English & EAL

The Secret River: A Hundred Acres

Lisa Tran

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After almost a year of settling in, stories of the natives’ violence continued. On one trip back from Sydney, Thornhill saw trouble had reached his home when Willie ran ‘down towards him from the hut, his hair wild, his face twisted with yelling’ [pg 191]. To his relief, Sal explained that the natives had come the day before, but no one was harmed. Yet he was determined to settle the feud, and ‘set off towards the smoke’ where the natives isolated themselves from the foreigners.

He discovered two naked women by the fire, and while he was ashamed to look at another woman’s body, the women appeared to be comfortable in their skins. Thornhill then realised that a group of men where watching him. Bravely, he acted as though he was the host, and the natives were his guests on his land. He asserted that ‘this [place is] mine now. Thornhill’s place’ [pg 196]. Yet one of the natives, the same one Thornhill had slapped on his first day, illustrated through his body language and vocals that Thornhill was an intruder on their land. Although no ‘conversation had taken place’ [pg 197], Thornhill understood that both sides would be unfaltering, and that the dispute was far from over.

Once at home, Thornhill made light of his encounter, assuring Sal that everything was fine. Secretly, he hoped that ‘the sky would be empty of their smoke’ [pg 198], but every morning his wish was never fulfilled. With his long-term exposure to the natives, Thornhill realised that the natives were not indistinguishable from one another because of their black skin, but instead, he found that could tell them apart easily. He named the old man Whisker Harry, the man he had slapped was Long Bob, and a younger man Black Dick – names that made them appear more like friendly neighbours. Although the men never came close to Thornhill and his men, the women befriended Sal. The women enjoyed showing each other their cultural utilities and clothing, and Sal often exchanged her belongings for the natives’ odd and interesting items. However, Thornhill spotted the women later on mocking Sal, for one of the natives was modeling the bonnet with a ‘lizard dangling from…her stuck-out arse’ [pg 202], something he did not wish Sal to see.

Sal shared with Thornhill that Mrs Herring had advised that they should anticipate frequent visits from the natives. At Sal’s behest, Thornhill visited Blackwood in order to learn from those experienced with residing in the area. Upon arrival at Blackwood’s place however, Thornhill stumbled across a shocking surprise. Blackwood was in a loving relationship with a native, and they had a son together. Blackwood explained that ‘I find them quiet and peaceable folk…I telled her you’ll keep your trap shut. About what you seen here’ [pg 210]. At home, Thornhill only shared his encounter with Sal, who came to the conclusion that they were on their own in figuring out how to deal with the natives.

Meanwhile, Dick had his own jobs around the home, while Bub helped his older brother. After completion of his work however, Dick immediately disappeared, and later returned with unique items such as ‘a translucent round pebble, a piece of wood so eaten by the white ants it had become a sponge’ [pg 211]. Thornhill noticed that Dick often went to the ‘black’s side’ down by the river to play with the native children. Once Sal was aware of Dick’s activities, Thornhill was sent to retrieve their son.

Upon arrival, Thornhill saw that Dick was mesmerised Long Bob creating a fire with sticks. With a fire burning, Long Bob’s expression spoke ‘match that, white man’ [pg 213]. However, Thornhill approached Long Bob with humour, ‘Me, Thornhill.’ The natives began to laugh after a comment from Long Jack. Finding comfort in knowing that ‘there won’t be no stopping us…pretty soon there won’t be nowhere left for you black buggers’ [pg 215], Thornhill joined in the laughter as well. That night, Thornhill smacked Dick; the first time he had ever beaten a child. Yet the very next day, he discovered Dick trying to create a fire. Knowing that a second beating would not make a difference, Thornhill joined in Dick’s attempt at the ‘savage’s trick’ [pg 218].

Compared to the natives, the Thornhills were unfamiliar with how to hunt, resulting to a routine meal of dry pork. They hungrily noticed how the natives easily caught lizards and kangaroos. One day out of desperation, Thornhill presented the natives with a bag of flour in exchange for some kangaroo. While accepting his offer, the natives only offered the kangaroo’s foot for the flour. With no room for argument, Thornhill returned home to have ‘a kind of soup with a scum of hair that had to be strained through muslin. In the liquid were lumps of bone and strings of sinew gone like bootstraps’ [pg 228]. Although unpleasant, the different meal in contrast to dry pork allowed ‘the Thornhill family had [eat] better than usual’ [pg 229]. Other differences between the two cultures were also evident, for the natives spent little time working, and had ‘plenty of time left for sitting by their fires talking and laughing.’ Meanwhile, the family worked all day under the sun. According to Thornhill, the natives are like ‘gentry’ since ‘they spent a little time each day on their business…the rest their own to enjoy’ [pg 230].

Thornhill’s trade had success in the six months he had resided at Thornhill’s Point. He had regular customers, one of whom was Smasher Sullivan. On one trip, Smasher shared oysters with Thornhill, for his area was rife with them.  A native however, intruded on their privacy and caught their attention by opening an oyster ‘with a twist of his thumbnail’ [pg 233]. Seeing the man’s mockery of the men, who found it considerably harder to open oysters, Smasher whipped the native with his belt, leaving a stream of blood on his chest. The native speedily grabbed onto the lash, leaving both men staring firmly at one another. The native then left ‘without a word.’ Although Smasher’s reaction shocked Thornhill, Smasher only stated that ‘they’ll get you one fine day’ [pg 234], knowing that Thornhill and Blackwood were ‘cosying up to them bastards.’

