The Character of Ginny in Philip McLaren's "Sweet Water - Stolen Land". A (Post-)Colonial Perspective

Term Paper, 2018

20 Pages, Grade: 1,0




The Character of the Indigenous Australian Woman Ginny of the Kamilaroi people
1. Ginny – the “parrot”
2. Ginny – the “double colonized”
3. Ginny – the hybrid, challenger and mediator


Works Cited


Philip McLaren is a descendant of the Kamilaroi people from the Warrumbungle Mountains in New South Wales, Australia. This is the region where his first novel Sweet Water – Stolen Land, a confronting tale about the first encounter of indigenous Australian people with white settlers and colonial invaders, published in 1993 and bestowed with the David Unaipon Award (Clark 122), is set. The novel chiefly tells the story – or rather the (entangled) stories – of the German married couple Gudrun and the Lutheran pastor Karl Maresch who immigrates to Australia in 1869 (McLaren 2) and lives on the Neuberg Mission, where Aboriginal people should become converted into Christians and are forced into a ‘European’ way of living, and of the indigenous family of Ginny and Wollumbuy whose lives are rooted in their people’s culture and spiritual beliefs and are now – as a consequence of the first encounter – confronted with colonial forces, constraints, violence and brutal changes.

The focus of this term paper lies on the character of Ginny of the Kamilaroi people. Her character actually is semi-historical. The whole novel itself is indeed fictional in most parts but includes historical events such as the Myall Creek massacre and historical persons like George Fife Angas who as a member of the South Australian Colonisation Committee furthered the establishment of Lutheran missions (5-6) that are incorporated into the fictional plot. “Ginny Griffin did exist, she was [McLaren’s] great-great-grandmother. She did become leader and spokesperson for the Aboriginal people of Coonabarabran.” (viii). The depiction of her character in the novel is both striking and interesting to analyse as it on the one hand gives a representative presentation of (female) indigenous Australian experiences under the burden of colonization because of the biographical background it is created on. On the other hand, Ginny’s character illustrates the processes and consequences of colonial and imperial rules imposed on indigenous people(s) (of the Australian continent) from the very beginning of the acquisition of the English language, as it is discussed in chapter 1, over the colonial domination and torture that in Ginny’s case is even a doubled form of colonization, which will be examined in chapter 2, to the forming of a new transitional form of culture and way of living and the reversal of colonial constraints when Ginny starts to use the colonial system’s own means against the oppressors of her people, which will be investigated in chapter 3. The goal of this analysis is to show that the character of Ginny Griffin is designed according to the notion of hybridity and could therefore be interpreted as a representation of the creation process of a new transcultural form on the basis of colonial influences and indigenous Australian way(s) of living clashing within the contact zone; more precisely: Ginny depicts the process of hybridization in the colonial history of Australia in terms of emancipation and a postcolonial, resistant and challenging, ‘talking back’ of the periphery to the centre .

The Character of the Indigenous Australian Woman Ginny of the Kamilaroi people

1. Ginny – the “parrot”

The very first influences of the colonial world Ginny of the Kamilaroi people comes in contact with, already shape her childhood development: the acquirement of the English language and therewith cultural contents of the European/Western society. “Ginny [is] ten years old when a school teacher named Winifred Jackson move[s] into the abandoned squatter’s cottage near the small creek on the outskirts of Gunnedah. . . . At that time Ginny ha[s] heard very little English” (McLaren 10). When the Aboriginal girl and the “well-groomed lady from Manchester” (10) meet for the first time Ginny immediately follows the woman’s invitation to join her. “‘Do you live around here?’ Winifred ask[s]. ‘Around … here.’ Ginny imitate[s] the sounds, wanting desperately to communicate. . . . ‘Yes, but where?’ Winifred ask[s]. ‘But … where,’ Ginny mimick[s]. ‘Oh … I see, we have a parrot here do we?’ Winifred smile[s] . . . . [Ginny is] pleased that she [can] say some of the strange words.” (10) The English lady promptly begins to teach the Kamilaroi girl words in the foreign language and the “parrot” is happy and eager to learn (10-11). “Such [is] Ginny’s formal introduction to the English language. . . . Ginny realize[s] she [is] lucky that her new neighbour [teaches] children to read and write. . . . [S]he [will] sing the songs Winifred ha[s] taught her.” (11)

This description of Ginny’s childhood experience and confrontation with the English language and culture thus provides some hints as to the colonial ideology or rather is modelled after the standards of the colonial system. If one takes a look at the constellation of characters it is striking that the representative of the indigenous Australians – more precisely the Kamilaroi people – is a child, the ten year old Ginny, whereas the English immigrant Winifred Jackson, who represents colonialism – albeit in a subtle form (as it will be discussed in the course of this chapter) –, is portrayed as an adult in her fifties (10) who can be seen as a parent figure.

