people have a traditional or spiritual association, and the sense of connection as a deep experience, belief or feeling of belonging to country“ (Gee 2013: 60), Black Pearl's reaction is suddenly not that strange anymore. It is the Eurocentric way of looking at it that makes it strange, because Europeans obviously do not have such an intense connection to the land they were born on (otherwise they would not colonise other countries, would they?).

In the end, Black Pearl is left deeply wounded both, physically and mentally and the reader gets to know that “they [Black Pearl and the other two women] lie together on the land which they once stood with pride” (River Guide 1994: 315). For them, as for many other Aboriginal men and women around that time, a radical change has taken place which the reader witnesses through Aljaz's vision: their land, heritage, culture, etc. all is taken away by (what must have felt like) aliens. The Australian continent was nearly isolated for more than 6,000 years from any foreign influence (the numerous endemic species give evidence for that). The peoples on the continent have developed completely different cultures and rites. Their whole lifestyle is barely comparable to the European one. Still, suddenly there are hundreds of foreigners arriving, which look and think different and are heavily armed and therefore clearly superior. These two different cultures clash and the European clearly wins. From this perspective, it is not surprising that on Flinders Island, there were only 50 survivors left in 1847 (cf. Chapter 2). Nearly all indigenous people felt enormously disillusioned with the situation that they found theirselves in and simply lost their desire to live. It has to be emphasized again, that taking away land for Aboriginal tribes is like taking away a very personal property. This was simply not being understood by the settlers.


[1] Wybylenna = “Black Man's Houses”

[2] “River Guide“ refers to Richard Flanagan's “Death of a River Guide”. The page numbers refer to the paperback edition of 2001 (Grove Press, New York)

Excerpt out of 19 pages


Forms and Functions of Fictionalizing Australian History in Richard Flanagan's novel “Death of a River Guide”
University of Cologne  (Englisches Seinar)
Contemporary Australian Narratives in English
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
555 KB
Death of a River Guide, colonial history, Tasmania, Richard Flanagan
Quote paper
Felix Unger (Author), 2016, Forms and Functions of Fictionalizing Australian History in Richard Flanagan's novel “Death of a River Guide”, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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