Encountering Conflict Analysis

Dick and Thornhill

Raised in Australia for most of his life, Dick possessed different values towards the natives than his family. Regardless of their cultural and language differences, it is clear that Dick surpassed this barrier and accepted the natives as humans who merely had different coloured skin. Unlike majority of settlers, he viewed the natives as true neighbours; people whose company he could enjoy. The Thornhills conflict with the natives however, was blatant enough for Dick to comprehend that he was not supposed to interact with the natives. Due to the divide between the families, Dick would often sneak off in order to evade conflict with his parents. While Thornhill struggled to understand why Dick spent time with ‘them primitives’ [pg 216], Sal explained that they had Rotherlithe, a special place they used go when they were younger. Dick on the other hand ‘ain’t got no Rotherhithe to go to. He never even heard of the place.’ With this knowledge in mind, after Dick’s punishment and then discovering his son’s attempt to mimic the natives’ technique of creating a fire, instead of reigniting the conflict between the two, Thornhill aimed to amend his relationship with his son. Nevertheless, Thornhill reflected that Dick ‘was still a stranger to his father’ [pg 219], for their values and beliefs were a world apart.

Conflict with the land

Although they had settled in Australia for a few years, the Thornhills, like other settlers, had not truly adapted to the land. With an absence of hunting skills, they resulted to consuming bland, dry pork each night for dinner. The settlers had become accustomed to a civilised society, both in England and the colony. As a result, they possessed a lack of knowledge about the natural world. This was in contrast to the natives, who were consistently seen carrying different animals, proof of their expertise in regards to the land and its animals. As Thornhill observed, the natives devoted little time to their work each day, compared to the settlers who would work throughout the day, and often still, many stories of failed crops emerged. The natives’ connection with the land is also shown when the native at Smasher’s skiff flaunted how easily he could open the oyster whereas Smasher, a man who regularly devoured oysters, was yet to have mastered the trick. This emphasised that while the settlers may have declared their right to the land, they could never appreciate the environment like the natives.

Key Passages

Conflict between Aboriginals and convicts

“It took him a moment to see two old women by the fire. As still and dark as the ground they seemed to grow out of…they stared at each other, their words between them like a wall.” [pg 193-197]

“There were so many of them, and only the one Sal in the whole wide world…Sal’s bonnet was being modeled by the woman who had had the lizard dangling from her waist: not on her head, but on her stuck-out arse, and they were all laughing in a way he would not have wanted Sal to see.” [pg 199-202]

“Then he looked straight at Thornhill…the difference was, he never had the suspicion that Mary was mocking him.” [pg 213-215]

Blackwood’s peace with Aboriginals

“Thornhill looked, seeing no one, but Blackwood called out in response, the form of his words unclear, jammed up together, and then one o the shadows moved forward and resolved itself into a black woman…I better have got that right, Will Thornhill, and if I ain’t, by Jesus your life ain’t worth a brass farthing.” [pg 209-210]

Important Quotes

Thornhill’s inner conflict with owning land

“It felt more like when she gave him the coins every Monday to take to Mr Butler of Butler’s Buildings.” [pg 192]

“It took him some time to admit to himself that his hundred acres no longer felt quite his own.” [pg 128]

Conflict between natives and convicts

“The Governor had decreed that townships with garrisons of troops be made along the upper reaches of the river. That way, even though the blacks were frequently committing their outrages and depredations, the farmers themselves would be safe and not abandon the place.” [pg 190]

“Each time he rounded his point and saw the smoke calmly rising up out of his chimney, the fowls pecking away around the yard and the children running down the slope to meet him he felt a flush of relief.” [pg 190-191]

“He set off towards the smoke, striding along the ground like a man measuring it up. All the same, he felt naked.” [pg 193]

“Authority radiated from this naked old man like heat off a fire.” [pg 196]

“They stared at each other, their words between them like a wall.” [pg 197]

“They were never without their spears.” [pg 199]

“The thornhill household sweated away under the broiling sun, chopping and digging, and still had nothing to eat but salt pork and damper. By contast, the blacks strolled into the forest and came back with dinner hanging from heir belts.” [pg 202]

“Then he looked straight at Thornhill. It did not take any words to understand. Match that, white man.” [pg 213]

“But a man who could write his own name, William Thornhill, along a piece of paper, could not be made to look a fool by a naked savage.” [pg 214]

“His face turned in the general direction of Thornhill, but the space occupied by him was nothing more than a piece of air the shape of a man.” [pg 226]

Conflict between Thornhill and Sal

“He made a point of getting some little gift for Sal on every trip to Sydney.” [pg 190]

Conflict between gentry and convicts

“When he put [the boots] on he understood why gentry looked different. Partly it was having money in the bank, but it was also your boots telling you how to walk.” [pg 190]

“Ned and Dan both scorned the blacks, as being even lower in the scheme of things than themselves.” [pg 203]

“In the world of these naked savages, it seemed everyone was gentry.” [pg 230]

Dick’s relationship with the natives

“He had seen Dick there on a spit of san, playing with the native children, all bony legs and skinny arms shiny like insects, running in and out of the water. Dick was stripped off as they were, to nothing but skin.” [pg 211]

“He ran and called and laughed with them, and he could have been their pale cousin.”

Conflict between Thornhill and Dick

“The boy’s anxious face split into a smile. But he was still a stranger to his father.” [pg 219]

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