Colonialism describes “the specific form of cultural exploitation” (Ashcroft et al. 54) of indigenous people suppressed by European invaders and settlers in the course of European Imperialism. Had colonies been perceived as mainly established to provide raw materials for the industrialised Europe, they strengthened not only the notion of ‘centre’ (Europeans put themselves in the position of a superior ruling power) and ‘periphery’ (the colonies under the ‘patronage’ of European power(s) are seen as ‘suppliers’ to increase the centre’s power and wealth) but also furthered the idea of hierarchy behind it: Thus, “the relation between the colonizer and colonized was locked into a rigid hierarchy of difference deeply resistant to fair and equitable exchanges, whether economic, cultural or social. . . . [C]olonization could be (re)presented as a . . . ‘civilizing’ task involving education and paternalistic nurture.” (54-55)

Winifred Jackson from Manchester is the foreigner who settles down in Ginny’s homeland. But from the very first moment of their encounter the English woman is in some way disabusing the Aboriginal girl, starting by telling her to watch out for the slippery rocks (McLaren 10). She is the one teaching Ginny words in the ‘colonial’ English language without even considering asking the girl to teach her Kamilaroi vocabulary. Especially interesting in terms of the colonial ideology is the first word that Winifred teaches Ginny: “Spoon” (10) is signifying an object that belongs to the European culture; eating meals with cutlery is considered as an aspect of the ‘civilized’ world from a ‘Western’ point of view. In contrast to this, there is the indigenous Australian culture that – with all native cultures of the colonized regions – is regarded as inferior by the colonizers.

The core structure of colonialism consists of a binary system that constructs clear-cut boundaries between two supposedly contrasting entities and entails “a violent hierarchy, in which one term of the opposition is always dominant (man over woman, . . . white over black) and that, in fact, the binary opposition itself exists to confirm that dominance.” (Ashcroft et al. 25-26). Binary terms such as ‘colonizer – colonized’, ‘white – black’, ‘civilized – primitive’, ‘good – evil’, ‘teacher – pupil’ etc. define the relation or better the opposition between European invaders/settlers and indigenous peoples of the established colonies. Important to point out in this context is, that these categories are created. ‘Blackness like “whiteness . . . [for example] is not a given, ontological category but rather a ‘normative structure, a discourse of power, and a form of [racialized] identity” (Huggan 71). In terms of the poststructuralist theory of Jacques Derrida it is to be remarked that the hierarchical system of colonialism is only constructed but not ontological; the rigid and fixed structure is the result of the fact that one binary term is put above the other, i.e. is ‘centred’: [S]tructure – or rather the structurality of structure – although it has always been at work, has always been neutralized or reduced, and this by a process of giving it a center or of referring it to a point of presence, a fixed origin. The function of this center was not only to orient, balance, and organize the structure – one cannot in fact conceive of an unorganized structure – but above all to make sure that the organizing principle of the structure would limit what we might call the play of the structure. (Derrida 90)

It is important to note that the colonial ideology of a superior ‘white race’ with a civilized culture and an inferior ‘black race’ with a primitive culture is the result of ‘centring’, that the whole system is functional and only exists to solidify and confirm – even justify – the colonizers’ dominant position. The arbitrariness and ‘constructedness’ behind this system is revealed by the thought of Karl Maresh who is “proud that Germans were considered to be such a civilized people.” (McLaren 62) The whole system is not ontological, i.e. natural, but a humanly forced fixation of Derrida’s “play of the structure” which means that in reality the boundaries drawn between the created binary pairs are actually not clear-cut; there are overlaps, interstates and ‘betweennesses’ that do not fit into one of the opposite categories. This ‘scandalous’ notion (Derrida 94) will be of further interest in the following chapters when it comes to the analysis of Ginny’s development between the two ‘fronts’ of her indigenous Australian culture and the new colonial rule and way of living.

