Books & Literature

Book Review: The Kangaroo Islanders, by W A Cawthorne, annotated by Rick Hosking

HISTORICAL FICTION: One of the few colonial novels that gives a glimpse of some of the improvisational & interactive encounters between the colonisers and the colonised.

A rare glimpse of settlers on Kangaroo Island before colonisation.

The original story was probably written in 1854 and initially published in serial form in the Illustrated Melbourne Post from 1865-66. It was many years later, in 1926, that the story was published in book form as The Kangaroo Islanders. Written by schoolteacher William Cawthorne the novel concerns whalers, fishermen and other fringe dwellers who had settled on Kangaroo Island well before official colonisation in 1836.

Rick Hosking who, before retirement, was an Associate Professor in the Department of English, Creative Writing and Australian Studies at Flinders University has taken the original novel and extensively annotated the text – providing a wealth of information and explanation of some of the terms and events Cawthorne uses, the meaning of which now maybe obscure. For example, when the lead sailor calls his men ‘sons of a gun’ when they are not rowing fast enough. This originally referred to an illegitimate child born on the British Navy’s West Indian station where the father was unknown – in other words he is calling them ‘bastards’.

The author’s father was a sea captain and he had opportunities to travel with him to Kangaroo Island when Captain Cawthorne was head keeper at the lighthouse at Cape Willoughby. As he was also responsible for supplying rations to the small Indigenous population, it seems likely the younger Cawthorne also got to know some Aboriginal islanders. The coastline of southern Australia was much better known than the mysterious interior thanks to French and English explorers and seamen on whaling and sealing ships, some of whom overwintered on Kangaroo Island and settled down more or less permanently.

Hosking argues the source of Cawthorne’s novel was most probably oral history – the anecdotes, tall tales and personal histories of seamen, settlers and Indigenous women on the island. The novel speaks of raids to the mainland to kidnap Aboriginal women who did most of the work required to maintain island settlements. The violent incident in the novel is based on real life events which, sadly, ‘played a considerable part in fixing in the communal memory the idea that Aboriginal people were not to be trusted’.

This is one of the few early colonial novels which also demonstrate positive interactions between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people, as the newcomers learned new ways and/or adapted their old ways to meet the changed conditions. As Hosking notes, this cooperation may well have only been possible somewhere like Kangaroo Island given its isolation and small population. Although Cawthorne was not a skilled artist, the reader will enjoy the reproductions of his watercolours at the end of the text and annotations.

Reviewed by Jan Kershaw

Distributed by: Wakefield Press
Released: May 2020
RRP: $39.95

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