The Colony. A History of Early Sydney by Grace Karskens is impeccably and extensively researched, well-written and challenges some of Australia’s more pervasive myths, such as the “damned whores” of the First Fleet and the “fading away” of the Indigenous owners of the lands that became Sydney. Restoring the agency of people such as Bennelong and his wife, Barangaroo, to the historical narrative is important.
But The Colony lacks a theme to move it beyond description and challenge of existing stories. It’s like a large landscape painting from the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. The landscape looms and the people are dwarfed. Grace Karskens describes actual people, even quotes from them, but they seem less vital than the urban and natural environments they’re co-creating.
I found it frustrating.
I wanted Grace Karskens to find a theme to harness the energy and conflict of those years and give them force for present day readers. In fact, I’ll go further. I thought the subject of the book cried out to explicitly address the trauma of exile. In Sydney’s first thirty years the overwhelming majority of its inhabitants were exiles, whether from half a world away (Europeans, free and convict) or from those very lands, wrenched away from them (Indigenous Australians). What were the tensions and responses to exile and how did they play out on the canvas of the landscape? Yes, you could argue that The Colony answers these question. I wanted more.
My other wish would be a greater use of newspaper articles for quotations to balance the excerpts from private letters. Grace Karskens acknowledges that these letters were quite self-consciously crafted for the audience “back Home”, in Britain. Colonial newspapers might show more of the irrational enthusiasms, passions and conflicts of the era via quoted speeches, letters to editors, reported crimes and advertisements.
The Colony is an enjoyable and interesting read. It assumes some knowledge of Australian history.