Early in 1822 an illiterate nineteen year-old peasant in County Cork took part in a ‘Whiteboy’ action in the hope of fairer rent and more land for his struggling family. Instead, he was transported to NSW for life.
The story that follows will subvert popular notions of the convict experience. Cotter’s alliance with a fierce Aboriginal leader conspired with his second ‘crime’ to introduce him to a world understood by few Europeans.
The novel points to a haunting moment in Australia’s story, when white humility and aboriginal knowledge might have combined to produce a kinder stewardship across the ancient land. Few invaders experienced that fleeting possibility as intimately as Garrett Cotter.
This is a story of power and exploitation, of betrayal and uncertain redemption. It offers a vivid reimagining of real events in the far wilds of a high country ‘beyond the limits’.
Irishman Garrett Cotter was only nineteen years old in 1822 when he was caught with a group of “Whiteboy” rebels (so called because of the white shirts they all wore when protesting) and although initially sentenced to hanging, it was changed to transportation to New South Wales for the duration of his natural life. His journey with other male prisoners on the “Mangles” was long and arduous, but because of a kindly doctor who oversaw the men, they were reasonably healthy on their arrival in Sydney Cove.
After a period of a few years with a farmer near Parramatta, Cotter was then moved to new land on Weereewa (Lake George) where the land was lush with plenty of feed for the cattle. It was there that Cotter proved himself a hard worker and a dab hand with animals, especially horses. And it was also where he had his first encounter with the Aboriginal leader Onyong. Cotter and Onyong formed an alliance – at first uneasy – that would last many, many years, with Onyong helping Cotter find fertile land for cattle; their friendship meant he also met Onyong’s family and learned many Aboriginal ways.
Cotter received his ticket of leave, which was then revoked after an incident. His days with the darkness inside fortunately were less than the contented and happy days. His life wasn’t easy, but he was a well respected and liked man – by most. His use of land which Onyong referred to as “my country” was a privilege that Cotter appreciated; the men who didn’t understand the Aboriginal people were many and it saddened Cotter.
Cotter by Aussie author Richard Begbie is outstanding – up there with my favourite books for 2019. Although a fictional recounting, it’s heavily based on fact and with the Cotter Dam and Cotter River in Canberra, and many places mentioned in the book – Queanbeyan, Murrumbidgee River (the lifeblood of the country), Yass, Goulburn and many others – it felt familiar and was easy to visualize. The harshness of those early days in the colony was well told; the hatred by some whites of the Aboriginals; the exploitation and betrayal by many – Cotter was a likeable Irishman, smart and compassionate (he loved his dog Jimmy), and Cotter is a book well worth reading. And I wouldn’t have found it, let alone read it, if I hadn’t needed one for a challenge, which was set in Australia’s capital. A great win for me! Highly recommended. 5 stars.