So I have finished “People of the River”….

And everything I have said in my posts so far on Grace Karskens still holds. The book is an absolute joy breathing life into the now very topical area of the Hawkesbury-Nepean river system — include a must-read chapter on floods — but also bringing to vivid life the people, as the title says — officials, soldiers, settlers, convicts, emancipists, men, women, children, and of course the First Australians.

Here is an instance of how a story that would escape the notice of most of us had its significance demonstrated. You see, there was a corroboree at Penrith in 1835, as reported by an accurate but patronising — and I suspect young — reporter in a forgotten newspaper, The Colonist.

Now “Saturday” had indeed been the terror of the Bathurst region, but perhaps you know him as Wyndradyne.

And young Bungary is a son of Bungaree — from whose daughter Sophy, Bowen Bungaree’s sister, my sister-in-law Aileen and her children descend — research there by my nephew Warren.

Bowen or Boin Bungaree, eldest son of Bungaree — an amazing sketch! For more on Bungaree and his sons see Keith Vincent Smith (2011).
And in Jannali NSW in 1959, my sister-in-law Aileen and her daughter, my niece, Christine. Bowen Bungaree would have been Aileen’s 2X or 3X great-uncle. Connections, eh! Australian history is like that,

His, in in my opinion, is a very intelligent face, perhaps more than The Colonist‘s reporter seemed to recognise. While he hit the right romantic notes describing the setting, he seems not to have given full credit to the fact he was being treated to a graphic account of relations between the British and the First Australians. The significance of the red clay — always a danger sign — escaped him. The former and not much loved Governor Darling and the officialdom around him were being given a roasting worthy of Saturday Night Live!

How quaint these savages were! I think — as Grace Harkens makes plain — the true reading is “How perceptive! How clever!” Also how capable they were of adapting their ancient traditions to modern resistance.

This was no “black and white minstrel show” — it was a magic act of resistance. It also seems to have escaped notice that Yellamundy (Yallahmiendi) was a “clever man”, a karadgi, and Jibbinwy (Jabbinguy) was a former resistance fighter “whom Macquarie had imprisoned during the conflicts of 1816.”

Such are some the details to emerge just from two pages of this wonderful book. And more — even in those two pages!

A modern take on the idea of the “clever man.”

Grace Karskens ends People of the River with a variation on this essay, which I cited in an earlier post:

The obelisk was dedicated on the 5 July 1952. This date was deliberately chosen because it was the day Governor Phillip’s party sailed past this part of the river on their first exploratory journey in 1789. The implications are striking: however well-meant and sympathetic, this obelisk marks a kind of final closure, from the day the first white man set the clock of history ticking in this place to the final exit of its Aboriginal people. The monument is about death – not an individual’s death, but the metaphorical death of a race, here on the Hawkesbury – a local, late echo of the old and long-held settler belief that the Aboriginal people were destined to die out.

So, it is strange to stand here at this monument with Leanne, Erin and Jasmine – Darug descendants, whose families are connected to the people who lived on this reserve. I wonder if a more appropriate symbol of the Aboriginal people of Dyarubbin is the ancient fig that clings tenaciously to the rock nearby, roots reaching deep into the river soil.

And to emphasise Grace Karskens’s point about adaptability, survival and continuity, I am adding this — not from the people of Dyarubbin but from other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander countries in the north.


In what I said about Windradyne above I was taking my cue from the report in The Colonist 9 April 1835. And if you look at this plaque on the Suttor property “Brucedale” near Bathurst (taken from the video above) you will think “No problem.”

Don’t worry about the spelling differences; that happens all the time. It is the date I want you to notice.

Now look at this remarkable obituary in the Sydney Gazette 21 April 1829:

Which also seems to be saying Windradyne was a “clever man.” But if he died in 1829, who was it who performed at Penrith in 1835? Or is the plaque not a mistake after all? History is such fun….

See Windradyne (1800–1829) in the Australian Dictionary of Biography and take a look at this:

Yet another update:

Thanks for your contribution, Marcellous! Meanwhile I am ashamed to have missed The Resident Judge of Port Phillip’s review from January.

I am not familiar at all with the Hawkesbury/Dyarubbin region, and I found myself having to consult the maps at the front repeatedly. I suspect that someone from New South Wales would appreciate the book much more than a Victorian would. In many ways, these early-contact histories right across Australia are similar in that they are all freighted with a common longing and regret for the closure of opportunities that were once open. But each one is also different, and best known to people familiar with the location, because they are so deeply embedded in ‘country’, and as a result each is particular to itself.

This is a beautifully written book, that has its broad-ranging and yet detailed research interwoven on every page. It combines archaeological, ecological, local, spiritual research that keeps its focus on individuals, in the agency they possess, and the choices they make.

