The language of conflict: The Lieutenant

“The language of conflict in Kate Grenville’s The Lieutenant and The Secret River by Jennifer Minter

“Difference held no fear for him. He knew that strangeness was commonplace when you inhabited it.” (152)

In both The Secret River and The Lieutenant, Kate Grenville depicts the colonial narrative of forced conquest and its impact upon the indigenous peoples in Australia.

Ascribing to the idea that language does not merely describe reality, but “creates the reality it describes” (Desmond Tutu), Grenville believes that the use of language, in its broadest sense, plays a large role in shaping, determining and inflaming conflicts, both from a personal and a collective perspective.

Through the lens of the powerful white colonial settlement this confrontation becomes a story of irreconcilable cultural differences. The biggest and most fundamental difference is that of lifestyle and views and values about land ownership, power and control.

There are numerous references in both texts to the colonial grab for land: conquest, to the colonial powers, is about ownership in “white man’s terms’, which is about staking out boundaries, marking the land and erecting signs.

The language of war

The Govenor’s approach to conflict (resolution) revolves around the language of violence and appropriation. Lieutenant Rooke comes to realise that “war was a species of conversation,” (108) and a conversation that is spoken only by the white settlers.

New South Wales becomes the “possession of King George the Third” and the governor awarded “James Gilbert sovereignty over every man black or white, every object great or small, and every relationship of whatever sort that might take place in his kingdom”. (170)

The language of justice: a white man’s concept

The language we use during times of a conflict often reflects our views and values and our worldview.

Compare these comments in the wake of the New Orleans (Hurricane Katrina) tragedy that took place in 2005.
“I think we have a clean sheet to start again. And with that clean sheet we have some very big opportunities.” (Joseph Canizaro, one of New Orleans’ wealthiest developers.)

“I really don’t see it as cleaning up the city. What I see is that a lot of people got killed uptown … This isn’t an opportunity. It’s a goddamned tragedy. Are they blind?” (Jamar Perry, September 2005 in the Red Cross shelter in Louisiana) (Naomi Klein, Shock Doctrine).

In The Secret River, Will Thornhill realizes that “a tent was all very well, but what marked a man’s claim was a rectangle of cleared and dug-over dirt and something growing that had not been there before” (SR, p139). In this text, colonization is also a violent affair. Law and justice only belonged to the powerful white rulers. Captain McCullum instigates schemes to silence and disperse the indigenous peoples. “He demonstrated on the map how the natives would be penned in against the gully where cliffs rose up sheer. There, His Majesty would dispense justice.” (SR 262) Thornhill takes place in the massacre that eventually ensures his survival. All the indigenous people who once occupied his land are killed. The British settlers decree (policy) that the black natives “are to be driven away by force of arms by the settlers themselves (SR 266).

The official attitude is to “treat them well, so they would tell the others”. It is the voice of exploitation and silence that conceals their murderous intentions. Unofficially, they round up the Aborigines as “one might drive sheep”.

Conceding that the indigenous are a “disciplined fighting machine”, which gives legitimacy to the war waged by the colonialists, Captain McCullum (SR) organises schemes to attack and destroy the Aborigines whom, he believes, do not respect their “rights” and are jeopardising the security of the British colony. He plans his tactical strategies (“outrages and depredations) as if they are an army “taking up a position and confronting another army.” Before battle, Captain McCullum encourages the settlers to do “[their] duty to [their] King and [their] country,” which is to fill as many body bags as needed so as to disperse the Aborigines and “hold the line against [their] treacherous foe”.

As the Extract from the Proclamation states: “On occasion of any native coming armed, or in a hostile manner without arms, or in unarmed parties exceeding six in number, to any farm belonging to British subjects, such natives are first to be desired in a civil manner to depart from said farm. And if they persist in remaining thereon, they are then to be driven away by force of arms by the settlers” (p266)

The act of conquest involves the lust for blood. The hatchets that draw blood and the trophies that delight remind one of Jack in Lord of the Flies who revels in the idea of the hunt (272) The “heads were to be brought back in the bags provided. Having been severed with the hatchet provided.” (274). The idea was that it was necessary to act violently in order to defend the act of conquering itself.