To draw back on the narration of Ginny’s childhood and her early acquisition of the English language through Winifred Jackson’s teaching, it can be observed that in this character constellation of child (Ginny) and adult (Winifred) the colonial perspective on indigenous peoples is mirrored. Yet, McLaren’s description does this in a latent way: In the first sentence of the chapter the reader receives the information that Miss Jackson is a school teacher; her behaviour towards Ginny can therefore be perceived as a result of the job she has been doing for many years instead of a conscious realisation of the colonial idea to force a ‘Western’ culture upon the Aboriginal people of Australia. However, although Winifred Jackson does not seem to be actively aware of it, she is – as a matter of course – influenced or rather unconsciously caught up in a ‘Western’ cultural system, which, at that time, is in fact dominated by colonial binary and hierarchy concepts that built a rigid structure for her way of thinking. She does not open up to the indigenous culture, teaching and learning do not happen on a mutual basis but are solely unilateral. Ginny, the Kamilaroi girl, is the pupil or child whereas Winifred Jackson, the English woman, is the teacher or even mother figure in a seemingly dominant (and therefore superior) position and thus representing the ideology of colonialism: [T]he total result looked for by colonial domination was indeed to convince the natives that colonialism came to lighten their darkness. The effect consciously sought by colonialism was to drive into the natives’ heads the idea that if the settlers were to leave, they would at once fall back into barbarism, degradation and bestiality.

On the unconscious plane, colonialism therefore did not seek to be considered by the native as a gentle, loving mother who protects her child from a hostile environment, but rather as a mother who unceasingly restrains her fundamentally perverse offspring from managing to commit suicide and from giving free rein to its evil instincts. The colonial mother protects her child from itself (Fanon 37).

An important aspect of this colonial process is the notion of mimicry: Mimicry has come to describe the ambivalent relationship between colonizer and colonized. When colonial discourse encourages the colonized subject to ‘mimic’ the colonizer, by adopting the colonizer’s cultural habits, assumptions, institutions and values, the result is never a simple reproduction of those traits. Rather, the result is a ‘blurred copy’ of the colonizer that can be quite threatening. This is because mimicry is never very far from mockery, since it can appear to parody whatever it mimics. Mimicry therefore locates a crack in the certainty of colonial dominance, an uncertainty in its control of the behaviour of the colonized. (Ashcroft et al. 154-155)

Ginny “imitate[s]“ (McLaren 10), “mimick[s]” (10) and “echo[s]” (11) the “strange words” (10) Winifred says to her. Strikingly, in the eyes of Winifred, it is not the image of the child or the pupil acquiring the language through the guidance of a parent/teacher figure. Rather, the English woman sees a “parrot” in Ginny, an animal that is able to both imitate a limited amount of human linguistic sounds and to use them in the appropriate semantic context when trained to that effect but does not possess the ability to fully grasp their meaning and to learn and use language like a human being. Firstly, this depiction displays the aspect of mockery often entailed by the notion of mimicry because Ginny’s clumsy first attempts to master the words of the foreign language create a comic effect that exposes the colonizers’ idea of ‘recreating the ‘colonial other’ in their image’ to ridicule and undermines its self-declared legitimacy. Secondly, the act of Ginny’s dehumanisation – though Winifred says it in jest – reflects again the colonial ideology according to which native ‘black people’ are inferior to the overall superior ‘white race’ and in addition to that are also not able to ever reach the status of the colonizer although they (are forced to) assimilate. Thirdly, Ginny’s childhood experience also gives evidence of the notion of an alleged ‘enlightenment’ the colonizers would bring to the indigenous population of the colonies “to lighten their darkness” (Fanon 37); Ginny is grateful as she “realise[s] she [is] lucky that her new neighbour [teaches] children to read and write” (McLaren 11).

Indeed, Ginny on the one hand is “lucky” to be taught the colonizers’ tongue as it will be analysed and pointed out in the following chapters. But on the other hand, Winifred’s education of the Kamilaroi girl is a ‘double-edged sword’ because in learning English, Ginny is starting to subordinate her native tongue at the same time. Additionally, as it was already mentioned, the language does not only consist of various linguistic sounds and grammar, it contains in truth the very essence of a culture. That means, through the acquisition of the English language Ginny also – and more importantly – is imparted a cultural content of the foreign British people. English for example is not only a spoken but also a written language as opposed to the Aboriginal mainly oral culture; by learning how to read and write, Ginny adapts not only a different language but a different form of culture. Singing and story-telling, as it is described many times in the course of the novel, is an important part of indigenous Australian tradition (McLaren 17-21, 43, 63-65, 114-116), e.g. in terms of the transmission of knowledge, in contrast to the literary cultures (in the colonial binary terms ‘modern’ – ‘archaic’, ‘civilized’ – ‘primitive’ regarded as superior to oral cultures (Ashcroft 183)) where writing is the medium of transmission. But Ginny, as a result of Winifred’s impact on her, “sing[s] the songs Winifred ha[s] taught her” (McLaren 11) loaded with ‘Western’ cultural content and replacing the Kamilaroi girl’s native culture.

