Encountering Conflict in ‘the Secret River’

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Encountering Conflict in The Secret River ‘Conflict’ involves the clash of interests, ideas and expectations. It can also mean a fight or a struggle, ranging from a battle or violent clash between armies to antagonism between two people. In The Secret River, conflict takes many forms, from bloody disputes over territory between whites and blacks, to the discrepancy in opinions about an ideal place to settle down for Sal and William Thornhill. Article on The Secret River by Fiona Neilson Context: Encountering Conflict To ‘encounter’ means to come upon or meet with, especially unexpectedly.
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It may refer to a chance meeting, or it may mean a meeting between adversaries. It does not only refer to meetings between people, but also covers meeting ideas, as in ‘he encountered that attitude for the first time’. Many forms of encounter occur in The Secret River, from those at the personal level such as meetings between the white settlers and Indigenous inhabitants of NSW, and William’s encounters with the legal system, to the clash of ideas.

Sal and William, with their expectations of life in the colony as an extension of their life in England, abruptly encounter the reality of an alien landscape and their status as outsiders. The Secret River shows how, fundamentally, conflict is what occurs when different goals, expectations and understandings collide. Encounters with conflict thus signify these points of collision. The basic plot of The Secret River involves characters forced into criminality out of desperation to survive, who are then transported to a harsh foreign environment where a nascent society struggles to establish rules and boundaries.

Given this, it is not surprising to see numerous encounters with conflict. Any investigation of Encountering Conflict needs to consider the different types of conflict that occur in the text, and how the protagonists or characters deal with them. Conflict may be positive, but it depends on the consequences. If it serves to bring about a realisation that was previously lacking, or change that was needed, then it can be positive. However, if differences are not resolved and grievances are exacerbated by conflict, then its legacy can be negative.

Consider how history proceeds from the historical conflicts described in The Secret River: no really positive effects can be said to have occurred for the Indigenous people at either the time of settlement or subsequently. The Indigenous people were forced to share the land on white people’s terms. Their population was ravaged by previously unknown diseases and their culture treated with ignorance and disrespect. As a result, the Indigenous people can clearly be seen to have emerged the worse from the clash between their culture and that of the British colonisers.

Conflict occurs when the fact of existing Indigenous occupation interferes with the whites’ notion that the land is free for the taking. In spite of the Aborigines’ resistance to white incursions, shown by their attempts to fight settlers and sabotage their crops, the British government empowers the colonisers in their desire for expansion by supplying them with soldiers for protection and also by providing them with the legal right to kill Aborigines who resist white settlement (pp. 265–7). In the name of the British Empire, the colonisers are provided with resources and laws that sanction their enterprise.

Central to the concept of colonialism is the idea of the frontier, of the edge of the known world and the site on which the occupying civilisation seeks to perpetuate itself. Yet the concept of a ‘known’ world that exists alongside an ‘unknown’ one is problematic. As illustrated, there is a disjunction or an incompatibility between the white settlers’ concept of a virginal new world that is ready for them to take over, and the existence of Indigenous dwellers. The settlers’ refusal or inability to acknowledge the rights of the land’s original inhabitants shows their ignorance and arrogance.

Although Thornhill does not ever fully grasp the complexity of the relationship between settlers and Indigenous inhabitants, he does realise that he cannot ignore the Aborigines’ presence. ‘It took him sometime to admit to himself that his hundred acres no Article on The Secret River by Fiona Neilson Context: Encountering Conflict longer felt quite his own’ (p. 198). At the end of the novel, he finds himself hoping to catch a glimpse of the local Indigenous people, to assuage his guilt at his role in their dispersal.