In The Lieutenant, Brugden, the gamekeeper, is typical of those who seek to tame the aborigines through indiscriminate violence. (138) Many believe, such as Lennox and Willstead, that they should make a greater demonstration of force (126)

The gun becomes a powerful metaphor of the difference between them. Taragan insists on learning the “language of the gun”. Specifically, she wants to know how to load the gun because this would help to neutralise the white man’s advantage with regards to the very disparities of power. Rooke is surprised at how insistent Taragan is, and it creates tension, anger and aggression between them, for the first time. He jealously protects the white man’s secret and is reluctant to give up their advantage. To explain their secret is to “expose the shambles within: that was of another order of experience, another language. What it said was, I can kill you” (224). Rooke recoils at the “stricken look she had given him when he had mimed a musket to the shoulder” which is a reminder of the power invested in these instruments of violence (264).

Rooke remembers the surgeon’s (Weymark’s) demonstration of the violence of the gun. “He wondered now what had possessed him to laugh.” (220/53)

The might of the British Empire revolves around intimidation and force, but the euphemistic language or “sophistry”  employed by those in power downplays the act of theft.  Using the gamekeeper’s empty rhetoric, the governor seeks to justify and rationalize the theft. He believes that the natives “have proved so reluctant to come among us. We have nothing but “good will towards them” (107).

Lieutenant Gardiner is dismayed at the reference to the fact that the “natives were brought in” – language that seeks to downplay the violent conquest. “Never mind that they were kidnapped. Violently. Against their will.” (112)

The settlers camouflage their violence in acts of kindness. During the final encounter, Rooke realises they must capture the natives and return them in body bags. “Take, yes, but only by force, what would be the point, man, if the native invites himself to be taken? There is no message there for the others” (266)

An uneven conquest

Without the instruments of violence, the indigenous quest for survival turns into the right to self-defence and the right to be heard.

In their defence, the Aborigines also attack the white settlers in a bid to reclaim access to their land and their livelihood. However, “attack’ does not mean the same for the aborigines as it does for the settlers, because their weapons are less advanced.

Although, the spear is feared because of its unpredictability and force, it is nevertheless no match for the gun. Ironically, their attack can be literally seen as a form of retreat as they disappear into the darkness. For example, the attack on the Webbs (SR) is typical of the “many outrages and depredations” that occur throughout March of 1814. Grenville explains how the natives would hurl a “sudden rain of spears from nowhere” and disappear into the black surroundings so that there was “nothing to shoot at”. Their attack, like the white settlers, derives from fear of the unknown and the loss of their livelihood.

Justice and empty lands and the gamekeeper’s rhetoric

The notion of Australia as an “empty country”, (the doctrine of terra nullius) is everywhere evident in Rooke’s first encounter with the natives. During one of his first expeditions with Captain Barton, Rooke experiences the bush as eerily captivating. Flushing out the natives, is like “tossing a stone into a bush and wondering what bird would fly out” (54, 52 and 69).

The fact that the settlers view Rose Hill as an “untamed place” and a prior unnamed place “where no rose has ever grown” reinforces the myth of the empty land prior to the white settlement. Here, the soil is fertile (106) and the governor has every confidence that this place “will rapidly feed our infant colony” (106)

Grenville draws clear parallels between the choices that Brugden makes and his outlook on life with Lancelot Percival James, the son of the Earl of Bedwick —  albeit in reversal. The earl’s gentried and born-to-rule attitude is shored up by the gamekeeper who “protected the earl’s pheasants from those who might try to help themselves”. (9) Despite the reversal in circumstances, the gentried attitude suggests that it has full right to the “gentleman’s estate”. “Here, the idea of a gentleman’s park was not altogether ridiculous” (99) . He can shoot the natives and the fauna at whim. “When in Rome” (93) implies that living under the white man’s law in the new colony he can escape punishment. Previously Brugden was a gamekeeper for the Duke of Portland before he fell foul of the law. He was a “rough sort of fellow.” “I have seen him hit a woodpigeon at a hundred paces.” (94)

Likewise, Thornhill reflects on the fact that the land appears uninhabited, especially during the day. “They had no fences that said this is mine. No houses that said this is our home. There were no fields or flocks that said: “we have put the labour of our hands into this place” (SR 93), but at night time, there were “campfires everywhere, winking among the trees”.

