English & EAL

The Secret River: Sydney

Lisa Tran

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Thornhill was destined for Sydney Cove, a place designed ‘to be a container for those condemned by His Majesty’s courts’ [pg 75]. The environment was visibly contrasted from England. In Australia, the sun was harsh and powerful unlike any sun he had ever felt. There was a ‘wicked glinting of the water’ [pg 76] that hurt his naïve eyes, and only a handful of residential areas, ‘few blocky golden buildings lined the shore.’ After a solitary nine months apart from his family during the voyage, Thornhill was finally reunited with his family. Willie, now a five year old, failed to recognise his father. During their time apart, Sal gave birth to another child, named Richard.

Sal was assigned as Thornhill’s master, in a penal system where the convicts would work as slaves – a form of imprisonment. This method meant that masters and their slaves would support themselves, rather than rely on the Government assistance. The ticket of leave was a pardon for slaves when they demonstrated long-term good behaviour. This meant that felons would no longer serve under their masters, but would be free to labour for themselves. Through this model, the British colony would successfully develop under people’s own free will, rather than ‘reluctant time-serving of felons’ [pg 84].

During his first night in the new surroundings, Thornhill encountered a black man with whom he struggled to communicate [see Strangers]. Thornhill soon found employment ‘to convey…casks from ships to [the] bay’ [pg 83] with Mr King, who was a ‘cheerful sort of man.’ Thornhill maintained his stealing habits in the night.  With the alcohol he obtained from Mr King, the Thornhill’s opened a grog-shop that Sal named ‘Sign of the Pickle Herring’ [pg 89]. Scabby Bill was a native who would often come to the Thornhills for some food and grog. He was good for their business since he would dance after drinking a small amount of rum, attracting audiences. His appearance was different from anyone Thornhill had ever known, a fine figure that was full of carefully drawn scars. Bill was different to the other natives though, as Thornhill noticed there were two different kinds of natives; the ones that were visible like Bill, and the ones that were hidden in the forest. The settlers could never see these other natives, but it was tacit knowledge that the natives could see them. Unlike the settlers, the natives had given no sign that they owned the area, but on occasion men were speared. Thornhill secretly appreciated working out on the water, since on land, ‘he was always within range of a spear.’ [pg 93]

After a year under Sal’s service, Thornhill was granted the Ticket of leave. The children were growing quickly. Thornhill saw that Sal would forfeit her life to take care of her children, after she was ‘rocking Bub, getting a dipper of water for Willie, singing a little song to sooth Dick, and in the morning her eyes were red as she got them their bread and tea.’ [pg 96]

Three years after the Thornhills had settled into their new home, Mr King hired a new clerk who was ‘more fastidious about his lists’ and soon began to ‘look sideways’ at Thornhill. Thornhill decided it was best to leave Mr King before he would be condemned to Van Diemen’s Land, a place to further punish convicts. Thornhill found an old friend, Thomas Blackwood from Thames who had also been sentenced ‘to death, and then to life’ [pg 94]. Blackwood had received his pardon and was making a legitimate living with a new boat, ‘Queen.’ It was a common knowledge that the Hawkesbury river, as Blackwood named, was the place where people ‘might get rich there, and for once, a lighterman had a better chance at riches then gentry.’ [pg 95] He began to work for Blackwood as a replacement job, but also because he was developing a love for the Hawkesbury that ‘everyone spole about but few had seen’ [pg 98].

While with Blackwood, Thornhill met Smasher Sullivan, a man who had ‘something horrible about the red skin of his forehead, his naked face’ [pg 103]. At Smasher’s residence, Thornhill was shocked to see a dead black man hung like a scarescrow. Blackwood taught Thornhill that land was ‘not a matter of ask up here mate…get your backside on a bit of ground, sit tight’ [pg 105]. With the new dream of owning land which he could call his own, or ‘Thornhill’s point’ as he desired, he tried to convince Sal of their potential futures in Australia. Sal was reluctant however, intent on returning ‘home’ [pg 116] in England, where they had would own ‘wherries’ and ‘stuffed armchairs’ [pg 110]. For the first time they disagreed on something ‘that mattered’ [pg 111]. Yet Thornhill continued to preserve his dream. As the years passed, his family grew larger, with Willie, Dick, baby Johnny and another on its way. An emancipist, Thornhill established himself as a waterman on the Hawkesbury with his vessel, Hope. Fearing that another settler would take Thornhill’s desired land if he failed to act soon, he attempted to persuade Sal once again. Seeing his excitement about his dream, Sal gave in and agreed. However, as a compromise, they agreed that they would only remain for another 5 years, after which they could finally return home.

Encountering Conflict Analysis

Conflict with the environment

The harsh Australian landscape was a difficult place for Thornhill to adapt to. The ‘sad scrabbling place’ [pg 75] was a dramatic difference to the hustle and bustle of England. He viewed the sunlight ‘pouring out of the sky…like being struck in the face’ as though the environment loathes his presence on the land. His lack of belonging is exemplified by his physical inability to adapt, since he ‘squinted between his fingers’ [pg 76] and ‘felt tears run hot down his face.’

Another aspect of the environment were the natives who made explicit to the settlers that they are unwelcome in the Australian land. The Sydney Gazette newspaper recorded occasional spearing of settlers, which was enough to elicit fear from the intruders, including Thornhill and his family. The vulnerability of the settlers is emphasized since the natives were ‘not something that could be guarded against’ [pg 93].

Interpersonal conflict:

Sal and Thornhill

Although Thornhill eventually began to find a passion towards possessing land, Sal continued to experience conflict with the environment. Her intention to return to England when the family had enough money was motivation for her to begin their liquor store. Knowing that someday she would return to her true home was a comforting thought that she cherished. When Thornhill presented his idea of Thornhill’s point, Sal adamantly disagreed, leaving the couple with their first major disagreement. Later on, Sal only agreed to Thornhill’s pleas as ‘long as it ain’t for the term of my natural life’ [pg 123].

