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Book Review: The Lieutenant, by Kate Grenville

Kate Grenville is one of Australia’s most acclaimed writers. The Lieutenant (2008) is the second of her books dealing with the first contact between the Aboriginal inhabitants of Australia and the new arrivals from Britain, and is set before her best known work Secret River (2006), which was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize.

Daniel Rooke is a clever young mathematician with an interest in languages, but his humble background and lack of connections makes it hard for him to advance in England in the 1770s. He joins the Royal Marines as a second lieutenant – being unable to afford a commission in the Navy – and excels at navigation. He finds social relationships difficult, but manages to get along well enough with his fellow junior officers. Nevertheless, he always feels an outsider. Wounded in the American War of Independence, he returns to England with no prospects, and is pleased to accept a place on the Sirius, flagship of the motley first fleet of ships assembled to transport convicts to the almost completely unknown continent of Australia. Once there, he adjusts quite quickly to the strange plants and animals, and begins to learn the language of the local Cadigal (or Gadigal) people. But anyone with even a passing knowledge of the history of white settlement in Australia will easily guess that this is not going to end well, and Grenville gives plenty of clues to this along the way.

In Rooke, Grenville has created a most appealing character through whose eyes we begin to see that an environment that seems harsh and unwelcoming to most white inhabitants of Sydney Cove, convicts and their gaolers alike, is full of interest and even pleasure. Rooke, the outsider, can ‘enter the strangeness and lose himself in it.’ He is a scientist; he thinks rationally about his environment. His greatest interest is in the Cadigal language, which he sees as the key to unlocking an understanding of the Aboriginal people. He knows that language is ‘more than a list of words’, it is a machine; ‘to make it work, each part had to be understood in relation to all the other parts’. And he realises that he can do this, and that ‘everything in his life had been leading here’. His main helper in this project is a young girl, Tagaran. With her, he realises that even understanding language as a mirror of culture is but a step on a path to deeper understanding which goes beyond science: ‘It was the heart of talking, not just the words and not just the meaning, but the way in which two people had found common ground and begun to discover the true names of things.’ In this context, he was no longer an outsider. ‘Tagaran was teaching him a word, and by it was showing him a world.’

This is, of course, a work which imaginatively re-creates history, rather than one of pure invention. There was indeed such a Lieutenant of Marines as Daniel Rooke; his name was William Dawes, and he did learn a lot of the Cadigal language and fill notebooks with it as Daniel does in the story. The fateful moral decision Rooke makes is very similar to that made by Dawes, and Rooke’s subsequent history, as told in the final section, is the same as that of Dawes. You can read Dawes’s biography here. (The word with which Tagaran shows Daniel ‘the world’ is in notebook B21, though her name doesn’t appear.) Using Dawes’s story with different names allows there to be a certain timeless quality about it: a lonely man finding himself through contact with indigenous peoples could happen at any time in any place of first contact. So equally can his story of loss of innocence.

For all that, there is real history involved, and while Grenville is not trying to tell that history, I think she is a bit light on historical detail. Rooke seems to have been left alone to an unlikely degree, and to have remarkably little to do. The real Lieutenant Dawes played a much more active role in the colony, in addition to his work with the Cadigal language. Here, Grenville may be emphasising Rooke’s isolation for reasons of the story. The very early years of the colony were even harsher than Grenville suggests. She doesn’t really explain just how dire the food situation was and doesn’t really explore the paradox of a starving white community existing alongside a well-fed Aboriginal one. Her portrait of Governor Phillip (Gilbert in the story) seems overly harsh to me, though perhaps she knows more about him than I do, or perhaps this is another device to heighten Rooke’s position as an outsider. You can read about Phillip here. I always thought he did as well as it was possible to do as governor of a harsh penal colony, and that he genuinely didn’t wish to harm the Aboriginal population – not merely for strategic reasons, but also for humane ones.  But harmed they were, and more deeply and quickly, I would have thought, than Grenville suggests. Before there was any official policy of reprisal against them, Aboriginal people were dying of the cholera and influenza brought by the first fleet, and according to Robert Hughes’s The Fatal Shore, by 1789, ‘black corpses were a common sight’. Could Rooke and Tagaran’s friendship have flourished in such conditions? Or did Dawes, unlike Rooke, get no further than listing the mechanics of the Cadigal language? One thing is certain: Dawes’s recording of the Cadigal language has been vital to its survival today.

You can read more about Kate Grenville and her work here. And here is an interesting review of this book.  A more recent book, Sarah Thornhill (2011) forms a sort of trilogy with it and The Secret River. You can find the spot where Rooke sets up his hut, now Dawes Point, close to the southern end of the Sydney Harbour Bridge.


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