To appropriate or steal the land, one only needed to plant a crop: “There were rules that said a man needed a piece of paper signed by the Governor. But whispered between the lines of those rules, floating behind the pieces if paper was the truth: the Governor turned a blind eye .. All a person needed to do was find a place no one had already taken. Plant a crop, build a hut, call the place Smith’s or Flanagan’s, and outstare anyone who said otherwise.” (SR 121)

But despite the reversal in fortune, the same sense of entitlement is evident. According to Percival James’s logic, which is also Brugden’s and the governor’s, the British Empire would “collapse if slavery were abolished”.

The language of appeasement

The settlers camouflage their violence in acts of kindness and euphemisms that downplay or condone violence. Typically, the settlers seek to control and subdue the indigenous peoples with gifts such as trinkets.

In The Lieutenant the language of conquest is couched in terms such as “cooperation” but it is cooperation on the white man’s terms. Without their cooperation, the progress and even the existence of this colony will be threatened. “His majesty has instructed me to establish good relations with the greatest possible dispatch and to become familiar with the native tongue as swiftly as opportunity may make possible” (62)

Captain Barton patronises “Mister Darkie” and reduces the act of conquest to one of trinkets and cats. The native is curious, supposedly about the trinkets. “Come my friends”. “Look, I wager you have never seen this before!”. He describes the “darkie” like “a cat that wants the cream but fears the milkmaid”. (53)

In many ways it is the language of appeasement, also adopted by Sal Thornhill in The Secret River. Initially both Will and Sal wish to find a way to live peacefully despite the threat of the aborigines. They want to share the land with the aborigines, as long as the aborigines leave their vegetable plot and personal belongings alone. However, they soon have a different view on how they should approach the aborigines encroaching on “their” land. Sal opts for gifts hoping that such offerings will encourage the aborigines to leave the land.

The language of “civilisation” and “sophistry”


Methods of attack do not just consist of guns and spears, but body language and offensive dialect become a method of attacking the “savages” and reminding them of their cultural inferiority. In The Secret River, Smasher Sullivan constantly refers to the Aborigines as “lazy thieving savages” and “venom, the same as rat’s venom.” During one encounter, Will too, refers to the Aborigines as “black buggers” and without listening to their stream of words he “break[s] the spell” of the “old bugger” and urges him to realise that “this [is] mine now. Thornhill’s place.” He shows complete disrespect for the Aboriginal culture and insults their attempt at compromise by refusing to eat the daisy yams offered –instead terming them “monkey’s balls.” Ironically, Grenville shows that his method of attack is similar to the attacking gentry from whom he has fled. Will is prepared to be as aggressive as possible to protect his land and his family as he realises that he has attained status and influence that he would never gain in England. His attack is also born of fear, because he fears being reduced to the humiliating level of an outlawed prisoner. He realises that “there could be no future for the Thornhills back in London.”

The colonials believe that the natives are “savages”, “by God they are savage”, dirty too, look at the filth on them” (139) and primitive (naked and uncivilized). The more primitive and the more savage, the easier it becomes to take their land.

Contrastingly, Lieutenant Gardiner comes to recognise that “they may be savages, we call them savages, but their feelings are no different from ours” (111))

The settlers have an arrogant, contemptuous and patronizing attitude towards the aborigines whom they expect to fit in with their own ideas about conquest and settlement. The governor expects the natives to “parley” with them; and if not to be “turned to account” (86).

