The Secret River takes place during the British settlement of Australia. From 1778-1823, New South Wales was a penal colony of England, which meant that England primarily sent convicts like William Thornhill to settle its new colony. In the new colony, white settlers came into contact with the Aborigines, the native people of Australia. For Thornhill and his companions on the Hawkesbury River especially, the Aborigines present a number of problems to their efforts to settle the region. Although characters like Thornhill and Thomas Blackwood suspect that the Aborigines are peaceful people and just want to be left alone, others like Smasher Sullivan believe that the natives should be exterminated. This conflict leads Thornhill to consider the consequences of British colonialism, and whether it's even possible to reconcile his own dreams of land ownership with the reality that the Aborigines are the original stewards of the land he now occupies.
Initially, the Aborigines strike fear in the hearts of the white settlers. Newspapers like the Sydney Gazette run stories regularly detailing the "outrages and depredations" carried out by the natives against the settlers, and the spears used by the Aborigines are known to be lethal. This begins to suggest that though the Aborigines are capable of carrying out violence against the white settlers, fixating on this fact creates an environment of fear and paranoia. By circulating these stories, both in print and by word of mouth, the settlers craft a simplistic story of a violent, unpredictable people out to do nothing but harm. Alongside this culture of fear exists the belief (shared by many characters, including Thornhill) that the natives are childlike or primitive. Thornhill sees them as lazy and incapable of thinking ahead, as they don't plant gardens or raise animals for food. However, Thornhill eventually comes to understand that there's a degree of freedom in the way the natives conduct their lives that may even exceed the sense of freedom that he and his own family enjoy. Because a group of Aborigines has a camp just over Thornhill's ridge, he has the opportunity to observe them for a period of time at relatively close range. He comes to realize that although they live very differently than he does, in many ways they live like English gentry live: they spend some time each day on necessary tasks, but have much of their day to spend as they please. This realization represents a turning point for Thornhill, as it suggests that everything Thornhill has spent his life fighting for may not lead to happiness, after all—and may even be inferior to the natives’ way of life.
Thornhill notices that there are two opposing schools of thought regarding what should be done with the natives. For individuals like Smasher, the natives exist to be hunted and killed like animals. For others, like Thomas Blackwood, the natives are to be treated with respect and kindness. For much of the novel, Thornhill finds himself sitting somewhere in the middle between Smasher and Blackwood in how he himself deals with the natives. Although he finds Smasher's penchant for violence against the Aborigines sickening, he also doesn't quite know how to have the kind of respectful relationship with them that Blackwood does. Further, Thornhill's fear for his family's wellbeing eventually draws him into Smasher's violence against the Aborigines, which suggests that the widespread fear of the natives is stronger than Thornhill's distaste for violence. The reasons for the massacre (i.e., the desire to attack the natives before the natives attack the settlers en masse) show that the violence towards the natives stems from a desire to maintain a sense of safety and control. This is, notably, something that's impossible to achieve with the constant stories of "outrages and depredations" and the settlers' generalized unwillingness to try to understand their native neighbors.
Colonialism and Violence ThemeTracker
Colonialism and Violence Quotes in The Secret River
There were no signs that the blacks felt the place belonged to them. They had no fences that said "this is mine." No house that said, "this is our home." There were no fields or flocks that said, "we have put the labor of our hands into this place."
King George owned this whole place of New South Wales, the extent of which nobody yet knew, but what was the point of King George owning it, if it was still wild, trodden only by black men? The more civilized folk set themselves up on their pieces of land, the more those other ones could be squeezed out.
Thornhill could not believe he would be able to send a ball of red-hot metal into another body. But being allowed a gun was one of the privileges of a pardon. It was something he had earned, whether he wanted it or not.
He had thought that having a gun would make him feel safe. Why did it not?
Dick would be right, he thought, except that everyone knew the blacks did not plant things. They wandered about, taking food as it came under their hand...But, like children, they did not plant today so that they could eat tomorrow.
It was why they were called savages.
How did it apply to a moment like the one down by the blacks' fire, when a white man and a black one had tried to make sense of each other with nothing but words that were no use to them?
He could hear the great machinery of London, the wheel of justice chewing up felons and spitting them out here, boatload after boatload, spreading out from the Government Wharf in Sydney, acre by acre, slowed but not stopped by rivers, mountains, swamps.
He knew, as perhaps they did not, how pointless a thing it was. He could go through the rigmarole of loading it up and squinting along its barrel and firing. But after that, what?
Thinking the thought, saying the words, would make him the same as Smasher, as if Smasher's mind had got into his when he saw the woman in the hut and felt that instant of temptation. He had done nothing to help her. Now the evil of it was part of him.
They were too cunning to have anything as vulnerable as an army, for they knew what the Governor and Captain McCallum did not: that an army clumping along was as exposed and vulnerable as a beetle trundling over a tabletop.
He was no longer the person who thought that a little house in Swan Lane and a wherry of his own was all a man might desire. It seemed that he had become another man altogether. Eating the food of this country...had remade him, particle by particle...This was where he was: not just in body, but in soul as well.
A man's heart was a deep pocket he might turn out and be surprised at what he found there.
"They got no rights to any of this place. No more than a sparrow." He heard the echo of Smasher's phrases in his own words. They sat there smiling and plausible.
He would not have thought that William Thornhill could ever have any relationship with a house like this except of the trespasser. But if a man had enough by way of money, he could make the world whatever way he wanted.
Under the house, covered by the weight of Mr. Thornhill's villa, the fish still swam in the rock. It was dark under the floorboards: the fish would never feel the sun again. It would not fade, as the others out in the forest were fading, with no black hands to re-draw them. It would remain as bright as the day the boards had been nailed down, but no longer alive, cut off from the trees and light that it had swum in.
But there was an emptiness as he watched Jack's hand caressing the dirt. This was something he did not have: a place that was part of his flesh and spirit. There was no part of the world he would keep coming back to, the way Jack did, just to feel it under him.