Even as a child, Rooke's moral compass is highly developed. While in school, he is troubled by a classmate's assertion that the British Empire would crumble without slavery. Even though he's never met a black person at that point, he still understands that dehumanizing people because of the color of their skin is morally wrong. As Rooke matures and witnesses firsthand both slavery in the Caribbean and the racist attitudes of his fellow soldiers in New South Wales, he continues to develop his moral intuition that difference is not the same as superiority, and he begins to truly question the moral implications of the racial hierarchy set out by his companions.
Rooke occupies a somewhat precarious place in the conquering Western world. On one hand, he voluntarily joins the British marines and is absolutely complicit in the imperial violence of the British project of colonizing faraway lands. On the other, Rooke quietly and privately distances himself from the racist mindsets of many of his companions by turning to the emotionless pursuits of math and science. It's important to note that when Rooke joins the marines, he does so because he believes it will give him the opportunity to continue his morally superior scientific and mathematical pursuits and avoid violence. For a while, it appears as though Rooke's goals will all come true: he works in navigation during most of the American Revolutionary War, and occupies a position of relative power during the journey to New South Wales. During these times, however, Rooke sees himself as deserving of the lands he visits. Though he certainly doesn't feel entitled to the people in the same sense that the slaveholders do, Rooke does feel as though he has a right to be taught the languages and customs of both the Caribbean slaves and the Cadigal people in New South Wales. This shows that even if Rooke sets out to do no harm, by virtue of participating in the military exercises of the British marines, Rooke forms the mindset that justifies entitlement to people, lands, and languages. Essentially, the violence perpetuated by the British military isn't just based on the strength of their weapons--it's rooted in a belief in the superiority of white, British people, and the consequent inferiority of everyone and everything else.
Though Rooke realizes in Antigua that the black slaves there are people like any other, it's not until he begins to form relationships with the Cadigal people in New South Wales that he truly begins to question the moral implications of his involvement with the British "imperial machine," as he calls it. Rooke's first few meetings with the Cadigal show that he still believes in his entitlement to the Cadigal language: rather than feeling horror that the governor ordered Lieutenant Gardiner to capture two native men and forces them to share their language, Rooke is only fascinated to see them up close. Similarly, when he sees native men walking near his observatory, he decides to insist on being acknowledged (though he never gets the opportunity): a selfish assertion that his desires are more pressing than whatever the men are doing.
Though the First Fleet is supposed to establish friendly contact with the natives, Rooke soon learns that "friendly contact" is often decidedly not friendly. He's shocked when Tagaran and Tugear arrive at his observatory one day bleeding from a beating at the hands of a white soldier, seemingly unprovoked. Similarly, though the Cadigal supposedly spear the gamekeeper Brugden without provocation, there's strong evidence that suggests the Cadigal speared him in retaliation of his own unconfirmed, but likely cold-blooded violence against the natives. Rooke does his best to ignore the rising tensions, but is finally pushed to action when he learns the true purpose of the punitive expedition: if the natives prove impossible to capture alive, the governor insists that the party bring back six severed heads to send a message to the natives. When he learns this, Rooke understands that the governor doesn't see the Cadigal as people worth reasoning with (or, for that matter, people who are understandably fed up with an extended stay of uninvited guests). Because Rooke truly believes that the Cadigal are people, not trophies waiting to be taken, he finally decides to remove himself from the imperial system and expresses regret that he participated in the expedition, which leads to his expulsion from the military. Rooke goes on to spend the last forty years of his life in Antigua, purchasing and then freeing black slaves. In doing this, Rooke tries to do his part to atone for his complicity in the British imperial system. This suggests, finally, that Rooke learned that the most effective way to be a morally righteous person in the world is to actively fight immorality, as complicity with violence is little different than carrying out the violence oneself.
Imperialism, Racism, and Morality ThemeTracker
Imperialism, Racism, and Morality Quotes in The Lieutenant
Rooke puzzled about that idea as he puzzled at his primes. He had never seen a black man, so the issue was abstract, but something about the argument did not cohere. Think as he might, though, he could not find a path around Lancelot Percival's logic.
To understand any aspect of the cosmos was to look on the face of God: not directly, but by a species of triangulation, because to think mathematically was to feel the action of God in oneself.
He saw others comforted by their ideas of God...what comforted Rooke, on the contrary, was the knowledge that as an individual he did not matter. Whatever he was, he was part of a whole...
That imposed a morality behind the terse handful of commands in the chaplain's book. It was to acknowledge the unity of all things. To injure any was to damage all.
The slaves were utterly strange, their lives unimaginable, but they walked and spoke, just as he did himself. That speech he had heard was made up of no sounds he could give meaning to, but it was language and joined one human to another, just as his own did.
Of course their hair would grow back and they would continue to walk about, and breathe and eat: they were not dead. But they might as well be. They would never again have a place in the world.
The firing, the reloading, the ramming, the priming, the firing again: all that was familiar from having been practiced so often. The theory of it was tidy: men firing and then calmly dropping to one knee to reload. What was happening on Resolution bore no resemblance to that.
A man on this promontory would be part of the settlement, but not in it. Present, but not forgotten. Astronomy would make a convenient screen for a self that he did not choose to share with any of the other souls marooned along with him.
Gamekeeper! The word suggested the society that Lancelot Percival James had boasted of at the Academy: pheasants and deer in a park artfully planted to enhance the prospect, cheerful peasantry tipping their caps to the squires riding by.
But New South Wales was no gentleman's estate...and the gamekeeper was a criminal who had been given a gun.
Unrelenting newness made for something like blindness. It was as if sight did not function properly in the absence of understanding. Without his pack and his notebook, he hoped that his eyes might begin to make distinctions among all those trees and bushes.
Rooke could see that there was a dangerous ambiguity to the presence of a thousand of His Majesty's subjects in this place. No such understanding was possible without language to convey it, and persons to whom the news could be delivered. And yet it seemed that the silence might continue indefinitely.
Rooke said nothing more. There was a question forming in the back of his mind, which he did not want to hear. It was: What would I have done in the same place?
Warungin was not thinking punishment, justice, impartial. All he could see was that the Berewalgal had gathered in their best clothes to inflict pain beyond imagining on one of their own. Seen through his eyes, this ceremony was not an unfortunate but necessary part of the grand machine of civilization. It looked like a choice. When those fine abstractions fell away, all that remained was cruelty.
He had made that choice, because he was a lieutenant in His Majesty's Marine Force.
There it was, in the very words. Force was his job. If he was a soldier, he was as much a part of that cruelty as the man who had wielded the whip.
They all knew what he had turned his face away from: like it or not, he was Berewalgal. He wore the red coat. He carried the musket when he was told to. He stood by while a man was flogged. He would not confront a white man who had beaten his friends.
But to shoot a piece of metal out of it that could penetrate a shield or a human body and expose the shambles within: that was of another order of experience. Another language. What it said was, I can kill you.
He did not want her to learn that language. Certainly not from him.
But written down like that, with its little full stop, the possibility of doubt was erased. The meaning would never be questioned again. What had felt like science was the worst kind of guesswork, the kind that forgets it is a guess.
It was the simplest thing in the world. If an action was wrong, it did not matter whether it succeeded or not, or how many clever steps you took to make sure it failed. If you were part of such an act, you were part of its wrong. You did not have to take up the hatchet or even to walk along with the expedition.