People of the River: Lost Worlds of Early Australia cover


Shortlist year: 2021

Shortlist category: Australian history

Published by: cover

Dyarubbin, the Hawkesbury-Nepean River, is where the two early Australias—ancient and modern—first collided. 'People of the River' journeys into the lost worlds of the Aboriginal people and the settlers of Dyarubbin, both complex worlds with ancient roots.

The settlers who took land on the river from the mid-1790s were there because of an extraordinary experiment devised half-a-world away. Modern Australia was not founded as a gaol, as we usually suppose, but as a colony. Britain's felons, transported to the other side of the world, were meant to become settlers in the new colony. They made history on the river: it was the first successful white farming frontier; a community that nurtured the earliest expressions of patriotism; and it became the last bastion of eighteenth-century ways of life.

The Aboriginal people had occupied Dyarubbin for at least 50,000 years. Their history, culture and spirituality were inseparable from this river Country. Colonisation kicked off a slow and cumulative process of violence, theft of Aboriginal children and ongoing annexation of the river lands. Yet despite that sorry history, Dyarubbin's Aboriginal people managed to remain on their Country, and they still live on the river today.

The Hawkesbury-Nepean was the seedbed for settler expansion and invasion of Aboriginal lands to the north, south, and west. It was the crucible of the colony, and the nation that followed.

About the author

Grace Karskens

Grace Karskens

Grace Karskens is author of The Colony, winner of the 2010 Prime Minister's Non-fiction Award, and of The Rocks, winner of the 1998 NSW Premier's History Award. She is Emeritus Professor of History in the School of Humanities and Languages at the University of New South Wales, a Fellow of the Australian Academy of the Humanities, and a Fellow of the Royal Society of New South Wales.

Judges’ comments

By researching widely in the humanities and sciences, Grace Karskens has crafted an epic history of the Hawkesbury-Nepean River. Like the river itself, this engaging work twists and turns, sometimes switching back on itself, to capture the complex interplay between the waterway and its environs, the people who have called it home for millennia, and those who have arrived over the last 230 years. Unlike some recent fictionalised works suggesting that a single massacre by Europeans soon after their arrival, wiped out the Aboriginal people of the river, Karskens' meticulous scholarship reveals a far more intricate story of interdependence. This includes the sharing of Commons land and crops, bushcraft and tracking, and a mutual love of horse racing. As Karskens says, 'massacre history implies that there were no battles, no resistance and no survivors', an implication that is patently false. Throughout the text, Karskens generously acknowledges her fellow historians, as well as Aboriginal knowledge-holders, and experts in the fields of ecology, geology, soil science, flood and fire risk, linguistics, anthropology and archaeology. However, in drawing on those who have preceded her, Karskens has created a work that is fresh, vibrant and all-encompassing.