The Lieutenant was inspired by a real story hidden for two centuries in the pages of a couple of shabby blue notebooks stored in a London manuscript library. The notebooks belonged to William Dawes, a soldier in the first days of the Colony of New South Wales, and they record his efforts to learn the language of the indigenous people of Sydney. Between the lines they reveal an extraordinary friendship – warm, playful and respectful – between him and one of his teachers, a young indigenous girl called Patyegarang.
Reading the conversations in the notebooks – what she said, what he said – you long to know who these two remarkable people were, who could reach out across gulfs of difference and form a friendship that still blazes off the page two centuries later. Those conversations were the starting-point for the novel. I didn’t change any of the words in those conversations, but tried to draw a picture of the circumstances in which they might have happened.
This is a novel, but it stays close to the historical events. They bring up issues that are still with us. How do we value difference, and learn to communicate across it? How do we learn how to listen as well as speak, and how do we respond when life presents us with a moral choice that leaves no room for evasion?
The Lieutenant has been an enormously popular book in Australia (where it featured on many prize lists and is a school text), the UK, the US and Canada. It’s been translated in many languagers, including German, French and Greek.
The Lieutenant: Extract
…One of the women was walking towards the doorway of his hut. He made exaggerated ushering gestures. Come in, come in, welcome, I am pleased to see you! He was glad there was no one there to watch him. The woman did not respond to the pantomime. Her dignity made his eagerness seem false.
She went into the hut and glanced around as if it were not so very interesting. She called back over her shoulder to the others, a few curt syllables, and they crowded into the hut. They inspected his domestic arrangements, murmuring to each other. One of the women picked up a corner of the grey blanket over the bed and held it to her cheek, exclaiming, he thought, at the scratchy texture. They ran their long-fingered hands over the gleaming wood of the table, touched at the brass hinges where the legs folded. They lifted the cover of Montaigne and turned the pages.
He wondered if they were saying: Look, he has bark here in a little square.
Would they have the idea of square? Would some wild Euclid among them have pondered the marvels of the triangle?
Even in that tight space they had a remarkable way of not meeting his eye. They moved around him and he guessed that they were not speaking out loudly because he was there. And yet he was not there.
His first day at the Academy, Lancelot Percival had told him scornfully, Rooke, in polite circles you do not speak to a person to whom you have not been introduced!
The children had been hiding themselves behind the legs of the women, peeping around at Rooke and retreating if he looked at them. Now he caught the eye of a little boy, a sturdy fellow of five or six, who ducked back behind his mother’s leg but then looked out again. Rooke smiled and even tried a wink, and by degrees the boy grew brave enough to dart out and touch one of the brass buttons on Rooke’s jacket, dabbing at it as if it might be hot. Discovering that the button did not bite, he lost his shyness entirely, dancing around Rooke, plucking at his sleeve, pulling at his buttons and by the look of it shouting something to the effect of, What are these? What are they for? Where did you get them? Can I have one?
The women became bolder, holding things up to show each other as if they were goods at a market to be exclaimed over. They spoke to him, finding it hilarious to say the few words they must have already learned from the people in the settlement: `Goodbye! Goodbye! How do you do! Mister! Missus!’
`Good morning, good morning,’ Rooke replied, making them laugh even more. `I do very well, thank you, and you?’
Hi shaving things lay on the table and one of the women – tall, full-figured, so magnificent in her nakedness that Rooke was a little shy – picked up his razor and bent it open. He sprang across the hut to snatch it away from her and all the amusement stopped on the instant. He tried to show them how sharp it was, cut a twig from beside the fire with the blade and kept up a stream of words – sharp, you see, very sharp, it will cut anything, I use it to shave, see here? – out of some instinct that speech was less frightening than silence.
The hut, ill-lit at the best of times with its single window, grew dark. Rooke saw that clouds had gathered low and black, and it began to rain, fat drops hitting the shingles hard enough to make them rattle. A smell of cold mud rose up from the ground.
