Title: Terra Nullius
Author: Claire G. Coleman
Favourite part: Esperance reflecting on how the Settler’s colonisation methods set the Natives up for failure.
Favourite quote: ‘He knew now though, that when you plant bones, nothing grows from them. Nothing but pain.’
For all the fiction in this book, it is the truths that underpin it that leave a lasting, unshakeable impression. An examination of Australia’s colonial history through fiction, it’s not hard to see why this book turned so many heads. It was the winner of the 2016 Black & Write Fellowship, shortlisted for the 2018 Stella Award and 2017 Aurealis Award, longlisted for the 2018 Indie Book Award, and highly commended in the 2017 Victorian Premier’s Literary Award. This is a book that once you’ve picked up, you won’t be able to put down!
Jacky is a young Native boy, taken from his family and placed in Sister Bagra’s school and now set to work on a Settler’s farm. However, desperate to find his family, he breaks loose, setting off a chain of events that will rock the Settler and Native communities alike. Sergeant Rohan has been tasked with tracking Jacky down and bringing him to justice, but the longer the Native evades his capture the more desperate Rohan becomes as orders from the higher-ups relay messages of unrest and disorder from both Settlers and Natives. Meanwhile, Sister Bagra is dealing with problems of her own when she discovers an inquest into her school has been prompted by Jacky’s escape and a complaint against her filed by one of the sisters at the school. Hiding in the depths of an inhospitable environment, Esperance was born in the camps that popped up after the Settlers forced her people from their homes. She and the other Natives are desperate for water and food in an increasingly hostile situation as Jacky’s escape puts the Settlers on edge.
Told from multiple points of view, this story is not what it seems. While even the blurb may encourage to you believe you know what this story is and where it is going, the power in this book lies in a totally unexpected twist which I am loathe to see ruined for any new reader.
The title of course comes from 18th Century international law used by the British to ‘colonise’ Australia. Latin for ‘nobody’s land’, terra nullius stated that the country was uninhabited, therefore allowing Britain to claim and settle on the land. Of course, this is now known as the myth of terra nullius in Australia’s history, as the British knowingly ignored the ownership, claims, and rights of the Indigenous population.
Coleman explores this myth from all sides, telling the stories and investigating the beliefs of a variety of characters on both sides of the divide. One of the big issues she tackles is slavery. While slavery was considered ‘unsupported’ in English law, especially on English soil, it was not made truly illegal until 1833 when the Slavery Abolition Act was passed. However, slavery was not openly acknowledged in British colonies for a long time and this is something that Coleman tries to uncover in her book. Despite the Settler’s insistence that they do not condone slavery, the Natives are put to work with housing and food as payment and are kept against their will. The Settlers claim that the Natives are unintelligent and no more than animals and thus it cannot be called slavery—a direct reference to the way Indigenous Australians were treated by British ‘colonisers’ who did not even count Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders in the census until the 1967 referendum!
Terra Nullius is confronting, heart-wrenching, and utterly unputdownable. Coleman’s writing style pushes the reader ever onwards, denying you a moment to breathe as it propels you into the next piece of the puzzle. There are so many moments in this book that ring with startling clarity and truth; so many lines seem to leap from the page and lodge themselves in your heart. It is a stunning debut from an outstanding voice that challenges readers to question the ongoing impacts of ‘colonisation’ in today’s society.