From Terra Nullius to Mabo. The Appropriation of Land in Kate Grenville's Historical Novel "The Secret River"

Bachelor Thesis, 2017
60 Pages, Grade: 1,3


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. The Key Concepts: Terra Nullius and Cartography

3. Settler Colony Australia
3.1. The History of the Settlers and the Beginnings of Settlements
3.2. Frontier Conflicts: European Settlers and their Expectations towards the Land and the Indigenous Peoples
3.3. Establishing White Hegemony at all Costs

4. Australia’s Unsettled History: The Secret River by Kate Grenville and its Implications for the “History Wars”
4.1. The History of Australia in The Secret River
4.2. The Concept of Terra Nullius through the Imperial Gaze and its Implementation by the Settlers
4.3. Land Acquisition: The Principle Of “First Come, First Serve” and William Thornhill’s Dream and Annexation of Land
4.4. The Indigenous View of Land and Land Ownership according to the Settlers

5. The Mabo Case and its Implications: Terra Nullius, a Fiction of Colonial Discourse

6. Conclusion

1. Introduction

This paper aims to explain the concept of terra nullius that literally labelled Australia a no man’s land, and furthermore aims to exemplify the representation of this concept in The Secret River by Kate Grenville. Within colonial discourse a colony was founded on the acquisition of land by occupation or settlement of a terra nullius. Although the presence of the Indigenous peoples was acknowledged, they were considered to be primitive and uncivilised. According to the colonial power, without any visible political system, the Indigenous peoples had no sovereignty over the land and no laws that would assert their land rights. Driven by the empowerment of terra nullius, the newcomers claimed land as their own, mapped and named it. As an effective instrument of Imperial powers the doctrine of terra nullius was implemented in the settler colonies of Australia, Canada and New Zealand; however, it holds a special position in Australia due to the fact that it prevailed for more than two centuries after its implementation in 1770. The dispossession of the First Australians was legally recognised through the Mabo judgement in 1992 that overturned the terra nullius fiction and acknowledged that First Australians had lived in Australia for thousands of years and enjoyed rights to their land according to their own laws and customs.

Australian history is an unsettled history that is afflicted with the remnants of the unjust and violent dispossession of the original inhabitants of Australia. The foundation for the dispossession was created by the doctrine of terra nullius, the impacts of which are still palpable after more than two hundred years of European colonialism. Due to its unsettledness, the history of Australia is entangled within the so-called “history wars” where conservative and revisionist ideas of historians and politicians clash. The historiography of Australia is questioned for its incompleteness as First Australians were omitted from being a part of the history of Australia as a whole. Very recently some authors of historical novels were denounced for their literary works and drawn into the quarrel over the “correct interpretation” of Australian history. Kate Grenville is one of the authors who is attacked, not explicitly for her novel, but her alleged statement that she is a better historian than the historians.

In her essay “The Sorry Novels” Rebecca Weaver-Hightower illustrates the events that had a major impact on the perception of the Aboriginal peoples’ rights and their suffering and how those events challenged in a broader sense the history of Australia. She argues that the Mabo vs. Queensland and Wik Peoples vs. Queensland cases and the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (HREOC) Bringing Them Home Report constitute landmark events concerning the Aboriginal pursuit for justice. The Mabo decision overturned the concept of terra nullius that had legalised the appropriation of land by the colonisers. According to Weaver-Hightower, the Indigenous peoples were proven right in their demands concerning their native title (130). The Bringing Them Home Report, on the other hand, had investigated the history and the effects of Aboriginal child removal in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and controversially argued that Australian child removal practices fell within the definition of genocide used in the UN 1948 Genocide convention (Curthoys and Docker 1). The report gave voice to the sufferings of the Stolen Generations and suggested compensation and reconciliation with Australia’s Aboriginal peoples. A public call for an official apology was dismissed by the Howard government. Instead, people signed the “Sorry Books” that were placed in public places and apologised on behalf of the government (Weaver-Hightower 130-2). Another way of saying “sorry” was through the concept of the “Sorry Novels”. As Weaver-Hightower explains, [t]he existence or not of collective guilt is complicated, but as the Sorry movement attests, some contemporary Australians feel guilty for benefiting from the legacies of colonisation or simply for being white, even though their ancestors were convicts, Irish, or other groups oppressed under the British Empire and even though they might not have directly participated in the harming of Indigenous people. (132)