He went to the doorway and looked out. The rain hurled itself down against the rocks so violently it created a sort of spume. Under its force the bushes lashed about and the water of the harbour was almost invisible, the rain as thick as fog. He caught a few drops on his palm, held it out to his visitors.
`What is this, how do you say wet?’
The two young girls had hung back up till now, but one came forward and touched at his palm with the point of an index finger. Rooke looked into her face. She was perhaps ten or twelve years old, skinny and quick, with a long graceful neck and an expressive mobile face. He thought he saw in her the same impulses he was feeling himself: excitement tempered by wariness, the desire to explore held in check by the fear of making a wrong move.
She looked straight into his eyes and her mouth made a wry pout, equal parts frustration and amusement. He felt his own lips form an answering shape and saw her watching him – his eyes, his mouth, the look on his face – reading him in just the same way he was trying to read her.
She was like Ann had been at ten or twelve, was his instant thought. Dark-skinned, naked, she was nothing like Anne, yet he recognised his sister in her: old enough to want to look into another’s eyes, one human to another, and still young enough to be fearless.
She touched his palm again, this time with all her fingertips, stroking his skin as if to test its texture. Over the roar of the rain she said something. Like a deaf man, he watched her lips moving around the stream of words. Then she stopped and waited, her teeth resting on her lower lip in a way that said, more clearly than words, Well? What do you make of that?
He strained to separate some of the sounds, snatching at two that had surfaced clearly enough to be repeated.
`Mar-ray,’ he tried.
She smiled, her entire face involved in the act. He had thought her eyes black, but now he saw they were the deepest brown. To look so freely into the eyes of another felt as dangerous as leaping from a height. He was amazed at such recklessness in himself.
`Marray,’ she said again, pointing with her chin towards the rain beyond the doorway.
Marray. What did it mean? Wet, something like that?
So close to her, with the water cascading over the shingles above the door and pouring onto the ground, it seemed awkward to say nothing.
`What a downpour,’ he said, raising his voice against the din. `Have you ever seen such weather?’
He listened ruefully to the drawing-room sound of that. It was the sort of small talk he could seldom manage when it was appropriate, yet here he was, doing it as deftly as Silk might have, for an audience of six naked women and children with whom he shared, so far, one word.
Forthright, fearless, sure of herself, she looked to him like a girl who had already mastered whatever social skills her world might demand.
He could hear the way she was speaking slowly, making it easy for him. He tried to turn the sounds into syllables but could only get as far as the first few. She repeated each one and he said them after her. It was like being taken by the hand and helped step by step in the dark.
Even when he had it, it did not sound quite the way she said it. There was something smothered or woolly, a slurring or legato quality to the word as she said it, that he could imitate. He could hear it, but his mouth did not know how to make it.
Still, everyone smiled and nodded at him and cried words that he assumed were along the lines of, Well done! Congratulations!
So that was the word, or perhaps words. But what did it, or they, mean? Something to do with the rain, but what, exactly? What a downpour! Have you ever seen such weather?
The rain eased and stopped as abruptly as it had begun. The little boy pushed past Rooke’s legs and ran out. Two of the women followed more slowly. Rooke and the girl watched them splashing up the track, now a streaming torrent that gleamed in the rays of sun already emerging from the clouds.
`Yen-narr-abe’, the girl said. `Yennarrabe.’
`Yennarrabe,’ he repeated.
Her mouth twisted, perhaps in amusement at the way he way it sounded. They said it to each other a few times. For the moment it was enough to pass the echo backwards and forwards. Even without knowing their meaning, the fact of exchanging words was a kind of message: I wish to speak with you.
The girl’s face was so expressive, the sense of her personality so vivid, that Rooke’s instinct was to take a step back and look away. But he did not. With a reckless sense of taking a leap, he laid the palm of his hand on his chest.
`Rooke,’ he said. `Daniel Rooke.’
She caught on straight away and made a good approximation of his name. Then she put her hand flat on her own bony chest. Uttered a couple of syllables he could not properly catch.
`Ta-ra,’ he tried.
Over at the fire the other girl laughed behind her hand and he heard her mimic his effort.