The language of the gun: a symbol of dominance and conquest

Sal Thornhill impresses upon her son Dick the view that the indigenous are culturally inferior. “We’re civilized folk, we don’t go round naked” (SR 215) She also calls them “primitives”. Will rages against the laziness of the indigenous tribe who do not plant crops. They “ain’t never done a hand’s turn” and so believes that they thereby ought to abrogate their rights to the land. (SR 290) The natives scorn the white man because they do not know how to use and adapt to the land in the traditional way. Will is ignorant about bush survival strategies such as making fires. He has to be taught. (SR 212)

In The Lieutenant, the settlers repeatedly commit acts of violent conquest: the “slaves” are kidnapped and civilized. The culturally arrogant white settlers seek to “domesticate” and “civilize” them. Rooke is amazed at the first time he sees them using a teacup or a fork, when they taste a china plate. “It would never again be the first time. Rooke was aware of witnessing something unrepeatable and irreversible. He was watching one universe in the act of encountering another”. (137). Grenville shows how the clash of cultures leads to irreversible change and the corruption of lifestyles and values.

Lieutenant Silk: “think of it as a piece of theatre, if you wish!” (259)


Lieutenant Silk’s story becomes a metaphor of the white colonial narrative that privileges the superior views of the settlers. He uses the language of conquest to explain, describe and depict the “interesting” process of conquest and civilisation.

He plans to write his “gem” of a narrative and records the anecdotes from his colonial, pompous perspective (66 and 47). He writes how the natives “vanished again” soon after they saw them. It is the white man’s story of conquest. He wants to tame by writing; he does not want to be “rusticated there for too long”. (168)

During the encounter, Silk relies on “charades to convey his meaning” (268). He turns the act of conquest into an act of theatre and dramatizes his power.

Resolving conflict: the language of the cosmos as a “blueprint”

Lieutenant Daniel Rooke alone learns the indigenous language that reflects his desire for mutual coexistence and cooperation with the indigenous tribes and with the land upon which they harmoniously depend. The first touch between Warungin’s hand, as they name each other, “was a gift” (143). Not the gift of the white men: the muskets, the telescopes, the gold braid, the trinkets (66). It was more than this.

Rooke remarks on the importance of understanding the language: which is “as astonishing as a star moving out of its place” (139).

Grenville metaphorically compares language with a machine and Rooke understands the power of language both to divide and to unite: “To make it work each part had to be understood in relation to all the other parts. He could read five languages. The unknown was his daily bread: astronomy was a profession of mysteries”.

Whereas Will Thornhill becomes exasperated at the inability to communicate, Rooke seeks to learn their dialect.

Thornhill notes that “there is too many people here and too little language to go around.” (146) which creates a curdling sense of fear and anxiety. The aborigines often confront Thornhill but he cannot even understand their body language. “He could not read their faces. Their eyes were hidden in the shadows cast by their heavy brows, their mouths large and unsmiling.“( SR 143) Compare this with Lieutenant Silk’s theatrical attempt to bridge the communication gap so that he can retell an interesting story.

The two young girls (aged 10 and 11), skinny and quick, with a long graceful neck (147) become a key to Rooke’s changing relationship with the place. He also comes to appreciate the fine subtleties of their language, which is as “supple as that of Sophocles and Homer” (245) Such an awareness seeks to overcome the difference between them by reducing cultural arrogance.

His journey is one, not simply, into the language of a race of people hitherto unknown, but into the cosmos they inhabited; the ways they

organized their society and the gods they worshipped.” (154) Daniel experiences moments of shared intimacy as he looks into a “peculiar sort of mirror”. “It was humbling to learn how to do nothing more than sit” (173). For once, he is not the gauche outsider.

He wishes to establish a blue-print for cross cultural relations. He imagines similarities with Galileo, turning his telescope to the night sky and seeing stars that no one had seen before” (163). It was like a dance between the two of them, or the voices of a fugue.” (Ambitiously, and optimistically, he seeks to discover the “basis on which the native language is founded.” (153) (For background on Galileo , click here.)