There are different methods to deal with guilt and different ways to say “sorry”. Within these contexts, a new genre of literature assumes the role of a medium for “managing guilt, apology, and reconciliation” (Weaver-Hightower 132). For this reason, some authors of fiction attempt to investigate and process the guilt that has arisen out of the impacts of colonisation and incorporate this into their “Sorry Novels” in order to question the cannon of the historiography, and to consider other approaches. As an example of the genre “Sorry Novels” this paper will focus explicitly on The Secret River by Kate Grenville. Grenville’s historical novel draws on issues of settler colonialism and takes the appropriation of land, based on the doctrine of terra nullius, fictionally to court. Despite the critique of many historians who attacked Grenville for her claim that she “write[s] more penetrating histories than historians” (Johnson 11) Grenville insisted on the “fictional status of [her] novel” (qtd. in Johnson 9).

This paper is divided in two main body parts, one theoretical and one that explores the concepts that were constructed to facilitate the dispossession and appropriation of land in the novel The Secret River. The theoretical part consists of chapter two that defines the key concepts of terra nullius and cartography that are important issues throughout the paper, and this is followed by the chapter three that includes three subchapters. These chapters consecutively deal with the history and beginnings of the settler colony of Australia, the European settlers and their motivations, the settlers’ relationship with the Indigenous peoples, and how white hegemony was established in order to seize the land and disempower the original inhabitants of the continent. Chapter four and its subchapters are dedicated to the representation of the issues concerning the concept of terra nullius in the novel The Secret River. Thereby the focus will be on exploring and illustrating how terra nullius as a legal framework for the appropriation of land is implemented by the European settlers in the novel. Furthermore, it aims to have a closer look at the protagonist William Thornhill’s ambitions towards the land will be examined in detail in order to relate his motivations to the concepts of colonisation. These insights will help to shed light upon signs of apology conveyed by William Thornhill’s actions and gestures, and how they are connected to the concept of the “Sorry Novel”. Chapter five will discuss in detail the Mabo case, its importance for the concept of terra nullius, and its implications on the Aboriginal Australians. This chapter will be followed by the conclusion that will review the discussion and deliver perspectives on settler colonialism and the concept of terra nullius within the framework of the “Sorry Novel” The Secret River by Kate Grenville as an example of postcolonial Australian literature.

2. The Key Concepts: Terra Nullius and Cartography

In a literal sense, terra nullius means that the land is physically vacant and uninhabited; in a legal sense, terra nullius implies a vacant status — land which is either physically or legally regarded as vacant. The legal concept of terra nullius is derived from the early Roman principle known as occupatio, which conferred automatic title upon the discoverer of property which was res nullius — that is, property which belonged to nobody. (Hepburn 11 )

“World maps offered a vision of unlimited space into which the English could expand. They constructed a ‘paper empire’”, according to Baldwin in his essay on colonial cartography under the Tudor and early Stuart Monarchies (1757). He further argues that during these reigns maps were of enormous importance for England’s imperial project to become the first nation with transoceanic colonies and overseas activities. Mapping the Empire’s territorial dominions brought a sense of connectedness with the colonies and enhanced the cognitive perception of new territories (1754). Like Baldwin, Harley believes that maps have the ability to connect the “mental world” with the “outer world” and serve as a “translator” between the two worlds and thereby widen the territorial imagination and help make sense of the world (1). According to Pickles “[m]aps were used to promote and assist European expansionism and then, once colonization began, cartographic techniques were used to further the imperial project” (108). By the eighteenth century maps and globes became so popular that they embellished the walls as “the most commodious ornament for everyman’s House” and people attached great importance to them so that they were henceforth valued also as essential illustrative materials in schoolrooms (Sponberg Pedley 6).

