‘The Lieutenant’

I’m a latecomer to Kate Grenville’s writing. So, this is my first book of hers, and what an engaging story, dedicated to Patyegarang, the Cadigal people and William Dawes, who inspired her fiction. Dawes arrived in Sydney in 1788 on the First Fleet from England, as official astronomer to the new colony of New South Wales.

The Dawes character is named Daniel Rooke, a mathematical child prodigy and linguist, whose life goes in unexpected directions, after enlisting in the Royal Marines, going to war against the Americans, encountering the Royal Astronomer, and heading off to southern climes.

In Sydney, Rooke sets up his observatory and camp on a hill outside the new settlement. He makes friends with some aboriginal people, including a girl with whom he exchanges some mutual language learning in English and Cadigal. 

Dawes is credited with making the first extensive written records of an Aboriginal language, and his conversations with them revealed the frustrations of the original inhabitants in their dealings with the invaders.

Grenville deftly handles her insightful portrayal of early colonial attitudes and aboriginal relations, and the story rings true. We are not spared examples of the uncomprehending brutality of the colonisers.


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