The harsh reality of stolen land: James Dunk reviews ‘Cotter: A Novel’ by Richard Begbie

Cotter: A Novel by Richard Begbie (Longhead Press, 2016).

cotterWhile the ‘convict stain’ has become a tired cliché in Australian history writing, it is a more interesting facet of Australian fiction. The fact that many of the early British colonists were criminals transported here against their will complicates the common colonial narratives and generalisations, as Kate Grenville showed in her immensely popular The Secret River (2005). Through Australian historical fiction, readers have become introduced the ‘good convict’ drawn into terrible acts of violence partly, because of the injustices of penal transportation.

The protagonist of Richard Begbie’s third book, Cotter: A Novel, is a young Irish convict, sentenced to hang for the tantalising crime of Whiteboyism. The Whiteboys were members of a secret agrarian society who fought for fair rent and smallhold subsistence farming in the eighteenth century. Dressed in white smocks, they conducted violent, marvellously theatrical actions against the landlords and tithe collectors.

The novel follows one of forty Whiteboys sentenced to death in a Special Commission to deal with the menace in 1822: the young, aggrieved Garrett Cotter. It deals sympathetically with his plight, and follows him closely through a failed action, capture, and a Kafkaesque mass trial. Begbie quotes Edmund Burke on the function of English law in Ireland: a machine ‘as well fitted for the oppression, impoverishment, and degradation of a people … as ever proceeded from the perverted ingenuity of man.’ (p.13) Having prepared himself for execution, Cotter finds that his sentence has been commuted to transportation for life. Despite this clemency, Cotter feels crushed by the inestimable weight of English sovereignty, and this sense forms the backdrop for the colonial narrative which follows. As with the hundreds of thousands of men and women sent out in punishment from Europe to the Americas, Africa, Australia, and elsewhere, Cotter is disconcerted by the idea of transportation. The future is unknown to him.

Whiteboys were called ‘levellers’ by the landholders they fought, but this novel represents a later work of levelling. Convictism stains our colonial literature with the idea that Europeans in Australia were more sinned against than sinners. A novel that begins with a cold English trial and a sentence of transportation is set upon a trajectory to absolution. The narrative of Cotter withholds this, but in a deeper sense, the novel grants what justice, religion and conscience cannot.

Criminal justice had already sent Cotter into exile, and for him has no further moral claims. His Catholicism has little more purchase, offering only occasional consolation, and the memory of simpler times. When the roving, outcast priest Joseph Therry arrives at Lake George to hear Cotter’s confession, it is not any of the metropolitan sins that trouble him, but his betrayal of the Aboriginal man Onyong, by leading white men to his country. ‘‘Tis a terrible problem we have made for the Aborigines,’ Therry sighs, ‘and for ourselves as well.’ (p. 181) Cotter, perhaps sensing a certain hollowness, accepts the sacrament weakly, distracted by a more pressing moral drama than the one it invokes.

Cotter’s colonial story had begun as a genial one. Fortunate to be assigned to a fair master, he becomes adept at handling cattle, and earns the respect of his superiors. He begins the slow path to material success but English law still casts its pall over him. In New South Wales, the law was idiosyncratic and open to abuse, since it relied on untrained magistrates selected from a small pool of upstanding, heavily vested men. When Cotter is wrongly accused of stealing a horse by a vindictive neighbouring landholder, he is run through the vagaries of this law and eventually banished for four years beyond the limits of settlement. It was an unusual sentence; authorities were wary of the lawless interior and eager to prevent convict mobility and association. Cotter retires to country on the Murrumbidgee to which he has already been led by Onyong, a gift in a time of punishing drought. It is rich country, the cultivated hunting grounds of Onyong’s people, and will eventually be taken up by others in Cotter’s wake. However, Cotter has already led his master, Frank Kenny, to land near Lake George, also shown to him by Onyong. Kenny claimed the land as his own. Cotter is aware that it was a theft which he enabled.

Where others are half-conscious, or entirely oblivious, Cotter is aware of the collateral damage of this expansion because of the familiarity which has grown between Onyong and himself. The Irishman quickly comes to respect, even fear the Indigenous man, who is written compellingly as a person of grace and strength whom his people and colonists alike find impressive. Onyong even has a breastplate describing him as a king. Their cautious relationship is at the heart of the novel, which, despite the faint notes of impending catastrophe, lingers over this intimacy. The description on the dust jacket claims their connection reflects, ‘a haunting moment in Australia’s story, when white humility and aboriginal knowledge might have combined to produce a kinder stewardship’. The prologue suggests not only that the novel is set ‘between an echo of Ireland to the one side and the song of a people old as time on the other’ (p. 10), but that it has a program.

Cotter’s historicism is integral to this program. Like stories of other ordinary men and women, it is woven together from a sparse infrastructure of records. Some of its chapters begin with quotes from these newspapers, diaries and government orders. A rudimentary chronology runs throughout, with the year printed intermittently in large, bold type, so that it is not simply a novel set in the past, as in any other foreign land. It rather clothes itself in chronological and historical detail. Why then does its subtitle announce, quite gratuitously, that this is A Novel? With its frequent dialogue and access to Cotter’s inner self, it is unlikely to be confused with history. Does the title then seek grace, or permission? Does Begbie embed this narrative so definitively, borrowing authority from the historical sources interleaved between its chapters, so as to present an alternative colonial history?

