After talking about a number of different issues together, a friend of mine lent me this book. I had never heard of it before (and I’ll go into that further in a minute) and apart from reading “Barbed Wire and Cherry Blossoms” last year, I haven’t had much exposure to Australian Aboriginal historical fiction. However, I have noticed that the role of Aboriginal people in early Australian historical fiction is often either glossed over or largely absent. The book has sat on my shelf for the better part of a year and finally I got around to reading it.
“Pemulwuy: The Rainbow Warrior” is a historical fiction novel by Aboriginal academic, engineer and writer Eric Willmot and originally published in the 1980s. The story is set in the late 1700s around the Sydney area shortly after the arrival of the first British convicts and settlers. When a young Awabakal man called Kiraban first sees white people arrive in his homeland by ship (in the Newcastle area), he decides to adventure with them south to Sydney to gain experience and status among his people. When he arrives, he befriends and learns the languages of both the white settlers and people from the Eora nation and observes the interplay between these two peoples. Although Eora elder Bennelong advocates cooperation with the British, Kiraban comes to hear stories of mysterious Bidjigal man Pemulwuy. Pemulwuy has stopped trading kangaroo meat with the British as he once did and has instead begun to sabotage the Governor’s attempts to expand Sydney and turn Eora land into farmland. Without any way to get home to his people, and with relations deteriorating between the British and the Eora, Kiraban must decide which side to join.
This is an incredibly important book. In his short background at the beginning of the novel, Willmot writes:
This was indeed a conspiracy of silence. The same that was applied to Pemulwuy’s resistance. It was apparently not in the interests of a crookedly intent or racist establishment to promote such parts of the Australian story. If this is true, then these people have stolen from generations of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal-Australians a heritage as important, as tragic and as heroic as that of any other nation on earth.
When I was in school, we learned about Captain Cook and the First Fleet. We learned about Banjo Patterson, the Gold Rush, the Eureka Stockade, Federation and the White Australia Policy. What we didn’t learn was about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander history. Even though the idea that the continent of Australia as terra nullius has since been proven false, there is a real absence of Aboriginal history within the national consciousness. I believe that this book would have been a much more valuable book to study in school than some of the other Australian texts we studied. If Australians were to understand that there were valiant warriors among the Aboriginal people who first encountered and, for years, effectively resisted settlement, perhaps there would be more mutual respect today.
This was also a really interesting book for a number of other reasons. I really liked Willmot’s treatment of women in this book. Narawe is a fascinating character who shows ferocity as a fighter on a number of occasions. Willmot also compares the role of women both among the different tribal groups of the Eora as well as between Aboriginal people and the British. Willmot also explores the ethics of both the British approach to settlement and the resistance of Pemulwuy, highlighting the many grey areas and suffering on both sides. I think probably the thing that I found most difficult about this book is that although it was only 300 pages long, it did take me a while to get through it. It is quite heavy on military and tactical writing, something that I have never been particularly interested in.
Nevertheless, Willmot is a bright and considered writer who has filled an important historical gap with an alternative narrative of the people who have lived on this land for tens of thousands of years. I would highly recommend this book for history buffs who would like a more nuanced retelling of early British colonialism and the impacts on Aboriginal Australia.