English & EAL

The Secret River: Strangers

Lisa Tran

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The Alexander, a transport ship for convicts has reached New South Wales, Australia after a travelling across the world for majority of the year. William Thornhill, an Englishman convicted to sentence his ‘natural life in the Year of Our Lord eighteen hundred and six’ [pg 3]will serve as a labourer.

During his first night in New South Wales, where their homes are ‘only a flap of bark, a screen of sticks and mud,’ Thornhill digested the new land with its ‘rich dank smells…restless water…no Pole star’; an environment vastly differentiated from England. The unfamiliar situation is overwhelming as ‘he had not cried, not for thirty years….but now his throat was thickening.’ In his despair, Thornhill describes how being sentenced to New South Wales could potentially be worse than dying itself.

Initially, Thornhill believed his tears are clouding his vision since the ‘darkness moved in front of him’ [pg 5]. However, he then realised that a human, ‘as black as the air itself’ stood before him. The unusual appearance of this human struck Thornhill since ‘his skin swallowed the light…[and] eyes were set so deeply into the skull.’ Although clothed, Thornhill ironically felt ‘skinless’ against the other who was completely naked and holding a spear. Thornhill repeatedly demanded that the man ‘be off’, for fear of his family and himself being attacked. Despite his shouting, this only impelled the man to move closer to the point where they almost touched. The ‘black man’ [pg 6] reproduced ‘be off’ in Thornhill’s exact tone. While Thornhill’s fear of this strange human is prominent, he grappled the strength to exert a bold, intrepid veneer, as ‘he was not about to surrender to any naked black man’. When he glanced back to his wife and children however, the man promptly disappeared, leaving only the darkness behind. Thornhill returned to his hut where he laid back down to rest yet ‘every muscle was tensed…the cold moment of finding that unforgiving thing in his flesh.’

Encountering Conflict Analysis

As a child growing up in poverty, William Thornhill, one of the 10 members of the Thornhill family, lived in an overcrowded low-browed home. The Thornhill’s, unlike many other families, did not regularly attended church. Instead, Thornhill feared of the ‘snarling stone lions’ [pg 10] and a ‘vertiginous lawn’ on the church’s front. He regarded the church as a place with ‘no kindly shadows anywhere’ due to the ‘merciless light’, streaming in from windows.

The name ‘William Thornhill’ was commonplace in the late eighteenth century in England. From Old Mr Thornhill and his son Young William, to the Sea Captain’s baby also named Willian Thornhill, the protagonist knew that his name was insignificant amongst the others. His sister Mary reinforced this fact, teasing that his name was ‘common as dirt.’ [pg 11] To further his sense of worthlessness, his name is second-hand from his dead older brother, a short-lived newborn who was also named William Thornhill.

Impoverished, Thornhill knew only of a life of constant starvation. In order to survive, stealing was a part of life for the Thornhills. On one occasion, each of the children managed to steal from a bookshop with the best book pawned for a valuable shilling. On rare occasions when food was present, he would always fight his brothers for a piece of bread. Out of desperation, he often resulted to eating bedbugs during the night to alleviate the unbearable pain at in his stomach.

The one part of Thornhill’s life that contrasted his poverty was Sal, his friend from Swan Lane, an area much better off than his own. Sal being an only child, grew up with all the attention from her parents, something Thornhill envied. Her kindheartedness and compassion towards the cruelty of animals was a stark difference from his savage lifestyle. Her presence in his life ‘warmed him from inside’. [pg 19]

When his parents died from health illnesses, Thornhill, being the oldest brother still living with his family was left to care for his siblings. Shifting between available jobs, he worked at the maltings, Nettlefold & Mosers and as a lumper down on the wharves. Unfortunately ,these jobs never saved the Thornhill’s from starvation. It was Mr Middleton, Sal’s father who offered Thornhill to be his apprentice on the river that changed his course in life. The apprenticeship was to be seven years long, during which he would learn Mr Middleton’s skills as a waterman. Thornhill secretly planned to marry Sal at the end of the apprenticeship and inherit the business since he was son Mr Middleton never had.

During his time on the river, Thornhill learnt about the tides, how to control an oar and also how his ‘blisters never got a chance to heal.’ [pg 27] With Mr Middleton’s benevolence, ‘for the first time in his life, Thornhill was not always hungry, not always cold.’ He was also exposed to the gentry through his apprenticeship. Majority of his customers were upper-class citizens who would spend a meal’s worth of money on a single fare. To Thornhill, ‘the gentry seemed another species’ due to their manner of speech, expensive clothing and the grand events they attended. His position below the gentry clear when one time a man disgruntled, ‘don’t expose your leg to the boatman!’ [pg 30] to his mischievous partner.

On Sundays when Thornhill had a break from work, he would spend the time with Sal. Without an education, he had never previously used paper nor pen. She slowly taught him to write his name, ‘William Thornhill.’ Although a basic skill, this was a milestone achievement, since ‘he was still only sixteen, and no one in his family had ever gone so far.’ [pg 35]

At the end of his apprenticeship and in spirit of his plans, he and Sal married. Since William was now a freeman of the river, Mr Middleton offered Thornhill his second-best wherry as a wedding gift. The couple soon welcomed a baby boy – also named William Thornhill, but nicknamed Willie. For once in Thonhill’s life, he experienced great satisfaction for he ‘went about smiling about nothing.’ [pg 40]

However during the winter of Willie’s second birthday, things turned for the worst. Both Mrs and Mr Middleton died within a week of one another. With the river iced over, William had no work to provide his family income. It became routine to move into places they could afford, each home smaller than the previous. At Thornhill’s regret but also appreciation, Sal began to steal food from the stalls. Unable to prove that his wherry was a wedding gift, it was seized by the state in order to pay off their debt. With no boat, he had to work for others, one of whom was Mr Lucas. After working three years under Lucas’ employment, Thornhill had reverted to his old ways, stealing small quantities of tea, wine and other utilities without being caught. However, one night when William attempted to steal Brazil wood worth 50 pounds, Lucas, being especially vigilant about the wood caught Thornhill during the incriminating act. William managed to escape from Lucas’ chase but was ultimately found ‘hiding out up the river at Acre Wharf, next to the flour mill.’ [pg 59]

The punishment for larceny was severe during Thornhill’s time. His sentence was to be ‘hanged by the neck until you are dead.’ [pg 66]While he accepted his fate, that there was ‘nothing ahead but death,’ Sal on the other hand, never ceased to give up. She had discovered that letters that could be delivered ‘up the line’ which had changed the outcome of other’s condemned to the same fate as William. They sent a letter to Captain Watson, which then spawned other letters until ultimately reaching Lord Hawkesbury who would decide whether or not William’s plea would call for a reprieve. One day upon hearing his name yelled out, William ‘expected the worst and called out, Not yet! Friday sennight they said!’ [pg 69] expecting to be hanged. However, the turnkey informed William that he had been granted pardon from his death on the condition that he is transported to New South Wales along with his family.

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