My rating: 9/10

I was drawn in part because of connections; my mother, for one, spent her first years 110 years ago in the Hawkesbury then outpost of Spencer. The Whitfield family were in or on the fringes of Dyarubbin from the 1840s — some still are! And my sister-in-law linked back to one of the great players in the story, Bungaree.

And here is another hour on the book from the author herself, in addition to the one I referred Marcellous to.

10 thoughts on “So I have finished “People of the River”….

  1. There could be a double meaning in the Colonist account when it says “how sadly changed from that Saturday who once spread terror.” Dates on plaques at least 100 years after the event are rarely reliable sources.

    • I like your reading of that phrase — very lawyerly! But it doesn’t really explain “The famous Saturday from Bathurst was in the character of a free settler” which I read as “performed the part of a free settler.”

  2. It seems that in addition to the various native dances and music there was some kind of a play. Unclear if there really was or if this was all fancifulness on the part of the writer but as the account is quite detailed I expect there was.

    Some of it appears to be a satire of recent events – in 1834 new rules of court came into effect which restricted the right of audience to barristers, who could only be barristers admitted in England or Ireland. (Not sure about Scots but Scottish law was different so probably not.) Solicitors (then generally called attorneys) lost their right of audience – referred to in the bit about Terribalong, now in the character of the Attorney-General, insisting that the attorneys had no right to speak. Surely this part of the entertainment cannot have been scripted by the “native” performers, and I suspect this may well have been the case of some of the other material described, though the performers could still have turned some of that to their own purposes..

    In some episode then, somebody, billed as Saturday but (as the writer slyly hints he knows) not in fact Saturday, played the part of a free settler. Given the references to an already agitated-for but still well into the future legislative assembly, this part of the action could well have involved the by then departed from NSW Governor Darling, who hadn’t been keen on even a legislative council. Far from clear whether most of this is “natives” roasting whitefellers or whitefellers putting the “native” performers up to it.

    Lots of conjecture there on my part and conclusions not quite so cheering for subaltern resistance as those you draw.

  3. Thinking a bit more about this, my conjecture:

    “Surely this part of the entertainment cannot have been scripted by the “native” performers.”

    could go too far.

    Maybe I’m wrong about that: it all very much depends on how interweaved indigenous and colonist life had become by this time. This is after all a generation or more after “first contact” (as indicated by the reference to the inherited outfit of the fellow playing Governor Darling). Removal of solicitors’ rights of audience just seems a rather esoteric topic to have interested resisters, though I suppose they could well have seen the comedy in colonists receiving a dose of their own colonial medicine (which is basically what the introduction of a divided legal profession amounted to).

    Obviously Grace Karskens knows much more about that than I do and I should probably have gone and read her book/s before I commented on anything you have got out of them .

  4. You really need to read pp.443-445 of “People of the River” which I am too lazy to copy out here, but the fact is that Karskens quite explicitly sees this very major event to which British were invited (including very possibly retired Chief Justice Forbes himself. she suggests) at Emu Plains as an act of defiance. For example, “The settlers’ promises of friendship, respect, restraint and friendship had been broken. Meanwhile, the ‘frightful’ red-painted Jabbinguy — a resistance fighter whom Macquarie had imprisoned during the conflicts of 1816– performed fierce ‘military evolutions’ with other warriors, the moves appropriated from British military reviews and danced defiantly back at the watching settlers.

    “Perhaps still more astonishing was the dramatic performance that played out the colony’s political and legal struggles under Governor Darling….

    “As the play continued, Terribalong in his role as ‘Attorney General’ clashed with two ‘Colonial Attorneys’, played by Yakabil from Murrumbidgee, and Black Boy from the Hunter….

    “This was a world of transforming, overlapping cultures, of dynamic mimesis, and the expression of current predicaments and commentary through drama, song and dance. Corroborees especially reveal the way that the lives, cultures and places of settlers and Aboriginal people remained distinct, yet they overlapped, too, sometimes intimately….”

    The Chapter, 13, is called “Transforming Cultures.”

    I have not seen this right through and the sound quality is not great, but here is over an hour’s discussion of the book.

  5. I will read it when I can get hold of it but naturally I will be interested in the footnotes and such sources as I can track down for myself as well as the interpretation.

    I don’t disagree that there will have been subversive/resistive elements of the performance, but I don’t see such scope or likelihood of it in the topical references to the division of the legal profession.

    • It may be worthwhile after you do read the book to take up the issue with the author! I also would be interested in what she might say, though in the context of the chapter and the meticulous detail in the rest of the book I am far more prepared to accept the corroboree was as I said a magical act of resistance. That the Aboriginal people were not just passively dying out and disappearing but were capable of ingenuity in their resistance is after all one of the book’s main theses — though do bear in mind it is about all the people of the river, and some chapters home in on others.

      • Whatever you finally decide about the event under discussion, I am sure you will love the book. I will be returning my copy to Wollongong Library on Friday, most likely. Where Kate Greville’s “A Room Made of Leaves” is waiting for pickup!

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