Here, in the slow bleeding out of settler colonialism, such a project is problematic. In the late twentieth century, theories of criminal justice were rocked by provocations which studied the law’s actual function, asking whom it served. The cynical view of English criminal law in Cotter is in part a product of this critique. Law, as the Whiteboys discovered, served the propertied classes. However, we should also ask what work this novel does, and for whom.

Cotter takes a convict as its protagonist and goes to great lengths to establish a basic injustice in the way he has been treated by English law, so that in some degree the injustice against convicts is equated with injustice against Aboriginal peoples. All Cotter’s interactions with Aboriginal men and women are coloured by this inequity, which helps him sympathise with their plight. It also, however, helps produce a settler colonial palliative.

When Cotter is forced from land he has taken as his own, Begbie has his protagonist compare his loss at the hands of a free landholder with colonial dispossession: ‘It was as simple for Murray to take over country he had come to feel as part of him as it had been for himself to presume upon the blacks.’ (p. 294) This comparison is, if not disingenuous, egregious. While Burke’s relentless machine, English law, crushed Cotter almost to death, it was by no means the most perverse product of British imperial ingenuity. This was, rather, the racialised discourse which savaged the culture and dignity of peoples precisely as it pronounced them savages. This savagery, dressed as civility, was so effective that even intelligent men like Aubrey Murray could hold Aboriginal people culpable under his own, intruding law. ‘The plain fact,’ he pronounces, ‘is the average blackfellow won’t stick at anything … We must be kind and generous to them, but we also must acknowledge their limitations.’ (p. 294) The large landholding Murray, of course, had more to lose than Garrett Cotter in seeing colonialism for what it was.

The fact that the injustice to convicts and Indigenous peoples is not comparable is clear from the function of the law. For all the injustice of transportation, convicts were enabled to make new lives, and many did. The same law indicted Aboriginal men and women for trespasses it could not possibly countenance, and bequeathed a perverse superiority on convicts and free alike as they took up land. Cotter knows this, and even welcomes it, since his success rode on the loss of these others. ‘He searched his heart, to discover that he shared something of the fatalism of both Murray and Onyong. It had been there all along. Even as he grieved for the man and his people, he was looking to a future for himself that included a pardon, a family, a remembered history.’ (p. 337).

For all Cotter’s knowing, he still stumbles into calling the country ‘his’, and for all his powerlessness, he still comes out with Onyong’s land. One of the pleasing results of writing the novel for Begbie, is that he has brought together descendants of Cotter and Onyong, who was an elder of the Ngambri nation. However, when the three met and were photographed together, it was on land that has belonged to the Cotter family since the events described in the novel, and the name Cotter is written across the land west of Canberra.

There is no doubt that the author feels remorse about the history of this country. He writes this into Cotter’s reflections, so that the novel, in turn, elicits remorse. Yet, this remorse is constructed from the sense of the inevitable which oppresses the pages. While Cotter takes opportunities to show his gratitude, and respect, white men and their cattle, fleeing drought, press further and further into the country. The depression that engulfs Cotter for a stretch is not that of the country, or its people, but of being at the mercy of climate, law, and history. Amends for Cotter’s betrayal would never be made.

The novel picks up pace in its final chapters: while the suffering of Onyong and his people escalate to the point of collapse, Cotter is on the up. Friends, family, and pastoral success promise to establish him in society, and to undo his intimacy with Onyong, his family, and his world, though retaining their knowledge of country. Onyong’s world disintegrates, and Cotter comes upon the vivacious young woman who had been betrothed to him, now begging for a drink outside a pub. Although she has aged terribly, they recognise each other, and he sees in her what his people have done. For they are all his people. ‘Cotter struggled for something to say, and found nothing’ (p. 352). Instead, he presses a sixpence into her hand, which brings this imagined history crashing indelicately into the bankrupt race relations of the present.

The novel’s trajectory suggests that guilt lies with the drought-prone climate, or cultural failures, or alcohol, or worse still, the idea that bad colonists were to blame for violence and dispossession – an extension of the invidious ‘bad convict’ trope. More profoundly, Cotter looks to impersonal structures, and the inarticulate tide of history, for cause. Whatever goodwill, or guilt, that may have surfaced in the colonists was overwhelmed by the advancing front of western law, agriculture, and economics; by the entire, self-perpetuating system of western ‘civilisation’. This is compelling, but insufficient, since it offers a quiet absolution. Rather, those responsible for the crimes of colonisation were landholders like Aubrey Murray and Frank Kenny, and men and women like Ann Russell and Garrett Cotter. The threshold of the dispossession of this country was a supreme and unforgivable denigration of Aboriginal law, knowledge, and culture, and of men, women and children, for personal and imperial gain. ‘At some points the novel enters contested areas,’ writes Begbie in his notes, but in fact it never strays from them.

-James Dunk


James Dunk is a historian and writer living in Sydney’s Inner West. He holds a PhD from the University of Sydney.

Cotter by Richard Begbie on ABC Books Plus

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