Smith and Godlewska refer to the importance of geography within the colonial context. They argue that “[¡]triperiai conquest [...] invariably involved the geographical expansion of states into other territories: the extent of their territorial acquisition was rough and ready measure of their global power” (1). In “The Fashioning of an Empire: Geography and the State in Elizabethan England” Cormack argues that the British Empire did not arise by chance but that it developed from the objective to dominate the world. Politicians and geographers in the Elizabethan England recognised that in order to get ahead of their rivals on the Continent they had to be an independent power with colonies they could exploit (Cormack 15). Based on these considerations, a pioneering spirit [a colonial discourse so to speak] emerged which henceforth dominated the way of political decision-making and directed the imperial enterprise. England’s separation from the Roman Catholic Church therefore, Cormack continues, probably offered the necessary independence from the Continent in order to embark on a new mission of becoming an imperial power (15). Towards the end of the sixteenth century, geography became an academic discipline in universities in England, and gained a lot of popularity, not only within courtly society, but also the common people showed an interest in understanding the world (Cormack 19).

Early modem geography thus helped continue the creation, begun by political theories, of an English awareness, a belief in English isolation, autonomy and omnicompetence. Perhaps more important, it encouraged the English to see the world as theirs by right of conquest. This mentality of exploitation was to have far-reaching effects. (Cormack 30)

According to Joseph Conrad, the history of the European exploration of the world can be divided into three phases consisting of the early stage “Geography Fabulous” that was characterised by speculation and imagination of the unknown territories, followed by “Geography Militant” in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that put into practice the knowledge from the former phase, and people set sail to explore and/or conquer the aspired territories. According to Conrad the very epitome of this phase is Captain James Cook. The last phase of the tripartite division “Geography Triumphant” is described as the rewarding phase where all the efforts from the previous phases were paid off (qtd. in Smith and Godlewska 1, Driver 23). Geography and cartography are sciences that go hand in hand. Sponberg Pedley argues that “the term cartography was not used until the nineteenth century” and geographers were the early map makers (19). Therefore, geography and cartography are to be seen as describing and depicting sciences, to be utilised for the comprehension and conception of the earth. Howitt and Jackson point to their political importance within the imperial project of expansion,

The geographical knowledge of explorers and their maps of new territory were often called on to facilitate and justify colonial expansion into the remote regions of the country. Maps produced by explorers, surveyors and geographers were both the crucial symbolic tool by which the empire took possession, and the practical means of dispossessing indigenous peoples. (Howitt and Jackson 161-2)

Long before the continent of Australia caught the attention of the Western World, cartographers in the fourteenth century depicted Terra Australis as a fantasy world with mythical animals probably out of ignorance or out of fear of the unknown. According to Elspeth Tilley “[t]hey also marked the blank spaces with the inherent paradox of wilderness in the Judeo-Christian tradition, in which as-yet-cultivated space is both a place of exile and the Promised Land”. Tilley argues that this way of thinking subsequently paved the way and justified the colonisation of Australia by claiming that Terra Australis is a terra nullius, an uncultivated and therefore unowned land (33).

The doctrine of terra nullius, like the other concepts within colonial discourse, emerged to serve the imperial project of expansion in the form of the annexation of land. The enterprise of colonialism was made possible through the ways of seeing and thinking of the Other. These constructed images of otherness favoured and reinforced the establishment of colonial power. In his book Orientalism, Edward Said explains the phenomenon of constructing images as means of creating a conscious subjectiveness in order to turn it into a conceived reality:

There is rather complex dialectic of reinforcement by which the experiences of readers in reality are determined by what they have read, and this in turn influences writers to take up subjects defined in advance by readers’ experiences.

