the Secret River

I recently watched the ABC (Australia) produced two-part TV series The Secret River, based on Kate Genville’s 2005 ‘historical novel about an early 19th-century Englishman transported to Australia for theft. The story explores what may have happened when Europeans colonised land already inhabited by Aboriginal people’ [Wikipedia].

However I wanted the outcome to be different — be it white guilt, romanticising less atrocious and brutal settler-colonial attitudes  (even just hoping form a different portrayal, however inaccurate) — what it portrays is pretty accurate. In short, aside form the overtly racist settlers, a majority engaged in murderous acts against local Aboriginal peoples, with some clearly portrayed as doing so whilst they made have had some reservations (i.e. better intentions).

The main character, who embodies quite a bit of (white?) guilt, is portrayed at the end as quite broken, embodying guilt through his actions which ranged from moments of disgust with the overtly racist settlers, facial expressions of disagreement without actions challenging them, through to however regretted/partially resisted group attacks on local Aboriginal communities.

The ending specifically embodied the personal implications of colonialism, in particular how it damages even the perpetrators (not to downplay in any way to genocidal impacts on Aboriginal Peoples): set around 10 years post a pivotal event in which the local Aboriginal community was effectively wiped out in a night time attack.

Not only is the main protagonist — whilst living his life as a successful pardoned convict which a large homestead, who also has his own convict-slaves (the irony!?) — struggling with guilt and seeking forms of redemption, he is constantly reminded of the atrocities he participated it.

Attempts at redemption are illustrated in his apparent repeated attempts to give food to a an Aboriginal man camped nearby. He asks the an who he doesn’t live in the hut he built him. Implicit here are both the impacts of privilege and an apparent inability to see through the personal costs of such privilege. Why does the poor person (be it Aboriginal, or otherwise) not want-accept what i give them? He can’t see through his own obliviousness, which is staring him right in the face, and that his guilt is consistently reminding him of. Like most, he turns it back on the man who does not accept his ‘gift’. It is not his fault… (there is much more here, that I may come back to musing about — perhaps after I read the book).

His youngest son who had befriended an Aboriginal boy of similar age, and was largely welcomed by the community. He (the father) was there when the boy was indiscriminately killed in the attack. In this 10-year future that the mini-series end on, is son is seen as assisting the lone white man who came to develop a respectful relationship with the local Aboriginal community, and understand that the self-centred and selfish actions of the settler-colonials would lead to retaliation — and was seriously wounded in the ‘surprise attack’.

In many ways I connected with this character: who embodied-reflected a naive-liberal desire to be seen as the good white person, which is so common today (much of which I embody as a form of white guilt — even though I recognise how problematic and counter-productive it is). I am pretty certain this is why the character exists.

To round out these perpetually incomplete thoughts which continually evolve as I became more aware of my own complicity and strategic ignorance, I wonder how much it shows of the (little, yet positive) movement towards justice there is with the creating and airing of such a show.


As an aside, Tim Minchin plays the most explicitly racist character. I found it difficult to watch him in such a role…

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