Rooke realizes that through their interchanges, “he was not simply learning another language. He was re-making his own.” A “boundary was being crossed and erased. Like ink in water, one language was melting into another”. (178). At times words are not “simply borrowed” but “possessed” (177).

There are times that Rooke and Tagaran miscommunicate. When she is trying to make herself understood with regards to the blanket and the candle, the words misfire. (180) Often there is a certain practical reason for her nakedness, and such a reason speaks of cultural conflict – not necessarily inferiority. (“The logic of wet skin and the heat of a fire” (180). At first he was shocked by the sight of the mother’s “bare thighs” (173). Daniel Rooke enjoys a moment of harmony with the two aboriginal girls sleeping on his floor. “He tried to picture himself telling them (his unimaginable children of his own”) the story. Then one night the two native children slept in my hut” (191)

He thinks about how Tagaran praises him as an indication of their closeness. “He liked the ways she called him kamara”. Tagaran understood him, as his sister Anne did, and she was the “only human in the world who trusted him to be able to laugh at himself”. (190) He realizes that their cross-cultural harmony is instinctive and spontaneous; it is heart-felt and does not have words. “The language of his feelings for her was beyond his reach. He could only step forward blindly, in trust” (191). He knows that the relationship is “changing him” – he is playing “host” as he has never played before. (185)

Naming and shared understanding: Their understanding surpasses vocabulary or grammatical forms. “It was the heart of talking; not just the words and not just the meaning, but the way in which two people had found common ground and begun to discover the true names of things.” (186)

Can one resist the violent conquest? Lieutenant Gardiner

The narrative of the kidnapped slaves: Gardiner regrets that he is complicit in the capture and wishes “I had not obeyed”. He knows that he has not fulfilled his duty. (Compare this to the incident on The Resolution, when the lieutenant is hanged for mutiny; (29-31 and 27). In this instance, Rooke realizes what happens when one questions authority and does not just knuckle down and do one’s duty. “A man was obliged to become part of the mighty imperial machine. To refuse was to become inhuman in another way; either a bag of meat or a walking dead man” (29). In response to Gardiner’s challenge, “we are all servants of the governor here and the devil take any many show says different.” Rooke : “What would I have done in the same place?” “You did your duty”; what did duty have to do with a man undone by feeling? (111)

Gardiner is a marked man the day he did not bow to orders. “He will spend the rest of his life a marked man” (122) Gardiner is punished for insubordination. He disappears from view. “He had let himself drift in his mind some distance from serving and obeying. He had allowed himself to feel he was his own man, taking hold of this new place with both hands, opening all its doors himself” (170) (Rooke sympathises with him, because he worries what he would do in a similar situation. (123)

Rooke’s personal resistance: change from bystander to activist

When Rooke is ordered to participate in Silk’s expedition to capture the six aborigines and return them in body-bags, he begins to resist. Owing to his personal friendship and spirit of admiration of and cooperation with the aboriginal tribe, he refuses to betray them. He is nominated because he is the “best man for getting us there and back without losing our way” (246) He is told, that “this is not a request, it is an order” (246). Through Gardiner’s actions, he is aware of the consequences of refusal.

Putuwa: this word captures and reflects their mutual understanding and celebrates their friendship. “Just as he did, she knew that something ugly was on its way. But she had left him a word he would never forget, and the weight of trust it carried” (257/ 297). (He would go on talking with Tagaran and the others. He would master the language. The day he had written I kaadianed it, without thinking, he had taken a step on a journey he wanted never to end.” (270)

When the men fire, we are aware at first that Rooke is “among them”, although separately defined from their eagerness. He is surprised that a “piece of theatre” involves the violent reappropriation of being (266) In many ways it is the language of appeasement, also adopted by Sal Thornhill in The Secret River. Initially both Will and Sal wish to find a way to liv

