• Tony Bosworth

People of the River made waves at Windsor’s Hawkesbury Regional Museum – readers give their verdict

Updated: Apr 15



On Sunday, one of Australia’s leading historians, Grace Karskens, appeared before an enthusiastic crowd of Hawkesbury residents keen to hear about the University of New South Wales and Fellow of the Australian Academy of the Humanities Professor’s new book – People of the River.


And no wonder, for the non-fiction book traces the history of the original Aboriginal inhabitants of the Hawkesbury and what happened when firstly the British convicts, and then the settlers, arrived.

We asked two Hawkesbury Post readers - Stephen Brown of Macdonald Valley and Agnes Price of Richmond – what they thought of the book, the presentation, and the ideas Prof Karskens writes about.


Stephen watched the live stream online, while Agnes was at the event. Here are their stories.


Stephen Brown describes himself as a Macdonald valley community member, who says he “wants to learn from our lost and silenced histories of the first Australians”. He is a past President of the Macdonald Valley Association.


“It was fascinating and insightful to watch the YouTube version of Grace Karskens talking about her book, People of the River.


“We could all do with more of this truth telling history, for a better understanding of what happened.


“It was also exciting to learn of the Real Secret River Dyarubbin project, under the auspices of the State Library’s Coral Thomas Fellowship for 2018–19 https://www.sl.nsw.gov.au/stories/exploring-dyarubbin .


“This project’s genesis (I understand) is Grace’s research of records revealing Aboriginal place names documented by Reverend McGarvie.


“For Macdonald Valley locals, we hear reference to Gunanday (the Macdonald River) as one of 178 place names, and as Grace describes, the opportunity of restoring these beautiful rolling words to usage to describe the places of the Hawkesbury.”


Hawkesbury councillor Sarah Richards with Grace Karskens at the Windsor event



Dyarubbin, the Hawkesbury-Nepean River, is where the two early Australias - ancient and modern - first collided."


People of the River journeys into the lost worlds of the Aboriginal people and the settlers of Dyarubbin, both complex worlds with ancient roots. The settlers who took land on the river from the mid-1790s were there because of an extraordinary experiment devised half a world away. Modern Australia was not founded as a gaol, as we usually suppose, but as a colony. Britain's felons, transported to the other side of the world, were meant to become settlers in the new colony. They made history on the river: it was the first successful white farming frontier, a community that nurtured the earliest expressions of patriotism, and it became the last bastion of eighteenth-century ways of life. The Aboriginal people had occupied Dyarubbin for at least 50,000 years. Their history, culture and spirituality were inseparable from this river country.


Colonisation kicked off a slow and cumulative process of violence, theft of Aboriginal children and ongoing annexation of the river lands. Yet despite that sorry history, Dyarubbin's Aboriginal people managed to remain on their Country, and they still live on the river today. The Hawkesbury-Nepean was the seedbed for settler expansion and invasion of Aboriginal lands to the north, south and west. It was the crucible of the colony, and the nation that followed.

Macquarie MP Susan Templeman with Darug elder Aunty Edna Watson and three more generations of her family, alongside author Grace Karskens at the Windsor event



Agnes Price told us about her thoughts on the book, its message and why she feels it resonates right to this day.



"Ms Karskens is indeed correct when she talks about our "lost and silenced histories... buried under the white noise of history making".


“Not only has the Indigenous story been "submerged" by self-promotional stories of the privileged elite, but also the stories of the vast majority of the early European colonial population; the convicts.


“The talk given by Grace Karskens was informative and interesting, while at the same time making me feel sad, disappointed and cheated.


“Grace Karskens and others are opening up an entirely new world, full of factual information about the real history of this place, history told by the people who lived it, rather than the people who profited from it. “My comments here are from the perspective of an Anglo-European born and raised in this country, and I’m sure come nowhere close to what Indigenous Australians feel. “Growing up in the Hawkesbury, I spent my formative years climbing over rocks, swimming in creeks and waterholes that were filled with marks, holes and hollows surrounded by Black Wattle, native grasses and wildlife; and I didn’t have the slightest bit of knowledge about what I was seeing and experiencing. “At the age of about six, I read a book about the incredible archaeological digs in Egypt and dreamt of a life uncovering the hidden stories of, what I then thought, was the oldest civilisation on Earth. As I became more interested in such subject matter, I delved more widely, consuming book after book, (no internet then), developing what I thought was a fairly wide knowledge of the history of mankind. But I was wrong.



“At school, we were taught about the ‘history’ of Australian colonisation, which largely consisted of John Macarthur being a hero for breeding Merino, how the convicts were an unruly and drunken bunch of pickpockets and prostitutes and that ‘Aborigines’ wandered aimlessly eating nothing much more than kangaroos and goannas.


“We visited Australiana Pioneer Village and Old Sydney Town, being regaled with stories about troopers flogging convicts. That was pretty much it.


“The Mabo ruling in 1992 was widely reported in the general media as being dangerous and irresponsible, and the conversations in my Hawkesbury world largely echoed that reporting, with many (if not most), in fear that if you spoke about what was on your land, an Aboriginal land claim would take it from you. So, it was all kept quiet, hidden away out of sight, “…don’t mention the paintings on the rock…”.


“By that time, I’d gone travelling and had seen perspectives other than the very narrow, blinkered and conservative Hawkesbury view. But I still didn’t know much about the First Nations of this land; and I actively went looking. I found little bits and pieces and started recognising, for the first time, what was actually under my feet.


“However, it wasn’t until the Colonial history and heritage I’d been so diligently schooled in as a child, came under threat with the Windsor Bridge Replacement Project, that I started to go looking for the real history in earnest.


“And that’s what is so sad and disappointing.

“I’ve come to see history not as a painting behind a pane of glass, but as a 3D model inside a very thin glass ball which we need to look at from every angle.


“Grace Karskens, Indigenous Australians, and her fellow modern historians are the model makers.


“Look into that glass ball. It will change your worldview.”


Main pic - Grace Karskens



If you’d like to buy Grace Karskens’ People of the River online, Booktopia is a good choice - it's an Australian-owned online bookstore and prices are competitive. See here.

Or visit your local bookshop and help keep them in business.




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