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Posted on 29 Apr 2021 in Fiction |

ROBERT HORNE The Glass Harpoon. Reviewed by Ben Ford Smith

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Robert Horne’s novel reveals uncomfortable truths about the violence of colonial Australia.

In September 1848, between nine and eleven Aboriginal people were murdered at Avenue Range Station in South Australia. However, Aboriginal Australians’ testimonies were not then considered sufficient evidence in court. The accused murderer walked free, despite the judge noting that there was ‘little question of the butchery or the butcher’. More recently, in 2019, the The Guardian identified 270 massacres across Australia from 1794 to 1934.

Many of these deaths were the consequences of ‘hunting parties’, when settlers travelled into the bush to slaughter Aboriginal Australians. While there have been recent efforts to bring these events to light, the existence of these parties is still a contentious and often unacknowledged aspect of colonial Australia. In large part, it is also the subject of The Glass Harpoon, a historical novel that attempts to rupture the persistent silence surrounding the brutality at the heart of colonised Australia.

Spanning the years 1842 to 1844, the story follows a ‘barely-bearded boy’, Matthew Larkin – a bookish romantic recently arrived in colonial Adelaide. Little more than a huddle of wooden shacks with ‘yakka flax for roofs’, the city is a far cry from the libraries of Oxford where he had studied theology.

Matthew is both seduced by the beauty of the landscape and bitingly aware of the incongruity of his presence as a lover of Keats among moustachioed imperialists and drunken settlers. Most intriguing of all to him are the Kaurna people with their elaborate symbolic dances, ingenious hunting methods, and surprisingly good manners. In observing their ways, Matthew meets the eccentric William Cawthorne, a painter, philosopher and schoolteacher ostracised from mainstream colonial society for his low origins and for his friendship with the Kaurna.

Horne has drawn on paintings by the real William Cawthorne and primary source descriptions to portray Aboriginal Australians. With the blessing of Kaurna elder and scholar Uncle Lewis Yerloburka O’Brien, he has included an array of detail about Kaurna culture in the novel: the gender equality among the groups, in which women and men were educated together; the Kaurna’s strategic burning of scrub to prompt further growth – as well as the complexity of the ‘affray’, a traditional territorial conflict both symbolic and real.

The novel’s chapters alternate between Matthew’s time in Adelaide and his later journey to the north of South Australia. The structural conceit works well, as Matthew’s burgeoning admiration for the Kaurna people develops alongside an increasingly dark trip north, casting shadows across the earlier sections. There is a sense of fate playing out in slow motion as Matthew is drawn closer to the Kaurna and further from his colonial counterparts.

One of the successes of Horne’s novel is the tension between the compassionate intentions of his European characters and our 21st-century understanding of what constitutes racism. Certain characters will defend the rights of Aboriginal people, with the caveat that they obey the laws and social rules of the invaders. Horne’s presentation of colonial racism is discomfiting in its familiarity – few characters are hostile towards the indigenous people without some pretext, however flimsy, but once that pretext is articulated, the Aboriginal characters are met with unbridled violence. The settlers’ rationalisation of this aggression is that they are not killing out of hate or fear, but because a rule was broken. Even the hunting parties – the dramatic centre of the novel – are seen by the colonialists as grim justice:

It was needed, so it was said, to clean out the rebellious ones, the thieves, those who would make war … So the story went, and it was their story, his story, it was the story made for all of them equally.

The tension between the characters’ colonial notions of race and present-day perspectives reaches its peak after Matthew has been wounded in a skirmish. Run through the arm with a wooden spear dipped in an ‘evil black sludge’ of rotten sheep intestine, he is nursed back to health by a Kaurna woman, Grace, while an English doctor manages little more than to foment an opium addiction in his patient. Grace and Matthew begin a relationship that Matthew knows will concern the settlers back in Adelaide, but when Grace falls pregnant, the news spreads and Matthew finds himself isolated even from the progressive Cawthorne, who writes to him: ‘Your enthusiasms are running away into madness. There is an example to be set.’

Alienated from his countrymen and muddled by opium, riddled with guilt for his role in the deaths of Grace’s people, Matthew determines that the only solution to the conflict between colonists and the Aboriginal population is ‘to make a new race’ not unlike the Mexican mestizo. Conceived by Matthew as a peaceful means to an end, his well-intentioned but uncomfortable perspective is a darkly ironic foreshadowing of assimilatory policies undertaken by later governments: Matthew’s dream is to make both races disappear to be replaced with something new, but in reality our governments tried to dissolve one into the other.

Such aspects of the book evoke uncanny echoes of more recent history. Just as Matthew’s eventual downfall feels inevitable, so too does the fate of Australia’s first inhabitants.

As vicious as the events of the novel are, there is a lot of light here too. Lucy Bray is an orphan and the governor’s niece, and she and Matthew share the first glimmers of a courtship before his duties draw him north. Lucy had little choice in coming to South Australia, but she embraces the surprising, alien world she has come to inhabit. Almost every scene with Lucy is a delight: a wood-chopping competition in the German settlement of Klemzig to Adelaide’s northeast (now swallowed by suburban sprawl), shooting a bushranger in the hand, verbal jousting with the crusty imperials at a Government House soiree. The novel is punctuated by these points of light that balance the darkness of its central themes.

The Glass Harpoon represents an earnest and unflinching effort to understand colonists as individuals who mistakenly believed they were working for the greater good. It casts a similar eye over the massacre of Australia’s original inhabitants, rendering their callous murders in confronting detail. Horne’s novel reveals the uncomfortable truth that such a widespread system of horrors was enacted by a multiplicity of individuals; the racial attitudes of colonial Europeans are both familiar and alien, reprehensible and compassionate. The book achieves a subtlety and nuance that a more didactic novel could not sustain, to speak of the discomfiting truth at the dark heart of white Australia. It is a country not only founded on the death and displacement of ancient cultures, but on the silence of its witnesses, who often believed it happened for the good of all.

Over a century after the Avenue Range Station massacre, there is little written record of Aboriginal massacres in colonial Australia. They are largely remembered through oral histories; efforts to document such killings must extract fact from a murky past, and are unlikely to reveal the full extent of hunting parties in Australia. Hopefully, novels like The Glass Harpoon will contribute to the growing debate about such histories and how we can incorporate what they teach into a more accurate – and necessarily harrowing – understanding of the foundations of this country.

Robert Horne The Glass Harpoon Ginninderra Press 2020 PB 250pp $37.50

Ben Ford Smith is the co-author of Drugs, Guns & Lies (2020, Allen & Unwin). He holds a PhD in creative writing from Flinders University, South Australia.

You can buy The Glass Harpoon from Booktopia here, or direct from the publishers here.

To see if it is available from Newtown Library, click here.

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