26 September 2023

The Settlement

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Reviewed by Robert Goodman.

By Jock Serong, Text, $32.99.

Jock Serong ends his historical trilogy with the most hard hitting and poignant of the three stories. The Settlement followings on from the epic journey and the early days of the colony of Sydney in Preservation and a return to the Furneaux Group of Islands thirty years later in The Burning Island. Ostensibly centred around the work of George Augustus Robinson (only named in the Forward, never named in the text), The Settlement is the story of the Aboriginal people of Tasmania, driven off their land and moved to a remote island in Bass Strait. It is a story of exploitation and resilience.

The narrative opens in 1831 and The Man (Robinson) is leading a small group of convicts and Aboriginal locals to try and locate the Big River Tribe. His aim, in his view, is a magnanimous one – to convince them to move off their land before the settlers move in and kill them. He is helped in this endeavour by elder Mannalargenna who wants to see the killing end. The Man’s end game – to move the survivors to a small settlement on one of the Furneaux Islands. There he becomes The Commandant and continues the colonisation experiment – denigration and denial of cultural practice, violent religious education of the children, a program to “europeanise” the people, and anthropological exploitation of the dead. Central to this narrative is a boy called Whelk, who sees the worst that the colonisers can visit on his people but still finds a way to fight back.

In the mix is The Catechist, a figure who will be familiar from earlier volumes of this series. This figure has almost become the personification of the darkness of the Australian colonial experience. But in this novel his more naked violence is juxtaposed against the just as damaging “civilising” approach of Robinson.

Serong himself has said that he believes that the Fernaux islands “were at the epicentre of Australia’s invasion, of its settlement, exploration and commerce”. And in the story of Robinson and his “project” he captures much of this history. But he also wants to capture the beauty and isolation of these islands. In The Settlement, Serong again achieves both of these goals with another darkly poignant, sadly true and painfully engaging story that rarely if ever makes it into Australian history books.

Over 800 more book reviews can be found on Pile by the Bed.

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