He rolled his eyes, grimaced. Yes, what an idiot I am, but harmless.
He tried again and the girl went slowly until the shapeless sound resolved itself into syllables: Ta-ga-ran.
The word he was making was still not quite the same as the one she had said. But he saw her face open with the pleasure of hearing her name in his foreign mouth, and at having been the one to teach him.
Her name and those two other utterances were in his mind now, but, as sounds not connected to anything, they would soon lose their shape in his memory. They were not Wind or Weather or Barometer, but like those, these words were part of the climate of the place, data that ought to be recorded.
He got down an unused notebook from the shelf, felt the girl watching as he sat at the table, dipped the pen in the ink and opened the book. On the first page, in his neatest astronomer’s hand, he wrote:Tagaran, the name of a girl. Marray, wet. Paye wallan ill labe – he hesitated – concerning heavy rain.
He read the words back to her, his finger under each syllable, stumbling through. She smiled, her face transformed, every part of it involved in the great beam of delight.
The old woman was calling out something. It might have been, Come children, time to go, because they all left soon after. At the foot of the rocks, Tagaran turned.
`Yenioo! Yenioo!’ she called, and he called back.
What else could she have meant?
`Come again,’ he called. `Come again soon, you are always welcome!’
But they were gone. He was farewelling the grass tossing in the breeze.
‘Supremely good’ – Granta (UK)
‘It glows with life: imaginative in its recreations, respectful of what cannot be imagined, and thoughtful in its interrogation of the past…Grenville’s most intellectually sophisticated novel to date.’ – The Age (Australia)
‘Grenville inhabits characters with a rare completeness…she occupies the mind of Rooke with a kind of vivid insistence, and his isolation – and moral dilemmas – become ours…She writes with a poet’s sense of rhythm and imagery.’ – the Guardian (UK)
‘A compelling narrative… an intelligent, spare, always engrossing imagining of first contact.’ – Times Literary Supplement (UK)
‘A particular kind of stillness marks Kate Grenville’s characters out as uniquely hers… Between the words and among them, this is a profoundly uplifting novel.’ – Independent (UK)
‘The Lieutenant compels as a historical novel… but Grenville’s most thrilling achievement is to filter a lesson in social acceptance through the computational consciousness of a man whose head is in the stars.’ -LA Times (US)
‘Another dazzling and disturbing achievement… Grenville’s descriptions of the encounters between Rooke and the Gadigal, especially a young girl called Tagaran, are wonderfully shimmering and authentic…The Lieutenant is a gripping, fastidiously written tale and I couldn’t put it down.’ Weekend Herald (Australia)
‘The Lieutenant is…the richly imagined portrait of a deeply introspective, and quite remarkable, man.’ – Sunday NY Times (US)
‘Grenville’s reflections on the relationship of language to life, perspective to meaning, literature to truth all sprout from the seeds of historical record and twine enticingly throughout the novel.’ Adelaide Advertiser (Australia)
‘The Lieutenant is an outstanding story… completely absorbing… Grenville’s observations of Rooke’s inner world and the amazement of the landscape and brutality of the settlers elevates this novel to modern classic status’ – Independent Weekly (Australia)
‘Grenville’s portrait of the obtuse yet engaging Rooke and her description of this strange territory are marvellously evocative.’ Boston Globe (US)
‘The Lieutenant has a potency and beauty that lingers in both the heart and mind’s eye… the scenes between Rooke and Tagaran are superbly writtten, and Grenville conveys not only the sense of true kinship that grows between them, but also the euphoria of connection and understanding between two people from different universes.’ Sunday Telegraph (UK)
‘…a triumph of imaginative history. Grenville’s book has a sense of humour – and its power, like that of all great novels, derives from the author’s deep and abiding affection for all concerned.’ -The Monthly (Australia)
‘An extraordinary adventure into the nature of language, culture and human communication.” Listener (Australia)
‘Grenville’s craft is, as always, astounding, deftly melding subject and metaphor, story and image… The Lieutenant succeeds beautifully.’ – Canberra Times (Australia)
‘The lasting impression of her novel is not of drama, but of a lovely, watchful stillness: a sort of astronomy of the human heart.’ -Sunday Telegraph (UK)
‘In lucid prose and perfectly measured strides, Grenville lays down her riveting tale. A novel aglow with empathy, its author’s capacious visions still deliver an elemental thrill.’ -Daily Mail (UK)
‘This novel is a triumph. Read it at once..’ The Times (UK)
An Interview with Kate Grenville
Q. Like The Secret River, The Lieutenant tells a story of a European newcomer’s interaction with Australia’s indigenous people. What drew you to return to this period of our history?