A text purporting to contain knowledge about something actual, [...] is not easily dismissed. [...] The authority of academics, institutions, and governments can aceme to it, surrounding it with greater prestige than its practical successes warrant. Most important, such texts can create not only knowledge but also the very reality they appear to describe. In time such knowledge and reality produce a tradition, or what Michel Foucault calls a discourse, whose material presence or weight, not the originality of a given author, is really responsible for the texts produced out of it. (94)

Buchan and Heath argue that the tropes of “savagery” and “civilisation” became important colonial constructs in order to develop the doctrine of terra nullius, an artificial framework that “legalised" the dispossession of the Aboriginal peoples by denying their existence and their rights to their land. They further assert that due to this framework, the Australian continent became a parcel of land that was claimed ownership of by the influx of settlers without any conquest or cession (6). Buchan and Heath explain that the conceptualisation of the Indigenous peoples delivered the basis for the doctrine of terra nullius that did not deny the visible presence of Indigenous peoples but rather considered the “uncultivated” land as unowned. Moreover, they argue that the concept of terra nullius entailed other images to justify the superiority of the European society by standardising the “settled” and “law-governed” society that cultivates land as the highest form of human society (8). These were important concepts in order to establish the British hegemony, and to champion the European ideas and values that marginalised those who did not live up to these imposed standards.

Towards the end of the twentieth century Australians were forced to face their unsettled and incomplete history. Incomplete because it was deprived of its Aboriginal past and unsettled because of the dispossession of its Aboriginal peoples based on the doctrine of terra nullius. In 1982, after almost two centuries of dispossession, Eddie Koiki Mabo claimed native title for the Murray Islanders and petitioned the High Court of Australia to confirm the Murray Islanders’ rights to their land that was about to be appropriated by the Queensland government (Mercer 314-2). It took almost ten years for the High Court of Australia to decide on the Mabo case which became a landmark decision (Mercer 314) not only in terms of the native title of the Aboriginal Australians for their land, but also in terms of the doctrine of terra nullius that inter alia conceptualised the Indigenous peoples as uncivilised savages who did not cultivate the land. The Mabo decision in 1992 challenged the history of Australia and forced Australians to reconsider and revise the historiography of their country in terms of its Aboriginal past, whereby the fiction of Australia as a terra nullius could not be maintained anymore (Macintyre 4-2) and subsequently crumbled.

3. Settler c olony Australia

The colonisation of Australia was a turning point for the land and its Indigenous peoples who were forced to retreat and to accept that their land was appropriated by the Europeans. According to Smith, the Declaration of Independence in 1776 and the French Revolution in 1789 marked a new era for Europe (16). The revolutionary war against its former colonies in North America was exhausting and costly for the British Empire. Within this monetary crisis and the loss of prestige, according to Smith, the British Empire turned its attention to Asia in order to establish a new centre of power. In 1786, Smith argues, the British government decided to create a penal colony in New South Wales that had been claimed a property of the crown by Captain James Cook in 1770. This decision also meant that the British Empire could position itself as an imperial power in the region (Smith 16).

The history of the settler colony of Australia started with Captain James Cook’s discovery of the Australian Continent in 1770 and as soon as he set foot on new soil, he claimed ownership of ‘“the whole Eastern Coast ... by the name of New South Wales, together with all the Bays, Harbours and Rivers situate upon the said coast... (Darwin 62) in the name of his monarch King George III (Hughes 19, Macintyre 1). Cook was assigned to discover land for future purposes in the South Pacific, land that was as yet undiscovered by other Europeans (Darwin 63). According to Darwin, Cook was advised to come to an understanding with the Indigenous peoples before seizing their lands. However, Cook believed that this land that was almost unoccupied, and without any visible political system on which he could base an agreement (63), and could be considered as a no man’s land, a terra nullius. Captain Cook’s assertion led to false assumptions concerning New South Wales that was then regarded as an empty space and the Aboriginal peoples as nonexistent. According to British Law, Darwin argues, New South Wales became the property of the Crown without any “conquest or cession” as it was allegedly “desert and uninhabited” (64).