2. Ginny – the ‘double colonized’

Through the acquisition of the English language and the cultural content undeniably contained and transported in it, Ginny already (unconsciously) neglects her native Kamilaroi culture, language, customs etc. in an early developmental stage. But nevertheless, within her clan, she grows up in a very traditional environment: She and her husband Wollumbuy are married under Aboriginal law. Both of their families follow[ ] the old ways.” (3) Wollumbuy has wooed Ginny by singing her love songs and dancing a magic love dance for her (3) as it is demanded by the social norms of their people. “Their two children [come] quickly, answering the hope and tradition of Kamilaroi marriages.” (3) Although “[t]he Kamilaroi people ha[ve] been forced off their ancestral lands onto hastily established missions” Ginny and her family try to follow the traditional indigenous Australian form of living off colonial and/or missionary patronage leading a nomadic life traveling through the country, residing in gunyahs and staying at Aboriginal camps (3-4, 17). Their daily routine follows the structure of indigenous Australian lifestyle: Wollumbuy goes hunting, Ginny goes gathering, they teach their children by telling stories of ancestral legends (16-21, 58). Ginny’s worldview is shaped by Aboriginal thought, too. This becomes obvious for example when she is reflecting about the colonizers’ concept of ownership: “[w]hite people actually want[ ] to own land! She wonder[s] secretly if some day they [will] claim ownership of the sky, the stars, the clouds, the rain, the rivers and the ocean. She suspect[s] that if they could find a way to do it, they would.” (4)

However, the pressure of colonialism pushing on the indigenous population of the Australian continent forces Ginny and her family to change their habitual way of living. Their camp at Belougerie is destroyed by the Coonabarabran police because a white settler family has bought the land the indigenous people were camped on and Ginny and her family are taken to the police station for processing (34-35). In the following scenes two significant aspects of Ginny’s character become apparent: first, her ‘double colonization’ (which will be explained shortly), second, her first (cautious) act of questioning this violent and unjust action of colonial power that hints at her later role as a challenger of colonial injustice and mediator between her people and the foreign invaders (which will not be discussed at this point and in the context of this chapter but in the following one).

[Ginny] decide[s] to question the authority behind the action [of the violent displacement]. She lean[s] forward and [speaks] quietly to the desk sergeant in the stone lobby of the police station. He reache[s] over, angrily [takes] her by the arm and pull[s] her roughly along a corridor that [leads] to the cells. . . . Just at the moment when Ginny fear[s] she might never see her family again, sitting in her dark cell with tears running down her cheeks, the door creak[s] slowly open. . . . It [is] Henry Thompson, the tall, fat desk sergeant. He [comes] in and . . . unbutton[s] his trousers and lay[s] down beside her. . . . [Ginny is raped by him.] She [is] too stunned to cry.

As he [leaves] the cell, another white man [comes] in and [sits] next to her on the bunk. She [can] hear Sergeant Thompson laugh as he join[s] a group of men at the end of the corridor. As she realize[s] what the rest of the night [holds] in store for her, the tears course[ ] down her cheeks.


Excerpt out of 20 pages


The Character of Ginny in Philip McLaren's "Sweet Water - Stolen Land". A (Post-)Colonial Perspective
University of Duisburg-Essen  (Department of Anglophone Studies, British and Postcolonial Studies)
Indigenous Australian Literature and Culture
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
Postcolonial, Colonial, Postcolonial literature, colonial literature, indigenous, Australia, indigenous Australian literature, colonialism, oppression, patriarchy, indigenous Australian culture, colonization, transculturality, hybridity, emancipation, hybridization, imperialism, violence
Quote paper
Johanna M. (Author), 2018, The Character of Ginny in Philip McLaren's "Sweet Water - Stolen Land". A (Post-)Colonial Perspective, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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