The Sound by Sarah Drummond. Fremantle Press (2016).
Sarah Drummond’s debut book, Salt Story: Of Sea-Dogs and Fisherwomen was a rare one – a non-fictional account of the sea and its people arising from the author’s own experience. It was short-listed for the West Australian Premier’s Book Awards in 2014.
Drummond’s second novel, The Sound, fictionalises the lived experience of others, carefully reconstructing the world of the sealers who worked in the hinterland of British colonialism in Australia in the 1820s. It vividly recreates King George’s Sound, a bay at the south-western tip of the continent, as a theatre of cross purposes, of freedom and death – a beautiful place tortured by European savagery.
Drummond’s novel is a beautifully written excursion into the ethics of this violent world. Her protagonist is William Hook, a Maori man who crosses the Tasman in search of the sealers who sacked his village. To find them, he joins a sealing crew. The novel follows closely the small band from Hobart, through the islands of Bass Strait, to the Sound, dwelling on the relationships ‘Billhook’ forms with the white sealers and with the Aboriginal women in the group. Some are coerced; all are pursuing private agendas. They span the gamut of privilege and agency.
In Salamanca Bay, Hobart’s now charming and genteel dockside district, two heavy black pots stand in commemoration of the whaling industry. On ship decks, on the islands of Bass Strait, and on southern shores, blubber was boiled down for days at a stretch and drained into barrels of oil. These cauldrons now stand as opaque relics of ecological destruction. Phillip Hoare’s Leviathan, or the Whale (Fourth Estate, 2009) illuminated this history with its winsome, devastating portrayal of whale life and the life of whalers. Leviathan ties the early march of industrial progress to the hunting of cetaceans: the whales of the oceans died in thousands to light the streets of European cities.
‘Sealing’ was like ‘whaling’ (words which elide the black pots and bloody harpoons), except that where whales were fearsome quarry, seals were gormless creatures waiting beside the sea for men to club them. Graphic passages in The Sound describe this killing. Drummond’s language here is vivid and precise. She conjures the past in its infinitesimal details without labouring these details: a difficult balance to achieve. In less elegant historical novels, the paraphrasing of technical information gleaned from long researches easily breaks whatever spell may be obtaining. Drummond, however, deploys the fine grain of the past in order to bring the past credibly and compellingly into the present.
The Sound is set in the world of the sealers, deserters, and escapees who fled from colonial society and authority to the southern shore of the Australian continent and the islands of the Bass Strait. The Sound’s dust jacket calls it a ‘violent and lawless world.’ It was constituted in defiance of the authority and regularity, the sovereignty and justice of imperial Britain and in flagrant disregard for the subjectivity and sovereignty of Aboriginal people. The Empire, for all its sins, brought an air of bureaucratic formality to the areas it directly controlled, and this proscribed certain behaviours. At its territorial fringe, however, those who fled its restraints wielded European knowledge and technology licentiously.
Few of us read to be brutalised, but the problem of writing about the past is that it was often brutal. Penny Russell’s history of colonial mores, Savage or Civilised?: Manners in Colonial Australia (UNSW Press, 2010) maps the navigation of etiquette in colonial society. Although her work has mostly treated civility, rather than savagery, Russell is hardly a historian of niceness, seeking merely to divert. She delves into the archive of polite and impolite gestures, reading the construction of colonial society with a critical eye. Other literature, both fictional and non-fictional, simply conjures a past in which ‘civilisation’ really indicated virtue and restraint. The virtuous frontier summoned by this writing is a pleasant place to visit: a place where the dramas of individual and familial life can be played out in the curated world of the ‘pioneers’, rather than at the actual ragged edge of empire. Savagery is harder. To write about it is to either demonise it – to make it fundamentally, unfeasibly other – or to do the unpleasant work of imagining ourselves into the emotional and intellectual spaces in which savagery seems civilised. Nietzsche’s abyss threatens to open also in ourselves during the act of gazing.
The shroud lying over the Australian history of sealing, and sexual and labour slavery implied by it, is partly the deliberate work of its denizens, opposed as they were to authority, regularity, and record-keeping. But it has been reinforced by modern sensibilities. Although in many ways sealers and whalers were colonial pioneers, and even excelled in certain of the traits we laud in our more palatable pioneers, Australian narratives have neglected them. They represent the colonial darkness over which the brief, but rancorous history wars were fought. The literate public has tended to allow them the seclusion they themselves sought. As if they were not also the product of our empires, and builders of our ‘civilisations’.
