Secret History: 'The Secret River' Holds Tough Truths for Australia

A two-part television series that concluded on the ABC last night took some tentative steps towards lifting the lid of Australia's shameful past.

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Jun 22 2015, 6:25pm

Parts of this article may be confronting for some readers, Indigenous or otherwise.

Ever thought about forcing a group of terrified men, women, and children together at gunpoint, beheading the men before stringing their severed heads around the necks of their screaming wives?

What about digging shallow ditches in the soil, burying the infant children up to their necks, and then removing their tiny, terrified heads clean off their shoulders with a running kick?

If we're honest, most of us would admit to pondering some fairly melancholic thoughts in our darker times, but conjuring-up this brand of balls-and-all insanity (and actually carrying it out), requires a specific kind of madness.

Sadly, this madness isn't a work of fiction, or the ponderings of some nut job, nor do these accounts find a home on the battlefields of Syria or Iraq.

The setting for above atrocities was actually rural NSW, just north of Inverell to be precise, and the perpetrators were the pioneering heroes of our school history books, the deceptively named, 'Aussie settler.'

It isn't pretty and it doesn't fit snugly into Australia's dinky-di, jingoistic discourse. It wasn't isolated either. It wasn't fenced by geography and scarily; a similar instance took place as recently as 1928 when up to 170 Walpiri, Anmatyerre, and Kaytetye were killed at Coniston in the Northern Territory.

To put it into perspective—our surviving World War II veterans are somewhere around 85 to 90-plus years old—they were young boys and girls when this took place. That's only one generation ago.

And how many Australians have heard of Coniston? Not many.

These examples of carnage are some of the tamest of what's now been glibly dubbed 'contact'—or the clash between English invaders and traditional Aboriginal clans all over Australia.

Rejecting the notion of a mere brush with the white man, Aboriginal people prefer to label this sordid chapter of their history as attempted genocide.

If ever there was an example of the brutality of the white man, it exists in the untold annals of this country's history. And that's just the point, two hundred years down the track and it remains largely hidden from mainstream Australia, but why and for how long?

Screenshot via Google.

Thankfully, a two-part television series that concluded on the ABC last night took some tentative steps towards lifting the lid of Australia's shameful past.

Based on Kate Grenville's 2005 Booker Prize shortlisted novel, The Secret River is an insight into the Hawkesbury Nepean Wars, waged between white settlers—backed by the NSW Corps—and the region's Aboriginal inhabitants, the Dharug people.

Set over an arduous 26-year period, the ABC's adaptation of Grenville's novel is just a morsel of the broader Hawkesbury conflict, yet eloquently delivers the bite-sized story of convict settler, William Thornhill played by Brit Oliver Jackson-Cohen and his wife 'Sal,' skillfully played by local Sarah Snook.

A devoted fan of Granville's novel, Producer Stephen Luby, whose credits include comedies Kath & Kim, Crackerjack, and Bed of Roses, approached one of the country's most celebrated screenwriters in Jan Sardi, best known for her work on Shine, to fashion Granville's book into a feature length film.

Eventually settling on a miniseries format, the ABC adaptation first finds Thornhill scratching out a meagre existence as an oarsman in and around Sydney Cove.

Image courtesy of the Australian Broadcasting Commission.

Ambitious and industrious, he's eventually given a pardon and lured by the desire to 'make a pile' and return to London, Thornhill takes up a lucrative freighting job sailing north to service the farms and outposts along the remote Hawkesbury river.

Spurred on by veteran settler, Thomas Blackwood, Thornhill rushes to occupy a hundred acres of Hawkesbury waterfront, transporting his young family to the absolute limits of white habitation at the time.

Blackwood words-up Thornhill on the delicate balance of life on the river, "Ain't nothing in this world just for the taking... a man got to pay a fair price for taking. Matter of give a little, take a little."

But whilst the Blackwood character symbolizes at least a basic level of understanding and collaboration with the Dharug, the opposite is true of some of the Hawkesbury's more dubious residents.

Director Diana Reid has done a stunning job with musician and writer Tim Minchin, who plays the psychotic Irish convict 'Smasher' Sullivan—a performance that brings the brutality of white invasion to life on screen.

In the Grenville novel, no detail is spared when it comes to Sullivan's treatment of 'the blacks,' but, whilst confronting, the television adaptation falls short when it really needed to take a bigger swing.

From the harvesting and trade in Aboriginal body parts (a widely practiced act), to skinning some of his victims alive, the Smasher character was disturbingly based on fact. Men like him existed. The Dharug were seen as little more than game—to be hunted, tortured, and slaughtered at a whim.

So far reviews have recognized the two-part television drama for what it really is; 'important,' 'excellent,' the word 'courageous' has also been bandied about.

There's little doubt time will judge The Secret River as a historically significant piece of television production. Alongside Phillip Noyce's Rabbit Proof Fence, it's one of the few pieces within easy reach of the mainstream that seek to openly grapple with the stark and uncomfortable realities of our past.

If we're honest, it's a past many in this country would simply rather forget, but how are we to plan our future as a nation if we're never made aware of the vicious acts of our past, however gruesome they be?

If it's the shock and awe of grisly details that compels us to finally wrestle with the seedier sides of our identities, then so be it.

The more confronting, the better.

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