282 p. 2011
As a historian, there’s often a jolt when you encounter in fiction a character that you know from your own research. This is the case with John Batman, one of the main characters of Rohan Wilson’s The Roving Party. Alongside the mirth that his name evokes he has become an emblematic figure, in the same vein as Captain Cook and Ned Kelly. His is a name attached to a picture-book depiction, freighted with a cargo of abstractions: discovery, dispossession, duplicity. Bain Attwood’s recent book Possession:Batman’s Treaty and the Matter of History looks at the man and the mythology around him in more detail, and Melburnians continue to travel along Batman Ave, and pass Batman Park etc. etc. For myself, I encountered John Batman in Judge Willis’ Melbourne- or more correctly, I encountered the legal proceedings involving his wife and children in Willis’ courtroom after Batman died with syphilis, insolvent and leaving seven children who were taken into the care of their guardian, Rev Thomson, the Church of England minister.
But the Batman of Wilson’s book is a younger man, employed in Tasmania as the leader of a roving party, funded by the government to capture and remove Aboriginal people from the settled districts as a means of conciliation between the settlers and the dispossessed tribes. Batman himself offered his services to Governor Arthur, citing his own familiarity with the countryside and his contact with Aboriginal people who would help him in his task. These are the men and the situation we encounter in this book: Batman, four convicts, two black trackers from Sydney, a bumbling farmhand and Black Bill, a Panninher man brought up from childhood as a white man, battling the sodden and chilled Tasmanian bush in June 1829, charged with finding and bringing in the remnants of the Plindermairhemener people.
Black Bill is the central character in the book. He has thrown in his lot with John Batman, but, Manalargena the head warrior and Taralta the law-man of the Plindermairhemener have called him, asking him to join them. They tell him-
…You listen my story. Three wallaby near the river you see. Not two and one but three. Them brother lost, you understand. They see plenty wallaby. But no see brother. Three wallaby near river eat the grass and drink the water but they forget. Who is brother. Who is hunter. They forget this thing. Now three wallaby. No one sing. Them all lost. All same you see. (p.8)
Who is brother, who is hunter? Other books sprang to my mind while reading this. One is Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses with the relentless drive of pursuit/escape, and the need to keep going day after day through a hostile and unforgiving environment. The other is, rather curiously Moby Dick which, although as different in setting as it is almost possible to be, is driven by the same sense of obsession and fear. For having rejected overtures to join the Plindermairhemener, Black Bill takes the pursuit and capture of Manalargena as his own personal quest and object, irrespective of the official intent of the expedition.
All three books- McCarthy, Melville and now Wilson- are steeped in blood. In fact, I found it hard to pick up the book again each time, with each chapter opening with another dank Tasmanian winter morning, the cold, the bone-weariness and the hunger. The violence is always present like mist, even though this is ostensibly a ‘reconciliation’ party.
Much is strange to us as 21st century white readers. As with Kim Scott’s That Deadman Dance, we encounter Aboriginal language that is presented without translation, and at the end of the book we are brought face-to-face with the essential aboriginality of Bill’s wife “Katherine”, despite her English name. In fact, there is an unknowingness between us as readers and all these characters. Wilson does not attempt at all to get into their heads, to explain, to exonerate, to complicate as Kate Grenville tried to do in The Secret River.
Of course, this is Tasmanian Aboriginal history. After Keith Windschuttle’s intervention, it is probably the most heavily politicized, contested and trepidacious history there is. Batman’s leadership of his roving party is part of the official record and Wilson has woven his story out of this ambiguous and shadowy byline in Batman’s larger life-story. He makes no claims to truth beyond this and does not ask us to identify or judge. The book’s relentlessness, violence and moral coldness has a nightmarish quality, and the writing is sure and powerful. No wonder it has received such acclaim.
My rating: 9/10
Read because: my interest in early 19th century Australian history
Sourced from: La Trobe University library.