When I was researching The Secret River I was struck by how that period was full of human dramas of love, hatred, ambition and intrigue. The early days of settlement in Australia seem to have been “the best of times and the worst of times”, bringing out both the glorious and the terrible in people. For a novelist, those powerful stories are irresistible – they cry out to be told in a dramatic form.
In The Secret River I told a rather dark story about that period in which settlers came into conflict with indigenous people. But there were many different kinds of settlement and many different kinds of settlers. The Lieutenant gave me the opportunity to explore a more positive side of that period – so that the two books form a mirror-image of each other, a kind of ying and yang.
In The Secret River, most of the settlers are unable to engage with the indigenous people. It’s a story about a conversation that never gets off the ground. The Lieutenant is about two people who find a way to start speaking to each other and together make an indestructible bond.
One is a young lieutenant, a soldier with the First Fleet. The other is a child from the Gadigal people, a young girl who teaches him her language. In the extraordinary world of Sydney Cove in the first years of settlement, these two people forge a friendship like no other. When the young man has to make a choice between the world of His Majesty’s service and the world of the Gadigal, he realises he’s changed. There’s no going back.
When I came across the germ of this story in historical sources, I knew I had to try to tell it – I wanted others to feel the hairs-on-the-back-of-the-neck excitement I was feeling about these two people and what happened to them.
Q. The story is a re-imagined account of the real life experience of First Fleet astronomer William Dawes. Can you tell us a little about how you researched Dawes’ story and the process of weaving fact into fiction?
In Tim Flannery’s marvellous book The Birth of Sydney I came across an extract from the “Sydney Language notebooks” of William Dawes. Dawes was a young lieutenant with the First Fleet. He was also the astronomer to the expedition, and set up the first observatory, on what’s now Dawes’ Point in Sydney. He was also something of a linguist, and set out to learn the local Gadigal language. He wrote down word lists and grammar, but he also wrote down verbatim conversations with the Gadigal – and especially with a young girl called Patyegarang. Between the lines of these conversations a most extraordinary relationship can be heard developing – affectionate and warm, but most of all, playful. Even when they only shared a few words, these two people were able to share irony and wit in a way that makes the notebooks electrifying to read.
When a settler was fatally speared, Dawes was one of the soldiers ordered to go out on a punitive expedition, presenting him with a terrible choice: to do his duty as a soldier, or to be loyal to a friendship that had changed his view of the world.
The challenge I faced was to keep the raw drama of Dawes’ real story, while making a fiction that could enlarge its scope and significance.
Because the real story was so powerful, I kept the real names and the actual time-frame for many drafts. I found it hard to let them go, but when I did, I realised I could shift the story into another gear and enlarge its scope and significance.
One of the most difficult aspects of writing The Lieutenant was that my main character was an astronomer and mathematician, so I had to try to come to grips with enough Kepler and Newton and Euclid to make sense of him – although I myself can barely add two and two.
As I did with The Secret River, I spent a lot of time on the places where the story happened: Dawes Point (Dawes’ observatory is long gone, but archaelogists have excavated what they think are the foundations) and Botany Bay, where the punitive expedition took place. In both those places I was very aware of the spirit of the first Australians. The story of Dawes and Patyegarang came to represent not just the past, but the present and future too, and the conversations we might all have.
Q. The Secret River is a book that has been embraced not only in Australia, but has been loved and lauded right around the world. How has the reaction of foreign audiences differed from that of Australians to this very Australian story?
