Mark Dunn, The Convict Valley: the bloody struggle on Australia’s early frontier

Allen & Unwin, 294 pp., ISBN: 9781760528645, p/bk, AUS$32.99

Mark Dunn opens his history of the Hunter Valley, The Convict Valley, with an observation from Lieutenant John Shortland. The naval officer, who had ventured north of Sydney in the late 1790s, noted that the river he had named the Hunter, in honour of John Hunter, the Governor of New South Wales, would be ‘a great acquisition to this settlement'(p7).

Indeed, much of Dunn’s work deals with the relentless drives for acquisition. There was coal. There was also red cedar; a timber so attractive that samples would be requested in 1815 for transplanting into the Governor’s Domain in Sydney (p52). There was, most obviously, tracts of flat land with fertile soil that were, critically, close to easily accessible water. As Dunn shows, it was ‘access to this land that fuelled much of the conflict and violence that was to erupt during the 1820s and 1830s throughout the Hunter’ (p10). The exploitation of resources facilitated wealth, power and respectability.

For some, respectability was assumed, for others it had to be carefully curated and then vigorously defended. Dunn’s observations around class—how ‘all assumed that in this convict society their connections and presumed status would prevail in the frontier’s social hierarchy [… and how for] the most part it did’ (p110)—and his descriptions of how allegiances worked and rivalries festered are all insightful and add to our understanding of the history of this area and its people.

Critically, Dunn keeps returning to the area’s first occupants. The experiences of the Aboriginal people are not episodes in a narrative of colonialism and often-toxic race relations, they are the anchor for this story. It is the Aboriginal experiences that are the foundation for all that unfolds across a landscape that is beautiful despite being scarred by dramatic increases in industry.

Of course, establishing a settlement is not an easy enterprise and, as complete as the eventual takeover of this land was by the end of the nineteenth century, there were failures along the way. Newcastle, which ‘operated exclusively as a penal station from 1804 until 1821’ (p44) had a dreadful reputation. Not every ambitious man was as successful as he hoped. Yet, with desires to exploit the region unsatiated expansion was inevitable, as were the tensions that come with aggressive growth, and this work could have easily been titled ‘Conflict Valley’.

One of the great achievements of Dunn’s book is its structure. Dunn notes the ‘four main rivers that flow through the Hunter Valley: the Hunter, Goulburn, Paterson and Williams rivers’ (p8). These waterways—all essential to the expanse of land now known as the Hunter—do not run parallel in neat lines, but instead carve their own paths, turning and twisting until they congregate in an estuary that empties out into the South Pacific Ocean at Newcastle. Similarly, the stories that Dunn’s work reveals do not run straight routes from the occupation of the Hunter and the establishment of Newcastle in 1798. There are the Aboriginal peoples of the region as well as ‘the convicts, the farmers and settlers who were to come’ (p17). There are many familiar names across this history of the ‘frontier of the colony’ (p24): Bungaree, Edward Close, John Lewin, Simeon Lord, Thomas Mitchell, James Wallis, brothers Helenus and Robert Scott and many more. There are also names that most of us will not recognise. All of these men and women make interesting, and interconnected, contributions to a time and place that impacts all Australians, either directly or indirectly, today.

There are those who would have us believe that Australia’s story is all very straightforward; a superficial narrative of ‘discovery’ and settlement, of triumph over conditions that were often unforgiving and the subsequent emergence of ‘modern Australia’. It is a story, we are often told, of a stunning and unique landscape which gave birth to a character that is distinctly Australian. Fragments of (mostly male) stereotypes—convicts, bushrangers, settlers, pastoralists, diggers and others—coalesce into broader types of ‘mates’ and those who are on the ‘team’. The truth(s) makes this tale much more complicated. Colonialism is a predominantly brutal process. There are moments of genuine, meaningful interactions between colonists and those being colonised. But, these moments are clearly seen as rare, rather than regular, events when they are contextualised against British-led programs of disrespect, oppression and violence. Dunn has deliberately taken a difficult route through the historical records. He could have easily written a neat history of a valley so many of us are familiar with, instead he has given us a rich and sophisticated history of the region we now call the Hunter.

Mark Dunn’s history of the Hunter Valley is a well-researched and well-written text, with extensive notes and a bibliography in addition to a very useful index. His scholarship is an important piece of the puzzle that is Australian history and is a vital addition to the reading list of anyone interested in our shared past.

The Convict Valley: the bloody struggle on Australia’s early frontier is available now from Allen & Unwin.

Reviewed by Dr Rachel Franks, June 2020
For a preview of the book or to purchase online, visit the publisher’s website here.

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