English & EAL

The Secret River: Drawing a Line

Lisa Tran

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Things had changed at Thornhill’s point. Suddenly, groups of forty or more natives were seen, more than usual. Compared to when Thornhill first moved to the area, more natives were visible, with men carrying kangaroos back to their fire, voices constantly present and the fire burning throughout the days. Prior to their move to Thornhill’s point, Thornhill had bought a gun in fear of any potential encounters with the natives. With a sense of anticipation and dread due to the change in native’s activities, the Thornhill family became wary and cautious. Knowing that one gun was not enough to protect his family, Thornhill bought three more guns for Dan, Ned and Willie. In addition, they practiced defending themselves with spears. Even Dick, who was not yet 8 years old, could throw the spear a great distance. This frightened Thornhill, for he realised just how far a spear can travel, especially in adult hands. As each day passed, Thornhill found comfort in seeing how a mere fence could protect a home inside.

Desiring more protection, Thornhill visited Smasher to buy one of his dogs. When deciding which dog to choose inside Smasher’s home, Thornhill came across a ‘dark shape’ [pg 251] and realised it was ‘a black woman, cringing against the wall, panting so he could see the teeth gleaming in her pained mouth, and the sores where the chain had chafed, red jewels against her black skin.’ With satisfaction, Smasher shares that both he and Blackwood have been with the black woman, and offered Thornhill the chance to do so himself;  ‘For a terrible vivid instant…Thornhill imagined himself taking the woman’ [pg 252]. Disgusted with his malicious thought and Smasher’s brutal treatment, Thornhill hastily left the place, losing any desire for a dog.

After work one day, Thornhill found Smasher, whom had refused to see since the incident, Sagitty and his neighbour George Twist, Loveday, Mrs Herring and Blackwood with Sal in their home. The group shared the story of Spider, who had his corn field stripped bare by the natives. They had pinned him down while Sophia, his wife, was forced to forfeit all their eggs, pork, sugar and other belongings. Other settlers had also been robbed. Smasher was abusive, ‘[the] only thing them savages is good for is manuring the ground’ [pg 259]. As Smasher intended, this provoked Blackwood, ‘one of them blacks is worth ten of a little brainless maggot like you.’

More and more ‘outrages and depredations’ [pg 260], or attacks on the settlers were emerging. Captain McCallum, on behalf of His majesty in London, proudly announced that The Governor had provided him with ‘six bags for six heads’ [pg 262]. The six bags were to be full upon the Captain’s return home from executing the natives. He declared that a brilliant plan was in place for the assignment. A week later however, his return was not in triumph but wariness, as he spoke of how they had followed the plan through, but they were unsuccessful in trapping any natives. Instead, the natives ambushed the settlers instead, with three dead men and four injured before the natives withdraw back into the forest.

Once again, the group at Thornhill’s hut had converged. This time, Smasher showed the others a pair of black ears where the blood died so that it had almost turned purple. Another violent dispute between Blackwood and Smasher submerged.

Later that night, Sal suggested that they head back to England sooner, rather than the five years they had agreed on. However, Thornhill was not ready to begin his old ‘lighterman’s life’ [pg 269]. Intent on getting away from the natives, Sal proposes that they move to Wilberforce, a town where ‘blacks don’t come’ [pg 270]. Nevertheless, Thornhill reassured her that if the natives were to hurt them, they would have done so already. In his own thoughts, he wondered ‘how could he bear to go on passing in the boat and see some other man [on his land]? It would feel like giving up a child’ [pg 271].

Encountering Conflict Analysis

Conflict between natives and settlers

This chapter focuses on the overwhelming tension between the natives and settlers. Since there had been many failed attempts to between both parties to assert that the land was theirs, desperation and fear lead to a change in atmosphere. The natives formed groups in numbers that multiplied; it could be assumed that they were in the midst of preparing for some great event. Subsequently, the settlers became apprehensive of what the natives had install for them. Nevertheless, the Thornhills vowed whatever they could do in order to retain their new homes through the means of protection. Thornhill’s fear and anxiety lead him to use spears as a form of protection, even with four guns at hand. Although Thornhill was pro-settler, it is ironic that he considered the spears as defence, for he saw the brilliance behind the natives’ weapons.