The Secret River IS a very Australian story, but it’s also a universal one about belonging. All over the world, communities are made up of people who were born there, and people who came there. The tensions, and also the riches of that mix are familiar to many societies in this global village of ours. How do you make place for yourself? What does it mean to belong somewhere? What happens if two sets of people want the same place? How do we learn to live together?
As I wrote The Secret River I wasn’t thinking of it finding a readership beyond the culture in which it’s set, but the book has been translated into many languages and finds a readership in cultures as different as Canada and Israel, Italy and Germany. That’s made me think about my own culture in a different way – the issues we face here spring out of our history, but they’re global too.
Q. At the end of the novel there is an incredibly poignant description of a ship leaving Sydney harbour, looking back at the country it is reluctantly leaving behind. Do you have any plans to return to the early settlement period of our history again in the future?
There are still so many amazing stories to tell! My family history gave me the starting-point for The Secret River and another family story is niggling away at me, wanting to be told, about that time. It may come to nothing – sometimes what looks like a great story turns out to be just a grand empty room when you try to bring it to human life. We’ll see. I’m still on that ship, I think, still living with that lieutenant and his world.
These days we can hop on a plane and be on the other side of the world in the time it takes to watch a few bad movies and eat a few bad meals. But for the first settlers to Australia in 1788 – a thousand-odd prisoners and their guards – it must have been unimaginably weird and scary.
One of them was a nerdy young lieutenant from Portsmouth, keen on astronomy and Latin: William Dawes. Because he was an astronomer, he was allowed to set up an observatory away from the main camp, and because he was interested in languages, he decided do learn to speak with the Aborighinal people when they started to visit him there.
What happened next is recorded in two little blue notebooks which are now in a London manuscript library. When I first read them, I knew I’d come across an amazing story.
Being a man of science, Dawes started by collecting nouns and verbs in alphabetical order and getting excited about the ablative case. But he soon abaondoned system and simply wrote down conversations between himself and his visitors, in English and the corresponding Gadigal. One visitor in particular began to dominate the notebooks: a young girl called Patyegarang.
Between the 26-year-old lieutenant and the 12-or 13-year old girl an astonishing (and I believe platonic) relationship is recorded in those worn little books. They came from different planets, and yet these two people had an extraordinary rapport. Even though they knew so few words of each other’s language, they were able to have real conversations, sharing ideas, confiding with each other, joking together. The pleasure they took in each other’s company still blazes off the page after two hundred years.
It was the puzzle and the power of that relationship that I wanted to explore: that, and the consequences for Dawes. After a settler was speared, the governor sent out a punitive expedition against the local Aborigines. The soldiers – among them Dawes – were ordered to kill six men, decapitate them and bring the heads back to the settlement. Hatchets and bags were thoughtfully provided.
For the young lieutenant it was a life-changing moment.
This was the story I began with, a story full of gaps and mysteries because of the sketchiness of the historical record. But gaps and mysteries are a novelist’s delight.
I took the conversations in the notebooks as my starting-point, because the human drama between Dawes and Patyegarang was the emotional heart of the story. I kept the conversatiions word for word, only inventing a context in which they might have happened.
Trying to understand Dawes, I looked for help in the landscape itself, in the place where the story happened. One of the first things I did was to walk from the bay where the first camp was established, out to the point where Dawes lived in his little observatory. I could see that getting there in 1788 would have been a scramble up a steep rocky hillside, and he’d picked out the one place on the headland that was hidden from the settlement.
Standing there, I felt I could work backwards from the place, to the kind of person who might choose it. I thought he might have been a man who enjoyed his own company, and had no fear of being alone in this foreign landscape. That made sense of the man in the notebooks: earnest, yet eager to experience the new world and courageous enough to let himself be drawn into it.
Exploring the congested streets of Old Portsmouth, standing on the ancient stones of The Hard and walking about the navel dockyard, I had the same sense of discovery. It was easy to imagine a serious and rather isolated little boy growing up there, hemmed in by the narrowness of his life but hoping that somewhere out there, beyond the harbour and the sea, his future was waiting for him.