Cook’s decisive announcement provided the legal framework for the dispossession of Australia’s Indigenous peoples. The fiction of terra nullius, a fundamental concept within colonial discourse, combined with the settlers’ bold and superior attitude towards the land and the Indigenous peoples, developed into an instrument of power that changed the course of Australia’s history. According to

Osterhammel and Jansen, colonialism was implemented by the Europeans from the beginning of the sixteenth century until the twentieth century, and had a formative effect on the course of history for the Europeans themselves and for the peoples and the lands they colonised (8). In contrast to colonies of occupation which function as outposts of the imperial power for economic and/or military reasons, settler colonies, on the other hand, involve an influx of settlers for the purpose of settlement in order to inhabit the land permanently (Osterhammel and Jansen 17).

During this epoch of colonialism the European empires were involved in a global race for expanding their dominions and therefore relied heavily on their maritime power. The race for the South Pacific, Osterhammel and Jansen argue, was fought between the British Empire and France, and ended with the victory of the British naval officer Captain James Cook who claimed possession of Australia and New Zealand in the name of the Crown in 1770 (Hughes 19, Macintyre 1). However, the first British settlers to colonise Australia, according to Osterhammel and Jansen, arrived in 1778, whereas New Zealand was colonised about fifty years later in 1840 (37). The year of 1778 marks the founding year of European Settlement and the birth of non-Aboriginal Australia.

For several years Cook’s discovery remained “unnoticed”, but on 26 January 1788 a new fleet of eleven vessels arrived at Botany Bay and on board of these vessels were convicts, civil officials and marines, the pioneers of future land development on the Australian Continent (Macintyre 1). Approximately one year earlier in 1787 the British government had decided to transport unwanted criminals to New South Wales after Britain’s defeat and the loss of its former colonies in North America (Kercher 527). As a practice of punishment, according to Kercher, convicts from Britain and Ireland were shipped to North America from the beginning of the eighteenth century. Until the American Revolution about 50,000 convicts were transported to the colonies in North America. The colonies’ independence from Great Britain after the revolutionary war forced the British government to think of a new location for its convicts, and Australia offered the answer to that (Kercher 528, Macintyre 30). Between 1788 and 1868 about 160,000 convicts were transported to New South Wales, Van Diemen’s Land and Western Australia (Kercher 541, Hughes 20). According to Macintyre “the settlement at New South Wales was the bridgehead for British occupation of the whole of Australia, the landing at Sydney Cove the formative moment of a new nation” (18).

Upon arrival the new inhabitants of Australia were confronted with unfamiliar landscapes, botany and wildlife. They had to adjust to a hot and humid climate with reversed seasons compared to those in the Northern Hemisphere. New South Wales was a place that had no infrastructure, no signs of settledness or agriculture (Kercher 541). Kercher describes the first days of settlement of New South Wales as “[a]n audacious experiment [...], the creation of a new society through convict labor and a largely convict population”. The beginnings of establishing state order, Kercher asserts, was in the hands of the governors who enjoyed extensive powers to rule over the people who were either “‘bond’ or free” and to control their territory as they saw fit. Until the legislature in 1821, they were officials of the British government with autocratic powers in order to create the necessary legal and administrative framework to form a functioning colony of the Crown (542).

As a penal colony New South Wales was a place of forced labour and the convicts who were transported by government chartered ships were “property” of the Crown and had to serve either private masters or the government. While most of the convicts were assigned to work on the farms and businesses of settlers, the rest of them had to work for the government on construction sites, either building public buildings, roads or bridges. The property right on convict labour was transferable which meant that property interest in the convicts’ labour could be passed on to others as a form of transaction of interests. It was not possible for the convicts to buy their way out of forced labour because their obligation to serve was mandatory (Kercher 543-2). In contrast to convicts transported to North America, Kercher argues further, the property rights of Australian convicts were under the control of the government for further disposition. On arrival in Sydney the convicts were assigned to work, and as Kercher points out, this was the procedure until 1824 when a new Transportation Act was passed that changed the property rights in convicts’ services. The new act transferred the “property or usage of the convicts’s labor into the custody of the contractor”, thereby the convicts became the property of private persons (567-3).