Thornhill’s conflict with the natives as ‘gentry’ was a prime reason why he imagined himself taking advantage of the native woman. By doing such an act, he would be able to inflict his own power and control over the native who defenceless as she was, would have to render to his desires. This was in contrast to the group of natives, who despite Thornhill’s authority in the British colony, treated him as an intruder on their land. With the natives, Thornhill had no command, whereas with the helpless woman, Thornhill could force her to abide his will.

Furthermore, when Captain McCallum announces his mission, there was a glimpse of hope among the settlers. However, upon revealing the failed mission since the natives had trapped Captain McCallum’s group, it was clear that the natives would not forgo their land as easily as the government had anticipated. The underestimation of the natives’ abilities to protect themselves only intensifies the conflict between the two cultures, with the settlers believing that they will need to take matters into their own hands.

Key Passages

Conflict between convicts

“Some sly excitement in his voice made Thornhill hesitate but Smasher edged him into the doorway…Now the evil was part of him.” [pg 251-253]

Conflict between natives and settlers / Conflict between gentry and settlers

“Captain McCallum, though, the narrow cleft of the place suggested other possibilities…They had fired blindly into the bushes, but three redcoats lay dead, and four others wounded, before they were able to drive the blacks away.” [pg 262-265]

Conflict between Sal and Thornhill

We maybe better go, Will, she said quietly…But not touching him, thinking her own thoughts.” [pg 269-271]

Important Quotes

Thornhill’s inner conflict

“I ain’t going back to a fisherman’s life.” [pg 269]

“He felt indignation rise up on him, pressed it back, made himself speak with no more passion than if they were discussing the weather.” [pg 269]

“He was talking about the most unimportant thing in the world.” [pg 270]

“He could not turn his back on this place. How could he bear to go on passing in the boat and see some other man in there? It would feel like giving up a child.” [pg 271]

Fear of the natives

“The hut had become a compressed cube of fear.” [pg 241]

“…Thornhill remembered the nights in Newgate, listening to the beating of his own heart, not able to stop himself waiting for the next beat, the next, and the next, and trying not the wonder how many heartbeats he had left.” [pg 243]

“It was too much like being in a coffin deep in the earth.” [pg 242]

“Thornhill stood behind the tree, feeling drawn deep into the sound, the beat of the sticks like the pumping of his own heart.” [pg 245]

“This was the moment to realise how far a spear could travel, even when thrown by a skinny boy not yet eight years old. That could wipe the smile right off a man’s face.” [pg 249]

“Nothing remained that any man could hide behind.”

The natives and environment

“Jack was no longer a man, but a kangaroo made human.” [pg 243]

Conflict between natives and settlers

“…they would be pincushions, if that was they way the blacks wanted it.” [pg 246]

“…He did not hear [Sal] humming any more, and came across her sometimes staring at nothing, a crease between her eyebrows. When the women trailed past the hut on their way into the forest, she waved and smiled, but kept her distance.” [pg 247]

“They had fired blindly into the bushes, but three redcoats lay dead, and four others wounded, before they were able to drive the blacks away.” [pg 265]

“The black natives of the colony have manifested a strong and sanguinary spirit of animosity and hostility towards the British inhabitants.” [pg 266]

Conflict between Sal and Thornhill

“But not touching him, thinking her own thoughts.” [pg 271]

Dick’s relationship with natives

“It was easy to see it was not the first time Dick had thrown a spear, or even the twenty-first or the hundred and first.” [pg 249]

Conflict between the settlers

“One white man to another.” [pg 251]

“Thining the thought, saying the words, would make him the same as Smasher, as if Smasher’s mind had got into his when he saw the woman in the hut and felt that instant of temptation. He had done nothing to help her. Now the evil was part of him.” [pg 253]

Conflict with the land

“There was this about it, though: no matter how much a man did in this place, the everlasting forest could not be got rid of.” [pg 250]

“…it was obvious what a frail and porous thing the hut was. The bulge of the ridge dwarfed it and the breeze smothered the sounds of the people sitting in their hot yellow bubble.” [pg 254]

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