Digging Up Trauma
Reflections on a first attempt at writing a historical novel
‘The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.’
L. P. Hartley, The Go-Between, 1953
Out of my comfort zone
I grew up an Englishman on English soil. The past of the land I lived on was my past; I felt, rightly or wrongly, that I understood it intimately, intuitively.
These days, I live on the other side of the world, in a country where, until 1788, there were no Englishmen, other than a tiny number of whalers and sealers at a few points around our continent’s vast coastline — and no Englishwomen at all, as far as is known.
Stolen land, stolen history
The ‘settlement’ of the land that I live on, here in Victoria, began in 1835 with the landing of John Batman and his party.
It’s so close that I feel I can almost reach out and touch it. There are still descendents of the first settlers living on the same land their ancestors took possession of. Let’s not mince words: the land that they stole, with the connivance of the British Crown.
For, of course, there were people here already, and this was their land. They were already here before climatic and geological processes reshaped this part of Australia almost out of recognition. Before Tasmania became an island, they were here. Before Port Phillip became a vast shallow bay, they were here. Before volcanic eruptions created Tower Hill near Warrnambool approximately 40,000 years ago, they were here — and left their artefacts under the cinder cone as if to prove it.
Their descendents are still here. Nearly one million modern-day Australians have Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander ancestry.
No thanks, it must be said, to the colonists, most of whom came from the country of my birth.
It’s not that there was a systematic attempt at genocide, exactly.
It’s not that the original inhabitants of this country were always and everywhere ignored, denied a legal existence and rights, dispossessed, tricked into giving up their land, shot, poisoned en masse, driven off cliffs, raped, forcibly assimilated, murdered through neglect, had…