The transition from a penal colony to a settler colony had begun by the 1820’s. In the introduction to her book concerning the settler society in Australia Angela Woollacott describes the change of mind regarding the penal colony in terms of offering new opportunities for a prosperous new life. The conversion of the Australian colonies to a settler destination was conceived as an exciting and promising enterprise not only by the common people but also by the British government who saw their imperial ambitions confirmed by the expansion of land. Supported and protected by the royal navy and military, Woollacott argues, aspiring settlers from the British Isles set out for a new life in a far-away continent because “for aspiring landowners and hard-working free labourers” Australia’s settlements stood for “uplifting new ventures” (1).

3.1. The History of the Settlers and the Beginnings of Settlements

The first fleet under the command of Captain Arthur Phillip arrived at Botany Bay in 1788. The ships were loaded with “seeds, and seedlings, ploughs and harnesses, horses, cattle, sheep, hogs, goats and poultry, and food for two years” and also on board were four companies of marines to maintain law and order (Macintyre 31). The overall goal was to become a self-sufficient colony that could provide food and maintain living conditions for its inhabitants. During the following years the newcomers had to deal with setbacks concerning providing food and keeping their livestock alive. Macintyre explains that their first attempts to cultivate the land and grow vegetables turned out to be difficult due to the poor and shallow soil, and their livestock “strayed or died or was eaten”. The food supplies ran out and Governor Phillip ordered food rationing in order to cope with the problem of hunger and to overcome the crisis until the arrival of the next fleet that would bring fresh supplies.

The arrival of the fleets in 1790 and 1791, Macintyre argues further, brought relief and bought time to keep spirits up and to carry on. The newcomers could soon record some success in crop cultivation which eased the situation and increased the hopes of survival (32). The experiences of other colonies in terms of building up a new existence on a far away ground with an unfamiliar environment were similar to those of the newcomers of New South Wales. According to Macintyre, the colony on Van Diemen’s Land experienced comparable problems in terms of establishing the settlement and cultivating the land which did not happen without setbacks, and like the people in New South Wales, the people on Van Diemen’s Land had to deal with hunger and were forced to distribute more and more smaller portions of food when the supplies ran out (38).

In the early days of New South Wales the settlements were positioned close to the ocean, and the heartland of the continent was left unconsidered. This happened, according to Macintyre, because Sydney became a thriving harbour for trade. Ships that arrived in Sydney with convicts on board were unloaded and set out to open waters to hunt whales and seals that were then transported to China and other trading posts. Merchants concentrated their businesses around the coastal areas because they believed that “sealing and whaling would contribute more to the colonial economy than land produce” whereby they were proven right until the 1830s. A flourishing trade with other merchandise such as “pork from Tahiti, potatoes from New Zealand, rum from Bengal” attracted many ambitious ex-convicts who joined the rows of colony officers who had turned into entrepreneurs (39).

From the mid-eighteenth century on Europe experienced enormous changes due the Industrial Revolution. As a pioneer of social and economic change, Britain shifted from an agrarian society to an industrial one, whereby its economy grew steadily due to an increase of productivity through technological innovations. However, Britain’s colonies remained generally unaffected and unimpressed by the ‘revolutionary’ events in their country of origin. Woollacott argues that from 1820s to 1860s the Australian settlements’ economy relied exclusively on “pastoralism, agriculture, mining, mercantilism including whaling and sealing, commerce, and the construction trades, as well as imperial government expenditure”. Even though still in a pre-industrial state, Australia had its own “revolution” that transformed its governance as well as its social structure. According to Woollacott “[i]n the 1850s most colonies achieved responsible government, a radical shift from penal settlements to self-governing societies” took place. During this time period fewer and fewer convicts were transported to the colonies while the number of free settlers arriving in Australia increased significantly. This was, Woollacott argues, partly due to the gold rushes in the 1850s (2).