Daniel Rooke isn’t William Dawes. My interst in him wasn’t about reconstructing history, but in telling the story of a man growing into his full humanity. It was about exploring ideas of communication, about the choices we make when confronted with the strange and the foreign. How do we speak to each other across gulfs of difference?
Dawes has fascinated other writers before me, and no wonder: when he did was astonishing and the record he left of it in those little notebooks is unique. As a starting-point for a work of imagination, the story of his friendship with Patyegarang – something no novelist would dare to invent – seemed a gift from the cosmos.
[I’m indebted to Tim Flannery for first alerting me to the notebooks, and to the library of the School or Oriental and African Studies, London, for permission to look at the originals.]
How the idea for the book came about
In 1788 a fleet of British ships arrived in Australia to establish a penal settlement: around 800 prisoners and some 200 marines.
One of those marines was a young lieutenant called William Dawes. Although nominally a soldier, he seems to have been a scholar rather than a fighting man – an astronomer, a mathematician and a linguist.
He set up an observatory on an isolated point of land, and the local indigenous people – the Gadigal – visited him there. He began to learn their language, recording what he learned in two small notebooks.
When I came across an extract from these notebooks in 2003, I was galvanised by the amazing story they suggested.
Dawes seems to have begun his language studies with scientific precision, listing verb forms (“I eat, thou eatest, he she or it eats…”) and pages for alphabetical word lists. But these grids remain largely blank. What happened instead is that he began to record entire conversations between himself and the Gadigal people, and particularly a young girl named Patyegarang. Scientific detachment was swept away in something much more personal.
Between the lines of those conversations, an astonishing and perhaps unique relationship is recorded. Dawes and Patyegarang clearly enjoyed each other’s company and the play of each others’ minds. Across gulfs of culture, language, age and perhaps even personality, they forged a friendship that was affectionate, playful and witty.
The emotional intensity that emerges between the lines of the conversations is so powerful that some have thought that their relationship must have been a sexual one. For various reasons, my own feeling is that it was not. Dawes was in his middle twenties: Patyegarang’s age is uncertain, but she was probably between about ten and fifteen. My reading of their conversations is that they enjoyed the kind of friendship that sometimes happens between a clever, subtle, confident child and an adult.
At some point in their friendship, one of the settlement’s `gamekeepers’ was fatally speared. The governor sent a party of soldiers out to punish the tribe from which the attacker was said to come – neighbours of the Gadigal. Their orders were to capture and bring back six indigenous men, but if this proved `impracticable’, then six were to be killed and their heads cut off and brought back. Hatchets and bags were provided for the purpose.
Dawes was one of the soldiers ordered out on this expedition. He refused to go; was warned of the consequences of disobeying, and agreed to go; but on his return ( the party having not made a single capture), he announced that he would refuse to obey any similar order if it were given. For this insubordination he risked court-martial and severe punishment.
He had earlier expressed a wish to stay in the settlement beyond his tour of duty, but he was sent back with the rest of the marines and never returned to Australia. He spent the rest of his life working for the Abolition movement in London, Africa and the West Indies. When slavery was abolished he set up schools for former slaves and died in Antigua.
So much for the historical record, sketchy and partial as it is. As a novelist, I was gripped (as Jane Rogers and Paul Carter had been before me) by the human drama of what’s suggested by it. The rapport between a young indigenous girl and one of His Majesty’s marines was extraordinary one – reading about it, it’s impossible not to wonder what these two people were like. They spring off the pages of the notebooks not as historical figures but living, breathing human souls.
The choice that Dawes made when ordered on the punitive expedition – a choice between his future prospects and some emotional or moral imperative – is richly enigmatic. Why did he risk severe punishment and disgrace, when doing so made no difference to anything?
Reading the notebooks, there’s a strong sense of a person being transformed before our eyes. A man of science discovers another, more fluid way of engaging with the world; a detached observer becomes deeply involved not just intellectually but emotionally; a Lieutenant in His Majesty’s service decides he can no longer be part of the imperial machine. In coming to know the Gadigal people, William Dawes was irrevocably changed.