The politics of taking a stand

Thornhill realizes that he will have to take a stance to protect his land and eventually participates in the Darkey Creek Massacre that killed the aboriginal tribe that had lived on his land for centuries. He feels diminished personally by killing Whisker Harry and thus betraying his own values. In some ways, he becomes almost like the gentry who he despised in England. He also realizes that he will never experience the same sense of place that belongs to the aborigines. He is pierced by a great emptiness when he sees Jack returning to his property to die. “This was something he did not have: a place that was part of his flesh and spirit”. (SR 329) Instead he has gained 300 acres, a gains the spoils of war: a “fine house with stone lions on the gateposts”. He reflects upon and justifies his theft: “No man had worked harder than he had done, and he had been rewarded for his labour.” As he views the “black bodies (that) lay among the ruins of their humpies” Will knows that the massacre has changed his life. He is now part of the murderous whites who have staked their claim to the land through violence.

Not so, Lieutenant Daniel Rooke who confronts his demons and takes a stance.

“I cannot be part of this”, he said aloud. (282)

Rooke confronts his “sophistry”; his erroneous logic that seeks to justify his participation without taking a stance. “He had persuaded himself that as long as the expedition failed, there was no harm in being part of it” (279) Now he recognises he is just as guilty, just as evil and just as wrong. “If you were part of such an act, you were part of its wrong. You did not have to take up the hatchet or even to walk along with the expedition.” (280)

Conquering the unfamiliar has been a necessary part of his journey and one that leads to his personal dilemma. He privileges his friendship with Taragan over his service with the Governor and the colony and nothing will make him break that personal bond forged through the language of compassion and cooperation.

“Difference held no fear for him. He knew that strangeness was commonplace when you inhabited it.” (152)

“A man was obliged to become part of the mighty imperial machine. To refuse was to become inhuman in another way.” (29)

Rooke knows that “to remain with the expedition was to turn his back on the man he had become, but to refuse any further part in it would be to step into the void” (281)

Rooke tells the Governor that he cannot comply with orders. (283) “I regret beyond words my part in the business” (283)

Grenville draws a comparison between Rooke’s “mutiny” with that on the ship, The Renegade. The officers had not “actually disobeyed, not got as far as mutiny. They had only talked about it.” Rooke realised then that “mere words could have the power of life and death”. The lieutenant that had led the uprising (“a lieutenant of marines like himself” was hanged (27). This is the moment that Rooke realises, prior to his journey to Australia, that “a payment would be extracted”. The British Empire, the Majesty, does not take into account personal sensibilities or thoughts; it punishes disobedience and demands strict allegiance. “To bend to the king’s will required the suspension of human response.” (29)

Contrastingly, later, Rooke is not hanged (like the previous mutineers) and returns to Antigua. “He marvels at the symmetry of it” (292/ 27/ 113) He spends his life buying and freeing slaves which becomes the ruin of him – an act that defines him as a man of principles.

One is reminded of Tom Blackwood (the Secret River) who is typical of those who champion and practice reconciliation as the best way of solving conflict for the benefit of all stakeholders. He practices what he preaches: “Ain’t nothing in this world for the taking …. A man got to pay a fair price (104) And Blackwood gives a warning – Give and take a little … Otherwise you’re as dead as a flea (p107 ) He can speak their tongue and has a child with one of the Aboriginal woman, finding them to be “peaceful folk” and reminds Will of the concept: “Give a little, take a little. That’s the only way”. Blackwood hopes for reconciliation between the two cultures and even risks his own life to try save the Indigenous people during the massacre.

Rooke recognizes significant differences between himself and Silk which mirrors the difference in perspectives towards the indigenous (139); “how different they truly were, he and Silk. Silk’s impulse was to make the strange familiar, to transform it into well-shaped smooth phrases. His own was to enter that strangeness and lose himself in it.” (139)

Silk knows that the attack on the village will be a “good chapter in Silk’s narrative” (270) but one that Rooke does not wish to be a part of.

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