During the mid-nineteenth century the population of the colonies grew steadily due to an influx of immigrants who departed from British ports for the overseas settlements. According to Grant, this development was closely related to the poor living and working conditions the emigrants were forced to endure in their home country, and due to “an outpouring of enthusiastic writings in mainstream periodicals and newspapers” that promoted emigration by depicting tempting places and promising good prospects for the future in the colonies. The necessary conditions were there and every man could take control of his life by exploiting the opportunities and being the architect of his own fortune. At the same time, Grant argues, it was emphasised that “England was uniquely qualified to bring the benefits of civilization to new lands”. Furthermore, it was advised that the emigrants should uphold the English values and qualities. Leaving England and to settle the new territories involved therefore a “moral duty” of every emigrant to project English qualities to the settled territories (Grant 169). For the soon-to-be settlers, the prospect of landownership (Grant 172, Woollacott 7) was a great motivation because land was linked to a higher social status (171, Woollacott 8) and “all men had a natural right to land” (Grant 172).

Driven by the prospect of land, Woollacott argues, new arrivals moved in groups or individually to the heartland and whenever they made a find they seized it and put a fence around it so that it was clear that this piece of land had been taken possession of. The vastness of the heartland forced the settlers to team up, and whenever needed they offered assistance to the following settlers who passed through “their” land further inland (8). The settlers’ prospects of appropriation of land and self-determination were decisive factors in detaching Australia from British dependency and establishing a constitutional federation (Woollacott 6-2). Land grants changed in the course of time. The more settlers and convicts arrived in the colonies the more land was either sold or granted for agriculture or pastoralism and by the early 1830s there was no suitable land left to claim ownership (Woollacott 8). Reynolds argues that the “Imperial Government officials in the 1830s and 1840s [...] grappled with the explosive expansion of Australian settlement ignited by the squatting rush” (“The Mabo” 27). The seemingly uncontrollable situation was of continuing concern for the British government who had “tried for decades to prevent the unregulated dispersal of squatters across the interior but without success” (Day 119). Frontier conflicts were an inevitable result as the rapidly multiplying flocks of sheep and cattle allowed the squatters to spread across temperate grasslands while the First Australians were driven out from their lands and hunting grounds (Day 66) that they had inhabited for tens of thousands of years.

3.2. Frontier Conflicts: European Settlers and their Expectations towards the Land and the Indigenous Peoples

In Culture and Imperialism Said describes the essence of colonialism as:

Underlying social space are territories, lands, geographical domains, the actual geographical underpinnings of the imperial, and also the cultural contest. To think about distant places, to colonize them, to populate or depopulate them: all of this occurs on, about, or because of land. The actual geographical possession of land is what empire in the final analysis is all about. (93)

According to Said’s explanation and as mentioned in the previous chapter, the prospect of obtaining land caused an influx of settlers who ambitiously sought out land to take possession of and to that end, if necessary, move further into the heartland. By pushing the boundaries conflicts between the newcomers and the original inhabitants were inevitable. The frontier conflicts were first and foremost a result of how the settlers considered the Indigenous peoples in terms of racial equality, and how they justified their occupation of land by disregarding the needs of the Aboriginal Australians.

