The Timeless Land by Eleanor Dark


Much has been written about Bennelong, one of the first Australians with whom Governor Phillip negotiated when the First Fleet arrived in Botany Bay.  The story of a colony of convicts and the events surrounding attempts at peaceful negotiations would mark the beginnings of the nation of Australia.   Bennelong Point, which is now the site of the Sydney Opera House, was originally the site of a humble house that Governor Phillip had made on the request of Bennelong.  This tract of land is called Point Bennelong today.

The Arrival of the First Fleet

When the First Fleet, arrived the Governor made friends with and attempted to maintain friendly relations with, what were then called, the natives.   The story of the tumultuous relationship is matched by the tempestuous relationship of the convicts and their captors, and the invaders and the land they invaded.    Australia is often depicted by early settlers as a timeless land or a never ending country.  When convict ships came to Australia, the shores stretched forever and the country seemed harsh and uninviting. Originally contact with the Indigenous tribes was a peaceful enough friendly encounter.  This was mainly because there was (and it still seems there is) a tradition of hospitableness amongst Australian Indigenous peoples.  At first meant they were wary but willing to negotiate and even help the white people.  They hoped that these people were merely passing through their land and that they would leave soon.

Interpretive History fact mixed with interpretive fiction

The Timeless Land written by Eleanor Dark is a narrative that she researched from the early documents of the first fleet, and by interpretation of diaries and other handed down accounts and stories.  Writing was the only means of communication with England in those days and these documents were sent back to England on the early stored ships.  The accounts are copiously descriptive and to some extent accurate.  They are of course recorded with the bias of the writers who were mainly English.  She also says that she researched the early customs of the people extensively.  In the forward to the book Dark talks about her research methods.

As faithfully and accurately as possible, Dark has reconstructed the life of Bennelong, using all of the historical tools available to her.  Bennelong was an Indigenous man who it is said was “expecting the White Ships with Wings” before they ever arrived on the coast of Australia.  This was because his father had seen the ships with wings once long before the first fleet arrived.  He had dreamed that his son would have some kind of major connection with the people who came upon them.

Although there is a great deal of sardonic humour laced throughout the epic text, none of the humour is ‘at base’ funny at all.  As Bennelong is gradually changed by contact with white people, the humour seems to become a joke on him.  He becomes a nuisance to the people who set out to capture him to learn from him how to live on the land that they were destroying.  As the tragic story of the history of Australia unfolds the degradation of a race of people becomes Australia’s joke on itself.  The book ends with the listener asking “What happens next?” even though quite tragically we already know that children will be taken, the land will be denuded and a way of relating respectfully to the land will be threatened if not extinguished altogether.

The Timeless Land a teaching tool

The CD book is a 26 and a half hour major epic, which was first published in 1941 as a novel.  In the 22 CD is read by James Condon an experienced and widely known actor.  The length of the work makes it unlikely to be used a set text in Australian schools.  The soliloquies though are perfect for small snatches of insight for teachers who would teach about Bennelong, Governor Phillip, and Hunter or about the degradation of the land.

Many of the descriptions throughout the book spell out the destruction of the tranquility and the virgin beauty of the land. The shoreline in particular is something that gradually disappears and the starvation of the Indigenous people is described in such a s way as to show how they dependence of the Indigenous people on the white settlers was something that crept up on them not unnoticed but in such a way as that they were powerless to stop it.

This account of the invasion of Australia is an accurate picture of the steady denudation of nature, life and culture that is not exaggerated but respectfully researched.  It gives the listener cause to pause because the lessons learned about intercultural discourse are very clear.  Sometimes the blatant conflict between all kinds of characters is quite violent and the hostilities are apparent, but it is the steady undercurrent of the not so easy to describe or articulate clash of two cultures that pervades the novel.

The novel finishes with a soliloquy by Bennelong who has been destroyed.  This has partly been by alcohol, but his alcoholic isolation only exacerbates the exclusion he now faces from both races.   It seems that clear that in the story he will live on.  Once a noble warrior respected by all tribes and the whites who at first so mercilessly used him, he has now returned from England seen as a misfit not fit to live in either worlds.

This historical text is a part of the Bolinda Classic Series.  The cover was designed by Colin Doswell and seems to be adapted from an old original oil painting.  The cracks in the painted oil could be intended to imply the parched cracked land and also be alluding to the “cracked” nature of the Australian relationship with the land.   The audio book recording was produced by Ben Johnson and remastered in 2009.  It has bookmarked tracks every three minutes for easy location of passages of interest.