On a cool, early-summer morning, a man named Kundilla awakes before anyone else around him and breathes in the still, clean air. He surveys the sleeping forms all around him, and the abundant greenery—trees and shrubs. He is satisfied with the place he has selected for his tribe’s winter camp.
By choosing to start the book long before her mother’s story began, Pilkington is imploring her readers to see how important it is to understand the history of colonialism in Australia. She is also offering readers a glimpse at Aboriginal life untainted by racism, cruelty, or colonialism.
Kundilla departs camp to find some solitude—it is time for his early morning rituals. On his way back to camp, he checks the fishing traps he’d set the previous evening and marvels at the peace all around him. Dawn is his favorite time of day. Doris Pilkington interjects to write that Kundilla was unaware of the devastation and desolation which would soon ravage his peaceful tribe and way of life. Kundilla walks back into camp, tall and “dignified,” with two full fish traps in his arms. He takes pride in the results of the previous day’s annual scrub firing, a ritual in which family clans from far and wide gather together on their shared territory, set fire to dense underbrush, and flush out any game taking shelter there in order to gather animal pelts for use in the making of blankets and skin bags.
Pilkington continues to imagine what Kundilla’s morning routine must have been like, and how his ordinary life looked, before white settlers descended upon his homeland. She shows the self-assured and “dignified” Kundilla in a state of peace, tranquility, harmony, and prosperity in order to highlight the ways in which the English settlers would ravage Aboriginal land and Aboriginal life, decimating everything the Aboriginals had built for themselves over the course of their long history.
Kundilla’s two wives are Ngingana—who has already lit a fire for breakfast—and Mardina, who is feeding their youngest child. As she feeds her baby, she thinks of how her two older sons, teenagers, will soon leave camp to complete the rituals of tribal law which will turn them into men.
By giving readers insight into the thoughts of Kundilla’s wives, Pilkington further demonstrates the pride and tranquility of the Nyungar tribe at this point in their history prior to the arrival of white settlers.
Kundilla’s three older, married sons and their families camp nearby. The whole camp consists of about sixty people—many have travelled for days from other, more remote camps in order to enjoy the bountiful food supply in the area this time of year. Soon, Kundilla plans to move closer to the river, so that his family can enjoy plentiful seafood throughout the summer months.
Kundilla, his family, and their tribe live in harmony with the land around them. They live a nomadic lifestyle in which they roam from place to place, sustaining themselves on the bounty of the vast and varied Australian continent without depleting it.
As Kundilla readies for a trip to the coast, he checks his spears and traps to make sure they’re in good shape. Suddenly, “an ominous sound” echoes through the forest, shattering the tranquil atmosphere of the camp. Kundilla’s people approach him, and ask what is going on. He replies that he does not know, but that he and some men will leave camp to find out where the noise came from and what caused it. Kundilla summons the adult men of the tribe to them, and confides in them that he believes that “they” are back to take away the tribe’s women. Kundilla’s eldest son asks what can possibly be done to stop the invaders. The last time “white raiders” came ashore, Kundilla’s brother and several members of his family were shot and killed.
In this passage, Pilkington reveals that the seemingly tranquil existence of Kundilla and his tribe has been interrupted before. Kundilla is well aware of the fearsome threat to his family and his people, and though his tribe has been prospering in the face of that fear, it is impossible to ignore any longer. The “raiders” have struck fear into the hearts of the Aboriginals, and the idea that they have returned to inflict more violence and destruction upon the Nyungar people is more than Kundilla can bear.
Kundilla seethes with anger as he thinks of how “cruel and murderous men”—American whale hunters—come ashore to kidnap Aboriginal women and keep them as “sexual slaves” on their ships. The brave warriors of Kundilla’s tribe—the Nyungar—are no match for the whalers’ advanced weapons, which include muskets, swords, and pistols.
Kundilla is angry and terrified as he contemplates how powerless he and his tribe are against the advanced weaponry of the invaders. Kundilla’s desire to protect his family and his culture is intense, but he worries that it is also futile in the face of such unstoppable violence.
When whalers and sealers first began arriving on the coast, Kundilla and his tribesmen were friendly and welcoming, communicating through sign language with the white men and marveling at the men’s sailing vessels. The Nyungar men offered to take the sealers to collect birds’ eggs on a nearby island, as a show of welcome and good faith. The white men took the Aboriginals over to the island by boat and then left them there, stranded; then they returned to the mainland, where they ransacked the Nyungar camp and kidnapped six women. The whalers and sealers came to understand that the Nyungar people had welcomed them with respect and kindness because they thought the men were “gengas”—spirits of their tribe’s ancestors.
Kundilla reflects on how he and his tribesmen were deeply deceived by the hunters the last time they came ashore, when his men mistook the whalers’ cruelty for an act of goodwill and charity. This example is just one of many which Pilkington will use throughout the text to highlight the ways in which white settlers—and later, the Australian government—cruelly take advantage of the Aboriginal people.
The loud “boom” which had just frightened the Nyungar, Pilkington reveals, had come from a cannon salute. British soldiers, with orders to set up a military base and deter more whalers and sealers from operating, are raising the Union Jack for the very first time on the shores of Western Australia.
Pilkington ominously describes the cannon boom of the British soldiers in order to show that, though these men are not hunters or whalers, they perhaps have something even more sinister in store for the Aboriginal people.
Kundilla and his sons reach the coast, and Kundilla admits to his children that he is frightened. The men peer over the edge of a rocky ledge down to the beach, and are taken surprise by the pale men in “strange scarlet jackets.” Kundilla’s sons insist that these men must truly be gengas. As Kundilla watches the commotion below, he sees two Nyungar men being taken out to a larger ship on a small dinghy. Kundilla and his sons wait and watch, and are surprised and happy to see that their tribesmen are soon returned to shore unharmed. Kundilla tells his sons that the new strangers are not going to cause them any harm, and then together they all return to camp to assure their people that everything is all right.
Kundilla’s fears seem to be assuaged, at least for the moment. As he watches these strange new white men acting generously toward his people, he concludes that they must be the spiritual beings his tribe has been awaiting. This is not the case, however, and Kundilla cannot possibly foresee the terrible violence and dispossession that these British colonists will perpetuate on the Australian continent.