History becomes fiction
All this, then, was the raw material I had to work with in writing a novel. Without the notebooks I would never have thought to imagine a friendship like the one between Dawes and Patyegarang. Even if I had thought such a thing might have happened, I wouldn’t have attempted to write it. How would you even begin to invent those unimaginable conversations?
The notebooks excited me because, for all their gaps and mysteries, they recorded, verbatim, conversations around which I could build a story. I’d have to invent the context for the conversations, and I’d have to speculate about the people who spoke the words, and I was uncertain about how appropriate it was to do that. But in the end I felt it was important to try, because this story was one that recorded an aspect of our past – shared between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians – that was hugely important. It records a moment in that shared history where mutual goodwill and generous curiosity created real understanding.
The relationship between this novel and the real events that inspired it is complex – as the relationship between any work of imagination and the world must always be.
For the first several drafts, I stuck closely to the historical sources and used the names of the real people. This was partly because the real story was more intriguing that anything I could have invented, but also out of a sense of respect for the real people and the real events. It was important to me to go as far as I could in understanding what had been recorded before branching off into speculation.
I found as many references to Dawes as I could in the historical record, and researched his life as far as I could. I read his meteorological journal and his letters to the Astronomer Royal in which his voice could be heard. I researched eighteenth-century telescopes and rain-gauges, examined engravings of marines’ uniforms, read a blow-by-blow account of the Battle of Chesapeake Bay.
While in the UK on other business I spent time in Portsmouth, where Dawes was born, and at the Greenwich Observatory. I spent a great deal of time on the point in Sydney where Dawes had his observatory (long since vanished, but an archaeologist showed me the rock wall where it had once been). I retraced on foot most of the path the punitive expedition had probably taken, and spent time by night as well as by day on the shores of Botany Bay, where the soldiers had tried to ambush “the Botany Bay tribe”.
To try to feel something of the texture of life for the First Fleet, I pored over objects in museums – a pencil repaired with string, for example, or a chipped enamel basin – and asked a botanist friend if he could find the plant called “sweet-tea” by the first settlers. Drinking the tea I made from the leaves he sent me, with its delicately astringent aniseed flavour, made 1788 very real.
But `real life’ – whether in 1788 or 2088 – is not the same as a work of literature. Life is full of gaps of time in which nothing much happens; events which lead nowhere; events which are woven in with other events in a dense inseparable mass. To make this story work as a novel, it would be necessary to streamline, focus, and omit. It would also be necessary to go beyond the record, inventing events and imagining characters.
In moving from the historical record into a work of the imagination, I set myself two broad guidelines. The first was not to invent any dialogue between the Gadigal people and the lieutenant. I would use only what was recorded in the notebooks. The second was – as far as my knowledge went – not to invent out of nowhere. I would omit events that had really happened, I would adapt and alter real events, and I would invent beyond what was recorded, but I would – as far as possible – take the historical record as a starting-point.
So, for example, I telescoped time considerably (the main story in the novel take about two years while in reality it took about four; the real expedition took three days where in the novel it takes two). I made no mention of important historical moments ( the spearing of the Governor or the arrival of the Second Fleet, for example). I moved events that had happened at one time or place to another ( the first encounter between black and white is based on an encounter that happened in Botany Bay, not in Port Jackson). I speculated about characters, taking what was known about them as a starting-point but imagining beyond what was recorded. Readers familiar with the accounts of first settlement may recognise aspects of real people in many of the characters and will recognise some recorded events.
As a novelist I have latitude to speculate, to add, to omit, to guess and even to invent. But I also have available to me all the richness of the historical record. In a tradition that goes back to Homer and beyond, I’ve taken events that took place in the real world and used them as the basis for a work of imagination.
This is a novel, then, not history. But I hope that it might encourage readers to seek out the history of those extraordinary years of first settlement, and to see the continuities and discontinuities between that time and our own. The past may be a foreign country, but we can all try to learn its language.