Despite Lynnette Russell’s excellent Roving Mariners: Australian Aboriginal Whalers and Sealers in the Southern Oceans, 1790-1870 (State University of New York Press, 2012), then, the world of these sealers remains for the most part an informal, uncertain one. In fiction, however, such a world can still be effectively explored. The mainspring behind The Sound is an unassuming, but entirely enthralling statement made by William Hook, to Edmund Lockyer, who arrived at King George’s Sound in 1826 as commandant of a new British settlement. The text, which appears in Historical Records of Australia, is reproduced in full on Drummond’s website, amongst a plethora of biographical and historical writing, all anchored by conventional references in the established historical record. It bears witness to crimes by sealers against the indigenous people of the Sound. British law, which had been largely theoretical, was breaking in.
Drummond uses Billhook to guide her through the mechanical difficulty of writing about savagery, that of perspective. How can we get close enough to savagery to see it properly? Drummond makes ‘Billhook’ the victim of a massacre in adjacent imperial borderlands – a real attack carried out in 1817 in Otago by James Kelly and the crew of the Sophia – but one not clearly linked with William Hook. By this means, readers only gradually enter the mindset of the sealers; the ugliness is introduced in stages. When we encounter genuine brutality, therefore, we are imaginatively involved with the brutalisers. The clubbing of seal cubs pales beside the abduction and rape of Aboriginal women. This was what transpired at the edge of empire.
Or was it? There is little evidence of precisely what happened amongst these sealers and whalers. This dearth has allowed space for prevarication, and justified silence. This savagery was a thing half known. Certain ‘cultural warriors’ sacralise a threshold of written factuality – something only achieved within that imperial formality; everything beyond is speculative, even malicious. This self-serving standard protects that image of the virtuous pioneers, who wrote their own histories.
In her dispute with Kate Grenville, author of a different imagined account of frontier brutality, The Secret River, the historian Inga Clendinnen (2006) argued that historians are set apart from novelists by their ‘moral contract’ with the past. At the end of The Sound, a note claims this moral authority for the author, if not the novel. Readers are directed to Drummond’s website, where a collection of closely-referenced biographical pieces explore the recorded past in the manner of what she calls ‘straight history’. Fiction, however, may be bolder than history, and the novel itself follows, imaginatively, the slender evidence to its likely conclusions.
Drummond is contractually bound not to the past, as it actually was, but to the problem of human savagery. It was unpleasant to get close enough to the characters to write them compellingly – particularly the sealer, Samuel Bailey. “I’m completely stalled with that writing,” Drummond (2013, para. 12) blogged at one point. “I don’t like them. I don’t want to hang out with Samuel Bailey every day. When I do, he does my fucking head in. I feel crazy by the end of the day. I just want to climb out of my own brain.”
Why take up such a project, without an injunction from actual victims to bear witness? Drummond uses the conceit of Bluebeard’s chamber to explore her fascination with Bailey. Like Bluebeard’s young bride, she blundered her way into a dangerous contract, telling herself ‘his beard is not quite so blue’. Researching, and particularly writing, was for Drummond the opening of the chamber, and the loss of this cultivated innocence. “When you shine a light in a dark cave,” Drummond (2013, para 29) writes of the minds of the sealers, “the crevices and corners become all the more darker.”
The problem fiction writers have, and historians do not, is that here there is no cave. The crevices and corners, while certainly dark, are written into the past from Drummond’s imagination. Fiction is wonderful; it transports us from the prosaic not only into rich-hued worlds, but into the thrust of meaningful narratives. Historical fiction produces these narratives by smoothing out past episodes that almost hang together. It abridges the pieces of men and women which we can find scattered in the records of the past that almost make believable characters. It can turn the past into a place we understand. But it cannot at the same time hold these men and women to account. A novel like The Sound, finally, has its own delicate cruelty. It traumatises with a vision of past savagery that lies maddeningly between truth and fiction.
Clendinnen, I. 2006, The history question: who owns the past?, Quarterly Essay 23, Black Inc., Melbourne.
Drummond, S. 2013, ‘Predator dreams,’ A winedark sea: ripping yarns, beautiful lies and a few home truths, weblog, 10 July, viewed 23 September 2016, <http://thawinedarksea.blogspot.com.au/2013/07/predator-dreams_10.html>.
James Dunk is a historian and writer living in Sydney’s Inner West. He holds a PhD from the University of Sydney