Blackwood and Smasher

The values of both men were completely different. Smasher evidently had no respect for the natives since he brutally dismantles their bodies without regret, ‘they were hands cut off at the wrist. The skin was black against the white of the bone’ [pg 103]. Conversely, Blackwood shows more compassion and appreciation towards the natives, ‘ain’t nothing in this world just for the taking…a man got to pay a fair price for taking…Matter of give a little, take a little’ [pg 104]. This difference between the two men’s perspectives created a great barrier of tension that was distinct to Thornhill.

Key Passages

Inner Conflict

‘Shouting beat at his ears…Sal, he started, but the word turned into a choked gasp like a sob.’ [pg 76-77]

‘He nodded as if he was thinking about home, and when she leaned across the table to take his face in her hands and kiss him, he kissed her back hard enough to surprise her…Even then, he watched his hand trembling as he signed the paper.’ [pg 116-117]

Conflict with land

‘It all had an odd unattached look, the bits of ground cut up into squares in this big loose landscape, a broken-off chip of England resting on the surface of the place…But it was the only sad thing in the whole world.’ [pg 80-81]

‘By and by, the Thornhill’s told themselves, they would have enough put aside to go back to London…A little luck, a deal of hard work: with those, nothing could stop them.’ [pg 86-87]

Conflict between natives and settlers

‘But sometimes men were speared…On land he was always within range of a spear.’ [pg 93]

Conflict between Sal and Thornhill

‘Couple of years of the packet trade we’ll pay the lot back, she said…The calculation in his mind was how soon he could get set up in the Hawkesbury trade, so that it would be the most logical thing in the world to need a base on the river: in short, when he would be able to stand on that point of land and know it was his.’ [pg 116-117]

Important Quotes

Conflict with land

‘Now it was called Sydney Cove, and it had only one purpose: to be a container for those condemned by His Majesty’s courts.’ [pg 75]

‘Shouting beat at his ears. A sun such as he had not imagined could exist was burning through the thin stuff of his slops. Now on land, he was seasick again, feeling the ground swell under him, the sun hammering down on his skull, that wicked glinting off the water.’ [pg 76]

‘It all had an odd unattached look, the bits of ground cut up into squares in this big loose landscape, a broken off chip of England resting on the surface of the place.’ [pg 80]

‘How could air, water, dirt and rocks fashion themselves to become so outlandish?’

‘The place was like nothing he had ever seen.’

‘It was easier to turn to the familiar, this speck of England laid out within the forest.’ [pg 82]

‘Their hut swarmed with creatures they had never seen before: bold lizards that eyed them unblinkingly, sticky black flies, lines of ants that could reduce a lump of sugar to nothing in a night, mosquitoes that could sting through cloth, creatures along the lines of a bedbug that buried their heads in skin and swelled with human blood.’ [pg 87]

Resolution with land

‘A chaos opened up inside him, a confusion of wanting. No one had every spoken to him of how a man might fall in love with a piece of ground. Now one had ever spoken o how there could be this teasing sparkle and dance of light among the threes, this calm clean space that invited feet to enter it.’ [pg 106]

‘He could not forget the quiet ground beyond the screen of reeds and mangroves and the gentle swelling of that point, as sweet as a woman’s body.’ [pg 121]

Conflict with gentry

‘I am Thornhill, he called, hearing his voice cracked and small.’ [pg 76]

‘His Majesty’s mercy, saving so many from the noose, was made possible by this ingenious and thrifty scheme.’ [pg 78]

‘With a sick lurch he remembered the hammock, the knot in the beam above his head, an always-open eye watching him while he woke or slept.’ [pg 80]

‘Men came from all the streets around, cheered to watch this black insect of a man capering before them, a person lower in the order of things even than they were.’ [pg 92]

Thornhill’s inner conflict

‘It was a piercing hunger in his guts: to own it. To say mine, in a way he had never been able to say mine of anything at all. He had not known until this minute that it was something he wanted so much.’ [pg 106]

‘He had taken it as being another thing in the world that was just for gentry. Nothing that had ever been promised to him.’ [pg 108]

‘That place was a dream that might shrivel if put into words.’

‘…the W and the T stood out clear. William Thornhill.’ [pg 113]

Sal’s inner conflict

‘I’ll take it back to Pickle Herring Stairs by and by…right back where it come from.’ [pg 89]

‘Thornhill noticed that Sal never ventured beyond the few streets of the township, dusty and muddy by turns.’

Conflict between Thornhill and Sal

‘They had never disagreed on anything that mattered.’ [pg 111]

‘Couple years is all, Will, then we’ll be right. Home, Will, imagine that!’ [pg 116]

‘But he was not thinking about how soon they could go Home. The calculation in his mind was how soon he could get set up in the Hawkesbury trade, so that it would be the most logical thing in the world to need a base on the river: in short, when he would be able to stand on that point of land and know it was his.’ [pg 116 -117]

Conflict between natives and convicts

‘On land he was always within range of a spear.’ [pg 93]

‘The Gazette had a handy expression that covered all the things the blacks did, and suggested others: outrages and depredations. Not a month went by without some new outrage or depredation.’ [pg 95]

‘One thing you best know, only time we see them is when they want us to.’ [pg 102]

‘The face was unrecognizable as a face, the only thing clear the yeallow ear of corn stuck between the pink sponge that had been the lips.’ [pg 104]

‘Not a matter of ask up here mate…Get your backside on a bit of ground, sit tight. That’s all the asking you got to do.’ [pg 105]

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