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Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The Lieutenant by Kate Grenville

On Board the First Fleet that bought convicts to Australia in 1788 was a young lieutenant of marines, William Dawes. Although nominally a soldier, he was a considerable scholar in Austronamy, mathematics and languages. The records left of the language of the indigenous people of Sydney area (Cadigal tribe) is by far the most extensive we have. It contains not only word lists and speculations about the grammatical structure of the language, but conversations between him and the indigenous people, particular a young girl, Patyegarang. 

These are the basic facts , on which the extraordinary life of Lieutenant Daniel Rooke is based, in the book 'The Lieutenant ' by Kate Grenville. Most of the characters are based on the accounts of the first settlers in New South Wales (NSW) .   It is interesting to note that, all cadigal words and conversations quoted in the book have been taken verbatim from Dawes' language notebooks.

The story describes the clash of civilizations, when the white man meets the natives of Sydney, NSW.  For the white man, be it the marines or the convicts (declared unfit to live in the civilized world of Europeans), the natives were simply savages, though for Lieutenant Rooke, it was difficult to say who was more civilized. The author compares the two peoples, through the eyes of Lieutenant Rooke, not based on the advancement in science and technology and standard of living , but based on quality of life and from a linguistic point of view.

At one point of time, The linguist in Rooke is so excited , when he discovers that the cadigals had different words for "You and me', 'all of us' or "me and these others but not you', all embedded in the pronoun !While English makes only the crudest of distinctions, the natives were a race of people using a language as supple as that of Sophocles and Homer"

The xenophobic and culturally blind Europeans have caused  untold miseries to natives of america, and Australia. When you think of the word 'holocaust' what comes to mind is the history of Jews. But there has been a holocaust on much larger scale, perpetrated by the then civilized world. It has been estimated that by the seventeenth century, more than 50 million native Americans perished as a result of war, disease, enslavement, and deliberate brutalities of Europeans.

Who is a savage, what is savagery ? A savage is considered "A brutal and vicious person". But don't seemingly civilized people act more cruelly to their own fellowmen ?  A scene in the novel, illustrates the point. The entire British marine forces form up in their ceremonial  best, for a punishment parade. A man who had stolen potatoes from the garden was being flogged methodically, mercilessly, till his back is reduced to a bloody pulp, all in the name of impartial justice and iron discipline. There is only one person on the scene who sees just 'cruelty'  and nothing else. He is the only one  dares to protest and he is a native whom they call a savage.

Nothing tells more about a civilization than its untranslatable words.  I quote from the book ;
"She went over to the fireplace and held out her hands to the coal...Then she pressed his fingers with her own....He felt her skin warm and smooth..... Their hands were of the same temperature now.
"Putuwa", she said.
From her gestures and actions he deduced that word 'putuwa' to mean warming one's hands by the fire and then squeezing gently the fingers of another person. In English it required a long rigmarole of words..... Tagaran was teaching him a word and by it she was showing him a world"

A very interesting book indeed !


Anu said...


It's a shame that I have yet to read Kate Grenville.

Wonder if this is a follow up to The Secret River?

colmurali said...

It is, though it is about an earlier period ! But I am yet to read The Secret River.

Anu said...

Oh Ok, must check it out.