Curr and Lang’s documents[1] bear witness to the frontier conflict and describe how settlers as squatters conceptualised the Aborigines for their own purpose in terms of the justification of appropriation of land. “The White man looks on the possession of the lands by the Blacks as no proper occupation, and practically and avowedly declines to allow them the common rights of human beings” (Curr 2). Racial ideas were important to claim superiority, and as Harris puts it “[hjardly a white person questioned the distinction between civilization and savagery or the association of the former with Europeans and the latter with native people” (170). Australia’s population and culture was shaped by the influx of the “foreign” people from the British Isles who managed to cope with an alien environment and adapt themselves to its harsh climate. On the one hand, this was possible due to the fact that the British settlers wanted to feel at home and thereby tried to maintain the way of living they were used to from their country of origin (Holmes 18). Australia was their new home, so they claimed. They internalised this sense of belonging so that the environment was customised according to their perceptions of proper living conditions in order to feel and to show that this was their home. According to Holmes, the efforts to feel at home were formative and gave Australia a definite British ‘landscape’ and all the later arriving newcomers from different origins soon or later adapted to the British mould.

They insist on having the same food so long as they can obtain it. They continue to dress in the same kind of clothes. They build the same kind of houses they were accustomed to in their homeland. They observe the same social customs. And they use, until they want find them wanting, the same instruments and technique of agriculture , industry and trade. All their effort is directed to making the landscape, in its broadest sense, of their new home as much as is possible like the landscape of the home they left. (Holmes 19)

With this prospect in mind the Indigenous peoples’ presence constituted a disturbing reality that had to be taken care of. The settlers’ selfish and autocratic attitude towards the land and its original peoples was disrespectful in that sense that they not only claimed possession of the land, but also sprawled imprudently with a multitude of animals over large areas and thereby destroyed the habitats and hunting grounds of the Indigenous peoples. A conflict therefore seemed inevitable “[h]ence the meeting of the White and Black races in Australia, considered generally, results in war” (Curr 2). According to Veracini “[t]he very idea of settling the land, an act that is inevitably premised on the perception of ‘empty lands’, is based on the systematic disavowal of indigenous presences”. The Indigenous peoples, Veracini argues, were conceived as non-existent and “remained primarily a presence only detected by reference to ‘camp- smoke’, or to the ‘camp litter’ that was left behind” (4). At first the Indigenous peoples were dispossessed and pushed back behind fences where they turned into neighbours, a nuisance within the settler state of mind, and then, as a result, transformed into “intruders” (Veracini 6). Hence, the settlers, as the new owners of Aboriginal land, did not hesitate to “protect” their land against “intruders” and were not reluctant to use guns. Deprived of their land and of their hunting grounds the Indigenous peoples were caught in between two options, either to die from starvation or to be shot down, and they chose to resist and fight (Curr 3).

Frontier conflict was inevitable because the colonial government was not concerned with solving the problem by developing alternatives for the Indigenous peoples who had to witness the advancing settlers’ occupation of more and more land each year and the more the settlers advanced inland the less space was left for the Aboriginals to survive (Lang 6). However, not all the encounters ended in conflicts. Although involuntarily, Aboriginal peoples who were cut off from food and water sources became sooner or later dependent on settlers’ supplies for which they had to work in return (Woollacott 8). Referring to settler recollections Woollacott describes another form of interracial relations. Settler families befriended Aboriginal peoples who in return provided them with important information concerning their environment in terms of wild life and vegetation. This, however, should not imply that those friendly interactions were based on equality between the “partners”, so, for example, settlers often named their Aboriginal friends and often gave them names with degrading connotations. Woollacott suggests “[i]t was the settler’s drive to take and claim the land that spurred the violence, and it was often their need for labour that underpinned the cooperation; for Aborigines, there could be little choice” (9).


[1] Henry Reynold’s book Aborigines and Settlers is a compilation of official and unofficial documents that are dated from the early settlement until the Second World War.

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From Terra Nullius to Mabo. The Appropriation of Land in Kate Grenville's Historical Novel "The Secret River"
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Postcolonial Literature, Australia, Terra Nullius, Mabo, Kate Grenville
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Meral Engin (Author), 2017, From Terra Nullius to Mabo. The Appropriation of Land in Kate Grenville's Historical Novel "The Secret River", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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Title: From Terra Nullius to Mabo. The Appropriation of Land in Kate Grenville's Historical Novel "The Secret River"

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