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People of the River

People of the River by Grace Karskens: This book is a lively account of the ex-convicts who were given land grants on Dyarubbin, the banks of the Hawkesbury-Nepean, to grow maize, a little wheat, luscious peaches and other vegetables and fruit. They ran some stock but didn’t fence their plots, letting the cows graze in the nearby bush. They built bark huts which were easy and cheap to replace after the frequent floods. The enlightened gentlemen in London had ordered that convicts be given a chance to become yeoman farmers and redeem themselves after their sentences were completed, thus forming the basis of a free colony. The only thing they didn’t take into account was that Darug women had been digging up yams on the river-banks for 50,000 years, and yams were their staple food. The displaced Darug tribe made annual ‘maize raids’ to replace their yams and there were massacres and reprisals and kidnappings of aboriginal children, until they adapted to the presence of the settlers, while still doing as far as possible what they had always done. Governors King and Macquarie tried to be fair to the first nation people but were overwhelmed. Whereupon Governor Darling decreed that convicts should no longer get land grants, which would henceforth be reserved for free settlers running sheep, with convicts providing unpaid labour. I can’t praise this sparkling history and its precursor The Colony enough. Karskens seems to know about all the families and many of the Darug people, and she refers several times to Mark Dunn’s history of the Hunter Valley, The Convict Valley, because relations with the native people in the Hunter seemed to follow a similar trajectory. I read this book with keen interest because my ancestor Ann Forbes Huxley was one of the People of the River. Ann died aged eighty and is buried there. She stole ten yards of printed cotton when she was 15 and was sentenced to be hanged. Instead, she came to Botany Bay with the First Fleet, and left nine Huxleys, many of whom drifted to the North Coast to become pioneers there. Her six-times great- granddaughter, Granny, of Granny’s Good Reads, was born in Casino in 1935. Isn’t life interesting?